Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why Deep Ellum Folks are Opposed to a School

A little over a year ago, I mentioned what I thought to be a good plan for converting the one-way streets in Deep Ellum to two-way. However, many property and business owners disagreed with me.

Now a new development has presented itself and once again, I find myself against the flow of Deep Ellumites.

To recap the story, Uplift Education wants to buy the building located at 2625 Elm Street in Deep Ellum. They have the right to do that by zoning code. The sticky issue is that, by city code, places that sell alcohol can not be within 300 feet of a school. City staff assures the current establishments they would be grandfathered and allowed to operate after the school opened. However, any new place would not and would have to work around the code.

Understand first that I understand their point-of-view. However, I take myself beyond the boundaries of Deep Ellum and look at the situation from a holistic point-of-view. This also raises more concerns about how Dallas zoning code is suburban flavored. If you go to other major urban centers, both in the U.S. and abroad, you'll see this exact type of thing. This is an urban element pure and simple.

I favor Uplift moving into this building simply because this is exactly what Deep Ellum need to transition from an entertainment district to an urban area. Right now there are some residences, a few business's and a lot of restaurants, bars and stages. During the morning and afternoon, the place is quiet. During the evening Sunday through Wednesday, it is quiet. This is exactly the type of thing that would add activity during times where Deep Ellum has little.

The protesters are afraid this will make Deep Ellum sterile. And yet, other urban areas in Dallas haven't suffered. Downtown has numerous charter schools. Many bars and restaurants operate within 300 feet. Same thing with Uptown. Yet, I don't think some of the Deep Ellum crowd really care, as some of the comments at yesterday's meeting make me wonder.

"Kids are important. And the point is to put them in an area away from drugs and alcohol. You put these kids down here, they're not going home when school's over. They're gonna get into bars, the bar's gonna get busted, and they're gonna lose their liquor license."

So let me get this straight, you as a lawful bar owner think these students are going to go out in throngs to the area's bars. The barkeeps are going to be fooled by these kids and serve them alcohol. Then the TABC is going to be there and see this and shut the place down. And where do the drugs come in? Those aren't legal whether a school is there or not.

First, most kids won't go to the bars, though some may try. Second, most bartenders are quite able to spot a 15-year old and decipher the difference between them and the legal drinking age of 21.

Bottomline, Deep Ellum needs something different than what it has now. It' streets are vacant more than 80 percent of the time. This would drastically change that. Plus, let's not forget, that some of the teachers may well be their best customers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Buses and their Role in Dallas

Yesterday, I was able to speak in front of the DART board in response to service changes the planning staff is recommending. So naturally, I shall post a blog about the situation.

The impetus is the opening of the Irving branch of the Orange Line, the Rowlett extension of the Blue Line and a park and ride/transfer center near Legacy Park in Plano. It makes sense to change some bus routes in an effort to maximize efficiency. The bus system as is was conceived without a rail component. However, adding to the issue is that DART's finances aren't in the best of shape, partly due to the economy and partly due to increasing amounts of debt to build the rail system. This has caused the planners to look at areas of the system that aren't impacted by the new openings to try and find cost savings. I went to speak specifically for the 31 route, since its rerouting would negatively impact my wife.

Staff's proposal for service in this sector is to shorten the 51 before it enters the Oak Lawn and Uptown areas and making it a rail feeder further north. They would then move the 31 onto the Lemmon and East Dallas portions of the current 51. This change would leave the 409 crosstown route as the only bus service on the lower portion of Oak Lawn and the 29 as the only route on Maple.

Here are the maps of the routes in question taken from DART's website.

This is the 51. What is shown would no longer be in existence if the service change proposal is passed without alteration. Instead, the 31 would be rerouted to the above streets.

The 31 as it exists today. Should the service change pass unchanged, this would no longer exist, as would any local bus service on the lower part of Oak Lawn.
My main problem with this change is that it totally messes up service in the urban core. As I have noted in several previous posts, the rail system was designed as a primarily commuter system that brings in fringe residents to the core, it requires the bus system to pick up the slack as an urban transportation service. This means that in order for the urban area to operate as effectively as it should, the buses are going to have to do the work.

Because urban neighborhoods contain denser residential, office and shopping concentrations than their suburban counterparts, they need transportation services that are denser as well. For these urban areas to maintain or grow their vitality, other forms of transportation, usually in the form of walking, transit and bicycles, must be made possible. These changes could have a harmful impact in creating the vibrancy needed.

In my view, this should be how DART planners approach bus service in the urban core. The urban neighborhoods must be identified, then their streets prioritized for service. In Dallas, the primary urban neighborhoods near the core are Downtown, Uptown, Victory, Deep Ellum, Knox-Henderson, Oak Lawn, the Cedars and the Design District. Of those Uptown has one fringe station (Cityplace), Victory has one fringe station (Victory), Deep Ellum has one fringe station (the Deep Ellum named station is actually several blocks away from the actual border of Deep Ellum. Baylor Station actually borders Deep Ellum) and the Cedars has one, but it is a neighborhood without critical mass and therefore underutilized as an urban station. Only Downtown has any sort of quality rail stops.

Once this problem is identified, the buses must be routed on those main streets. Even in downtown, with decent rail service, the Elm/Commerce corridor is teeming with bus routes. Over 15 run on each street in addition to the rail system. In the Oak Lawn area, the namesake street is the "Main Street" and therefore requires the attention. Since these are all close in neighborhoods, all of them should connect to one another and downtown.

Ideally these primary streets should have multiple routes, similar to the Elm/Commerce section of downtown. As is currently the case for Oak Lawn, you can board a bus and go to: east and central Downtown, Parkland Hospital, near Love Field and NW Dallas, Uptown, Cityplace, Old East Dallas and Fair Park.

With the budget crunch, the idea that duplicate routes need to be cut will have an adverse effect on the circulation of the urban area. The ability to go many places at your doorstep without a transfer is what should separate the urban transit service from the suburban. Sadly, DART is looking at all areas of the bus system from a suburban standpoint.

The other idea lost in this change is that getting rid of duplication also has the side effect of reducing capacity. Let's assume that no one stops taking transit and everyone transfers. Big if, but it will illustrate the point. If every one of those riders on the Oak Lawn portion of the 31 switch to the 409, then the 409, without an increase in frequency, will be fuller. That isn't always a bad deal for DART, but if the 409 is at 70 percent capacity during rush hour and the 31 is at 80 percent, this section of Oak Lawn will quickly get crowded.

In defense of the planners, that would be exactly the scenario. Those folks going from downtown to destinations beyond Lemmon and Oak Lawn, will not be affected by the route change. However, they will be facing a longer ride. Since the WTC is the central point in the DART system, any bus that begins away from there will likely require extra time for passengers to get to that bus. In this case, passengers will need to begin at Union Station. That may not be a bad idea if you are coming from the southern portions of the Blue or Red Lines. But anywhere else in the rail system or any other bus will add extra time just to get to the new bus route.

Now, if both buses currently leave the starting point at the same time, the 31 riders will get to Lemmon and Oak Lawn in 12 minutes. Riders on the 51 will get there in 22 minutes. So not only will there be an increase in times to get to the bus for most riders, there will also be an increase in time for all passengers going beyond Oak Lawn and Lemmon.

Remember what I have said previously about how to do transit right. Get people from point A to point B and do it efficiently, whether that is measured in time, money, minimizing transfers, etc. This service change does the first, but regresses considerably on the second. An increase in time, an increase in transfers, longer headways and lower capacity are some some of the negative side effects. The positive is lower operational costs. If the bus system was discontinued, lower costs would be accomplished too, but obviously that wouldn't be efficient nor optimal.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Downtown Midland: How to Revitalize

Now a heads up from my hometown of Midland, about 5-6 hours west on I-20 from Dallas. My sister directed me to a story in the local paper, The Midland Reporter Telegram, about this effort to revitalize their downtown. She sent it to me several months ago, but I procrastinated discussing it until now.

In many ways, Dallas and Midland are similar. Their downtown's were converted from the center of the city's life to an office park, they have a nearby rival city and a lot of activity has shift to the fringes. Even looking solely at the downtown area of each city reveals similarities. Each have/had vacant office buildings. Each looks great from a distance, but getting inside reveals fake density, similar to what I discussed in this post. Both have out-of-whack parking situations that depend heavily on surface lots and restrict on-street parking. In fact, in a lot of ways, downtown Midland is now where downtown Dallas was 15 years ago. There are even intangible similarities like old money still controls each area and elected officials that do not quite know what is going on in the area or really what is needed to get where they want downtown to go.

This would fit right in if it were in downtown Dallas.

Note the cluster of tall buildings, as well as the vast amounts of surface parking.
Some excerpts from the article that will form the basis of my discussion:

City leaders, along with members of the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) board, the Downtown Midland Management District (DMMD), Midland County and the Midland Development Corp. (MDC), among others, have been meeting regularly since the spring to create a unified vision for the future of downtown.
The DMMD in July brought its executive director on full-time. The city also is looking within the next 60 to 90 days to hire -- in conjunction with the other entities -- a full-time employee who would work to develop a "catalyst" project for downtown and to eliminate obstacles that prevent that type of development, City Manager Courtney Sharp said.
What exactly that catalyst project will be still is up for consideration, downtown advocates said. But, they agreed for the first time the entities all are working together toward a common revitalization, rather than each acting separately to achieve essentially the same goal.


[Natalie] Shelton [DMMD Executive Director] said she'd support a mixed-use property that would allow for office space on the upper floors and retail or restaurants on the ground-level. Some members of the DMMD said the renovation of the Ritz Cultural Events Center could be a catalyst of sorts as it aims to bring several hundred people downtown at least a few nights a week.
Others have pointed to a combination of possibilities.
"Office space is needed immediately," [Jerry] Morales [at-large City Councilman] said.


Gary Glasscock, partner at Tgaar Properties Inc., said they are moving their offices back downtown after operating from farther north for the past several years.
The company purchased Wall Towers east and west, which are about 30 percent occupied, and plans to update the remainder of the buildings to open more office space, he said.
"We've already signed up several leases," he said, adding they've had interest from businesses locally and nationally. "Once that begins we'll start renovating."
Still, he said, there are challenges to re-doing old structures. They're presently conducting a study to determine if asbestos exists in the structures and anticipate it will take about $5 million to fully restore the properties.
"Once you get past the basic issues, this has great bones," he said of the property. "It's a first-class area to be in."


Aside from the cost required to bring some buildings up to code, parking issues prevent downtown from thriving, Morales said.
Glasscock said they have an agreement to lease spaces just east of the library, but a lack of parking is prohibitive.
If there were a few developers committed to coming downtown and bringing jobs, Morales said they then could assess where it would be feasible to put a parking garage.
If I were to change Midland to Dallas and the names of the entities involved, this would be just like Dallas' situation. The basic problem as it stands today is that there are too many chiefs and not enough indians. When that situation exists, there are a lot of ideas on what needs to be done. In this case, one wants a cultural institution, one wants office space, some want a parking garage and others want mixed-use office/retail. None of the serious flaws that exist now are addressed. Midland has great bones. That is it. What was proposed does not add the flesh to downtown.
The Councilman wants more office now. The company official bought two office buildings that are 70 percent vacant. Those two don't mesh. Downtown Fort Worth, with an office occupancy above 90 percent in downtown can say they need mopre office. 12.5 percent of the office buildings in downtown Midland are completely vacant right now (which is to say nothing of their overall vacancy rate, which is quite high). The empty buildings are where the biggest opportunity lies. What I have experienced in Midland, coupled with what I know about vibrant urban areas, is the lack of activity outside of office hours (Dallas, anyone?). The current trend across the United States, from coast to coast, cities large and small, is that the younger generation is looking for something different than the prototypical American living situation. That is all Midland is, single-family houses and garden-style apartments. There are no townhomes, no lofts, no duplexes. Convert a handful of these empty and near empty office buildings into a residential use, try to keep them near strategic points and near each other to increase the likelyhood of critical mass and all of a sudden, things will move and they will get their catalyst. People will be walking on the street, retailers and restaurants will be attracted, and Forbes will look at them for the list of best small city downtowns.
However, Midland has not encouraged this thinking. Instead, several empty buildings, six that I can count, have been demolished instead. That is a wasted opportunity. However, the prevailing theme in Midland, like it was in many cities in the United States, from coast to coast, cities large and small, is that no one wants to live downtown. I fear that until someone actually does it, that thought will always prevail and good, solid buildings will be demoed for parking lots.
Speaking of parking ... downtown Midland has it all wrong. There is very little on-street parking, despite the wide four-and five-lane streets that prevail all over the district. You want to encourage ground floor retail? Start there. It will actual bring in revenue to the city, while at the same time reducing parking pressures on the private lots and enticing quick convenient parking for the customers of the potential retailers and restaurants the city wants to attract. I can recall only two restaurants accessible from the street in downtown Midland, and both are always packed.
I have said it before and it will never be invalidated. Urban areas will never out-suburb the suburbs. Downtown Midland will never be able to offer large amounts of surface parking like the places on Loop 250 can. Instead, they need to offer what those places can't, an inviting streetscape teeming with pedestrains. When I say activity begets more activity, that is what I mean. Sometimes people don't go to the mall to shop. Sometimes they go to socialize or people watch. Malls are nothing more than an urban streetscape covered by a roof and usually lacking the mixed-use component. When the land use encourages street-level activity, people will come to observe and be a part of it, not because of what use is there now specifically. The base activity encouraged the ancillary activity, furthering the vibrancy of the street.
Downtown Midland would have to take steps to encourage that pedestrian traffic. A big start would be the addition of the on-street parking, which then gives the pedestrians a buffer from the traffic.
Also, the idea that it takes a catlyst project or one thing to jump start development is a very outdated mode of thinking. Urban areas operate best when they are a conglomeration of lots of little pieces. One residential building with 100 units is better than none, two is better than one and three is better than two. However, it is not linearly better. In this case the sum is greater than the whole. The 300 units are far better than if each 100 units existed on its own seperately. So any policy that is geared toward a catalyst is flawed from the beginning. The focus needs to be on accumulation of several small things at once. Encourage a form-based code that dictates where you want the street-level retail. Make improvements to the streetscape, particularly shade and benches. Set-up a tax break system for certain tyoes of development, ie. residential, that will encourage private entities to look in that direction. Study where transit makes the most sense within the current land-use.
Downtown Midland has tried catalyst projects before and have seen minimal results out of the effort. Midland Center was built, yet downtown wasn't revitalized (just like the empty promises of almost every convention center in America). Centennial Plaza was supposed to be a gathering spot for locals to enjoy downtown in an open setting. But without complementing land uses nearby, it is sparesly used when an event isn't scheduled. There was a massive undertaking to remake the streets and sidewalks from regular concrete to red brick or other fancy patterns. Yet without fundamentally changing how downtown was used, there wasn't a fundamental increase or decrease in anything but the budget.
Bottomline, downtown Midland has a great opportunity, but I just have a feeling that well-meaning officials will miss the mark. Unless they bring in someone with a basic knowledge of urban design and land-use, things will not change. Midland is not different than any other city or region. If places like Fargo, North Dakota can revitalize their downtown, then so can Midland. Weather, industry or age, despite what common criticisms are leveled, will not prevent Midland from having a vibrant downtown. Misguided directions and policy will.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

More Off-Balance Codes

In this December post, I relayed some concerns I had about how well-meaning city codes can have an adverse impact on urban design and health. I ran across a piece that illustrates that point perfectly in Los Angeles.

It blames the flat appearance on the skyline to a fire code passed in 1974 that requires buildings to accommodate a fire helicopter landing pad with adequate buffers.

So again, a well-meaning code (though I have a hard time understanding how a burning building can be helped by having a helicopter land there), that has a limited application effects the everyday, in this case the skyline view usually in a negative light.

The good news, as the entry shows, is that these things can change, as long as there is the political will to do the changing. Sometimes, a lack of awareness can carry on the status quo. In many instances, planners have a hard time raising that awareness and it appears that no one carries that water to public officials.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Highway Robbery: How Induced Traffic makes highway expansion for congestion relief fruitless

Happy New Year to all. No better time to roll out the long-promised post on the induced traffic principle than the first entry of 2012.

I have said often in this blog that we will never win the congestion battle using the methods currently employed. Such methods are the obvious, highway building and expansion, but even the not obvious like light rail or streetcar investments because they don't fundamentally change the system.

The reason that the congestion battle can never be won using the tactics we are is the fact that unlike other parts of our lives, car travel is based on human behavior, rather than a linear supply-and-demand function. When roads or freeways are designed, they are built to accommodate a certain number of cars. Prior decades saw the road building and expansions as an opportunity to meet current and future "demand" for travel. Nowadays, right-of-way is more likely to determine the capacity of the corridor, since most professionals know that the roadways will fill up once they are opened. The professionals planners and engineers recognize the human behavior function makes any other formula obsolete. Sadly, we are still on the current pace because elected officials and, perhaps most important, the public are largely ignorant of this. This is very similar to my transit convenience point. People will do what is convenient. When we build for the car, the car becomes convenient and we have to work within that system.

Here's the gist of the Induced Traffic Principle. As a whole, human tolerance in traffic is for no slower than stop-and-go. Above that speed, they will take that route. They may grumble, complain and mope, but they will still drive in that corridor. Below that speed, drivers will seek alternatives until stop-and-go traffic is resumed. The alternatives are numerous, but the three main ones are seeking alternate routes, such as an artery or rail line instead of a freeway, driving at different times, going to work at 7 instead of 8 in the morning, or not making the trip at all, waiting some other day to go out.

We can all relate to this at some level. Here are some personal anecdotes from me.

1) When I worked in the radio industry, I had to cover an SMU basketball game. I lived in Irving at the time. Instead of taking the freeway into downtown and then Central up, I took Mockingbird instead. Were the freeway running smoother, I would not have driven that route.

2) My family participates in dog shows and when I was a kid, there was a show in San Antonio. I asked why we had to get up so early to get there and my Dad said he didn't want to drive San Antonio's freeway's during rush hour. So we made the trip earlier.

3) Shortly after college, my friend moved to Far North Dallas. I was still in Arlington. When he asked me to come over one day, I said no. I didn't want to have to fight traffic, as that area has the worst traffic in the region. I just didn't make that trip.

Now take these examples and multiply that across the millions of drivers in the area and the scope comes into play. We all have them. Feel free to list your own examples in the comments section.

Taking this behavior and applying it to congestion relief programs that rely almost exclusively on increased capacity illustrates the futile attempt of actual congestion relief. As I noted in this post a few weeks ago, when capacity is increased, the stop-and-go traffic level is raised to higher speeds. This in turn will add people immediately to the new road. People who took alternate routes will go back to this one. Folks who started the trip an hour later will take to the route and folks who elected to not make a trip will.

A planner friend who understands the point was playing devil's advocate one day and said "aren't those good things? If people switch from an old road, doesn't that reduce the congestion there? If people switch times, doesn't that reduce congestion before and after? If people are making the trip they weren't before, isn't that good for the local economy?" The short answer is yes.

However, when you look further it reveals short-term benefits at best. If congestion is reduced on the old route, it too is subject to induced traffic and will soon find others to take its place, most likely those that weren't making trips at all. Once long term effects of freeway building/expansion are added, that reduction in congestion times before and after rush hour will expand again. And the economical argument is flawed because people are going to spend their disposable income one way or another.

The long-term effects that absolutely negate any congestion relief are perhaps more damning than the short-term. Because the short-term is based on human behavior, it would be easily remedied. The long term effects are harder since the built environment directly effects that behavior and is a bit more permanent.

Consider the following timeline. Central Expressway in Dallas was built shortly after WWII, originally conceived as a direct route for the Park Cities suburbs to get to downtown. This let Highland Park and then University Park (now considered close-in neighborhoods) to build out. In the '60's and 70's North Dallas and Richardson grew out. LBJ freeway was built in the '70's. This allowed Plano to reach explosive growth in the '80's and '90's. During the '90's, Central was expanded from a two-three lanes to three-four lanes. In turn, Allen and McKinney saw explosive growth in the late '90's and '00's.

This example repeats itself all over the region and country. Heading west, the Dallas North Tollway expansions heralded the rise of Addison, Plano and Frisco. I-35E saw Lewisville, Denton and the Lake cities rise as it was built out. Irving needed Tx-183 and 114 before its neighborhoods grew. Arlington and Grand Prairie grew when I-30 and I-20 reached their areas. In any direction there are freeways and suburbs that grew out of them, with the freeways as the catalyst for that growth.

While growth in and of itself is not a bad thing, the issue from a congestion relief standpoint is that the growth took the form of auto-oriented developments. Downtown's across the country flourished in the streetcar era primarily because they had a land use and transportation system that matched. When shoppers needed something, they went downtown, to the smaller stores got what they needed, perhaps browsed and went home the same way. In most situations, neighborhood needs were within walking distance.

However, in today's time, numerous trips for small items are not convenient, which paved the way to the big box retailer. Few people enjoy getting in a car, stopping to get a home improvement item, get back in the car, stopping for a new pair of shoes, back in the car, stopping for medication at the pharmacy, drive the car away, getting dinner at a grocer, and stepping back into the car and going home (just typing that felt mundane). That's where the idea of one-stop shopping came into vogue. Now, in our car-based society, anything else seems odd.

The point is that congestion-relief, on the rare occasions it actually occurs, is temporary at best and non-existent at-worst. As long as the big-box retailers build massive parking lots next to the new freeways and cities encourage these in their zoning codes, more trips are a certainty. When that happens, we are back to square one, only with more lanes of clogged roadway.

Unless the transportation system is radically changed, which there seems to be no indication it will, congestion is never going to be relieved, and reduction is unlikely.

While I have hope that Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) will help, I don't believe they will solve the problem. They can be effective since they persuade human behavior. Congestion charges a la San Francisco are ITS examples. Tollroads, which aren't popular, are too. Even HOV lanes are further case studies. But my concern is that as long as the country's transportation system is so skewed towards auto travel, they will never be the magic bullet some propose. Here's hoping I'm wrong, but I see the only solution involves taking people out of their cars while simultaneously making other trips shorter. They only way that happens is through whole scale land use changes, which aren't likely to happen on a scale large enough as long as congestion relief is primarily attempted through capacity increases.