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.

1 comment:

Ken Duble said...

Don't forget the cycling lanes. If a freeway is being removed, there's no way we can't find room for cycling lanes.