Sunday, January 30, 2011

How a Street and a Streetcar Exemplify Dallas

In the time leading up to the Super Bowl, the mainstream media has focused a lot of the energies toward feature stories surrounding the game, so it has been thin in the urban areas.

However, the blog of the alternative weekly has been active.

First up is this piece about the widening of Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Heading north from Interstate 30, it is already a divided median with eight plus lanes until Commerce Street. The goal of the project is to do the same thing north of Commerce, which includes demoing some historic buildings. You can see some of the earlier discussion on this message board.

To me, the crux of the issue is we are going to take away more space to give to cars, make them speed through while conversely making the pedestrian experience worse. For dessert, we take away some historic buildings that actually contribute to the street activity in the area.

I have never been a fan of divided streets in urban areas. Particularly in Dallas, they tend to be at least six total lanes (Ross in the West End the exception). The Main Street District in reality ends at Griffin Street, since it creates a big barrier to the other side of the street. This will be the same. A large number of lanes is a pedestrian impediment. Adding a divided median is the equivalent to another pedestrian impediment. For example, if you want to walk across the street, your window is pretty much at the beginning of the signal change. After that, the red hand flashes, since the distance is so far. Either you wait a minute to a minute and a half for the next signal or risk jaywalking.

That is why I am surprised that Councilwoman Angela Hunt has all of a sudden turned in favor of the project. She normally gets it, and I am surprised that she has turned around in favor of the project. I normally won't disagree with her often, but this is one instance where I do.

The only thing that has any merit to her point is the improved landscaping. But, since that will come in the median, from an urban perspective, we are better off without it. There will be no provisions for transit, no bike lanes, and little actual urban development potential. In essence, this type of thinking has been exactly what has plagued downtown Dallas for decades.

I disagree with her gateway point. First, if it is a gateway, it will only be a gateway for cars from outlying areas and the suburbs. People from Deep Ellum won't use it and if the Cedars area people use it, it will be just cars, hardly urban. This will be strictly for vehicles from the interstate. Second, there are several more major entrances into downtown, and they are even used by more than just cars. Make no mistake, this is strictly to appease traffic engineer. This is the antithesis of urban.

Second up is the Oak Cliff Streetcar alignment, or specifically the lack of a full route. They are doing the public meetings as required by federal law and since it was a recipient of stimulus funds, they have a timetable to meet for revenue service. Sadly, since the funds aren't for the full route, the line will come up short. In doing so, it has lessened ridership potential.

This is a city with an annual budget over a billion dollar. They can build a freeway bridge over the Trinity River for $100 plus million, they can build a convention center hotel for $500 plus million and can pass a bond election for over $1 billion, but can't find $23 million for a streetcar line to do it right. They rally behind the statement that something is better than nothing and that they can finish it later. However, I wonder about that. If this line opens up in 2013 and sees a paltry amount of riders, there could be a big backlash against any future phase. Also, trusting the city and the political process in the future might indicate the project is less than 100% certain for a completion.

Now why did I put the two stories together? Because this is exactly how Dallas has operated for 60 years. They do everything they can to improve traffic flow from outlying areas and suburbs. But, as soon as something comes along that would help the core (like transit), they drag their feet at best, or as the second downtown rail line has shown, they screw it up.

If Dallas were truly concerned about increasing the urban quality of life, they would minimize the Cesar reconstruction and funnel some of those dollars to the Oak Cliff Streetcar.

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