Tuesday, May 17, 2011

360 Chapter Four, Section One

Perhaps my favorite section, the part with the most vision, ideas and concrete changes. It is also the longest of the five sections. It hearkens back to the five transformative strategies of the previous section.

It begins with the transit and TOD strategy and acknowledges that downtown is the center of the regional transportation network. With accolades given to the car infrastructure, the planners insist that transit must play a bigger role and give their ideas. The majority is fluff praise and generics, but one part did stick out.

Within Downtown, current and anticipated rail bottlenecks at either end of the Pacific Transit Mall continue to drive the need for a second alignment, commonly referred to as “D2.” Due to the heavy transit traffic in place in the northern parts of Downtown along the transit mall, D2 is seen as an opportunity to expand light rail capacity and connect major destinations in the southern half of the loop. A study prepared in 2008 examined 17 possible alignments for such a line. An examination of engineering feasibility, cost and development potential led a committee to select four preferred alternatives, most of which include a significant underground portion due to geologic, mobility and infrastructure concerns.

A new southern alignment alternative was added in 2009 to serve the new Omni Convention Center Hotel, currently under construction just north of the Dallas Convention Center. A decision on a specific alignment, however, is likely years away due to budget constraints, political and economic interests, and ongoing planning considerations in part driven by Downtown Dallas 360.
This does seem a bit inaccurate, but I am glad they at least realized that DART planners are working on the new alignment. I also found the last part a bit self-serving. I know the DART planner working on D2. He wasn't putting the plan on hold waiting to see what they said in the downtown plan. What put the plan on hold was the lack of funds from a decline in sales tax due to the economic dip. Plus I can assure you, the likelihood of this plan (funded by the business community) recommending a different alignment from the convention center hotel, that the city recommended at the urging of the business community is low.

They put a map showing the alignment potentials for the second downtown line. The map really bothers me and after spending a large amount of time figuring out how to get the graphic (with help from my wife), I finally did.

The main problem is the routing. First, they omitted two lines from DART's planning process, the subway on Commerce and the City Hall option. Then they added two lines that serve Union Station. This is what helps to give planners a bad name. Had MIG consulted with DART's planners, they would have realized the engineers have said a route that serves Union Station is impossible within any reasonable cost constraint.

Now don't get me wrong, I like the idea of Union serving as the focal point, but the current rail bridges or an underground line there are very hard to do. Because this area was at the edge of the Trinity when Union was built, the topography doesn't work for a subway right below the surface. That would mean one that is at least eight stories below ground. That is costly for one and makes transfers a more time consuming process for two.

If we have an elevated that runs off the current line, that likely requires the remaking of the entire rail bridge at worst and it have to run through Ferris Plaza, the oldest park in downtown, before coming to an at-grade route along Young, though likely after Market Street to avoid the close intersections in that part of town. The engineers like this option the worst, and that is why it didn't make DART's list of finalists. It also ignores the more trafficked parts of downtown, which would then require virtually everyone riding the Green and Orange Lines to have to make a transfer anyway. Most ot the office concentration is above Commerce and many riders, near if not over a majority, make a transfer at the West End triangle (West End Station, West Transfer Center and Rosa Parks).

So if it doesn't make sense from an engineering standpoint, and it requires needless transfers that the others don't, why was it recommended? My bet is the landowners near Union Station. They are big players within the business community. They have a voice.

From here, the multiple modes are listed and they begin with light rail. While I disagree from a philosophical perspective, I don't disagree that Dallas and the region have established light rail as the regional backbone (had it been done the right way, it would have been an urban transportation system that connects to the region via commuter rail, like New York or Boston's systems). It rightly says that D2 is a unique opportunity rarely seen downtown and should be done right. One reason that Union was recommended is that it is the only multi-modal hub in the region and should be connected with DFW Airport.

Huh? Just what is the definition of multi-modal? At the West End triangle, there is a meeting of four light rail lines, dozens of bus routes and a parking lot adjacent. AT DFW, there will be a rail line, shuttle bus, parking lots and airplanes. Cityplace is a meeting between three light rail lines, several buses and the MATA Streetcar. Soon, so will St. Paul. On smaller scales, every rail station is a multi-modal hub that meets at least one line with usually several bus stops.

But the bigger issue I have is why does Union need to be "connected" to DFW? I doubt people will take Amtrak (1 line daily) to Union, then board a light rail train to DFW. Those that are out of the region will fly to DFW and transfer there and those within will take the Orange to the airport, regardless of its connectivity to Union.

If the second line were to route to Union, rather than under the West End triangle, ridership is lessened. West End Station sees the same amount of boardings and departures as the other downtown stations combined. Most are heading off to the bus transfer center. That doesn't change when D2 comes online. So riders who now have one transfer at West End would have to transfer at Union, then transfer again at West End. Now imagine if they already have to make a transfer to get to the Green and soon to be Orange Line.

There are three simplified things that need to be done for transit to be successful. In a timely manner, you must A) take people from where they are, B) take people where they need to go and C) minimize transfers. The line to Union doesn't do the first two and violates the third.

This "multi-modal" reason seems contrived, more like it was used as cover for pleasing the major landowners in that area. Pardon me if I seem skeptical, but this is Dallas. Why does development potential always trump the existing urban fabric?

They make the same mistake again when talking about streetcars.

• Develop the streetcar network in a radial pattern from points within the loop based on proposed “Desire Lines” (see Complete Transit Network figure on page 42) to augment and connect to light rail lines and stations, increasing ridership potential;
• Target development potential along corridors with ample vacant land, surface parking or recent or proposed development activity; and
• Link key destinations such as Union Station, West End,
Main Street
, Farmers Market and the Arts District to surrounding in-town neighborhoods.

I'd rather the streetcar network follow a grid pattern, rather than radial. There's a growing body of research that suggests this more effectively and efficiently covers the area in question, regardless of size. At least when looking at the map, the overall appearance is one that resembles a grid.

But once again, rather than serve existing areas that are built up, they put emphasis on vacant lots. At least the good news is that if streetcars did connect the existing areas, there would be vacant spaces in between.

And buses get a mention, but more as a secondary role.

Buses should be used to augment the rail system and provide direct access to areas underserved by rail. Some bus routes should be removed with the completion of the light rail and streetcar network, particularly along
Main Street
. As the complete transit network is developed, bus transit should be examined to determine its most effective role. For example, a streamlined system of buses to serve longer-distance destinations not located near a rail station may still be an effective part of the multi-modal system, providing cost-savings and increased flexibility for changing demographic or event-related needs.

Serious consideration should also be given to the possibility of using rubber tire trolley circulators as a more affordable precursor or place holder for streetcars in the short-term. With appropriate branding and visibility such a trolley system could serve effectively as an interim measure to tie existing destinations together, although lacking the promise of streetcar to attract new development. This would enable the transportation benefits of a complete circulator network to be enjoyed even before a complete and significantly more expensive streetcar system could be realized.

Of course buses that are redundant will be removed. I can't even understand why that was included. If they would have said "as buses are removed from service when rail opens," that would have been one thing, but it comes off as trite to me, as if they presented this as some ground-breaking idea, when in fact it has been done everywhere rail has been introduced, modern era or not.

As for Main Street, that has already been done too, before the plan was released, though I do lament the fact that for the first time since 1873 (no, that is not a typo), Main Street does not have local transit service. All that remains are a few express buses from outlying areas.

And the bit about buses being used in areas without a rail station nearby...? Duh? I am short on that one too. If an area doesn't have a rail station or a streetcar nearby, then shouldn't the logical choice for service be a bus?

But perhaps the thing that bothers me the most is the idea of using a temporary shuttle before a streetcar. These have been tried before, and failed miserably. No one rode them, which is why they aren't around. Every so often, the idea is revived, and predictably, it is tried, and as the numbers come in, eventually abandoned. I really don't know if a streetcar would work in downtown for the cooridors they have proposed. I suspect some will and I have my doubts on others, but I do know the quickest way to kill a streetcar project is run a shuttle bus out there. Then when no one rides, the detractors say no one rides, so we shouldn't build this project.

And assuming people did ride them, the detractors would then ask why would we build a much more expensive streetcar network?

The planners then go on to say that for transit to be successful, three goals should be set: two blocks of transit, avoid redundancy and transfer points.

Two blocks of transit is a goal that would require a rail line every four blocks. By advocating D2 on Young, this would help achieve this goal for the southern section of town. The streetcar lines are positioned the same way. Not a bad goal, but not really based on any substative planning ideas I know. It also ignores buses, since this goal is already accomplished.

By spreading out rail transit to serve different users and in building in route flexibility, a complete rail network will avoid redundancy. In addition to tremendous cost savings by using streetcar or light rail along a particular corridor, but typically not both, potential passengers will benefit from a more complete system with additional transfer opportunities. By ensuring accessible, nearby alternative routes through Downtown, service can be maintained if a particular track encounters a disruption.

I put the whole section here because they miss the mark again. Light rail and streetcars do different things, yet MIG is treating it as the same. Case in point, making regional travelers transfer at Union only to transfer again at West End because there will be a streetcar there. NO, NO, NO.

Light rail also has more capacity than streetcars and therefore, you want your light rail lines to serve the more dense land uses. A rail line on Commerce would be next to literally millions of square feet of office, thousands of residential units, hundreds of hotel rooms and lots of civic attractions makes more sense than one on Young, which would run by Union, the convention center hotel, City Hall and the Farmers Market. If pedestrian improvements are made between Young and Commerce, then it might make the idea more palpable to me, but only if it serves the West Transfer Center first.

To gain maximum efficiency, transfers must be seamless and coordinated. Convenient transfers from light rail stations to the streetcar network can effectively extend the reach of the regional transit system by providing the crucial “last mile” connection to the ultimate destination. Fare structures and collection, operational frequency, and physical connectivity are essential to successfully attract riders and “convert” automobile drivers into transit riders. Furthermore, key transfer locations at critical junctions will help concentrate transit ridership and boost surrounding development potential. As the transit system matures and becomes more complex, the desirability of having a transit station hub that provides access to most, if not all, destinations will become increasingly important in order to ensure legibility and convenience in the transit system.

Yes transfer points are important, but minimizing them is more important. I agree with everything. However, the bit about key transfer locations seems shoehorned in to justify the Union Station idea. I have news for the planners, in a good transit system, there will never be one point that provides access to most destinations. Most directions maybe, but never destinations. There will always be a need for transfers and the better transit systems are the ones that minimizes them.

The odd thing is that be trying to make Union Station the transfer point, they needlessly increase transfers for most every rider except those at Union. As it stands right now, they only people that would qualify are the Hyatt and Lawrence hotel guests and the workers at Belo and the Dallas Morning News.

If I live in a southeast suburb, I would not likely commute on the Green Line, circle downtown towards Union, make a transfer, circle back through downtown and walk to my location. A train going through downtown can take almost as long as the trip from the terminus station to downtown. That means a trip that could be doubled, not including the transfer wait time.

But it is becoming apparent to me that MIG is not a transportation expert. At the surface level, everything sounds great, but a little digging reveals that most of the transportation section is at best flawed.

Finally, to capitalize on transit investment and encourage TOD's, the planners recommend making areas around rail stations and streetcar stops more pedestrian friendly. To do so, they suggest a Public Improvement Investment Area, complete with a funding source similar to a TIF zone. The improvements suggested are to widen sidewalks, district specific furniture and signage, adding intersection bulbouts and enhanced crosswalk and enhanced lighting.

For get developers to follow along, they advocate for reduced parking requirements, a streamlined approval process for sidewalk dining, a TIF waiver of five years, prioritized assistance from the public sector for worthy projects and public infrastructure investments.

Since this chapter is the longest, my next post will continue from the next transformative strategy, Vibrant Streets and Public Spaces.

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