Saturday, June 30, 2012

The False Promise of Signal Timing

Oftentimes, opponents of transit will offer where they say transit money should be invested. These include things like capacity increases, new roads or highways and programs like intelligent transportation systems or other things like signal timing to reduce delays caused at stop lights. It is that last one that I want to dissect.

First, let me say what I think should be obvious in this scenario. If it were as easy as the pundits insist, it would have been done already. I have railed against the power traffic engineers have in planning our neighborhoods, communities and cities. This is a common tool they have. But there is a reason every street can't be timed.

In an urban area, the distance between intersections is very short. This is a big reason why traffic engineers love one-way streets in urban settings. It gives them a measure of control over traffic flow.

One-ways are also preferred for timing because cross streets that have traffic flow onto those streets can be controled by traffic lights. Turning from a one-way to a one-way is no different than a right on red. On two-way streets, a left turn has to cross a divergent traffic stream. This time spent waiting reduces traffic flow, which is a violation of traffic engineers thinking. That is also why there are turn lanes, but in urban areas, where real estate is scarce, that is not as easy to do.

There are other micellaneous factors as well. One of my favorites is a human behavior, and unable to be solved in a traffic engineers handbook of formulas. A common example, if a visitor is new to an area and completely unfamiliar with the surroundings, they will naturally drive slower. This conflicts with the commuter who drives in every weekday and is trying to get to the office as fast as they can. The commuter will change lanes to pass the slower driver and lane changing has proven to slow traffic. All this has a negative impact on timing because it isn't measurable.

I'll use Downtown Dallas as an example. I'll start with the Elm/Main/Commerce corridor. Elm and Commerce are opposite one-ways and Main is in the middle with a lane in each direction. We'll worry about the intersections with the north-south streets later.

Map of Downtown Dallas. I'll reference this and add crude Microsoft Paint edits. 

Starting with Elm, running west, it is easy to time them, it is one way. Taking the speed limit as the base, it is easy to measure distance and time and change the lights accordingly. It is easy to set how long the lights cycle through the green, yellow, red cycle. There are no conflicts at this point with other streets.

In a similar fashion, starting on the west side of Commerce and running east, the lights can be timed.

Both Elm and Commerce are now timed, and traffic flows freely.
No let's add a few cross streets. I'll use St. Paul and Ervay, since they are similar to Elm and Commerce. The timing here would begin at the point of intersection and work out. So at Ervay and Commerce, to Ervay and Elm, timing is measured, then using the same method described earlier, the rest of the lights are set down the street. This is repeated on St. Paul. The difficulty is low in getting each intersection timed

So far so good. All these lights are timed.
Now comes the impossible part. Main Street is two-way. If a timed direction is set at both ends of the street, running toward the other end, sooner or later the timings are going to meet. In part because the block dimensions are different, but also because we have two converging directions, Main can never be timed for both directions.

The two converging directions make timing signals virtually impossible on an urban two-way street.

Now to further hammer home the point, let's add a north-south, two-way street to the mix. The problem here is amplified from the previous example. Now we have an intersection that isn't just a one-way to a one-way, but we have a full four directions. If we had a hard time timing one street with two directions, how can another work? Which direction takes priority?

Here's the problem intersection, with no ability to time every intersection on both streets.

Lastly, let's add up just the six streets we looked at. The four one-way streets were well-timed, but the two two-ways were not. What happens though, when we add those two two-ways to the already timed intersections?

Just these six streets, without counting the others in Downtown, have no hope of being timed.

If all the other streets are taken into account, with their varying directions, different dimensions and different access points, there will never be any true timed streets. The best we can get is what we have now, some that are, others that aren't.

The last point I want to leave you with is this, if greater and faster traffic is bad for the urban environment, as I have discussed in numerous posts on this blog, why do we want to increase capacity and speeds on urban streets. Shouldn't the idea be to slow down traffic, thereby making pedestrians feel safer and therefore more likely to have a vibrant urban core?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dallas Freeway Division, a Pictorial Tour

Prior to the posts at the beginning of the month, I just assumed (you know what that means) that it was readily accepted that freeways were a divider. Certainly, even among the highway supporters, planners know this. And if you surround yourself with similar viewpoints, there is just no way of seeing the other side.

I was taken aback when Michael Lindenberger, the DMN transportation writer wrote the following on his blog page about my Trinity Parkway post:

2.  ”There are no counterpoints, no rebuttals, no yeah buts, freeways divide the urban landscape. There is a clear delineation between Downtown and Deep Ellum, Downtown and Uptown, Downtown and The Cedars, Downtown and the Industrial/Riverfront Blvd area. Even Knox-Henderson, a singularly defined neighborhood, is clearly divided between east (Henderson St) and west (Knox St).”

The toll road, he says will divide Dallas over again.

That’s a hard one to swallow if you ask me. I mean, the north and south fo the city are divided alright — but it’s the river and the vast, vacant floodway that does the dividing, not a new six-lane highway within that natural barrier.

Of course, the if his point is that the road will divide downtown from the recreational areas planned for the floodway, or from the river itself, he may be on firmer ground. (Turns out, that’s exactly the point he is making, as he makes clear in a more recent post. You can read it here to decide whether you buy it.)

Now he doesn't come right out and say I don't think that freeways divide Downtown from the rest of the urban core, but there is enough gray area in there that I decided to go out with my camera and snap photos of various angles and viewpoints to illuststrate why and how freeways divide urban areas.

The first batch of pictures are taken with an eye towards the macro-view. In the sky deck of Chase Tower, one can see until the horizons ends. It is a great way to see the freeways effects from the bird's eye view.
This bit of Central Expressway connects US-75 with I-45.
The wide swath of land needed for this freeway has negative effects on Deep Ellum on the left and Downtown on the right. This extended bit of land is not a pedestrian-friendly walk. Also notice how the much of the land directly next to the freeway is for parking, another attack on the comfort level of the pedestrian.
Woodall Rogers east of Pearl and north of the Arts District.
Once again, the freeway makes a clear delineation between both sides of its border. On the left is the Winspear Opera House. On the Woodall Rogers side of that building is a wall and loading dock. Next to the Winspear is the Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing Arts, where on Woodall Rogers side is another parking lot. Across the street from the school is a full block-sized parking lot, though it is in the development plan to be a tower I don't know the design or setbacks, but don't suspect it to open up to the freeway). On the Uptown side, it is more of the same.

Woodall Rogers and the new deck park.
I like this picture because it shows that at some level, someone in the City gets it. Why build such an expensive park, unless their is some extreme positive, or in this case, a positive to mitigate an negative?

I added this one to show the upclose view from above. It is hard to determine from a cursory glance that a freeway is under here. None of the other pictures can make that claim, because that is the first thing that is noticed when viewing them. Finding the freeway has been easy until this past one.

Knowing what I know, I could tell from the picture (the circular exit ramp at the lower right, the drive-through bank adjacent to the park in the middle toward the top, the blank wall of the Nasher Sculpture Center near the lower left and the garage entrance and surface devoted to the car at the DMA) that at the bare minimum, this spine was an auto-throughway of some kind. Design issues aside, this area doesn't "look" like something runs through it. Panning out a bit will reveal the end of the park and the resumption of the freeway, but at this point above, there are fewer negative spillovers.

At the pedestrian level, it is much worse. In some ways, having an identifier is human nature. One of the first places people look at in regional maps is Downtown, since it is the bullseye of the hub and spoke system or DFW airport, since it is so massive. How it is used from a personal perspective is much more important, though, while also much less identifiable. In some ways, this gets to one of my main critiques about Downtown Dallas. Is great from a distance, but once inside, there is a lot that is lacking, just a bunch of pieces shouting for attention without working with the other parts.

Under Central Expressway, just south of Elm Street looking north.
Were it not for Univision Center on the right or the Hart Furniture Building on the left, there would nothing even close to resembling an urban area from this viewpoint. All the columns, streets, overhead noise, etc. are pedestrian suppressors. Add the fact that this is only a pass through, since nothing here would actually generate any pedestrian activity, and it is no wonder pedestrians are a rare sight here.

Elm and Olive looking east.
A garage on the right, parking lots on the left and a freeway straight ahead. What is there to walk to? There are a smattering of one-two story buildings just past the garage, but nothing to compensate for the huge hole of nothing that the freeway, parking lots and garage generate. Therefore, pedestrians are not as common as they should be if this were a vibrant urban area.

Main Street just before Ceasar Chavez, looking east.
On this part of Main Street, the urban environment is a bit better than the previous picture. There are no huge swaths of open parking, the built environment goes to within a block of the freeway on both the Downtown and Deep Ellum sides and there is a good bit of on-street parking. So why is the area still devoid of human life? There is no critical mass of urban amenities like you will find further in (picture coming) on Main St. Instead, the freeway generates no pedestrian activity and the remaining sides don't have enough activity to overcome that difficiency.

Main Street just west of Central Expressway looking east.
If this picture doesn't make your feel uncomfortable, then you have nerves of steel. Both sides of Main Street have a freeway ramp, as opposed to one for both Elm and Commerce and none for Canton. I don't think I have to spend a lot of time on this topic because I don't think crossing freeway ramps is on any list of recreational activities.

Commerce and Ceasar Chavez looking east.
 Once again, there is development within a block of the freeway. But no people.

Also, have you noticed that in the last four pictures, it is hard to see the other side. That is crucial to a pedestrian experience. To the user, it is clear the end of the urban area is the freeway. To a user, it is clear that there are no people, signifying a do not enter sign to the brain.

Canton St looking east.
This one is more of the same. However, upon closer inspection, these buildings are built fairly close to the freeway. But, they aren't positive for the urban area, because...

Looking at the edge of the Camden Farmers Market, Canton and Good-Latimer looking west.

Camden Farmers Market, Canton and Good-Latimer looking southwest.
These pictures illustrate the back nature of designing by a freeway. Only one building looks inviting toward the street and from this corner. The rest are a blank walls, fences, garages or sparsely populated windows on the walls. Unless it is by car, very few would willingly approach this property from this vantage.

There was an attempt of some kind to mitigate some negatives of the freeway. A dog park was put under part of Central Expressway, hoping to help link Deep Ellum and Downtown.

Bark Park, under Central Expressway between Commerce and Canton.
If I take this one from the point of it is better than what was there and accept that this area will never be anything but a freeway, I like what was done. If I change that approach and say an urban area should be _____, then this area definately underwhelms.

Because the rest of the urban area still reflects being next to the freeway, this park is an island. The Camden apartments are right across, but as the pictures reflect, they don't open up to this area. Directly adjacent are streets on three sides and the back wall of a produce company.

Bark Park's west side.
Nothing says inviting like metal siding.

This park doesn't really link to its surroundings. Unlike what should happen in an urban area, this park and surrounding land uses feel like independent bits of their parts of the city, ignoring the other adjacent parts. This is directly attributable to the negative impacts of the freeway. Main and Market Streets are the exact opposite.

While this park is used, it is one of the lower attended dog parks in the City's park system. There are still negative aspects that freeways produce, noise, pollution and uneasiness the primary ones, that don't help boost use. The other sad fact is despite being in the middle of the Deep Ellum and Downtown border, very, very few actually walk here. Because the surrounding area is built more for the car, most drive, even those that live in the Camden property next door.

 Now take the pictures from above, showcasing the fragmented urban areas that the freeways spawned and compare them to the Main Street or Market Street corridors.

Main and St. Paul, looking west.
There is no obvious end to the Main Street District while inside it. In this picture, it seems to go on for a bit, while the end of the view corridor is bookended nicely by the Crowley/Sterrit complex at the far west side. For the first time in these pictures, we can actually see pedestrians. Here, unlike near the freeway, there is actually a reason for them to be here.

Market and Elm, looking north.
 Market Street shares many of the same pedestrian amenities as Main, which is also why they are the most walkable streets in downtown.

Now unlike the park scenario, there really is no building on either of these streets (at least the vibrant parts) that command attention. Each function well with the other, showcasing how the sun of the parts are really greater than the whole.

Now, I don't want this to sound like freeways are the only bad urban divider.

Dealey Plaza, looking west.
Here, the old rail bridge, which is currently used by DART trains, the Trinity Railway Express and Union Pacific freight trains, is clearly a divider between Downtown and the Riverfront area. I-35 is also in view in the picture, further dividing the areas. Dealey Plaza, thanks to a presidential assination, is the most visited spot in Dallas, but no spillover goes to Riverfront. The rail bridge and freeway see to that.

Ironically, it is fact that makes one of the negative aspects for the Trinity Parkway, dividing Downtown from the Trinity Park, a moot point. It is already divided. Anyone originating from Downtown going to the park is almost guaranteed to drive. Some may take transit in the form of a bus or future streetcar, but walking is all but guaranteed to be non-existent.

However, unlike freeways, other infrastructure investments, if designed right, don't have to be dividers.

West End Station at Market and Pacific, looking east.
I took this picture of West End Station because it is the most used station in the DART system. Roughly 20,000 trips are generated to and from this point. Yet, as the picture shows, both sides of the station work in concert with each other. The new residential building on the left opens up directly to the street and rail station, as well as Lamar and Ross Streets. On the right is a historic warehouse waiting to be renovated. But, unlike the transportation investments made toward freeways, this area is far from adversely affected. Instead of looking inward and putting their backs to the street, this area is the reverse.
I could have easily taken a picture of the streetcar line in Uptown and said the same thing. It helps unify both sides, which freeways by themselves can never do.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why the False Link between Stadiums and Economic Development Has Staying Power

My hide is chapped. Long time readers will know why if they happened to see the front page headline on Tuesday's Dallas Morning News. Above the fold, the paper read:

Pinch-hitting for weak economy,
Rangers score for city, merchants

I bristled, then became introspective. My stance on this site is well known (and known and known). Is there a something new that I have missed. Have those who researched the topic over the vast many years missed something that Staff Writer Jeff Mosier has found out? Surely with such a dominant headline, there must be some hard hitting numbers and examinations of spending and tax data that really hits that idea (ahem) out of the park.

Turns out, no...not really.

Here's a sample of the lack of any actual data, complete with correlation being confused for causation.

Though it is difficult to quantify (emphasis mine), baseball is giving some businesses and Arlington's economy a noticeable boost.

This was the second paragraph. Turns out, there would be very little quantification, and what was there surely didn't even have a waffling positive response that Arlington is benefiting from the Rangers.

Arlington officials said they have not looked closely at the economic impact of the team this year. Sales tax payments lag, so numbers for April and May won't be available until this summer.

Some facts would have been nice for such a prominently displayed article. Funnily enough, this was the closest Mosier's article would come to an actual fact.

Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck said that no comprehensive studies are planned but that the city finance staff has estimated the economic impact of Ranger's games this year at $1 million each. He said that the city is on pace to break $50 million in total sales tax revenue for the first time, with the help of the Rangers.

Yes, of course no studies are ordered, they never are after the fact. Why study something that exists and doesn't need to be debunked. It is easier to turn a blind eye to these things and trumpet the perceived good news.

As for the math, at 81 homes games, the economic sales tax generated for Arlington, using Cluck's numbers, would be $6.7 million this year or 13% of the city's total, more if there is playoff games.

But, leading words like "for the first time," suggest that this is ground breaking. Prior to the football stadium's construction, Arlington was near the mid-$40 million collection range. Then the economy crashed. Now that the economy is rebounding locally, complete with unusual inflation during a recession, is it really that big of a surprise?

The rebounding sales tax numbers of an economy on the mend will be a common thread throughout the rest, illustrating why assuming an effect from correlation is a bad idea.

Even without a comprehensive study, Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau officials can see the Rangers' effect on hotel bookings. Figures collected by the hotel research firm  STR Global found that the number of room nights sold  in Arlington in the first three months of the year was up 5 percent from the same period in 2011. The number of room nights increased 11 percent for April, when the Rangers season started.

Burress said said room rates also increase at the beginning of baseball season, which added to the economic impact.

So room nights are increasing in Arlington huh? Did Mosier check to see if Arlington is the anomaly or is it happening elsewhere? The answer is yes, Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, Denton, etc. are all seeing increases in room occupancy. The economy is better, therefore hotels will do better. Notice it didn't say STR Global attributes this increase to the Rangers attendees.

As for the April spike, that also happens to coincide with the beginnings of summer travel season. In Arlington, it happens every year. Senior trips happen in which Arlington is the destination (of which the Rangers are an attraction to be sure, but not the only), graduations (UTA students walk at the beginning of May, as does the four high schools within the municipal limits), Memorial Day, etc. all happen around this time.

Where Mosier could have made his point is that they are up 11 percent when the Rangers play at home. When they are on the road, it is only 3 percent. That would be the beginnings of a causation. As it stands, there is no comparison, no depth, no factual numbers to back any claim up.

Later in the article, he cites James Shandor, the GM of the Arlington Hilton, who spoke about two guests, one from Seattle, one from Iowa. They were in town for business and then went to a Rangers game. Shandor said the guests couldn't wait to go to another Rangers game.

In the end, that means nothing. They weren't in town for the Rangers, so that is useless in proving the stadium as a positive. Then, how many times has any person on the planet said they would do something and then didn't? I said I would have the laundry folded by now, but it still sits in the dryer. Did they mean return to Arlington just to see a game later this year? Go to another tomorrow while they are still in town? Next year when they return for the same business trip? Ultimately is is anecdotal, and therefore useless. Setting public policy on hearsay is a bad idea.

Terry Clower, director of the Center of Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas, said regular-season Rangers games probably wouldn't have a large effect on the regional economy. Much of the spending, he said, is from people in the Dallas area.

Clower said previous research even questioned the impact on Arlington. One of his graduate students conducted research about a dozen years ago and concluded that the Rangers made little difference in the city's sales tax revenue.

In the second to last column, he fianlly gets to the heart of the matter. Disposable income will be spent. The Rangers aren't generating new revenue, just redistributing it. It may work out for Arlington, if Dallas people, who would have spent it in their area, instead spend money there.

However, what is ignored is what is tax-exempt, which is virtually everything directly related to the stadium. Did you buy a hot dog? Arlington sees $0.00 in tax revenue (neither does the state for that matter). It is tax-exempt. Same thing with alcohol, ticket sales, stadium- or owner-owned parking lots, gift shops, etc. With stadiums, the vast majority of attendees are get in, get out. There is little ancillary spending. Why does the area get so jammed immediately before and after the event? Because that is all people are going to go do or see. Ultimately, the region actually loses out, since they get less revenue as awhole then they would have otherwise.

In the next paragraph, though, Mosier had to add this caveat.

Clower said he's not sure if that's true any longer.

"That was a different team and different attendance numbers," he said.

 So Mosier rebutted a researched fact with conjecture. BTW, the attendance number the Rangers are breaking these past couple of seasons were set about a dozen years ago. They are breaking, not shattering them. So therefore I am skeptical there is much difference, especially when inflation is factored in, unless you are the owner of the team.

Pam Dawson, mall manager of Lincoln Square, the closest large shopping center to Rangers Ballpark, said this year is unlike any she has seen. Ridership on the center's shuttle buses to Rangers games has approximately doubled from last year, when the team set an attendance record. The buses this year have averaged 500 to 600 fans, peaking at nearly 800.

"People are coming earlier, and they are in a good mood and happy to spend money," Dawson said.

She said she spent 2 1/2 hours in a meeting with the Rangers and city officials last month to discuss how to get fans to the ballpark faster.

Dawson, who called the Rangers "America's Team," said that as demand continues to increase, she is considering requiring fans to make a purchase at one of the stores to be eligible to park there for baseball games.

So what does this ultimately mean? Nothing. Is anyone surprised that people are taking advantage of free parking and a free shuttle bus? She said they are in a mood to spend money, but then why require a store purchase to park there? Shouldn't they already be doing that if they are in a good mood to spend? Once again, anecdotal evidence means virtually nothing.

In fact, overall, there was nothing with hard facts. The $50 million and $1 million number that Cluck threw out were estimates. No quotes from a business owner or hotel operator that said our numbers are X when the team is in town and Y when it isn't. No breakdown of what the economic dollars are being spent toward followed with a comparison of previous years. Just some lazy estimates, anecdotal quotes and hometown cheerleading. He also ignores that if there is increases, could there be another cause. If north Arlington is up in sales tax revenue and south Arlington is flat, then certainly a case could be made, but we don't see any of that.

This is part of why the public perception exists that these are good deals for the public. I took a critical eye, but if someone who wasn't versed in the subject looked at it, saw all these claims, they would conclude it has to be a great thing. However, looking at each individual claim in depth reveals they are worth near nothing. 0+0+.5+0+.5+0+0 is so low to be worthless.

As has been concluded over and over again, the only true beneficiary is the team and/or owner. The most expensive bars are in Uptown. The Rangers sell their beer for more. However, unlike in Uptown, the Rangers keep all the money, since none of it is taxable.

The other benefit they receive, and often overlooked, is the power of government, primarily in eminent domain. They save a ton, and sometimes more than the actual monetary contribution from the city to build their stadium, by having this power, claiming it is for the public good.

I can't help but think this was a story that was written when it was assigned. Only the quotes needed to be gathered and the words typed. Everything that was introduced as fact has existed as a reason before and is still as flimsy as ever. And like arguments and stories before this one, the only thing that was missing were actual numbers, facts and reasons.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Teardown as a Freeway Mitigation

A week ago, I posted a brief tour of various cities negative freeway effects. Some of those cities have instituted a few mitigation programs to minimize or eliminate their effects. Freeway demolition is a tool that is sparingly used, but as freeways approach the end of their usable lifespan, it is receiving a lot more attention.

A construction disaster collapsed the West Side Highway in New York. By policy, Portland lost Harbor Drive and Milwaukee demoed the Park East Freeway. An earthquake helped remove the Embarcadero Freeway. New Orleans is considering demoing the Claiborne Expressway (I-10) and back in New York, the Sheridan Expressway (I-895) is facing an uncertain future about its existence.

The one common thread through these examples is the relatively short freeway lengths. These were small spurs through the urban environment. However, another city may become the greatest freeway removal example to those promoting the urban benefits.

In the fourth example I gave in the case study post above, Baltimore's I-83, the Jones Falls Expressway, as a perfect example of an urban divider, separating the city from its parks. Well, turns out there is a movement afoot to remove it.

There are two options mentioned. The first was the typical stub. Less that a mile of the roughly 10-mile long freeway would meet the wrecking ball. For the map-inclined folks like myself, that is from Fayetteville St to Chase St in Downtown Baltimore.

Since it isn't Dallas related, I likely wouldn't have posted this if it was just that portion, especially since this proposal (I even think it is too early to call it a proposal) is still in the infant stage. What I want to post is that for the first time, an entire freeway is being talked about for removal.

In a sixty-page PowerPoint entitled "Fallsway: A New Downtown Neighborhood for Baltimore, MD," Edison shows the taking down of the JFX as key to redeveloping an area that would reach east to the blighted Old Town neighborhood (and beyond that to Hopkins Hospital) and west to Mount Vernon and the Downtown business district.

Johns Hopkins Health Care Center is at the complete opposite end of the 10-mile highway. That is huge!

The before shot. Note the clear deliniation of either side of the highway. There isn't a much clearer example of a freeway dividing the urban landscape. Add the fact that it is elevated and the pedestrian sure feels the division.

There is a directly parallel light rail line (MTA's Blue Line) six miles from Downtown. It is less than a mile away for the rest of the route. The only area this rail line doesn't serve that the freeway does is the hospital, but a bus route does (poor frequency would have to be addressed) and connects to both the Blue Line and the Heavy Rail Line that is color coded green. This would help transit use soar in this area.

The after. While there is still a clear visual seperation, the addition of parks and a taming of the street, not to mention the addition of urban buildings, will make the area near-seamless to the urban user.
Downtown's built environment would be helped out by either proposal, but just the idea of tackling a freeway removal in an outer area is virgin territory. It is just in the beginning of preliminary talks, but if this were to happen, the momentum of freeway removal will be huge.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Opponent vs Enemy: We Can all Get Along

In the previous post, I listed who I thought was responsible for pushing for the Trinity Parkway. I was given some advice that the debate is much better based on fact, rather than the conjecture of creating a Citizens Council vs. everybody topic.

To be clear, I am not about making this an us vs. them or me vs. you. Since planning was first established, a critique has always been that it is a top down, here's what is good for you approach. I firmly believe that best way to create change is to understand the people, neighborhood, community, whatever, that planners are dealing with for their specific project. In this case, understand why some folks are pushing for a project I oppose.

Why do I advocate that? It leads to understanding. I don't think the Citizens Council is a bad group because they support this project that I don't. They are responsible for a lot of what has made Dallas what it is today. For me, that is not always a good thing in the urban vs. suburban setting. My perspective is different than many of theirs, no more or less.

I also believe that is missing in our everyday discourse. We can be on opposite sides of an issue, but at the end of the day be friends. My best friend has some radically different points of view on some issues and we have discussed it repeatedly in the past. He is a libertarian and I am a left of center thinker. In the end, we are still each others best friend.

I want Dallas to be as urban as possible in the center city. From that very perspective, I am against the business community behind the road, who is approaching it from a different angle. Overall, I am neither right or wrong and the same applies to them.

Now certainly there are some things that don't fall neatly into sides. If you are pro-road, but anti-big government projects, then it isn't a clear black or white. How do you balance you desire for more auto-options against very expensive public works?

I often take the City of Dallas to task, because they say one thing, but do another. If you want to encourage a vibrant Downtown, you need to do things that aren't anti-urban, like build freeways and do mor urban-friendly things, like work on transit and biking options. I'd be far less critical if they would say we want Downtown to be more like an office park. Like the urban promotion, they are doing some things that will accomplish the goal, and some that aren't. Of course, in a city the size of Dallas, that really should be no surprise.
If anything, that's what I want this blog do, invoke the critical thinking that urban issues so often don't see. I want some folks of the status quo to see another side. Let me quote something I wrote in my first post.

Disagreements are encouraged, but personal attacks are not. Editorially speaking, I feel this country has taken a step backwards because anyone who disagrees with me must be an idiot (generically speaking). I am of the opinion that any attempts to be made at societal betterment has to come from an understanding of the other side, but more importantly, a middle ground is available and attainable.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Continuing the Debate on the Trinity Parkway

Imagine my surprise when I checked the stats this morning and found the Transportation Blog was a referring site to my post. After clicking on it, the Transportation Writer for the Dallas Morning News, Michael Lindenberger, checked the anti-tollroad Facebook Group and saw a link to my post. In it, he looked at the six points I made in the first Trinity Parkway post and made counterpoints of his own.

At the beginning, he notes that the Kill the Trinity group only has 400 members, indicating a lack of support for or against.

The road has been in the news a lot lately, and with some significant doubts raised by Hunt and two of her colleagues. But that hasn’t done much to mobilize the troops. Over on Facebook’s Kill the Trinity Toll Road, just 404 members had ‘liked’ the page. That’s not many.

Maybe most voters have accepted the road, or just feel like it will never be built no matter what anyone says — not an entirely unreasonable response given the years in regulatory roadblocks. Or maybe the opponents just don’t think Facebook is the best forum to express their views.

I would caution against using Facebook as a metric for gaging support. I purposely do not have a Facebook page, as does another 20% of my age range. Also, some people don't use Facebook for anything other than social uses. For some, voting in 2007 was a civic duty and made an opinion on what was presented, and joining a Facebrook Group about the Parkway isn't on the radar. There might be many more reasons, but whichever it is, I just don't think Facebook makes for an accurate polling sample.

On my first point about building a high-speed road in a park, Lindenberger says there isn't a problem because parks are just one aspect of the plan.

I think the answer the city would give, incidentally, is that building the park is just one part of the plan for making use of the massively underutilized acreage that makes up the Trinity River floodway. Indeed, NTTA cites an argument — and I think you’d forgiven if the adjective cynical appeared in your mind about now — that because the road was part of the plan for the use of the land for as long as the parks were part of the plan, it’s not possible to say that the road interferes with the parks. Indeed, since the park doesn’t exist, how can the toll road be charged with interfering with a plan that is no more realized than the plan for the road itself.

Thankfully, he attributes this to the city and not himself, because I think this answer misses the forest for the trees. This answer is almost like this is how we've always done it, so there is nothing wrong. My point is that as far as parks go, it should be an either/or deal. Parks and high speed roads are not complimentary.

Also missing was that this road has morphed from a park access road with speed limits under 45 and no freeway design. It would have been similar to any street. However, over time it turned into what we know. I did extensive research and this is an old idea. The idea of turning the Trinity Floodway into a high-speed roadway has been around since the 1960's. This just reeks of bait-and-switch.

Freeway revolts were really a major concern not just locally, but across the country. A popular tactic was to include parks in the project, whether to win a vote or to gain community support, because it was widely believed the public would get behind these proposals for the parks. Largely, it worked. To me, this seems exactly the same tactic, only with the road being sold as something else to voters.

Lindenberger then takes me to task (partially) on the freeway dividing the urban areas point.

That’s a hard one to swallow if you ask me. I mean, the north and south fo the city are divided alright — but it’s the river and the vast, vacant floodway that does the dividing, not a new six-lane highway within that natural barrier.

Of course, the if his point is that the road will divide downtown from the recreational areas planned for the floodway, or from the river itself, he may be on firmer ground. (Turns out, that’s exactly the point he is making, as he makes clear in a more recent post. You can read it here to decide whether you buy it.)

This is the hardest of his points for me to understand. Walk along Main from Downtown to Deep Ellum and tell me that section between the two urban areas isn't divided, isn't clearly delineated and, sadly, isolated from each other. What urban features are here between the two? No office, no residential, no retail, no restaurant, no park, etc. On top of that, high-speed freeway entrance/exit ramps aren't exactly pedestrian amenities, and neither is the high-speed-designed streets linking the two.

Even moving to a place like Akard and Woodall Rogers, which has no direct entrance/exit ramps, the lack of a continuous urban environment makes either side of the freeway an edge of both their respective urban areas. Indeed, both of their edges require several blocks before the urban area picks up activity. Now, shift the focus to Main and Akard. That area, the center of downtown, draws activity in all directions. The mix of uses encourages activity at all hours of the day. Areas near freeways can not say the same.

Now make that comparison to any street intersection with a freeway. Why is there no activity at any of them? Even Dealey Plaza, with its tourist attractions allowing all-hours activity, there is zero spillover to the other side.

Yes, as he says, the river is a divider, as is any river. But, go to established cities without freeways ruining the waterfront, and see that city activity can go right to the edge. It is a contributing asset to the local neighborhood, much like the other mixed uses mentioned two paragraphs ago. Freeways not only do not encourage pedestrian activity, they suppress it.

I made the point above to also illustrate the point that it will divide downtown from the park. If he agrees with me on the second paragraph, then there has to be at least some recognition that freeways are dividers. What is the difference between Downtown being divided from the park and Downtown being divided from Deep Ellum?

Unsurprisingly, the idea of congestion is harder to digest.

Here’s one I’m hoping to hear some feedback on. He writes that a new road won’t ease congestion in downtown. His point, interestingly, isn’t that the road, as designed, won’t reach the right people and therefore offer only limited relief — an argument others have made, including Hunt, and council members Sandy Greyson and Scott Griggs.

His point is bolder. He writes, “There has not been a single case anywhere in the world where new roadways solved congestion.”

That’s a subtle enough rhetorical switch that I almost missed it, but his prediction that it won’t “solve” congestion is probably inarguable. But will it ease it? Wil it make it better, and if so by how much and for how long?

Those the questions that need to be asked, and answered. Then we can turn to asking whether those benefits are worth the costs.

I take this stance because it is true, not because it is politically palpable. Hunt, Griggs and Greyson have to say the road is a bad route because in this part of the country, saying freeways are bad is not a popular way to win majority support (I don't want to put words in their mouth, a couple of them may truly believe that only the routing is wrong). Instead, more people can relate to the argument that design is bad, but freeways themselves are useful. And they are. It is just that we have designed them wrong and put them in the wrong place.

Interstate highways were originally planned only to go to the cities edge, leaving the cities themselves intact. Whether this was for cost considerations or actual urban concern, I don't know. However, the cities themselves wanted the freeways. Some, like some that I profiled, have seen their mistakes after the fact.

But back to my point. How will six lanes have any meaningful impact, not only in congestion relief, but in the smaller idea of congestion reduction? Of course, without an understanding of Induced Traffic, it is easy to make the case that traffic is based on a linear supply-and demand relationship, rather than one based on a more complex idea of human behavior.

The thought on the surface is this: adding the Trinity Parkway will increase capacity in downtown by six percent. But much of that capacity will be absorbed right away, just by the addition alone. Some of that will be blunted by being a tolled facility, but as long as the region primarily isn't, the Induced Traffic Principle will apply.

My offer still stands. If anyone can find one example of a freeway construction/expansion that provided long-term traffic relief, I will rescind the point and never oppose the Parkway again. However, I know that won't be the case , so the point is moot.

The flood control point is agreeable to both sides. Lindenberger also added that the Corps and NTTA agree with me.

Environmental was glossed over, but that is hard to argue too. Autos pollute. There is a river there. The Trinity will get polluted.

He does take me to task on the cost, and wins, but only because I was sloppy.

Truth is, we published the cost estimate of $1.29 billion as far back as 2007, including in the page one piece I wrote about the outcome of the election. And the current estimate isn’t a range between $1.4 billion and $1.8 billion. The estimate is $1.4 billion in today’s dollars, but $1.8 billion if you allow for inflation between now and when the construction would begin, sometime in 2016 at the earliest.

Also, the 28-mile Green Line cost $1.8 billion, not $700 million. (And incidentally, it carries on an average about 10,000 people back and forth to work, or wherever, each weekday.)

But these quibbles aside, I don’t think any one will argue with his prediction that the real cost would be $2 billion or more by the time the project gets underway — despite the fact project after project has come in under estimate in recent years as the economic slowdown has made competition for big projects especially fierce.

In my defense, (EXCUSE ALERT) I originally published the post in title form without a body, it wasn't typed yet. I did this late at night. Post like this can take a few hours to write, fact check, proofread and polish. Since I made that blunder, I couldn't do what I usually do and finish it up the next day after time runs out (right now, it is getting late and I will only type a few more sentences, then resume tomorrow). So, the numbers I quoted were from memory, some right, some wrong, and some not in the right context.

Here's what I wrote.

When first proposed in the ’90′s, the price tag was less than $400 million. When it was redesigned into a limited-access freeway, it was less than $700 million. During the Trinity Vote Campaign, it had just eclipsed $1 billion. As it stands right now, the conservative estimate is $1.4 billion and the maximum range is $1.8 billion.

Taking my Trinity Project folder off the shelf, here's what my notes say.

1998 - $398 million (

2005 - Total transportation component of project, $908 million (D Magazine Special Report, 2005). This was one of the problems the Trinity Vote Campaign raised. The cost of the road was never truly known, at least publicly. How much of the transportation project was for the Calatrava Bridges, Industrial Blvd (now Riverfront), miscellaneous street improvements and the tollroad? Also frustrating for some folks was the allocation of the costs. Phase 1 was to include flood protection (13.93% of the total budget), environmental restoration (4.74%), parks (7.22%) and community development (.09%), the transportation component took the most, by far (74.03%). Getting an itemized breakdown was near impossible. If the Trinity Vote Campaign accomplished anything, it was the unburying of the tollroad's cost.

2007 - According to a handout by Michael Morris, Transportation Director at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, at an October 29, 2007 Town Hall Meeting at Park in the Woods Recreation Center, the Parkway was on the ledger for $937.6 million.

Using the numbers Lindenberger provided (1.29 billion), in the span from one of the last community meetings listed above until shortly after the election, the cost had already risen by $300 million. If we account for inflation, the 1998 total would be $561.8 million. Yes some projects have gone down during the recession, but this one is still nowhere near close, so saying that it could go under in unlikely. Also given the fact that a high-speed roadway in a floodway has never been done, I just have my suspicions that under-budget won't be an adjective if this project were to ever get off the ground.

As for the Green Line, he is correct on the total costs. I recalled the amount the Federal Government pledged, $700 million. Using a cost per mile, the Green Line comes out to a little over $60 million a mile. The Parkway is still, using current estimates, $222 million a mile. I have no doubt that will not stay that low.
The last point he made, and the last I want to touch on is quite a bit more esoteric. Who is pushing for the road? When the Stemmons family donated the land that the current Trinity River runs when the levees were built and the channel moved and straightened, one condition was to make the channel usable for transportation. At the time, it was intended for barge shipping down to Houston. Stemmons built up the entire Industrial corridor and helped with the freeway through the area, known as...Stemmons Freeway. They are still the major property owner in that area.

As a member of the influential Citizens Council, who is a main player in campaigning for the road, Stemmons certainly has play and push. Now there is no smoking gun, but why does the Citizens Council keep itself at the forefront as the primary proponent of this particular aspect of the project?

It also doesn't help that Lindenberger's paper is owned by a family who are members of the Citizens Council. I generally believe that the editorial board is independent of the owners whims. But, all this seems too coincidental for many folks opposed to the road. Especially when many of the things the editorial board pushed as fact and reasons of support of the tollroad have proven to be false. This is no longer a reliever road for Project Pegasus, the Corps has not endorsed or approved the road and funding for the entire project is not dependent upon the tollway. But, unlike their stance on the death penalty, they haven't changed their stance.

Now, certainly all of this is conjecture, but it sure is easy to start connecting those dots.

We both agree that contractors play a role, but he wonders about the property owners.

That doesn’t gel with me, and never has — partly for the same reasons that the blogger makes above. Who is going to make money off a toll road that glides through an otherwise deserted floodway? Sure there will be some exits over on the other side of the river and all, but is the prospect of limited property schemes at a handful of exists really enough to drive this train?

Lindenberger himself may have gotten past the '50's thinking, I just don't someone who made a fortune in that era has. Developers, particularly suburban-style one that Stemmons is known for, still view the freeway exit ramp, not the road itself, as the ticket for increased property values. Also when viewed with the mistaken belief that I-35 will be more free flowing, it is entirely plausible to see why they are for it.

In another irony about this road, research is emerging challenging the belief that congestion is bad the the local economy.

What I said at the beginning of the last post still stands. There is nothing positive about this road, at least for the urban core. And I think it is that point that causes the problem and debate. Dallas is not an urban city and certainly the region is far from being one. Where you stand depends on where you sit. If one isn't concerned with making Dallas a better urban area, then the road has far fewer flaws. If North Park is their idea of a great public space, then of course the freeway makes sense. If transit, walking and cycling are foreign transportation concepts, then is it a surprise that this road is favored.

The only urban area that radically supported the tollroad in 2007 was Uptown. Parts of Oak Cliff did too, but it was much closer. Every other urban area voted it down. But, since the suburban areas within the principle city far outnumber the urban ones, it came down to them. And it was still 54% to 46%. As Dallas urbanizes, as more of the facts come out against the pro-road side and as North Dallas delves further into tea party ideals (I wonder what they would say to a government project that has ballooned in cost), I think the outcome would be much different today.

Monday, June 4, 2012

American Cities and the Waterfront Division

In response to Steve's comment in the post below this one, I want to illustrate the severing of the urban area by freeways from several other cities in our country, some who have taken steps to mitigate the problem, some who are considering ideas and others who are doing nothing.

First up is Boston, a city with perhaps the most famous and expensive mitigation project, the Big Dig. I-93 divided Downtown Boston and the Waterfront, displacing thousands of residents in the process. The Big Dig put the freeway in a tunnel, which united the two areas again. Property values have gained as a result.

This image taken during the Big Dig's construction shows how divided the city is from the waterfront.
Note that the I-93 portion through Downtown is not the only area where the freeway lays directly next to the waterfront.
New York's Robert Moses was the pioneer of not only freeway building, but placement by waterways and parks. Every single borough in the city has at least some portion of its waterfront and parkways lined with a freeway. Moses also planned a freeway to run across Midtown and the SoHo neighborhoods. One shudders to think of the devastation that these freeways would have brought to these vibrant areas.

All five boroughs in New York are divided from the waterfront.
The West Side Elevated Highway collapsed on Manhattan's West Side in the '70's. The City decided against rebuilding, reverting the corridor back to a surface street from Lower Manhattan to Midtown.

Philadelphia is another perfect example of this era of planning. I-76, I-95 and I-676 were all built next to the rivers of the area. As far as I know, there hasn't been any progress in removing or mitigating these freeways.

Staying on the East Coast, Baltimore and Washington D.C. followed the same example. Baltimore saw I-95, I-695 and I-895 built next to waterways. In addition, I-83 is the border for three major parks, severing the surrounding built environment from a potential asset.

Washington D.C. avoided the severing within its boundaries, but the region sure didn't. I-295, Anacostia Freeway and George Washington Memorial Parkway all border rivers. Also, many of the freeways border parklands, further dividing and isolating the area.

In Chicago, Lake Shore Drive divided downtown from Lake Michigan, I-94, I-90 and I-55 border the Chicago River and I-294 border a local waterway.

Portland, Oregon is often cited as a positive example of planning principles and the freeway removal from the downtown waterfront is one of the highest. Harbor Drive ran on the west side of the Willamette River. It was closed in the '70's so a new park could be built in its place, allowing for recreation along the river.

Harbor Drive was a scar on the urban landscape. Now, this area is a neighborhood recreational amenity.
Portland also killed several freeways drawn up by Robert Moses during the '70's.

The Green are highways not built. Some would have bordered the rivers. Portland instead spent the money on expanding their rail system.
Finally, San Francisco is a city that has A) built freeways bordering San Francisco Bay, B) demolished freeways bordering the Bay and C) canceled planned freeways that were to be built by the Bay.

Current freeway map of San Francisco
The route the Embarcadero freeway ran, clearly dividing the City from San Francisco Bay.

The freeway plan for San Francisco. The entire Bay side would have been cutoff as well as some of the parkland in the middle of the city.

One of the points I want to make is that the urban areas always suffer more from freeway construction. With the exception of D.C., which was able to avoid large scale construction within the urban area, these freeways divide once contiguous neighborhoods, displaced thousands upon thousands of residents and commercial structures and altered future development in an anti-urban fashion. Some cities are able to mitigate these effects, some aren't or haven't.

But the question I continually go back to is this; if we know what this does to urban areas, if we know the negative impacts and consequences, why are we trying to repeat it with the Trinity Parkway? It will not only be built next to Dallas' only body of water, but will also be built in parkland. It is repeating every 1950's era freeway building mistake our country made. Why can't City Officials learn from the mistakes of other cities?