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.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Random Musing

In my previous post, I mentioned that having the pedestrian- and alternative-transportation-friendly Elm Street redesign stop just outside downtown is proof that Dallas officials are content with keeping downtown a business district rather than a vibrant urban area.

In retrospect, I don't believe that is entirely true, although there is truth to it. I think Dallas tends to overly rely on corridors, rather than districts. Like Elm in Deep Ellum, Main Street underwent a road diet in the early '90's from five lanes to four and again a few years ago down to two. Market Street is the heart of the West End and is two lanes (albeit still a one way). The recently built Arts District (although not a great urban area at all, still illustrates the corridor thinking) is centered around Flora.

In the case of Main, it is bounded by Elm and Commerce, ten lanes total. Flora is bounded by a freeway on the north, and Ross, which might be one of the highest trafficked streets in downtown. Only Market lacks the obvious car-only borders, but Lamar sees a bit of traffic and the west boundary is fuzzy. Perhaps that is partly because there are no heavy car streets.

So after much thought, I don't believe the City is still intent on keeping downtown a CBD. However, I don't think they are willing to abandon policies that made it a business district. I believe they are trying to strike a balance to ideas that are close to polar opposites. I don't think you can design a downtown that handles a large amount of cars from the outlying areas and suburbs while simultaneously making the area a vibrant urban neighborhood for residents and visitors. What makes an urban area vibrant is the public life, the outdoor. All those cars require too much space that comes at the expense of walking, biking or other modes of travel. But maybe more detrimental, all that space required for cars takes a little space from the public, which helps to empty out downtown, in more than one way.

If I ever get around to my critique of the AT&T plaza renovations on Akard, I'll really how you an area that is prime for district thinking, rather than corridor.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dallas Does Deep Ellum

On the front page of Saturday's Dallas Morning News, the electronic version here, was an update to the upgrade of Elm Street in Deep Ellum. In 2006, as part of a massive bond package, street upgrades were promised for Elm Street opposite of downtown. The idea was to reconvert Elm Street back to two-way operation and upgrade the sidewalks, of which some are over a century old.

From the article:
Now, the city is planning a new streetscape to make Elm Street in Deep Ellum an attractive two-lane road with two-way traffic instead of one way toward downtown. The aim is to slow it down, make it pedestrian- and bike-friendly and draw more business.

Overall, good news here. I am surprised the idea is to make it only two lanes. I thought for sure some one in the transportation department would get a hold of this and predict traffic Armageddon if the reduction of 3-5 lanes one way turned into two total lanes.

While the quote is completely accurate, that the proposal will slow traffic and make the stretch more pedestrian-friendly, does everything in Dallas have the goal of attracting more business? Such is the lot of a Sunbelt city.

Continuing on:
The streetscaping would run from Exposition Avenue to Good-Latimer Expressway. Early plans are for wide sidewalks with restaurant patios, trees, benches and bike racks; parallel parking; marked pedestrian crossings; and bikes sharing the two lanes of traffic.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, on-street parking is key to a positive pedestrian experience. There is no mention of whether that is for both sides or just one, like in a lot of downtown streets. My guess is for both, since the tone of the makeover seems to invite the improvements needed for a "complete street."

However, all is not well.
Eventually, the Central Business District-Fair Park Link will carry commuters around Deep Ellum between Gaston Avenue and Interstate 30. A portion is in place near Baylor University Medical Center, but the rest won't be completed until funding is available, city officials said.
A route called the Central Business District-Fair Park Link will be completed as funding becomes available to move commuters around Deep Ellum between Gaston Avenue and Interstate 30. The route:
•A portion has been completed between Gaston and Hall Street on the north side of the DART Green Line station.
•From Hall, it will run along the north side of the Green Line past Baylor University Medical Center and across the tracks to Exposition Avenue.
•It will continue along Exposition to Second Avenue, where new ramps will connect it to I-30.

Here's the visual,-96.778007&spn=0.007811,0.02105&z=16

The CBD-Fair Park Link is the street labeled Worth on the map. The new section will run to Exposition, about the length of the current section, before linking with Expo and presumably expanding of that street.

That will create a barrier between Deep Ellum and East Dallas, Baylor and Expo Park. Instead of a seamless transition between districts and neighborhoods, there is a four to six lane roadway creating an obvious dividing line full of a high number of vehicles speeding through the area. Now, the rail line (being an old frieght railroad) and subsequent land use has already created a de facto barrier, but are we really interested in making it bigger.

Part of me has a hard time believing this route is needed. If you are coming from the outlying areas on I-30, I doubt you would exit a mile and a half early to roam through local streets that is the same distance. According to Google maps, the trip is twice as long. If anything, this should be used for local purposes, and I just don't think that will be how it is designed.

There also should be some changes for this route in downtown. Pacific is a weird street, in that is is three lanes east, one west. That works for people leaving downtown in the afternoon, but not any other time. Before it reaches the heart of downtown, Pacific becomes a one-way eastbound.

I just don't think that roadway is needed or necessary but, since it isn't funded yet, the current issue of an improved Elm is just that, an improvement and the CBD Fair Park link is esoteric. Mentions of an eventual redo of Commerce next is also a positive and seems more likely to happen than the CBD-Fair Park "Link."

The article mentions the ideas are just for Deep Ellum and not downtown. This just proves that Dallas officials are not serious about making downtown a destination. As long as streets like Elm, Commerce, Ervay and Akard are one-way, then the pedestrian experience will never be what it could. They are committed to making places outside of downtown, like Deep Ellum, pedestrian friendly, but seem committed to keeping downtown a commuter destination for the outlying and mostly suburban residents.

However, if we are committed to making the CBD a vibrant urban downtown, rather than a usiness district, then things like Elm's makeover don't need to stop at the boundary. They need to come in too.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Benefits of Paying to Drive

To the chagrin of many, transportation planners in recent years have been advocating policies, other policies and different policies that revoke hidden subsidies to the car. While many of the ideas have been idling in neutral, some have stuck, notably toll roads. However, one of planners top ideas of reducing congestion and increasing the attractiveness of other options is congestion pricing.
In essence, congestion pricing charges drivers to access a certain area, usually congested business districts. The underlying assumption here is that market forces, when applied to auto use, will reduce congestion. Since roads are now free, or bare minimum underpriced, people consume the service (roads) at a rate greater than its worth. An easy comparison, if bread (roads) was no longer priced at current levels, but instead was free or .50 cents, then more bread (roads) would need to be made (new or expansions) or there would be shortages (congestion).

Since there is a lack of congestion pricing case studies here in the states, it is hard to quantify the benefits. New York City passed a congestion pricing plan for parts of Manhattan, but the State shot it down. California has implemented some aspects, but it is predominantly toll roads with variable pricing, more expensive at peak times than non-peak hours and lacks other aspects.

San Francisco passed the most comprehensive plan and enacted it in 2010. The central element is the Bay Bridge, which was tolled at the same rate and carpools could use it for free. Now, prices are higher from 5 a.m. to 10 and from 3 p.m. to 7. Carpoolers now pay a discounted rate.

Market rate parking, which I touched on near the end of this post, is another part of San Fran's congestion plan.

The results have been close to what was predicted. From the Silicon Valley, travel times have been reduced traveling into San Francisco and transit trips have seen a 4,000 commuter increase. The only downside has been a reduction in carpool trips, which as I will explain, doesn't concern me.

I believe this is a positive first step. While true congestion pricing doesn't exist on this continent, the preliminary results from this myopic case study are positive. As expected, introducing the market forces into transportation resulted in a supply and demand relationship according to the price. Since San Fran has adequate transit service, it can compete well. And as expected, saw a sizable increase in ridership. Now imagine4,000 new riders for every freeway/bridge that adopted the same policy as well as major downtown entrances. If this was a city policy only, there would be an increase in the tens of thousands. If it was increased regionally, on every freeway/bridge, there would be a sizable increase.

As with any project or plan that reduces priority for the automobile, the naysayers where out. Business would suffer, people won't come into _______and go elsewhere or the externalities will be pushed to the just outside the edge of the congestion zone, in this case Oakland. As is usual, none of the against arguments have materialized. Business activity is consistent in San Francisco, downtown is still an attractive place and people are coming and congestion and increased parking in Oakland is not at a significant level.

The decrease in carpooling doesn't concern me as much. The idea of trying to get people out of one person per car has been an abject failure. It was a nice idea in theory, but it hasn't worked in reality. The reason is that we still favor single-use autos through myriad policies and regulations. Until we see wholesale changes in transportation and land use, which outside of San Francisco is similar to every Sun Belt metro, thn carpooling will be another underutilized aspect, just like transit. The idea of if you build it, they will come applies here. It simply isnt convenient to carpool.

Now Texas is trying the HOT, High Occupancy / Toll Lanes. These may work and reduce congestion/speed up commutes, but they will if only because they introduce market forces, not because they encourage people to ride together. I am optimistic here.

Would congestion pricing work everywhere? As far as I am concerned, that is still up in the air. I tend to lean toward yes on these types of questions. Everywhere that downtown living was non-existent before a recent proposal to bring them in has happened, people said no one from this place (whether it be a big city like Dallas or a smaller city like Aberdeen, South Dakota) will want to live downtown. Sure enough, people did and near everywhere, developers can't keep up with demand.

Now congestion pricing is a bit different than urban living, but, I think there has to be two factors in existence for any congestion plan to be successful, the area in question has to be a vibrant, attractive place and there has to be at least adequate transit service. These two things preclude any meaningful congestion pricing zone in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Downtown Dallas is not at the critical mass for attractiveness and downtown Fort Worth doesn't have adequate transit service. Either way, it is a mute point, as this type of program would never be implemented here politically in the near future.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Transit and Density

When I first read this Australian article debating the merits of density for transit service, my first thought was to ignore it and not give it the time of day. However, I kept listing in my head all the reasons it was wrong. Obviously I couldn't ignore it, so instead, I'll just refute it.

A study was conducted by two professors from different Australian Universities that say the opposite of what many transit planners have professed to be truth, for quality transit service, there needs to be a higher intensity of land use than what most suburbs offer.

Unless you actually break down the numbers, it seems like they have a point. From the article:

"Their study - which is part of a collection being prepared for the Council of Australian Governments on the dangers of relying on diminishing supplies of oil - finds that cities with densities comparable with Melbourne and Sydney, such as Toronto, Ottawa and greater New York, have better public transport than Australia's two biggest cities.
While greater New York, not just the skyscraper-dominated Manhattan, has 20.5 people to the hectare, Sydney has 20.4 people.
Melbourne, with 15.7 people to the hectare, has only slightly lower density than Ottawa, with 17.2 people.


Dr Mees said higher densities did not always mean better mass transit, citing the relatively low rail and bus use in Los Angeles, even though it is the most densely populated city in the United States.
''There is no doubt that a compact and connected urban form enhances the potential for oil-free mobility through walking, cycling, and greater public transport use,'' the authors write.
''However, we … argue that it is not necessary to intensify land-use across the whole city before significant improvement in both patronage and economic efficiency of public transport becomes possible.'''

My preferred measure of density is people per square mile. Converting their measure of density for New York, 20.5 people per hectare to mine, I get 5,309.5 ppsm. But wait, New York City has 26,000 ppsm. It then becomes apparent that they used regional averages, not city. There is a big difference between New York City and Greater New York. By using that term, they have really missed the mark on what drives New York's ridership.

So why is that important? Because most planners don't encourage uniform density across the region, but rather strategic density where it can be supported. These include places like downtown, stations along a rail line or infill development in the existing urban fabric.

Using the New York regional density averages does a disservice to New York, since City proper has a much higher density than the region. Going even further in, Manhattan has a whooping 66,000 ppsm. Los Angeles, meanwhile, sits between 7,000 and 8,000 across the board. There is very little spike. That makes a big difference in transit ridership. Just the suburban rail lines in New York have 1,000,000 trips a day. That is almost purely trips into the city from the suburbs, regardless of the density outside the central city.

Now notice that small fact. New York's commercial density is a driver of that. The subway system delivers near 8,000,000 daily trips. That is in part because of the high commercial AND residential density. You can literally walk out the door and within a block be at the transit station get to your destination, with a transfer or two, and walk out of the station and be within a block of your destination. That is when transit works best.

You will find that greater than 90% of all "greater New York" transit trips somehow involve the actually city, the densest portion of greater New York. Does Sidney or Melbourne have such a dense area?  No, therefore, it is no surprise that New York has more trips than those two cities. If their urban core developed as densely, you'd surely see a rise in transit use.

Meanwhile, L.A. despite its denseness the authors cite has no such spike anywhere in the urban area. That means a very dispersed, but also much smaller customer base. Those are two bad combos to effective transit service.

Let's be clear here, density is an important factor but it is not the only and perhaps not the most important. As the authors point out,

"The keys to increasing public transport use in outer suburbs are more frequent buses, running at least every 10-15 minutes, and not just in peak hour; better co-ordination with rail services; more convenient transfers; and fares that allow free transfers between modes."

Yes, these are all factors that play a part, but it competely ignores the land use equation.

Here's an extreme example. I build a house in the middle of nowhere and connect it to a transit network and the workplace. I then build an apartment complex else where in the middle of nowhere and do the same thing. Which will produce more riders, the house or the complex? Obviously, the house, so it may not be simply density doesn't matter, but that there is a threshold. The authors ignore that point.

They also ignore urban design principles. An apartment with 200 units built adjacent to a rail station with ample, convenient connections will have more riders than one with 400 units in a gated community that requires you to walk half-way around the complex to get to the station all the while walking along a 6 lane high speed road (I can think of three like this next to Dallas rail stations).

The authors "solutions" are entirely supply side. They do little to increase the demand for transit service. If land use and density aren't compatible with the types of solutions they are suggesting, it won't work financially. Now if money isn't an issue (yea right, I know), then you can run the types of service they are suggesting to stereotypical suburbs.

They also ignore other factors that effect transit use, such as car pricing, parking strategies, walkability, station and stop locations, etc. If an area improves in these areas toward a more transit-friendly approach, they will see a rise in transit use, regardless of density levels.

I think this is a great example of the need for the peer-reviewed journal. Though I know nothing of the Australian Planner Journal, I know you'd never see this type of thing in the Journal of the American Planning Association.

It is also a great example of the need for planners, but also the easy mistakes they can make (and have made). The saying a jack of all trades is a master of none could easily be applied to planners. Of course, politics can come along and muddy the waters completely, rendering everything else a moot point.