Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Are the suburbs moving themselves behind the eight ball?

The census has provided a lot of data for planners, but in my mind, none may be as important as the age breakdowns. In no other time in this country's history, has there been as many retirees and those contemplating retirement than now. At the same time, there never has been a lower percentage of younger folks to support these aging folks, whether it is a ride from home by a family member or social security taxes. Make no mistake, the baby boomers have changed a lot of things, and they just won't quit.

In Monday's Dallas Morning News at the bottom of the metro section's front page, a headline reads "Shortage of transportation options concerns aging suburbs." A similar story in front of the paywall can be found here.

Essentially, the authors highlight various exurban cities like Plano or Frisco, state how they used to be primarily younger a decade and more ago, and then show many older folks are aging in place, rather than moving to retirement villages in Florida.

This creates problems because these cities are primarily automobile-oriented and lack adequate health services, "livable" communities, social services and transportation options. A different official is quoted in both stories that state essentially these cities have not planned well enough to accommodate these older generations. There is a lot of irony in this.

Effective planning in other states have planned for a variety of things, including the needs of the elderly, for decades now. Oregon, Washington, Colorado and New York, to name the front-runners, have a physical environment that is made for all people, not just young married couples, families with kids or the elderly. Different life stages call for different uses of the land and urban fabric. People should have the choice of what kind of environment to live. But in Texas, it is primarily auto-oriented sprawl. And since the law limits effective planning, the cities with the best planning departments are merely guides for development, while others cities only process permits.

So what's a Plano to do? Sadly, the answers are much harder to come by than identifying the problem. Plano has a subsidized taxi service. However, funds are tight and there is a months long waiting list. They at least are a member of DART, and have fair transit service (it isn't poor, but neither is it adequate). When fixed bus service isn't enough, some folks can get on the list for DART's paratransit service. DART also has On-Call areas, where folks can pick up the phone and get a bus to their area. Plano has also done a decent job in creating walkable areas in downtown Plano and Legacy, though the later has poor transit access. Meanwhile Frisco is only just now developing a walkable area, and it is targeted to younger folks. They are beginning to implement a taxi-voucher program too, but they have a much more difficult raod to climb, particularly without a meaningful transit service. Same thing with other suburbs like Allen, McKinney or Midlothian.

In the article, Louise Broderick of Plano is quoted as saying "I can't take the bus. There is no bus in my area." That is a major problem of the auto-oriented design, which makes providing any kind of bus service complicated. Cul-de-sacs and buses don't mix.

When I was in school, the number was one-third of Americans can't drive, whether they are too young, old, disabled or unable. That number is surely going to rise in the coming years, both in real numbers and percentages. The areas that can offer that living balance are going to be better off. There will be people who will stay where they are now, at the detriment of their family and public safety. But there will also be, and already has been, those older folks and empty-nester's who find more walkable areas to reside.

If the foreclosure crisis wasn't the nail in the coffin for contemporary suburbia, the baby boomers surely will add another.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Suburbs Exploring Transit and Who Pays to Park

There were some interesting tidbits in the Dallas Morning News recently pertaining to a few area suburbs exploring the options of transit service, though in a completely unusual way.

Mesquite is perhaps the furthest along of any city to actually contracting with DART for an express bus route. You can read the DART Board minutes here, page 19 of the pdf. If you can get behind the paywall of the DMN, the story is here.

In essence, Mesquite will use their economic development taxes to fund an express bus route, while simultaneously seeking to gather local, regional and federal funds to build a rail line. They are seeking a public-private partnership to get the job done. On July 5th, the city council authorized the funds to begin the express bus route, with DART providing the ride.

Then it comes out that the northern exurbs of Allen and McKinney in Collin County are in the preliminary stages of doing the same thing.  McKinney is looking to shuttle passengers from a park-n-ride lot to DART's Parker Road Station. Allen is hoping to lure shoppers from the DART service area to places like their outlet mall. In essence, McKinney wants a two stop express bus route, Allen wants a partial express, non-stop from Parker Road to a stop in Allen, where it begins a typical local route with multiple stops.

Allen hasn't decided yet who would run it, while McKinney seems to be preferring DART to run the buses. I would bet that Allen will choose DART, simply because it will connect to a rail station. Either way, DART will get revenue from this.

If I had to pick a loser, it would be Allen's. Most (I'm talking 99%) shoppers in this area don't use transit. Compare weekend trips at Park Lane Station to the parking garages at North Park Mall. Since a great percentage of shopping is on the weekend, I don't hold out a high hope that this three-year pilot project will be extended, despite the fact that I would use it more than the other two routes.

I am undecided about this generic idea overall. Obviously increased transit options are a plus. If the McKinney proposal mirrors Mesquite, I won't use their routes, since this would only be rush hour services. However, it would still increase transit usage, albeit in the hundreds, a very small percentage of total ridership.

So if this increases ridership, surely I can't be against it, right? Well, it is the funding that worries me. Since 1984, DART member cities have been allocating a full cent sales tax for the service. Mesquite turned down the offer in 1983 by 20 votes. Instead, they would later approve an economic development tax as an attempt to improve their tax base. I did preliminary research in graduate school using area numbers and correlated increased economic activity with transit and an actual decrease in economic activity with the ED taxes. In short, they are ineffective at best. In essence, these three cities are proving that point. Why use your ED taxes on transit unless they aren't working in the traditional way? I said it then before the paper and I repeat, transit is an economic development tool.

If this is replicated on a much larger scale, there could literally be a dozen cities buying the Pinto package of transit service, rather than the Ford (New York would be the Lexus). It will also primarily be a commuter system, that is ineffective in long term transportation changes. I certainly have made more trips to Plano in my 4+ years of living in downtown Dallas than Mesquite. That won't change with this proposal, but it could (and almost certainly would given its proximity to me) if they flat out joined DART.

But the timing may be fortuitous for the northern burbs. DART has announced a pilot program for the two northern terminus stations where folks who live outside the service area will have to pay two dollars to park at those stations. While folks who use the Green Line have the DCTA as an option, the Red Line currently doesn't. This may give those folks an option.

This policy is one I can actually get behind. While some have suggested DART is a villain for this, I believe it is fair, if only in the current financing scheme. I have always been leery of individual cities deciding who gets to have a transit service. TxDoT doesn't ask cities if they want a highway. They plan it as a regional need. Why does transit get a different approach? Yes freeways are interstate infrastructure with national implications, but the vast, vast, vast majority of users are regional.

Given that restraint, I support DART's approach to recouping revenue that the resident's aren't paying when they make purchases in non-member cities and then drive to a DART station and use the system. Yes they pay a fare, but it pales to the sales tax, which is the primary revenue source for DART. It will drive some away, but not much. Some will travel one mile down and park, some won't, but some will switch to the DCTA A-Train and the new routes from Allen and McKinney, and that isn't that bad of an option, if not perfect.