Thursday, August 30, 2012

Downtown Minneapolis...Dallas...What's the Difference?

Ran across a piece about the skywalk system in Minneapolis. I was struck by just how accurate this piece could have been, if it was written about Dallas. Oh sure, the names are different, dates too and most certainly, the weather patterns but the reasons for construction, the decisions behind the planning and construction of the system and the divisiveness the system causes today. It really is worth the read.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cedar Springs gets its Lipstick

In April, I gave a brief overview of the Uptown area of Dallas and what I'd consider to improve the urbanity of the district. One of those would have been a road diet for Cedar Springs. From the post:

 Despite having the same amount of through lanes (than McKinney), Cedar Springs is roughly 50 percent wider. Each lane is one-two feet wider and there is also a center turning lane. Since the street is made for automobiles, there are no trees near the curb, primarily because traffic engineers deem them a hazard (more on that point in a moment). The sidewalks are narrow. There are no amenities like shade or benches. Buffer zones like on-street parking, poles or the aforementioned trees aren't anywhere to be seen. There isn't even local transit service.

My recommendations to fix Cedar Springs would be to remove the center turn lane, narrow the lanes, widen the sidewalk and add on-street metered parking.

Well, work has begun, sorta, on the first recommendation, but it will not improve the urban street scene. The turn lane is being replaced by a median. Everything else that makes Cedar Springs so dysfunctional will remain, and the "fix" they are doing now will not improve anything for the pedestrian or reign in the speed of the cars on the road.

The sidewalks will not be widened, leaving the narrow four-foot-wide strip in place, meaning that there is a small amount of space for when two groups of pedestrians cross, an awkward moment at best, border line dangerous at worst, given the very close proximity of the fast moving cars.

There will be no added on-street parking. The cars will still zoom by folks on the side of the street at uncomfortable rates of speed, just a few feet away, adding another uncomfortable layer to anyone walking here.

The lanes will still be very close to freeway width, encouraging faster speeds to drivers of the cars, adding yet another discomfort for walkers.

The only benefits, albeit minor, are it will improve the aesthetics of the roadway and removing the turning lane will slow traffic a bit at entrances to properties along the roadway. However, seeing how Dallas does not have a shortage of auto-oriented streets with a landscaped medians where pedestrian counts can be measured with fingers and the turning lanes will still exist at the intersections of other streets, the benefits from an urban perspective will be small.

Once again, instead of doing something urban, Dallas does something by the book...the one written by the traffic engineers.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Case Against Events and Positive Economic Activity

I have posted quite often on the dubious claims of proponents of stadium development and their hosted events that their existence will bring forth an outpouring of dollars for the local economy (as seen here, here, here and here). The Olympics and the hosting of the two major party's conventions, give number crunchers a unique opportunity to examine these claims, and as is almost always the case, the truth falls far away from the projected.

The Wall Street Journal compares the actual economic numbers for the Olympics and conventions  with the tangibles and sees a huge gap in costs, budgets and benefits.
Time Magazine joins the discussion on the Olympics, with a focus on the cost overruns experienced each and every time by the host city. An interesting correlation that I think is widely ignored is the cost of the Athens games in relation to the country's debt problems.

The Charlotte Observer analyzes cost and revenue projections of the Democratic National Convention in determining that proponents economic activity claims may not be worth the price of admission.

Bottom line, while these aren't purely stadium-related numbers, their claims are one and the same. I wish this was a wake-up call that cities should stop pursuing the big events and instead focus on the little, everyday things that make the city unique, and therefore great.

Some of the greatest tourist attractions in this country are great because the locals use it. Locals rarely have need for a convention center or have tickets to the Super Bowl. If you make a city great for the people who live there, it will be great for those visiting. Said another way, if a city is great to live in, people will visit. Chasing tourist dollars is very close to treading water. That money would be better spent if it instead focused on increasing the local's quality of life.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Can a Love Affair be Forced?

Two posts ago, I discussed the battle of the neighborhood near Fair Park that is bisected by S. M. Wright Freeway versus the Texas Department of Transportation over the revamping of the freeway. To recap, the residents would like a four-lane boulevard and TxDoT would like it six lanes to move what they predict to be a still heavy amount of cars. Unsurprisingly, I sided with the neighborhood.

On Wednesday, The Dallas Morning News published an editorial that basically says they should accept what TxDoT is offering. I encourage the reading of the comments in the link. The comments are different perspectives from the same point of view.

I disagree vehemently with their point, though I am not surprised this is the DMN's view, as the entire editorial board doesn't live near here and a good portion do not even live within the city. They have a hard time understanding something that is against what their way of life is dependent upon. Without highways, they couldn't live where and how they do, and therefore do not, or maybe even can not, understand how highways are bad for inner city neighborhoods.

But here's the part they seem to base their entire point on, which in and of itself is flawed.

TxDOT officials say that a very large number of cars — as many as 40,000 — will still need daily access to S.M. Wright, even after a redesign reroutes 67,000 vehicles from U.S. Highway 175 directly to Interstate 45. TxDOT says anything narrower than a six-lane road would create traffic jams and unacceptable hazards during peak hours.

Quoting TxDoT without any context or rebuttal will lead to a flawed standing. TxDoT either totally ignores or significantly downplays the Induced Traffic Principal. They see traffic as primarily a fixed number based more on supply-and-demand rather than the actual behavioral function that it is in reality.

The reality is that this road will contain very few regional travelers. As I describe the roadway, it can be referenced in this Google Maps link. Tx-310 (S. M. Wright) runs directly parallel to I-45 (Julius Schepps). From Overton Rd., where it turns into a limited access freeway from a surface highway, to I-20, there a twelve intersections, of which three are signaled and one is a cloverleaf. Aside from the cloverleaf, the three signaled and, to a lesser extent, the eight others will slow traffic on their own. That slower traffic is the kind out-of-neighborhood drivers dislike. In fact, zoom in on the road in satellite view and notice just how empty this road is. Moving over to I-45 reveals a lot more vehicles using the roadway.

So as current conditions exist, of the 40,000 cars that TxDoT predicts will use the new roadway, few will come from the current S.M. Wright roadway. That means two things. They predict much of the traffic will come from the neighborhood and/or from drivers from C. F. Hawn Freeway (U.S. 175), which used S. M. Wright to get to I-45 prior to the reconstruction of the right-of-way. Both are flawed, I believe.

First, this is a much more transit-dependent community, so fewer neighborhood trips from within will actually use the road than TxDoT believes. Much of Texas has poor, if any, transit service or other alternatives. Therefore, a higher amount will have to use those roads. However, they use the higher amount, regardless of context. Arlington or my hometown of Midland and this neighborhood, can not be modeled the same. But they are anyway.

Second, very few folks will exit U.S. 175 to use the new S.M. Wright roadway, just to merge with I-45 eventually anyway. This is the point that TxDoT misses when it is directly related to Induced Traffic.

When the freeway portions of C. F. Hawn and Julius Schepps get full, people will figure out a new way, mode or time to travel. With TxDoT assuming a linear function for traffic counts, they assume when the capacity is reached, this overflow will go somewhere else, not change their behavior.

That is the essence of this debate. If TxDoT gets their way, they will do like the southern portion of S.M Wright and build an excessively wide, unneeded roadway that doesn't fit within the neighborhood it runs in, keeping the neighborhood needlessly divided.

This is why I will always debate those that say American love their cars. As long as state agencies like TxDoT unnecessarily focus on highways, then we will always have a lopsided choice. We love our cars because it is the only convenient option, not because they win on an even playing field.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Priorities and Signal Timing

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece to help dispel the myth of signal timing as an effective tool in the fight against congestion. Reader Ken sent me this from NPR, a look at signal timing at singular intersections.

I won't spend too much time on it, but I want to point out some very relevant observations from it.

  • Why are the lights timed only for cars?
  • How do freeways effect the timing?
  • Differently designed crossings can prioritize pedestrians over cars.
  • Cities have different strategies and priorities for their intersections.
  • What are the land uses near the intersection?
While these were focused on one intersection, they apply to the corridor timing as well.

It's a common problem in transportation planning as I see it in Texas. There are two questions in regards to transportation planning that are similar, but have two totally different answers.

How can we move as many people as possible? or How can we move as many cars as possible?

In Texas as a whole and Dallas in particular, the second question is almost always the one asked.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Neighborhood needs Versus Regional Traffic

A couple of months ago, I made my first foray into any aspect of the Trinity River Project, a post about the most controversial portion. While there are many aspects of the project, conceptually, most are not so divisive (though some do become so during construction or afterward). It seems, however, anything involved with transportation in this project does. The Calatrava bridges have generated controversy and the tollroad may be the most divisive issue in the city. But a third portion shouldn't be.

Before I get into details, let me get a few generalities out of the way to set the stage for the rest of the post. Parks are generally not controversial. There aren't many people who say we don't want any parks in my neighborhood. That is a reason why some transportation planners in the sixties began to try and package their freeway plans with a parks component. Freeway revolts had swept many cities across the country and were widely seen by community activists as parasites within the neighborhood rather than a benefactor like planners had. Planners hoped that combining them would increase public support, and in the case of elections, support at the polls.

Aside from race and racial politics, there may be no bigger motivator for civic engagement in cities across the country than transportation projects. The reasons are myriad, but traditionally it has been a battle of neighborhoods versus regionalism.

I have stated before many times that out cities are shaped by the transportation systems that serve them. On a micro-scale, our neighborhoods are no different. Compare Highland Park, generally considered to contain the most desirable neighborhoods in the region, with freeways on its borders to old South Dallas near Fair Park, which is bisected by I-30, I-45, U.S. 175 and a small one-mile-freeway stub in Tx-310, also known as the S.M. Wright freeway. These divided a once functional, if not outright vibrant neighborhood. As the neighborhood ceased to function as originally built after the intrusion of the freeway, those that could move out did and were replaced by the lower class. The neighborhood started its decline. This scene I painted is specifically around the Fair Park area, but applies to countless neighborhoods in cities across this continent.

The Trinity was supposed to rectify some of this. S.M Wright freeway, which contains part of U.S. 175 as well as the freewayed portion of Tx-310, is slated for a redesign. The problem with this freeway as it exists is it runs parallel to I-45, measures a little more than three miles, contains a 90 degree turn onto the C.F. Hawn portion of U.S. 175 and is about 2,000 feet (less than 1/2 mile) at its furthest from I-45. Most freeway planners strive for around five miles between freeways.

So to recap, S. M. Wright is redundant, a neighborhood detractor and dangerous. Seems like a slam dunk for an uncontroversial transportation project within the larger Trinity Project, right. If I said the Texas Department of Transportation is involved, would that change your mind?

I'll give this link from the Dallas Observer to get the meat of the battle between TxDoT, who loves building highways for cars, and activists from the neighborhood.

In the article, I fully support Hank Lawson and the South Dallas Action Plan. Why does TxDoT want six lanes to move so many cars? Because that's what they do. They'd be more accurate if they changed their name to the Texas Department of Highways. They dabble here and there in other forms of transportation, but the vast supermajority of their work is highways. You don't go to a bakery to get deli meats and you don't expect TxDoT to do walkable, pedestrian-oriented infrastructure.

Here's my recommendation, which will sound almost exactly like Lawson's.

1) Connect the C.F. Hawn portion of U.S. 175 with I-45 with a straighter freeway. There is a floodway, parking lot and few homes between the two points. The parking lot and floodplain are easily remedied and I'll get to the homes in a minute.

From the South Dallas Action Plan. The Red Line is the proposed Trinity Tollway. I would only include the red line from C.F. Hawn on the top of the slide to the point where it meets I-45 in the middle. I would also get straighten out the curve and insist on a standard freeway intersection.

By doing this step, Dead Man's Curve and the subsequent death and injury that accompany it are removed. Those risks are still inherent in driving in general, but with a standard freeway connection, the risk is far less.

2) Demolish S. M. Wright Freeway. It is redundant and unneeded, as I detailed above.

3) Ideally, I don't think anything but cross streets need to be restored. However, realizing that step is far too drastic for the auto-centered folks at TxDoT and Dallas officials, I can at least support the concept of a four-lane street, particularly if on-street parking and a landscaped sidewalk are included. This four-lane street would connect with Ceasar Chavez Blvd. at I-45 and meet with the rest of Tx-310 at Overton Rd.

4) Connect every street that was severed by the freeways building. Some of these include, but aren't only, Warren Ave., Copper Dr. and Southland St.

5) Restore the former freeway right-or-way not needed for the street to neighborhood uses, including housing, retail, parks and any other need. For every house that was demoed in recommendation 1, a new one of equal size should be built in the old ROW, minimizing the impact to the occupants of the demoed houses.

Lawson said he thinks traffic will be bad on I-45 because of this neighborhood focus of S. M. Wright's redesign, but I'm not sure. First, I-45 is still the freeway from which U.S. 175 merges. If it passes political muster, the two lanes that are added to I-45 when it merges with U.S. 175 could be added to the freeway at its new intersection. In the end, the lane miles would not decrease, only the freeway's intrusion into the neighborhood.

Second, local traffic will be substantially better. A restored street grid will require far less miles to travel within the neighborhood, regardless if the destination is within or without. The shortest point between two points is the grid. It requires one turn. With the grid severed as is now the case, it requires many. If a driver is west of the freeway and wants to travel north, they have to go south on the frontage roads first. A restored street grid would allow them to make a left turn instead, shaving many miles off just one driver's trip. Collectively, the neighborhoods sees exponentially fewer local miles traveled within the neighborhood, thanks to the improved efficiency.

All of this should be appealing to TxDoT. They strive for efficient movement of cars. But they also can't see local needs precisely because they want to move those cars. In this case, they are saying the neighborhoods needs do not matter because residents of other neighborhoods and suburbs need this road to get where they are going faster and need to zoom through this area to do it.

I have two main frustrations with this line of thought.

I understand TxDoT isn't concerned with land use or neighborhoods. They are concerned about highways. But to ignore the link is foolish. Different land uses require different needs from the highways. Highways encourage different land uses. They are inextricably linked. You shouldn't and I dare say mustn't do one without the other, but TxDoT does.

Given this constraint, the biggest of my two frustrations lies with the City of Dallas. They should be looking out for this neighborhood. They are elected to do that. TxDoT isn't.

There are countless examples, even within Dallas, of the effect different types of streets have on surrounding land uses. Griffin St versus Main in Downtown. McKinney and Cedar Springs in Uptown. Henderson vs. Fitzhugh in Knox-Henderson. Narrower streets are more vibrant. From a financial standpoint, they produce far more revenue than their wider counterparts. They also cost less to maintain. So why the reservation on their end?

I don't have a great answer for that. The only thing I think that has validity is that the city is run by traffic engineers and most of the City Councilmembers still believe the archaic thinking of wider streets, highways and more cars bring prosperity.

In reality, they only give fuel to growth of the places on the outskirts as people are encouraged to live further out as they can easily zoom through the close-in neighborhoods. The current model of city building used in the United States encourages disinvestment of existing areas, rather than an addition of new ones to accommodate growth in the population. Conversely, their archaic line of thinking gives fuel to the decline of these closer in neighborhoods. It is not a coincidence that the most vibrant urban neighborhoods in Dallas do not have a freeway running in the middle.

Until this thinking changes, particularly by elected officials, neighborhoods surrounding these streets and highways will continue to suffer, and that suffering will be to the benefit of the places further out.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Orange Line Critique

On the week anniversary of its opening, I shall discuss the first phase of the Orange Line, and sadly, like a lot of what DART has done lately, I was hopeful, but ultimately underwhelmed.
Before I get into the meat of it, I first want to issue a caution to everyone that this is an incomplete line. 4.5 miles and three stations were added a week ago and another 2+ miles and two stations are set for December. The last phase will see the addition of DFW Airport, which may or may not be the centerpiece of the line or rail network.

Here's the split where the Green Line heads north and the Orange Line turns west.

DART's main hope for ridership growth will be congestion on the freeways where it runs next to and over, in this case I-35E. This is the bridge over the freeway and the trains are amazingly slow for running in their own grade-seperated space.

The University of Dallas Station, which technically isn't next to the University of Dallas. To get there, passengers, presumably students or faculty, have to take the walkway in the picture above.

Las Colinas Urban Station is the best of the three, but that doesn't necessarily mean much. Here, we are looking west to northwest.
I like the treatment given to the tracks of the Lake Carolyn Parkway segment. They used materials similar to the transit mall in downtown Dallas.However, unlike downtown, there is only the one station, so it is less functional than downtown and more about aesthetics.
I wish there were another station or two, but unlike the Las Colinas Boulevard section of the urban center, the Lake Carolyn section is not as developed, so the other parts of the Las Colinas transit mall just aren't cost effective for their own station. That will put more of the onus on the localized transit system, which I will mention briefly in a moment.
I'm not sure that a more developed southern Lake Carolyn Parkway would even make a difference. There are several deferred stations along the Orange Line which DART says will be built if certain conditions are met for ridership goals. One is for a South Las Colinas Station, but it would be outside the Lake Carolyn/Las Colinas circle. For me, bare minimum, a station should go on the Las Colinas transit mall north of Las Colinas Blvd/Colorado Dr.
Las Colinas is one of the few places in DFW outside of the two main cities urban core that has potential to be a good urban neighborhood. The area's transit should reflect that.

Before moving on, take a close look at the right edge of the picture. Note the divider between the station and street. I'll touch on that in a few pictures down.

At the southern edge of the station, a nice park entrance was added that easily takes passengers down to the edge of Lake Carolyn. From here, you can walk the "shoreline" of most of the man-made lake. This connection is a nice little touch.

The view of Las Colinas Station from the edge of the promenade.

Here's one of the more intriguing parts of this station, the connection to the Las Colinas People Mover.

Here's my big problem with this connection. The first pictures shows what should be the passenger entrance to the connection. It even has a gate that leads to a stairway and elevators to the elevated station. But you can't take that, apparently, as it says only authorized people are allowed and points the way passengers should go.

I credited the Parkway's look, with a more streetcar look, rather than the commuter rail look that much of the rail system has. However, as is typical of DART specifically and American systems in general, the tracks are supposed to be off limits to anything but the trains. Look closely at the picture above, aside from the sign that points passengers to cross the street, there is no indication that people should avoid the street-sidewalk-looking tracks. This looks like an extension of the platform. I suspect that many people will walk next to the tracks, after making sure no train is coming of course.

I'm sure there has to be a reason that gate is not for the general public, but I just don't know what it is.

Remember earlier I noted the divider between the station and the street? Here's why. In downtown Dallas, people can easily cross between either side of the station, regardless of whether it is a center-platform station, like Pearl (Arts District) Station or side-platform like St. Paul. It technically is against DART policy to cross the tracks anywhere but at a crosswalk, but it happens all the time, and collisions are low.

Here, they designed the unauthorized crossing of the tracks out and passengers can only get to the center-platform Las Colinas Urban Center Station at the ends of the platform. Problem is when the bus transfers don't work, as is the case with these riders, there is an added frustration. In this picture, the train is literally behind me, but I knew, and you can tell these guys did too by their lackadaisical walk, that they wouldn't be able to go all the way to the end and then u-turn around and get to the train on time. There were two people ahead who tried and ran. They didn't make it.

Had the design been better, they would have made it. But the divider at the station only stops passengers from crossing easily. Obviously it isn't a problem at Pearl, but I guess in Las Colinas, DART figures the passengers can't handle it.
Also, this raises the question about how DART planners handled the transfers. This was taken on day two of the new line. Shouldn't nearly every transfer meet a train where passengers don't have to wait? Every bus that stops here doesn't meet another transfer point as important as this one. With as many buses and a train line that meet here, this is the part where you coordinate transfer times, and work out from there. Only the TRE station near downtown Irving is near as important. But light rail has a greater frequency and capacity and therefore should get the nod as Irving's most important transit point.

If you squint in the distance, you'll see the name sake of the Irving Convention Center Station, the current terminus of the line.

Surrounding this station is...literally prairie. I guess that means there is a lot of development potential, but virtually no ridership right now.

Here's the sidewalk that leads from the station to...literally nowhere. I guess Irving ran out of bond money when they built their convention center to actually build a sidewalk along Lake Carolyn Parkway.

I take it back, apparently someone or something uses this sidewalk. My two-year old excitedly pointed out two different areas where feces was on the brand new sidewalk.

Here is the northern edge of the station, effectively cordoned off by Northwest Highway. There's somewhat of a controversy. Right now, there is a big parking lot on the other side of the highway that DART used to use as the bus transfer center before moving the buses to the Urban Center Station. They built a tunnel under the highway similar to the U-Dallas Station. However, passengers are complaining it is too long and distant from the station. I didn't see the tunnel when I was there, though I wasn't looking for it. However, that may indicate just how inconvenient that is for passengers (I wasn't looking for the U-Dallas tunnel either, but saw it). Come December, commuters can use the North Lake and Belt Line Stations, which will further reduce this station as a viable one along the new route.

The last picture is just a promise of the line moving on to somewhere else. From here it will veer west and southwest to North Lake Station and eventually on to the airport.

Before I hit the negative, I want to point out what may be the biggest strength of the Orange Line, ironically it is something that could have been done without building a new rail line.

With the opening of the Irving segment, the line now goes all the way to LBJ/Central during all hours, effectively giving that section of the rail system half the headway. Since this is the most ridden part of the DART system, that should help both existing riders and encourage new ones.

Unlike one of my major critiques of the Green Line this one wasn't built in an old freight rail right-of-way. In the past, that meant that the land use really wasn't suitable in most places for an urban rail system. Las Colinas is a bit different. I expect that the Urban Center Station will be the most used when the entire line is complete, partly for this reason. That's also why I wish there were a station near Colorado Dr.

However, similar to the freight critiques, a lot of the line was shoehorned where space was available. The area from east of I-35 to almost Loop 12 is unusable for any type of station. For urban design, the ideal situation is a fewer distance between stations. The Orange Line violates that. However, I can overlook it because there really wasn't a better alternative in the current system to get to Las Colinas, which I believe is important.

My other big concern is that there are many sections on the line where the train just seems to crawl along. It was during one of these stretches where I wondered who added the rapid to DART's name, or which engineer forgot that part when the line was designed.

The last station before the Orange and the Green Line split is Bachman Station. According to this timetable, it takes eight minutes to go from Bachman to U-Dallas Station, another six minutes to get to the Urban Center Station and from there to the Convention Center Station is a manageable three minutes. The distance from Bachman to the end is 4.5 miles. Yet it takes 17 minutes to go the distance. And that's without transfers to get to the final destination. That's an average of a little more than 16 miles an hour. WHAT!!!

16 miles an hour!!!  For three stations in 4.5 miles!!!! Much of it grade-seperated!!!!! That has got to be better.

To go from West End Station in downtown Dallas to Irving Convention Center Station requires 36 minutes on the Orange Line. The 202 bus that was replaced by the Orange Line took 31 minutes to go from West End to the North Irving Transit Center. Yes, the Orange Line has to makie stops the express bus didn't, but the Orange Line also doesn't operate in traffic like the bus did.

Sometimes I wonder how much DART actually understands about transit and its system and how much is public relations. In the Metro Section of Tuesday's Dallas Morning News, a story ran about the Orange Line's opening. The authors discuss some riders who say the trip is longer on the train than it was on the bus.
Then comes this from the spokesman:

Morgan Lyons, DART's spokesman, said the train does add time to some commutes. But, he said, there's a logical reason with a potential benefit.

"It simply makes more stops along the way," he said of the many stations between Las Colinas and and downtown Dallas. "It provides new destinations, new access to people."

I don't disagree with the last part as it stands on its own, but it is not the reason it takes longer. It takes longer because the train takes eight minutes to go two miles. Then it takes another six minutes to go less than two miles. That is just unacceptable.

The bridge linking the U-Dallas Station to the rest of the system should be no different than the subway tunnel linking Mockingbird Station with downtown Dallas. Each is their own separate ROW. It is completely grade separated. It shouldn't take even five minutes to run that stretch. But sadly for Orange Line riders, their bridge won't see the 65 mph the trains do in that segment.

Much of the ROW between the U-Dallas Station and the Urban Center Station is within a freeway ROW, and therefore grade-separated. Another two minutes should be taken off from there. I don't mind the slower pace along the Lake Carolyn Parkway section when taken on its own. But added with the creep of the rest of the line, it just feels like a knife twist.

I think the thing that grinds my gears the most is that this wasn't a cheap rail line. With the money spent, we should do better than 16 mph average.

In fact, I could extrapolate that out to say with the amount spent, we should do better than what the Orange Line brings right now.