Thursday, December 29, 2011

Comments are allowed

I got word that folks have tried commenting before on my blog but couldn't. I changed the settings that I didn't know were set that disallowed comments from most people. Comment away folks!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Misconceptions of high-spreed roadways

On the front page of the Dallas Morning News today was the story of the President George Bush Turnpike extension from the current terminus in Garland to I-30 opening today. Sadly, it is behind the paywall so I can't quote it directly, but there are certain things mentioned, and in some case not mentioned that I want to discuss.

The fourth paragraph quotes Rowlett Mayor Todd Gottel, who loves the idea that the tollroad is opening in his city because every time a Best Buy or major retailer opens, it is in nearby cities, not his. True, but is that a bad thing for Rowlett? They actually have a vibrant and active downtown. I'll be interested to see how long it lasts. The reason will be evident in a moment.

The sixth paragraph quotes a potential user, who says it takes him 30 minutes to get to work, and figures it will be 15 when he can take the new roadway. A Rowlett resident is quoted as being for the new road because it should take time off her commute.

In describing the process, the author, Ray Leszcynski, described how the road has opened in segments, the first few linked Garland with I-35E.

Near the end, we see the reasons for the construction. A Garland City Councilman describes how the process began decades ago when the land was donated for the ROW in return for increased access to the property. A cafe operator expects a 15-20 percent increase in sales at the Firewheel Town Center location. The Rowlett resident mentioned earlier that she expects to spend more money in the area now that it is easier to access.

Now permit me to knit these disparate ideas together. Combining the first part with the last, I wonder if downtown Rowlett will stay active because this new roadway section is not generating any new wealth. This Best Buy that the mayor wants does not come into an area like this and all of a sudden generate new dollars. Perhaps it may for the city, but certainly not the region. The reason is that people will spend their disposable income one way or another. That expected 15-20 percent increase is going to come at the expense of somewhere else, which when combined altogether, will lose 15-20 percent. If it comes at the expense of local downtown merchants, that money has now left the region for the corporate headquarters.

This is the exact reason inner city neighborhoods suffer from a lack of retail. They had it at one point, until new freeways were built and wealth moved to the fringes. Now the suburbs are doing it to themselves.

Now to the commute section. I am not surprised at all the induced traffic principle is left out and not given a mention. In absence of my promised post on the issue, let me get into it a little here. As soon as the new roadway opens, there will be traffic. Some of that traffic, like the first commuter, will come from a different route. That, in theory, will lower congestion on existing corridors. But, it ignores human behavior.

On a personal level, we can all relate to this. At some point, almost everyone has not taken a trip or a route because it would be too full. Even when we get stuck in a jam, if you weren't one of the ones doing it, we have all seen people exiting and driving in the ditches to exit the freeway. The increased congestion has actually lowered the number of cars. So the space created by the commuter who left the existing route could quickly fill up by other cars who feel the trip can now be made at this time. And this is just the short term.

What happens when all that promised development happens? Tada, new car trips. Also, consider what happens when the closer in businesses close because they lost too many customers to the new places. Then longer trips are made by those customers, further adding to congestion. Now the nice thing is that some of this will be mitigated because this is a tolled highway, meaning it acts as a suppressant to congestion (introducing pricing and market forces usually does). But anyone who has traveled on the Dallas North Tollway above LBJ can attest it isn't the only factor that controls congestion.

Driving is not a simple supply and demand function, but more nuanced. The average person's threshold in traffic is stop and go. Too much below that, they do one of three things, take an alternate route, go at an alternate time, or avoid the roadway altogether.

I added the I-35 linkage comment to show the redundancy of our highway system, and to some degree our transportation, thinking. It said the new Bush section will link I-30 to I-35E, similar to how the previous Bush section linked Garland to I-35E. Is there already a freeway that does that? LBJ seems to fit that bill. But transportation planning shouldn't just be about linkages. In fact, I daresay that should be a low consideration because if you are truly doing transportation planning right, you should plan to take people from where they are to where they need/want to go, and by doing so, these links will take care of themselves. Building transportation infrastructure to link A&B does everything in between a disservice.

Finally, by burying the development section in the end, we finally get to the heart of the issue. This is not a transportation tool. This is not a commute tool. This is a development tool. Not one of the elected officials quoted, and my experience shows this to be true outside of the ten second sound bite, said anything about those issues. They mentioned economic growth. New freeways are about development first, second and third. And since they really only encourage a reshuffling of the regional economy, rather than a new creation into it, this is the real reason our auto-centric focus is failing us today. Research has shown that new freeways do not add to the economy like other transportation projects do, in large part because it is so built out. It is the economic principle of diminishing returns.

In essence, I thought this article really exposed the dynamics in society that exist when it comes to new roads. The local person saying this is going to save me lots of time, when it may in the very near term, but it will slowly creep back later. The elected official saying this will be great for our city to grow. The businessman saying this will increase our bottom line, and ignorance to induced traffic and actual economic growth. Though I'm sure that wasn't the intent, it sure painted that picture very clearly.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review - New York

There used to be a time not that long ago where I read numerous books related to planning quite often. My shelf is full of classics like The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Suburban Nation, trade books like New Transit Town, planning related books like How Cities Work and Asphalt Nation as well as historic books like Cities and People or various Dallas or Fort Worth accounts. That also doesn't include the requirements of a Masters course in planning, which adds quite a bit more to the shelf. Yet in the year and a third that I have had this blog, I have added only one book related to planning to my collection.

And despite this being a book review, that won't change. The reason is that New York, by Edward Rutherfurd, is not a planning book. It is a fictional novel, related to, that's right, New York.

What's that you say, why am I reviewing it? Well quite simply it is a book that can appeal to lots of different audiences, including planners.

The hook is a clever one, though not entirely original. Similar to the blockbuster movie Titanic, the story revolves around a fictional family placed in historically accurate settings. As the family grows and passes from one generation to another, so too does the story. We begin near the founding of New York with Dick van Dyck, a dutch native who trades in furs. He would meet Tom Master, and eventually Master and van Dyck's daughter marry, setting the family line until the end. Several generation of Masters pass as they navigate the English taking control of New York, the Revolutionary War, the Draft Riots during the Civil War, the stock market crashes in the early 20th Century, the post World War II years and right up until the September 11th attacks. Along the way, various other "side" families, like the Irish immigrants O'Donnell's,the German immigrants Keller's, the Italian immigrants (catch a theme?) Caruso's and the conservative Jewish Adler's make seamless appearances in the story. And somehow, they all had business at the World Trade Center that fateful day.

This was a well told story with lots of moving pieces that must be paid attention to or else the reader can become lost (I speak from experience). As Bridgette Weeks at the Washington Post said in her review:

Page by page, detail by detail, Rutherfurd has magically captured this spirit. His readers, even if they have never set foot on the island of Manhattan, will understand this crowded and multicultural city better than many who have spent their lives on Fifth Avenue, Broadway or Wall Street.

It is that reason that I put this in my planning blog. Planners, both amateur and professional appreciate cities and their workings. That usually means an appreciation for history, and one of many reasons I liked this book.

At the beginning, we can be in the wilds of Manhattan eating native strawberries. Then we meet the family that helped build the water pipeline from the Catskills Mountains. A successive generation of Masters builds in an "rural" area near 86th Street. One of the Italian immigrants helps construct the Empire State Building.

New York was one of the pioneering cities with regards to planning and when the Triangle Factory burns, we see why some fire and building codes came about. The worry about aesthetics that ushered in the Art Deco movement and the buildings that successively tapered back as it rose above the street garner a mention. The planning of Battery City Park holds a spot. In an essence, planners are indirectly mentioned, and therefore are directly engaged in this book. The same may be true for any number of professions like builders, merchants, bankers or stockl traders.

This was an absolute wonder of a book by Rutherfurd. A highly recommended novel to planners and non-planners alike.

Friday, December 16, 2011

How to balance well-meaning city codes and their side effects

This post isn't about planning per se, but rather urban design. While this can be put into plans, it is more of a focus on the city regulations and the architecture industry, since they have the most control.

There are lots of codes that are crafted and passed that have a specific intention, and accomplish that very well. Yet, they have adverse consequences. There are many and possess different levels of effectiveness, but what I want to get into are staircases.

It is almost unheard of in today's world that people take the stairs. I try to and when I do, I get odd reactions from folks who think I should take the elevator because it is easier. In downtown, when I go into various buildings, it is almost impossible to take the stairs, as the doors are sometimes locked and open only in emergencies.

But why would I take the stairs? The biggest reason is health. There is little else in normal day-to-day activities that burn more calories than taking the stairs. Using Ehow as a reference to figure the number of calories burned, ten minutes of stair climbing would burn almost 100 calories for the average American, more if you weigh higher than the average, less if you are under the average. This compares to the equivalent of downhill skiing or swimming.

So why can't we do this on an everyday basis? As I have said in other posts about other topics, humans (it transcends age, culture, gender, race) will do what is convenient. Often this is thought up in terms of time, but not always. As an example, people are more likely to take transit if they can board close to where they start and the destination is close to the end. Transfers kill ridership more than anything because of uncertainty, not time. This applies to elevators versus stairs.

I live on the third floor of a former department store in downtown. The stairs are faster than the elevator on this and the second floor. The distance to the stair entrance and the elevator call button is about the same. So as soon as you get to the stairs, you enter and are on your way down. With the elevator, you press a button, wait for the car, get in, press your floor, wait for the elevator to shut and descend and finally open up and get out. Add the fact that the stairwell empties out onto the street and the stairs are a clear winner in time to leave. Yet, most people, even just going to the second floor, still go with the elevator.

They choose the elevator because it is generally a more pleasant experience. The walls and floors are fancier, there's more of a finish out and oftentimes there's something to grab the passengers attention, like a news feed, message board or mini-TV. Meanwhile, the staircases are drab, plain and uninviting. Many times, they are neglected by the cleaning staff and management, because after all, who takes the stairs anyway?


Notice the lack of windows, blank walls and utilities within the stairwell. I need a Valium looking at this.


The elevator, meanwhile, has a wood and stainless steel finish, marble-like flooring and something to read while riding.

So what does this have to do with city code? Quite possible all of it. By city code, in case of a fire, the stairwells are the emergency escape. They must be free of flammables, glassless and be clear of obstructions. Often, this is translated by the architects to mean desolate and empty. If there is a consensus of what the post-apocalyptic landscape might be, stairwells would be near the top.

Thing is, they don't have to be that way. My first question is why does fire code trump everything else? Yes, loss of life is tragic, but in the five years I have lived here, most of it on the 7th floor outside the comfort level of using stairs, there has not been a fire. But people have literally, day in and day out, forgone the stairs, and therefore stayed less healthy, in part because of that time when it may be needed for an emergency. I looked into the Dallas Morning News Archives and could not come up with one time when this building needed the stairs for an emergency. It was built in 1929. How many calories could have been burned in that time? How many people would have been healthier just because they seemlessly inserted that into their daily routine? How much electricity could have been saved by folks not making the trip on the elevator? I don't have the answer, nor do I have the percentage of people that would take the stairs over the elevator, but I do know that the number would increase quite a bit.

There are things that can be done. In Dallas, you can put in a window, if it is fireproof. That can mean that glass with little wires in that prevent a violent shattering. It obscures the view, and therefore the effect on the stairwells. We have one in this building similar to that. Sadly it ends on the second floor and then you still have to go near the elevators to get to the first.

Most walls are painted white to increase visibility. Why not allow some designs in there. Stencils, light colors or other design ideas can increase the welcome feeling of the stairwell without sacrificing the safety aspect.

I leave with two videos that rethink the idea of stairwells. The first illustrates a stairwell with a breathtaking view of a city's landscape, the second a concept of introducing a "fun" new idea into the concept of stairs. If this was done on a much larger scale, we would collectively be a little bit healthier.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas wish list

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all! In the spirit of the season, I am going to throw my downtown wish list out there. Perhaps some important people are watching.

10. More daycare's downtown. There are three church-sponsored and two private daycare's. Granted it is selfish, but downtown would be better off with more kids. When one considers that 130,000 people work downtown, there is a severe shortage of places to put their kids.

9. Fill the empty office space. Before we consider adding more office space, let's see some pre-recession filling of existing office space levels.

8. Renovate each the fortress office tower's lobbies. They don't need to have a half-block to block sized lobby that contains nothing but empty space and mostly unused chairs. Converting these spaces into other uses like retail or at least a pedestrian-friendly design would encourage greater pedestrian activity and therefore greater vitality.

7. More West-Village-type developments. An increase in residential and good urban designed streetscapes are a must if downtown is going to see any increase in vibrancy and vitality. There are lots of solid street-to-street urban blocks that are nothing but surface parking lots and would accommodate these in the proper places, only a couple of blocks from already good areas.

It would be a lovely gift to see a surface parking lot turn into this.
6.  Build out of the streetcar lines. A line down Main connecting downtown with Deep Ellum and Fair Park, a line on Lamar connecting downtown with Victory and the Cedars and a line on Harwood/Olive connecting the Farmers Market with the Main Street District, Arts District and Uptown would let you get near anywhere in the urban core easily.

5. Redo parking. Increase the on-street parking, reform pricing to more of a market approach, lower the number of surface parking towards developments would increase the attractiveness of parking downtown.

4. The addition of the 2nd downtown rail line. My preferred option would be Commerce Subway. It goes under one of the densest parts of downtown and is nearest the most residential units, commercial office square feet, hotel rooms (that is even taken into the new 1,001 room convention center hotel), retail, and park space than any other option. If those are all sold out, I'd even take the Young or City Hall option.

I think this line would carry the most passengers of the four options.

3. Get rid of the one-way street system. For many reasons they have to go: confusion, auto over pedestrian, increased accidents and diminished on-street parking.

2. Removal of the freeway loop around downtown. If I lived in a perfect world, the freeways would run as originally intended, and stop at the city's edge, or in the case, I'd say I-635 or Loop-12. If that isn't enough, I'd settle for the removal of Woodall Rogers and I-345, the strip of freeway between Woodall and I-30 that divides downtown and Deep Ellum and East Dallas.

1. Get rid of the tunnel and skywalk system. I have waxed on and on and on about this, so I'll spare you the repetitiveness.

Santa, any help would be appreciated.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Then and now

Today I want to hammer home a point I brought up when comparing the downtown's of San Antonio and Dallas(here and here). One of my main points was that much more of San Antonio's downtown is composed of historic, pre-WWII buildings than Dallas and it is that fact more than any other that contributes to the vitality of San Antonio's urban core. Meanwhile, Dallas destroyed those very buildings and replaced them with fortress office towers or parking lots.

Over a year ago, I critiqued Main Street Gardens, and one of the things I liked was the recognition of the history of that area, the old parking garage sign, the view corridors toward the old city hall and the sign at the corner of Harwood and Main revealing a bit about the block and surrounding areas. It is that sign that I want to direct your attention now.

Here's an amateur photo.
It shows the property and surrounding areas as they evolved from a residential area to part of the commercial core of downtown Dallas.

In 1885, the smattering of black dots represents the "improvements" to the property, or in layman's terms, buildings on the property. No surprise, as was the norm then, the houses are close to the street, with minimal setbacks and a decent backyard. If you look at the west side of St. Paul, you can see the beginnings of the classical commercial building of that time, long rectangular structures that were usually restaurants or shops on the ground floor and offices or residences above.

Now in 1905 and 1921, there are quite a bit more of those rectangular buildings. In 1921, by my count, there were 27 structures on the north side of Main and 19 on the south part. That is 46 places for people to walk to or from to eat, shop, work or live. That activity creates a vibrant street scene. On Commerce, I count 17 building on the north part of the street and 22 on the south. Again, that creates 39 places for people to walk to or from, creating a vibrant urban setting. Add in the fact that both streets were hubs of the city's streetcar system and it is no wonder there were lots of people on the streets of downtown back in the day.

Even when looking at 1959, there are far more structures than exist today, 26 on Main, 17 on Commerce (though the Grand Hotel did have several street level retail spaces) and one on Harwood.

When compared to when Main Street Gardens opened, 12 on Main, 14 on Commerce, (a half block more is revealed on each side than in the other pictures) there are far less places for people to go to or from and therefore, far less people on the streets. Notice the slow decline in destinations: 85 places in 1921, 43 in 1959, 26 in 2009. We currently have only 30 percent of what was available 90 years ago.

Now, to be fair, some places, like the department store on the northeast corner of Main and St. Paul (that is now a loft building where I live), demolished 12 structures and replaced them with two, but the newer addition created just as much if not more foot traffic than what was there. Sadly, there is also the case of Comerica Tower, which replaced at least five structures (in the picture, as I know there were more towards Ervay) that were pedestrian-friendly with one that is not. On the southeast section of Commerce and Harwood, about a dozen buildings were razed and made parking.

Sometimes I wonder what goes on in the process at City Hall. We know what works. We know what doesn't. If the stated goal is to create a vibrant urban core, go back to doing what you were before when it was and stop doing the things that have gotten us to where we are now. Trying to do the same thing and hoping for different results is the definintion of insanity.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Transit and gas prices

I have drifted away from posting info about national or general news unless I feel there is a lot of relevancy locally. This would be one of them, if only because I did similar research in graduate school on the subject. The basic gist is that the researcher took data from bus and rail systems around the country and found that bus ridership increased up to four percent and rail up to eight percent for every ten percent increase in gas prices.

My report was a bit different in that I used only the rail system in Dallas and measured ridership against other factors like fare increases, rail expansion and economic recessions as well as gas prices and found only gas prices had any significant effect on ridership one way or another.

I don't think the concept is that advanced. Prices go up, people shift to another product that is cheaper, simple economics. The trouble is that transportation is not subject to pure economic forces. Human behavior is a big factor, particularly when talking congestion. When you consider that some economists peg the U.S. government subsidy for gasoline over $10 a gallon, it certainly is time to reconsider the current model.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What a Traffic Engineer Thinks about Transportation

I ran across this video on a planning website I follow. It is originally from a traffic engineer, showing how "pedestrian friendly" the diverging diamond highway interchange is. I post it not for that per se, though it is funny to see their mindset on non-auto travel. I post it to show why our transportation system is so out of whack.


I think this echos a lot of what planners are fighting. If instead of traffic engineers, we had pedestrian engineers, things would look a lot different. Most planners tend to be for a balanced system, and when we compromise with the traffic engineer, it still sways towards the car.

My favorite line is near the end. "The design of this meets the standard engineer parameter of being able to move cars very quickly through here, and that being the first, second and third design criteria. And then in order to make it a complete street, in order to make it friendly to other modes of travel, we go down a checklist and see how we can accommodate all these other things."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Measures of Density

Those in the planning profession often come across different measuring units when it comes to various things like development projects or regions. Oftentimes, these get jumbled in the public forum and some folks cherry-pick numbers for their means. I'd like to discuss a few right now, and their implications towards planning vibrant urban areas.

Perhaps the most common to the public is people per square mile (ppsm) or kilometer. This is a great one for measuring a region or a certain area, especially for comparison purposes. New York, for example, has a population of 8,175,133 over 305 square miles (8,175,133 / 305 = 26,804 ppsm). Los Angeles population is 3,792,621 contained in 469 square miles for a ppsm of 8,087. Dallas' ppsm is 3,111 which is the population 1,197,816 divided by a land area of 385 square miles.

This works on a macro scale. Generally speaking, the higher the ppsm, the greater the urbanity. A look at the list of top five densest major cities reveals: 1) New York, 2) San Francisco, 3) Boston, 4) Chicago and 5) Philadelphia. If I were to make a list of most urban places, those five would certainly be in the upper tier.

The main caution in using this measurement is the boundary of the area in question. Some sprawl proponents will point out that L.A. is denser than New York. While that is true from a regional perspective (New York State has done a good job of preserving large portions of its countryside), the city is far more dense, and therefore far more urban than L.A. Transit use alone shows that to be the case (New York carries 12.8 million trips a day, L.A. has less than 1.5). As with any stat, a grain of salt and some perspective must be exercised.

A common measurement amongst developers and their development is the unit per acre. This is generally more suited for suburban, low density developments, like a single-family subdivision. Add the number of houses, divide by the number of acres and you get your number. A small development of ten acres with ten houses yields one. 40 quarter acre lots in the same development yields a four. It is also important to note, that unlike ppsm, units/acre does not consider infrastructure. That is a separate column for planners to deal with in their plans.

It can also work for urban developments, but often developers don't like those numbers to come out because NIMBY's will see it and automatically oppose it. Most downtown buildings would see that number well over the 100's.

This is also the most common measurement that NIMBY's use in opposing projects. They see the higher the number, the higher the externalities. In some instances that may be true. An apartment complex with a relatively high units/acre usually will generate a higher crime rate, traffic trips, pollution, but that is usually in the context of an auto-oriented area. Those cities in the top five densest generally have lower negative externality rates than their suburban designed counterparts per capita and in sime case straight up. Design and use can make a huge difference.

This measurement is in the middle on an area scale. It doesn't effectively apply to regions, but can and mostly is used above the individual property, like master-planned communities.

From an urban design standpoint, one of my favorite if the Floor-to-Area Ratio (FAR). It is also the most property specific. Reference the illustration as I explain this if you are unfamiliar.
From the property lines, if a developer builds a one-floor structure across the entire property, it's FAR would be 1.0, as the picture on the left shows. In the middle, the developer built the structure on only 50% on the property, but built two stories. This is also a FAR of 1.0. Now if the developer built three stories, it would be a FAR of 1.5 (.5 x 3 = 1.5).

For an urban area, it is optimal to have a FAR as close as equal to the number of floors as possible. This generally ensures better urban design and limits setbacks, which are a detriment to the street level and pedestrian experience.

Now there are several drawbacks to this measure, as with any other tool. It doesn't ensure that the streetscape will be pedestrian-friendly. It doesn't ensure it will have multiple uses. It doesn't ensure the users will engage in urban activity. The Empire State Building is a great urban building, but its FAR is far smaller than its floors because of the setbacks. Conversely, Harwood Center in Dallas has a near equal ration, yet is a sub-par urban structure.

When I look at downtown Dallas as a whole, I see a lot of buildings with a FAR that is half or less of the number of floors. Bank of America Plaza, Comerica Bank Tower, Chase Tower, Trammell Crow, Thanksgiving Tower and Energy Plaza are all in the top ten in height, but have drastically lower FAR's.

On the flip side, that isn't to say that a setback, and therefore lower FAR compared to floor height, are inherently negative. Lincoln Plaza has a pretty big setback, but at the street level, the space is used for greater sidewalks and pedestrian amenities. Conversely, they wouldn't need to do that if the sidewalks were wide enough and the city hadn't converted some of the space to give to cars for more traffic lanes.

Bottom line, Dallas has a downtown that looks dense from a distance, but when you get there, it seems empty. The big reason is the FAR is nowhere near as close at the heights appear. In essence, it is a false density. When critics say cities like Dallas can't support tall skyscrapers, this is what they mean. In an auto-based city, density doesn't work because cars need too much space for storage when you park. The more space in a building, the more parking you need. Many of those are surface parking lots, which have a FAR of zero, which is also their contribution to a vibrant street scene.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Update from the Bay

About ten months ago, I briefly chronicled the San Francisco area's strategies for battling congestion. Under the category of congestion pricing, tolls for area bridges and roadways went up when use went up. While many people look at roadway capacity as a supply-and-demand function, they don't like to think of those same economic forces are applied to roadways, if they actually have to pay for it. Which in that essence is why it actually relieves congestion.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on a study that followed up on the strategy, and it appears to be working. While carpooling (a dubious attempt at congestion reduction) has decreased, so has main lane use. Transit ridership is up, vehicle miles traveled are down and travel time savings is up, tremendously in some cases. The extreme example is I-880, which saw its average travel times reduced by half!

The main problem with congestion pricing implementation on a wide scale is the lack of available case studies. However, of the ones that are out there, it appears that adding a market approach actually reduces congestion, more so than any other attempt that has been tried before.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More on San Antonio

While I took time in the last post to document the historical significance of San Antonio's downtown and then compare to Dallas, I want to take time to talk other things that SA did well in keeping their downtown active, and the opposite mistake that Dallas made.

Just a note though, everything likely could be traced back to historical significance in one way or the other. Downtown's were the beginning of every city. If there was no downtown, there was no city. The exceptions are suburbs and exurbs like The Colony, which are nothing more than auto-oriented suburban locales developed well after WWII. Some, like The Colony, are just developer driven places that incorporated sometime after development began or had finished. So when I talk about the street grid for example, know that is some form, it is San Antonio acknowledging its historical significance and building upon it, rather than Dallas, which was in a race to be the more modern city that could allow thousands of cars a minute through the area, at the expense of anything else.

Also, I don’t think, as someone implied to me after reading the previous post, that everything is perfect. One of the worst mistakes that Sun Belt cities did in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s was hem off the downtown area with freeways. San Antonio is no exception. The prevailing thought several decades ago was that the through traffic, the traffic that came from somewhere else and going somewhere else, was choking downtown streets and needed to be rerouted to ease congestion.

At this point in time, highways, like Rte. 66, went straight into the city core. So, prior to I-35, the highway was U.S. 77, which ran on streets like Lamar in Dallas. To ease this congestion, the prevailing thought was to build a freeway that would carry this through traffic around downtown, thereby freeing the locals from congestion and making getting to and from downtown easier.

Of course, now we know that there are unintended side effects. By making the auto more convenient to go around downtown rather than through, planners made downtown less convenient as a stopping point. So people who were passing through that would stop to eat at restaurant or shop at the stores now no longer did, since getting off the freeway was a pain. This had the effect of dispersing the urban area, simultaneously making downtown less attractive and encouraging suburban sprawl.

Paradoxically, it also didn’t relieve congestion downtown. The streets were just about as clogged as ever. My long promised post on the induced traffic principle will go into more details.

While the degradation of downtown's vitality was a slow process, the destruction of the urban fabric was imminent. Here's some pictures of our hotel.

I-37 in the background is the likely reason the prior buildings were demolished, allowing for the auto-oriented Day's Inn.

The parking lots in the foreground and the urban skyline in the background are the antithesis of each other.
 This hotel, a Day's Inn in downtown, is a typical freeway hotel, but inserted into the downtown urban area. Notice the expanse of surface parking and the proximity of the freeway. This may be San Antonio's biggest mistake downtown, but they are hardly alone.

However, I have to also give credit that some of the freeway loop is quite a ways away from the urban core, though that just pushes the negative effects further away. I-37 is 3 miles long on the loop. I-10's southern part is 2.5 miles, the western portion is over 2. Only the northern part of the ring road, I-35, is similar to Dallas' downtown freeway loop. This expanded geographic boundary is beneficial to downtown, though it still slices the urban fabric. It means there is a greater surface area within the freeway loop.

Another automobile-oriented mistake is the one-way streets. Luckily, this is in part negated by the fact that streets were not widened. Streets like Pearl or Young do not exist in San Antonio. They also didn't do things like create a Griffin Street within the existing urban area, which is in essence the same thing as adding a freeway, only a bit smaller in scale. Outside of the historical aspect of downtown SA, it's the lack of wide, pedestrian-adverse streets that create its vibrant setting.

And finally, for my WTF?!? moment, I give you this:
Why on earth can't Dallas, with its higher office and residential population not have a rent-a-bike. Surely visitor's who frequent SA aren't as likely to grab a bike in an unfamiliar setting? Just add to the list of the many things SA does right, that has usually been overlooked in other Sun Belt cities.
The good news is that a lot of this is able to be remedied. Elm and Commerce can be tamed by reverting back to two-way. The Deck Park over Woodall helps negate the negative effects, though the surrounding area is still freeway oriented and unlikely to change. A greater focus on urban form in new development to make sure that places like Dealey Plaza engage visitors would be welcomed. While I don't think downtown Dallas will ever score high vibrancy marks like SA does, but it isn't a lost cause. It just needs political will to get it done.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

San Antonio, an urban oasis?

How timely that just a bit after my family and I visited San Antonio, Yahoo! Travel and Forbes but SA in their top 10 mid and small city downtown's, though how San Antonio with 1.3 million people, let alone Chicago, is considered mid-sized is beyond me.

Per the article:
For those who haven’t yet visited San Antonio, the city conjures up images of a tragic and bloody last stand at The Alamo. But for anyone who has visited, the city is more than just home to one of the most famous historical sites in the West. The San Antonio River Walk is perhaps the most beautiful part of the city, creating a verdant pathway lined with colorful cafĂ© umbrellas that winds its way through downtown, offering up a bevy of shops, restaurants, and bars on the way. Tour downtown, follow the river by foot or tour it by boat, and save your visit to the Alamo for the late afternoon, when the sun is in retreat and you’ll have more to remember from your trip than just an historic and valiant defeat.

A bit brief, though what is there is accurate. San Antonio really has a lot of what folks like me, particularly in the Sunbelt cities, advocate.

We found it to be quite an active place, which begs the question of why. Though there is not one singular answer, and I will get into many shortly, the big answer is history. Obviously, the large scale historical framework is there with the Alamo and the Tower of the Americas. But there is also the smaller places that give it the historical feel. The difference between the Alamo and the other missionary sites is that the Texas soldiers choose that site as its fort. It isn't out of the question to think that the Alamo could be just another historical site in SA, but that a current missionary settlement building could have been where the battle was fought in 1836. These smaller missionary sites have been converted other uses, but their history remains. Often these uses are public, like a theater or performing arts venue.

But that isn't all the history. Six of the top 15 tallest buildings were completed before 1960. Five were built before WWII. To put it in perspective, Dallas has one before 1960 and none before WWII.

Aside from the parking garage on the left, this vibrant street scene is composed entirely of pre-WWII buildings. 

This is significant in two major ways. First, older buildings tend to be better urban buildings than those built between 1960 and 2000. There are ground floor retail locations and even those that aren't don't alienate those who are walking near the property. They are also better for the pedestrian scale. The materials are usually softer and the design is generally warmer to people up close. The second is that when a building built before WWII is demolished, the replacement is not of the same quality. More often than not, especially in the southern half of the U.S., that replacement is a parking lot, a known pedestrian adversary. By having large quantities of these buildings, San Antonio guarantees an active street scene.

Notice how this older building respects the street, and therefore enlivens it.
One of the most famous features of San Antonio is of course the River Walk. From a planning standpoint, this area fascinates me. Here was an area, several decades ago, that was a liability. When it flooded, there was damage and death. It was considered no more than a ditch at the turn of the century. The look and smell made the locals call it an eyesore. In the '20's, plans called for taming the river, including paving it, a la the Los Angeles River. The local Conservation Society took exception to the idea. They worked with the mayor and came up with a beautification project that would turn into the River Walk. The idea was very unpopular and it wasn't until the Works Progress Administration offered funds that the project got off the ground on a large scale.

Aside from paving and the actual completion, if I inserted the Trinity River here, would that sound familiar? What would SA look like today, had this area been paved over and become an open drainage ditch? This is a major tourist attraction because it is unique, beautiful and at the same time functional in flood control. SA took an asset, improved it and has been reaping the rewards since then.

Here's some pictures:

This is a great illustrator that the River Walk is both beautiful and functional. Instead of concrete tip to toe, stone work accents landscaping that fits the area, ie that is natural. If this were done today, one of two things would be the outcome. Either the area would be entirely concrete grey, to contain costs, or consist of imported granite and exotic vegetation that required extensive maintenance and died frequently.


I like this one as it illustrates the relationship between the street, the river and the built environment. I have heard that San Antonio is an example of how you can have a divided streetscape, basically debating that the tunnels can be successful within downtown Dallas. I feel differently. What you see above is the extension of the streetscape, not another entitly, like the tunnel system. On Friday night, we had dinner at Casa Rio, a restaurant with entrances at both the river and street level. While that can be achieved in the confines of a tunnel or skywalk, it is much harder, particularly when the buildings in question are post-modern office buildings.

This final shot also illustrates how well connected the two realms are.


It is hard NOT to find the street level in San Antonio. Stairs are plentiful and there are numerous times where it is easier to go to the other side of the river by going up the stairs, crossing the street and walking back down. While, as before, this may be possible in the tunnels, it is very hard to actually achieve.

The River Walk itself is wonderfully pedestrian-friendly. Yet, so were the streets above, which had just as much activity as below. It was easy to see how the design fed one to the other. Each would be less used were the other not there.

My main focus was what they did well in creating downtown SA. It is an area that is a bit odd compared to many cities. The tallest structure is the aforementioned Tower of the America's, it's tallest skyscraper is a hotel, the Marriott Rivercenter, and the tallest office, Weston Centre, is only the third tallest in the city. It is hard to find a city whose tallest structure is not an office tower. This represents downtown SA in a measurable way.

They don't focus on what other cities did or try to incorporate an off-the-shelf-planning idea. Instead, they took stock of what they had, and strengthened it. They didn't try to import a modern Times Square. They didn't try to build the tallest office building. They didn't call the latest and hottest architect to build a fancy civic building.

When compared to Dallas, they don't have a high downtown residential population. They don't have a huge amount of office space. They have more hotel rooms, but not that drastic a difference. Yet, despite that downtown Dallas should have a higher population within downtown at all times, but the streets don't reflect it. San Antonio has accomplished this by embracing what they are and what they were. Dallas has ran from it, trying hard to be more than it is.

Just to show this point, compare the two big historical sites, Dallas' Dealey Plaza to San Antonio's Alamo. Both were the location of a tragedy, though the Alamo was significant to Texas' independence, while JFK's assassination were black eyes to folks in Dallas. Both have museums dedicated to the event. After that, it is night and day.

There are lots of things to do around the Alamo after or before you go. The River Center Mall  and the River Walk allow for eating and shopping. As it stands now, all that is near Dealey Plaza in that regard is the Sixth Floor Museum's cafe (not open past 6pm and only on weekdays), a Subway and a western-themed gift shop. Not that far, but out of eyesight of the Plaza are a few more restaurants. If you want to visit and pay your county tax bill, that can be done at the Records Building. If you want to visit then join the army, you can accomplish that at 207 South Houston. If you want to visit Dealey Plaza before your county court date, the fortress-like George Allen Courts building is adjacent. Aside from the museum and and its cafe, the only directly adjacent building that caters to visitors would be Old Red Courthouse, though if you are at Dealey Plaza, it is only a building that looks neat. Otherwise, visitors have no idea what it is. If visitors know that the JFK Memorial is only a block away (some don't) it is highly underwhelming and only makes sense when you realize it is nothing more than a garage topper.

It is this scattering of parts that make downtown Dallas so lackadaisical in activity, particularly when compared with SA. Compactness plays a huge factor in urban street vibrancy. Dallas doesn't have it, San Antonio does.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chicago takes steps to increase transit use

There's a few things I want to get into, some of which are require a separate post, such as my recent visit to San Antonio. But for this one, I want to turn your attention to Chicago.

The first bit of news is the fact that the mayor is setting a policy that requires city employees to take transit instead of city vehicles where possible. This may seem like a policy set to increase transit use, and to degree it is. However, it is primarily a direct response to employees over billing for car reimbursement forms. Things like car washes were being charged to the city.

I really can get behind things like this. For no added expense for the city (unless it does not offer a transit pass as a benefit) or the employee, we find a way to lower city expenses and increase (albeit marginally) CTA's reach.

The other bit of news from the Windy City is they are trying to join the ranks of those cities with congestion pricing. San Francisco instituted an on-street parking program that adjusts rates to demand, a far cry from flat-rate, all-day rate. The region also adjusts toll rates to correspond with demand. London charges a fee to enter downtown by car, something New York considered, but declined to implement.

Chicago is charging a two-dollar surcharge on all public parking. This will increase demand for alternative transport, primarily transit, but also walking biking and a possible land-use change.

I like the principle. I just don't think this is the best way to go. Private parking is completely ignored here, which is usually in abundance and city codes (I don't know Chicago specifically) usually require a large excess. By ignoring the private and regulatory aspect, the effect is blunted. Unless all people are effected equally, the policy will be ineffective at best and useless at worst.

When it comes to congestion pricing, I usually think something is better than nothing, and this is certainly better than the status quo. I just would approach it differently to increase the effect. Maybe that's why it failed politically in New York. Too much change can also be ineffective.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why salt is important to planners

The Texas Transportation Institute, out of Texas A&M, released its annual Urban Mobility Report and as usual, large urban metros are clogged with auto congestion. I am not going to get into the details, but know that methodologies used have been under increased scrutiny.

The top 10 cities come as no surprise: 1) Washington D.C., 2) Chicago, 3) Los Angeles, 4) Houston, 5) New York, 6) Baltimore, 7) San Francisco, 8) Denver, 9) Boston, 10) Minneapolis & 10) Dallas. Perhaps the bigger surprise is the preferences of the authors and its intended readers.

To make it simplistic, the authors assign an arbitrary amount ($16 per hour) to each drivers time lost in congestion. If a freeway is not level-of-service A, which is very hard to attain, then there is time lost to congestion.

The report makes the case that time lost to congestion is important, but time lost to commuting is not. For example, if a commuter (already a biased term) lives close to work, but spends all 10 minutes of the commute in congestion, they lose more time than the commuter who lives 40 minutes from work, but five of that is congested. So the latter commuter, which spends more time a day/week/year in traffic doesn't count as much in the congestion cost as the former, even though the former spends only a quarter of that time in the car overall.

Also, transit times are not considered at all into the equation. The certainty of knowing the train will arrive here at X time and get me there at Y time 95% + on schedule means nothing to the report. It does through a bone and says transit saves X amount of time in congestion by multiplying the riders of the system by the $16 an hour. I won't get into the flaws of this line of thinking, as I would hope they are somewhat obvious.

This report is often used as a reason for supporting more freeway lane construction. And again, this bias is skewed toward more freeways. If the latter commuter is ideal in the minds of the authors, then surely their recommendations will mirror that. On top of that, the recommendations ignore the induced traffic principle. I will devote a post to that sometime soon in the future, but just know, simplistically, it means travel is not a supply and demand function, but behavioral and people will travel based on capacity.

A lot of planners are coming around on the idea that more congestion is actually good. More people choose transit when the uncertainty of auto travel reaches a certain point. More people choose to live closer when travel times and costs are high. Others choose different routes, etc. Point is, most planners know more freeways means more low-density suburban development. I suppose the TTI does to.

That is why I say these things must be taken with a grain of salt, even if they support your point. In graduate school, I was working on a research paper for a statistical analysis class. I was working with numbers that were timed based. I ran the numbers at first by the year and didn't get what I wanted. So for fun I ran it by months and still didn't get what I wanted. Finally I tried the numbers by quarter years and it showed what I had hoped it would at the beginning. Needless to say, I switched to the quarter years.

This is why I do not put a lot of stock in non-peer-reviewed pieces, like the TTI's UMR. That saying that figures don't lie but liars figure can always be applied to public policy pieces.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Multiple streetcar recipes

I ran across a great piece from the Transport Politic about streetcars and why cities are opting for them. The author wonders if they are the panaceas promoters claim.

First, I generally agree with Yonah Freemark's assessment. It points out that Washington has shifted gears from funding bus improvements to streetcar projects. All true. Bush's administration put a higher priority on speed. Projects that reduced travel times got the nod for federal funds. That usually meant streetcars didn't get funds. The current administration favors a funding formula that considers streetcars. The stimulus fund also wou8nd up going to streetcars.

He then points out that most money goes to lines that are slower. By avoiding paying for things like grade separation, that could be done cheaply with something like paint, he insists that we are short-changing our transit systems. The only reason he gives for this is that it is politically unpopular to take a lane of traffic away. While that maybe true in some areas, I don't think that is it only.

I also don't think he gets the whole picture. Until we understand that transportation systems are not separate entities from the built environment, we will never have fully integrated communities.

While I don't suggest that streetcars should always be slow, neither do I suggest, as Freemark seems to do consistently, that speed is the ultimate goal. I refer to McKinney Avenue, the main thoroughfare to perhaps Dallas' most urban neighborhood. It is a heavily traveled street with a streetcar line in the middle and dense buildings along both sides.

McKinney is a great urban street. Obviously the streetcar shows transit works here, but many people drive and biking is quite easy, despite heavy traffic (primarily for the reason about to be given). The difference here and elsewhere is the slower speeds. This is what Freemark (and almost all traffic engineers for that matter) misses. The speed, or maybe lack of, is a commonly missed ingredient of urban streets. So much of our time in the transportation field is spent getting things through areas as quickly as possible. That alone is not ther problem. There are times where that is needed. The problem comes in when it is done everywhere, regardless of context.

My favorite Dallas streetcar - the Green Dragon. The nickname comes from the SMU students who used to ride it when Dallas had an expansive city-wide streetcar system.
This is where the streetcar comes in. I can think of nothing as regular as a scheduled streetcar that can help slow traffic down as a streetcar line. Buses can, but not as well, for reasons I can't even articulate. Maybe part of it has to do with the streetcar unloading in the middle of the street, rather than the side, but it isn't the only reason. Even the feel of driving next to a streetcar slows traffic.

In fact, it is amazing how everything but cars work better when the overall traffic speed is lower. Transit does, biking certainly does. Nearby pedestrians are more comfortable.

Freemark did say later that each locality should decide the use that is best, so at least he wasn't advocating speed above all, all the time. But if you read enough of his posts, you'll that he indirectly advocates speed above all things.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dallas and the Two Things about Transit

I want to expand on the previous post about how to do transit, particularly that only two things need to be done to make it successful, using a case study. Previously, I said transit needs to get people from where they are to where they are going, and they need to do it efficiently.

The reason I want to go back to that point is to compare DART, which is a typical American transit agency. There is a lot that is at fault with DART's rail system, much of which is beyond their control. DART rail fails on the first part, getting folks places, primarily because it was built within old railroad right-of-way. The land-use downtown is much more conducive for rail transit, since the built environment is more convenient to rail than the outlying areas. Much of the old ROW is surrounded by factories, warehouses and other industrial uses. Industrial areas are far less likely to support transit use than just about any other land use. On top of that, what is already there has its back to the rail lines and stations.

When the rail line runs though old industrial areas, two things happen. First, the stations become park-n-ride lots for the stations in the center of the system. Second, the area has to redevelop to encourage all day usage. If that doesn't happen, the line is underutilized during non-peak hours and it is not cost-effective. It also is likely to have a reduced frequency. Large headways are not efficient for passengers, further reducing the lines patronage. This is the exact situation of the Blue Line north of Mockingbird Station. Everything but Downtown Garland (though even this one is a large commuter station) is only a commuter or transfer station, though plans are in place to make Lake Highlands Stations a mixed-use station, and it runs through one-story brick industrial areas north of LBJ and the southern part runs through woodlands and views of single-family house's backyards.

As DART has set it up, the rail system is heavily dependent upon transfers. Most are buses, but even park-n-ride lots count, since folks are transferring from their cars to the rail system. Transfers kill ridership. Unless the destination is downtown Dallas, there are likely at least two transfers. Passengers board a bus, transfer to a rail line, and then transfer to another bus. The idea should be to try to get transfers down to roughly one on average. As more transit-oriented developments come on-line, this will become more likely, but the vast, vast majority of the region will still not be convenient to the rail system.

The funny thing is that a lot of it is outside of DART's control. To keep the systems construction cost lower, and therefore available for federal funds, the freight ROW was the best choice. But from a ridership perspective, consider a subway line down McKinney Avenue to serve Uptown, rather than the subway currently under Central Expressway. Other than Cityplace Tower, and perhaps the shopping center with the Target, Cityplace Station isn't surrounded by conducive land uses. However, what could have been if there was a subway station between Pearl and Fairmount (remember that an urban subway station has entrances at both ends of the station)? This would cover most of the lower portion of Uptown. Another station between Hall and Lemon, covering the upper part of Uptown that Cityplace does so poorly. Another station somewhere between Fitzhugh and Knox would serve the emerging area of Knox-Henderson. To be fair, the Knox-Henderson neighborhood fought a station from being build on the current alignment. Ironically, that area is one of the vast minority of neighborhoods that would be effectively served from a freeway alignment.

In conjunction with the feds cost requirements, the suburban faction also keeps the status quo as we know it. They oppose urban subways, since they fear that increased cost will result in a delay or perhaps no rail line to their areas. That isn't necessarily a bad thing for DART, since studies have statistically shown that suburban locales have lower riders per capita and in real numbers than their urban counterparts. There are a variety of reasons, such as land use favoring autos, lower densities and car-oriented customs. But the funding of the system requires suburban participation.

Is it DART's fault that their rail system is underutilized? I would answer that as partially. The feds funding formula's favor funding construction over operating costs. The state offers very little funding as is, and what is made available is primarily for construction. The regional interests favor the more expansive commuter system, though commuter systems always have lower riders than truly urban ones.

While much fanfare has been made of the TOD's that will remake the area, some developers aren't helping either. DART wanted to run the first phase of the Green Line down Houston Street, rather than the current freight alignment by I-35E. Not only would that have served Victory better, but that part of Uptown would have been much better off. Add that in combination with the McKinney subway proposed above, Uptown, one of the most dense office and residential neighborhoods in Dallas would have been well served by rail, rather than virtually non-existent as it is now.
But even given the hand DART was dealt, only minor changes may have had much bigger ridership impact. There was a former Executive Director at DART, Ted Tedesco, who proposed moving portions of the Green Line near Parkland Hospital and the Red Line in Oak Cliff to street-median running alignments that would have run through the neighborhoods they served (similar to the south Blue Line), but the DART board voted against that proposal, due primarily to suburban and cost interests.

The Orange Line is likely to be a higher utilized suburban rail line, since it is being built in the median of Lake Carolyn Parkway in the Las Colinas Urban Center. However, since the built environment is more suited to a suburban office park, with things like setbacks, poor pedestrian design and high parking ratios, than an urban rail system, the line willl be similar to others in DART's system, promising yet underwhelming. It also requires yet another transfer to the Las Colinas APT, further supressing ridership.

Houston, despite their fumbles, is building excellent urban rail system. At build-out, they are going to have a similar amount of riders on one-third of the track mileage. They did that despite being a typical Sun Belt city like Dallas. Perhaps the main difference is that Houston is by far the majority of Metro, where as Dallas is about half the membership of DART, by population.

In essence, Houston did a much better job in the design phase of figuring out where people are, where they are going to go and how to get them there efficiently. DART did what was easy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Transit and downtown, how should it be?

The transit planning world is a buzz about Tallahassee's revamp of their transit system (one account gushes over the changes, another fawns). Primarily, transit systems are downtown focused, for lots of reasons. Yet, American cities are sprawling outwards, rather than upwards in a central core. Meanwhile, cities across the country have tried to implement more crosstown routes to reflect that change. The results have been mixed, but largely disappointing.

Some stats about the change: Prior to the change, there were 26 routes, all terminating in downtown. Now there are 12, though much longer. Every route was altered in some form. Operating costs did not rise. Of the 12 routes, only six stop at the downtown transfer area.

I am going to rip the maps from the Atlantic article and put here showing the before and after.



Old - notice the radial lines into downtown.

New
The reason given is fairly simple. The links above state how Tallahassee's downtown contains only 14% of the jobs, yet every bus route was routed there. A cursory glance indicates a very sound idea, nothing really unique to Tallahassee even. So why have the mixed results been so prevalent?

The biggest reason is land use. DFW Airport is one of the largest employers in DFW, yet has a very low transit usage rate, especially when compared to downtown. You can't be dropped off at the doorstep or even a few hundred feet away in most areas of the airport. That means lowered ridership. If the same amount of jobs that exist within downtown Dallas now (130-140,000) existed in a much more sprawled landscape, like a freeway frontage or an airport, the current transit use rate would fall. Similarly, as discussed before, if the density is too low, riders can't be generated at a number high enough to make the service close to balancing a cost/benefit ratio. I could plan a system that ran down every street, but that doesn't mean it will be ridden or meet even the loosest, most vague definition of efficiency.

It also completely ignores frequency. Tallahassee would have increased ridership by simply upping the frequency and reducing headways. People ride transit more when they know they won't have to wait long. In the higher ridden systems, some riders don't even have to consult a schedule, since the vehicles run so close together.

It also ignores demographics. Particularly in American cities built for the car, the more affluent you are, the less likely a bus is to be ridden.

Lastly, my personal beef, it treats transit as a way to get to work. In my opinion, if you treat transit as a transportation option, rather than a commuter option, then things change. In New York, people do ride the subways to get to work, but more often, people ride the subways to get somewhere, and sometimes it is work.

Now I don't want to say that planners didn't take these into account, because I am sure they did, but the reporting by people who love to see crosstown routes always ignore these factors. DART put a great emphasis on crosstown routes when it was formed in the early '80's. The average ridership was about a quarter of projections. They had to be scaled back. The main reason was land use was not conducive for bus service, particularly in the 'burbs.

That said, I am not opposed to crosstown routes. However, it should also be noted that bus that run through downtown can still be a crosstown route. Let me illustrate. If you draw an X representing two bus routes, with the intersection being downtown, you can go from the top left to the bottom right by going through downtown, but not stopping, which is commonly done. Now that can bring up other issues, such as extended trip times, since downtown trips usually take longer to traverse.

I have always said that transit needs to do two things effectively, get people from where they are to where they want to go and get there efficiently. The first point is obvious. If I want to go to Arlington, Frisco or Mesquite, I won't take transit because I can't get there. Conversely, if those residents wanted to get to downtown from there, they couldn't. Note, it doesn't say anything about the workplace.

The second point is a bit harder to understand. It can mean time, but not the fastest. Buses are perceived as slow because they stop a lot, since people have to get on and off and that can also mean they miss the timing and get stuck at lights. Trains can sometimes go slower, but it doesn't feel slower, since it is built into the schedule. Bus rapid transit could go a ways to increasing ridership.

But it also means other things. Reducing headway's is efficient as is costs. My biggest one is transfer. It is inefficient to have to make multiple transfers. Each transfer increases the trip time and possibly increases the risk of missing a transfer. DART's system is rough because it is a rail system that requires bus feeders or park and rides to be successful. The only true place where people consistently get off the train to their destination is downtown. But if downtown is not the destination, then it is usually at least two transfers.

I hope Tallahassee's changes work, but I will wait to see results, rather than proclaim the greatness before it is running.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How the built environment and gas prices affect the economy

Has it really been a month since the last post? Wow, shame on me. Sadly, there isn't a lot going on. I have touched on Elm Place getting a chance, the Atmos Complex and the Continental getting started on a residential conversion and I touched briefly on the Statler. The only current project I have neglected is the conversion of an old federal courthouse and post office into residential units, but that has flown under the radar a bit.

My normal M.O. is to find a bit of news and discuss it, putting a bit of my personal beliefs in the post. Rarely do I just throw out my beliefs in an editorial fashion. This will be an exception.

A lot is being made upon the economy and the the need for jobs. However, what I am seeing is decades of a declining manufacturing base and a shift to the service sector (which is primarily things like retail, restaurant along with the finance, insurance and real estate sectors). The problem with that, as I see it, is that type of system requires two things. It needs goods to be brought in or imported, since they aren't being made here and it requires money to be already present in the system. The collapse of the economy was due in part to trading of bad securities, or people trying to make money off of existing money.

In my opinion, that works well in good times. In bad times, it does not. However, people will always need goods. I am typing this on an existing good, a laptop. I am sitting on a sofa, probably made overseas. My son is squeaking a toy, not made in the USA. These are material goods, made and sold overseas. Opportunities to make money like that are lower in the US than in China, who has barely noticed the global recession, because they make the world's goods.

To some extent, this was unavoidable. Yes, China can pay their workers $1.50 a day, saving the company money. So that means they are passing the savings on to us consumers right? No. Even in these trying times, corporations are profiting more than before the recession. In fact, they are profiting more than any other time in the last two decades. More and more, the middle class is getting squeezed. Prices are rising and wages are not. One reason is that decent paying manufacturing jobs are being sent overseas and being replaced with low wage service jobs.

As odd as the connection may sound, that is one reason why I am a fan of high gas prices. If it costs more to ship the goods made overseas here than the wages that were eliminated, than many of the jobs will come back if nothing more than to keep costs as low as possible.

But that leads to a catch-22. If gas prices are high, doesn't that also create a squeeze on the average American, since they have to pay more for transportation? Ah, but what if more Americans were able to live in a walkable, transit-provided area? Then the shock wouldn't be as great.

Consider these next two maps, which come from this website that calculates cost of housing per income and cost of housing and transportation per income. It consistently shows that even in places where housing costs are high, places that are more urban are not as costly per capita as places that are automobile-oriented.

Here is Dallas. Note that in the suburbs, housing costs per income are greater than in the urban areas near downtown Dallas.


Now notice how much more blue the area becomes when transportation costs are added.


Doesn't it stand to reason that if more places were walkable, people would drive less, thus lowering the cost of transportation and adding more money to people's pocketbooks? So if gas prices were to continue to rise, but more people were able to blunt that impact by having the option not to drive, and jobs returned back to this country, then isn't that a win-win for everyone?

While this may be a little simplistic, so is general economics. There are certainly a lot of other things that could help, such as moving a lot of freight, especially long distance, to more efficient rail lines and let freight concentrate on local distribution, but it does get the point across. If gas prices stay high, and there is no sign that they won't, but more people consume less gas, than the economy can get back on track.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Elm Place, better than before?

So all of a sudden, this week it was announced that plans are underway to convert the jewel of a 60's building built by George Dahl, Elm Place, once the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, into a mixed-use urban tower.


I chose that picture because it illustrates two key things about this building.

First, Elm Place has a respect for the street. There is some set back, and you can definitely see how this would lead to the setbacks of later generations of towers. But, it is more like an extension of the sidewalk. I am not a big fan if I have the option of none, but this is at least done in a way that doesn't harm the urban environment.

The second is the garden deck at the top of the base before the building tapers off into the tower. It is a lovely way to add to the building's amenities. Not many have something like this (I can think of two) and I am glad to see it is coming back.

Now onto the proposal. The developer is from Turkey, the architect from Dallas (coincidentally they office right across the street). It calls for a mix of retail, office, residential and public space. Click for the proposal.

Here's a snapshot of the use by level.

Red is residential, orange is office, yellow is retail, the green at the top of the base will be a public space (or rather, open to the public) while the observation deck at the top will reopen to the public (great views here if you get a chance to look someday). Parking will remain underground.

But here's the best part. This may be the first redevelopment of a vacant building that will completely shutter the tunnel system underneath it. The Merc closed access, so it may count, but from what I can tell, this will be a total closure, and unlike the Merc, it is in the middle of the system. The map for Elm Place's tunnel can be seen here.

They add retail to a dock bay fronting the Akard Station, giving it a better frontage, both for the building and for transit users. Akard Station is the third busiest rail station in the DART system.

I count 484 residential units and several floors of office. This is exactly what I have been thinking should have happened to the building a long time ago. The base is too large to be broken down into residential units, but the tower is nice and slender. It is ideal for a mix of office and residential.

Overall I am really excited about this project. It is scheduled to begin renovation in October and be completed the first part of 2014. TIF funding has already been approved, so this looks as promising as things can be given the current development climate.

Remember, I said downtown would need another 28,000 units this decade to match the growth rate of the past one. Coupled with what is underway or about to be, this means downtown only needs another 27,000. That number is slowly falling.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bogus stadium numbers

Back in March, I touched on some Florida and Arizona cities struggles with Spring Training stadiums and how to finance them. Now, the University of North Texas is unveiling a new stadium for the upcoming football season. Additional commentary can be found on Unfair Park's blog.

Bottom line, the stadium cost $79 million and supposedly, using the flawed multiplier effect, a $29 million annual economic impact is calculated. The odd thing is, the researcher, Micheal Seman, if I am not mistaken, would be the same Michael Seman that I went to school with, and really should know better, since we got into these same debates in some of the classes.

Sadly, this will not generate much, if any economic impact.

1) Sports stadiums do not generate new money, they generate a redirection of disposable income. People do not debate whether they will pay rent or go to a game, pay the electric bill or buy a ticket. So regionally speaking, there is little extra spending.

2) There is little to no economic development around stadiums. As I have covered before, there is just not enough activity for a business to build a base around. Even baseball stadiums, with near 100 events a year can't, because there is an hour window before a game and a half-hout afterward. Besides the small window, most stadiums, with concession stands, restaurants, bars and suites are designed to capture the discretionary dollars that might have gone outside the stadium. And to top it off, those expenditures are quite often tax-exempt.

Look around Texas Stadium, (old) Reunion Arena, La Grange Field, Lone Star Park or numerous other sports facilities in the area to see that example. Even Victory Park, of which the American Airlines Center is part of a master plan by one developer, is struggling to build out. What has been built is extremely under-patronized (though poor urban design surely plays a factor).

3) This is a replacement stadium. There will not be many new fans coming. There will still be visting teams, just like the other. Perhaps there will be more fans because higher profile teams will come, but not likely. There may be more home games, but at most one. The small increase is likely to miss the seven figure mark, let alone the $29 million cited in the study.

4) There will not be any long-term increase in attendance because of the facility. D Magazine tried to say that the Rangers World Series year was an outlier. More specifically, winners attract fans, not stadiums.

The best the stadium boosters can call for is increased pride in the University (or city) and increased recruiting of athletes who want to play in better stadiums in college than they did in high school. I can't argue that point, yet rarely is that ever given as a reason to build the things.