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.