Friday, December 27, 2013

So this is it

This one will be a tough one for me to write. I'm doing this primarily for myself as a cathartic exercise. But I am also partially doing it for my more loyal readers, some of whom have wondered why I post less than I have had in the past. I view writing as a mental therapy and I just need to get some things out. This post may seem rambling at times as I have many disparate thoughts coming from many different directions.

Let me add a fair warning, there may be language that I don't normally say or write. I haven't cussed in this blog nor my other, so whatever I write will be from the depths of the passion I have.

I have failed. The top of this blog reads "a newly minted city planner." I received a masters, but never found the professional career path. For over three years, I routinely checked the job boards, entered the same information in different application software for different planning entities, applied for jobs I qualified for, went to the occasional interview, but never became a planner. My wife constantly told me I didn't fail. I still disagree. I tried and didn't succeed. By definition, I failed.

Today I accepted a position with the Dallas Police Department. Starting late next month, I begin training to become a police officer. Ironically, it will be the first job where I will actually get some compensation for my degree. Sadly, it is for my Bachelors. As it stands now, my Masters has been a $25,000 albatross.

I offer a brief timeline to give some context. I have a family. Part of the impetus for moving into an alternate career field is to provide for them. When we started family planning, the assumption was to get a good job out of college. There were some extra life issues that we dealt with that upped the timeline, so my first son was born in March 2010 several months ahead of the original thought. I finished studies the following August. There wasn't much job headway, so I started a second job in April of 2011. That provided enough income to make it work. Then in early 2012, we had unexpected news of a second son. I took a third income source, but it wasn't enough for both. We saved well, but it were going to run out before years end. I applied for DPD in case some of the opportunities that lay ahead of me failed. They did. By this time next year, I will be donning a police officers uniform.

There were several factors that I have pinpointed that caused this outcome.

My primary problem is that I lacked professional experience. Sure, I volunteered for various planning functions, like DART's D2 study and the Downtown 360 plan, but had no planning experience where I was paid for my efforts.

I logged a minimum of 70 applications for open, entry level positions (I like to catalog useless data and stats, but admit I likely missed a few). Most were within DFW, but several were around the state and country. Of those, well over half never responded other than thanks for applying. I was just left hanging. Most of the rest responded months after the fact, well after I already knew I was out (thanks for reminding me I didn't get it). A small handful let me know in a timely manner that I wasn't going to get an interview or work there, and they were the most appreciated.

Of those 70+, I interviewed for 7 positions. I know for a certainty that five of those ENTRY level positions were filled by folks with experience, including one  internship that was filled by someone with experience. Yes, you heard that right. I did not get an internship because I didn't have enough experience. In another case, a person involved in the hiring process was obviously sheepish when I asked for followup. He was embarrassed that they hired someone with experience for an entry-level position. I can't speak for certainty for the other two, because I just don't know. I have my suspicion, but nothing else.

That right there severely pisses me off. The planning industry is undervaluing itself. Folks with two or three years as a professional are being paid entry level salaries and doing entry level work. Meanwhile, true entry level people aren't doing squat but applying for the next job.

My wife has heard this rant many times. If you want experience, ASK FOR IT IN THE JOB POST!!!!! Not only are you devaluing the planning industry, you are giving false hope to folks like me. Sadly, though the miracle of the internet, I know I'm not the only one struggling through this.

The only classmates that I know who were able to get jobs were those who had no other personal obligations and could do low-to-un-paid internships. Some were living with parents, others with several roommates. I, on the other hand, had to support a wife and kids because I went back to school later in life. I had to have a full time job, while also going to Graduate School full time, while also becoming a first-time parent. There was just no way to do that and get an internship, unless it was paid. Paid internships were cut just as much as the planning staffs were (One classmate who got a professional gig actually told me that he didn't want to do planning as a career in an attempt to make me feel better...How that would make me feel better is beyond me).

In some ways, I am really not surprised that experience means so much. In a profession that categorizes everything, how do you measure an applicants worth? Worth ethic, desire, passion, motivation are all unmeasurable attributes. Even knowledge can be, though I do offer up my 4.0 Masters GPA as some type of measure, though it certainly doesn't cover it all. I'd put my writing and communication skills against anyone, but there really is no way to measure that. But experience? That is the easiest and really only one that is 100% completely measurable. And mine was 0.0.

Externally, I graduated at the worst time in the history of the planning profession. The deficiency in experience wouldn't have been an issue were the times more consistent with the previous twenty years. The cuts to parks and libraries received a lot of media attention but cuts to planning were just as severe. There are over 60 municipalities in the DFW region. If each laid off between 1-6 planners (I know one city eliminated the entire department), then us entry level guys never stood a shot if they were ahead of us.

In a down economy, I don't blame these experienced planners who were laid off for getting any job they can. They are probably more like me than those few students I mentioned who were getting a job. They had a family, kids or other obligations and needed a source of revenue. It doesn't make it any easier for me, but at least I can sympathize.

There are many in the profession who are openly questioning what the future of planning looks like. New blood is not coming in, especially at the rate of retirement and attrition. 

I am also dismayed with my University. Other than a professor who did everything he could, I felt the School of Urban and Public Affairs at UT-Arlington took my money, gave me a degree and sent me on my way. There was no prep while in school for getting a job. There was no career development folks to guide the process, offer tips or resume critiques. The best SUPA could do was have a e-mail service that published open jobs, but that's available only to students. I heard of few times about networking, but that was it and it wasn't in depth, just a casual mention. I had a fairly large network and absolutely nothing positive happened - I'll mention a little of that in a moment.

Even outside of SUPA, UTA fell flat. I asked Career Services for help with my resume in the beginning. They gave a few vague pointers that I had seen on Yahoo!'s front page. I revamped what was an absolutely awful resume and asked them to critique that. Crickets. I tried again and got nothing. I felt like a cheap date. UTA took my money and showed me a good time and then the door. Didn't even pay for cab fare.

So to the professor, Ard Anjomani, thank you so much for all your help. I just wish it wouldn't have been in vain. I'm only using his name because I truly felt he did everything he could to help. He deserves some praise. To most of the other professors, thank you for providing a mentally stimulating environment. To the rest of UTA that I dealt with, shame on you! Shame for taking my money and running. I needed you and instead I got nothing.

Even some of my fellow classmates deserve shame. Many of them were already employed in the field while working on their Masters, beneficiaries of a better economic climate. On in particular still makes my skin crawl. In a lapse of moral judgement, I fed him answers for his thesis-substitute test. Had he not passed this test, he wouldn't have graduated. I can't say for sure the many answers I provided were the difference in pass/fail, but I do know I studied and he didn't. He passes, moves to a different, higher paying job in another city, bolstered by his experience and Masters Degree. Eventually, that city has an opening and when I call asking for a good word, he tells me there is nothing he can do because he is on the hiring committee. Just thinking about still pisses me off. There are other examples networking failure, but that one...that ...my ire will never subside.

And Alumni Association, stop calling me asking donations. Even if I could afford to give you something, I don't feel I owe you anything. I have two degrees from you. My Bachelors I actually used in radio, though the U in now way advises against getting a Communications or Journalism Degree. The traditional media industries are shrinking and dying, yet their enrollment is increasing and they don't mention a thing about job prospects. However, I got the degree and worked in the field.

With SUPA, I couldn't even get work in the industry. In my naivety, I truly thought I could take a 4.0 in a Masters program and get a job.Maybe I deserve some shame too.

Irony, I still love my Alma Mater. At least as an undergraduate, I felt an attachment to UTA. I actively follow the U's sports teams, as evidenced by my second blog, and still feel a positive emotion toward UTA. But it in no way shape or form has anything to do with earning a Masters. I still seethe when I think of how they use their students, or more accurately, their wallets. Or, considering the ballooning crises surrounding student loans, their credit worthiness is the most accurate.

When I told a close friend I might become a police officer - he is one himself - he expressed reservations about me joining the police department. His primary concern was that the profession is a hard one, and those without the passion may struggle.

There may be some truth to that. But I believe in loyalty and paying it forward. All levels of the department, from the folks who processed our paperwork, to the test takers, to the background detective, busted their ass to try and get me in. Were it not for a legal issue with my name, they would have done all of that in time for the academy that began the first week of November. In fact, thanks to my current employment, DPD officers have been recruiting me for years. After failing so long at attaining a planning job, it feels good to be wanted. I will NEVER forget that. That creates a passion and drive to succeed and honor that.

It is clear the planning profession has no desire to include me. I don't have any pretense that I would have been a superstar planner along the lines of Peter Calthorpe, Janet Sadik-Kahn or Daniel Burnham. But I can guarantee you, any planning agency would be hard pressed to find a member of their staff more dedicated or driven to succeed than me. Instead, that drive now goes to DPD. And it is the same drive they have shown towards me.

But I won't lie. It hurts. Failing to become a planner really hurts. I don't normally fail. Most times, I just try harder until I figure out how to succeed. Prior, my one other big failure was not making radio work. With little chance of advancement and a huge likelihood of instability, I left the radio industry and its $7/hr, weekday night, market #5 broadcasting position. I just couldn't make it work professionally. It was creating a strain on my personal life (BTW, the $7/hr I earned as recently as October 2006, isn't even minimum wage now). That was my biggest failure. However, spending $25,000 for a piece of paper and not getting into the industry is now my biggest. I couldn't make either work and both still hurt.

As it stands now, I am just channeling that hurt into making this work. I really don't know how to describe the feeling that I finally will be able to fully provide for my family. I will enjoy the new challenges and am ready to tackle it head on. I am really excited about the future and am very much looking forward to January 29, when academy starts. In fact, I have already spent Christmas money and gift cards on items I will need for it.

As for this blog, I don't honestly know what is in store. I still love transportation, urban design and development. I still want Dallas to achieve a critical mass of cohesive, consecutive urban neighborhoods. I can foresee a time when the pain wears off and I will post again. What I will type would be Dallas-specific, as the posts about planing in general won't have any meaning to me anymore.

 I don't know when, but that's the best I can offer my group of loyal readers. Until then, thank you so much for following me and giving me an outlet these last three years, since I didn't get that with a professional job to actually practice it in.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dallas Does Bike Lanes II

Roughly a month ago, I critiqued the bike lanes on the ground in downtown Dallas. While there were some things I liked, I was overall unhappy with what has been put into place.

On Wednesday, the annual ride to City Hall took place, and several council members were there as well as the man in charge at Public Works of putting the infrastructure in place, Jared White. When I voiced my concerns, I was generally pleased with the reception. Some of the lane changes and the separated lane at Main under the freeway he acknowledged weren't perfect.

As he explained to me, it was a learning process that the City was doing. There will be changes, though none in the near term, but that the lessons learned would be applied to the currently-fund-but-not-implemented bike infrastructure projects in the near term.

He also was similarly discouraged about the lack of enforcement when vehicles stage in the lanes on Jackson and Wood. He lives near there and sees that happening and is hoping for better enforcement. He also acknowledged the lanes run though sewer grates, recessed man-hole covers and other obstacles and will work to resolve those at some point. 

While I still think that Dallas would have benefited from having a cyclist plan and implement the projects, I am at least a little encouraged that they recognize there is room for improvement in the way we go about adding bicycle infrastructure.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Am I Scott Griggs?

Short answer no, but listening to the Economic Development Committee this week might have given someone who reads this blog a different impression.

I have mentioned the urban design flaws of Victory Park before. One of the items before the EDC this week was the latest proposal by the owners of Victory Park to turn it around. I won't go into details since I only know the generics, turn Olive into a more pedestrian-friendly street, widen sidewalks all over and get rid of some one-way streets in favor of two-way. Sounds good, but without concrete proposals or blueprints, I just can't comment with certainty. Victory Park in its generic form sounded good, but the devil was in the details.

But I offer these quotes from Griggs.

"If you want these water-colors (artist renderings) to be a reality, you have to stop focusing on the events and focus on everyday life."

"You can't have events drive the every day. We want to build a successful community in an urban environment and to do that you need life between buildings on a day in, day out basis."

Victory Park is "one of the biggest failures of urban design ever imaginable."

No link to the Katy Trail "is going to be a regrettable mistake."

Griggs also noted the poor relation to Victory Park and the DART light rail station.

He wasn't the only one with attention directed towards the flaws. I think we are finally getting council members who get urban areas.

Adam Medrano questioned city staffers on why bike lanes were absent in the redo plans. His council district covers the area.

Lee Kleinman, similar to Griggs, noted there is a lack of everyday needs for the area. He also made mention that arena-anchored areas tend to fail, something I have said many times, particularly on the economic development front.

It is really refreshing to see Council members ask the hard questions and point out the obvious, rather than take the developers word and hope for the best.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Just Not Enough Parking

I guess it has been a while and it is inevitable that it gets the spot light again at some point. Friday, Steve Brown of the Dallas Morning News ran an article lamenting the lack of parking in downtown Dallas, particularly as new developments take the place of surface lots.

Can I scream please? It is the same tired line. Let me repeat something I have said here over and over. There is not a lack of parking downtown. There are near 100,000 public and private parking spaces spread across all land-uses in downtown. There are roughly 30,000 surface parking spaces and another 30,000 in stand-alone garages.

What downtown has a true lack of, and something that will never, ever change, is convenient parking, especially when the city outlaws convenient on-street parking options.

When the wife and I were watching the old Dallas TV series, I always laughed when one of the Ewing's or Barnes' would pull up to their office tower at Renaissance Tower or One Main Place and amazingly find a parking space on the street or in the drop-off zone. They'd get out, shut the door and enter the office building. Of course they would have been towed in real life, but they'd always have the ability to park freely and conveniently. Downtown Dallas will never have that.

All throughout the column, Brown mentions the reason for the lack of surface parking. That right there is a red flag. Surface parking is the biggest use of land in downtown, yet accounts for only a third of the total parking supply. If every surface parking space is eliminated, the total parking supply is reduced by that amount to 60-70,000 spaces. And that's if there isn't any replacement, which rarely happens.

Brown himself makes no mention of transit as an option. He does offer the following quote:

And extra parking was a key ingredient to get worldwide engineering firm Jacobs to consolidate its North Texas offices in downtown. The California-based firm leased more than 80,000 square feet in the Harwood Center on Bryan Street.

But first, the building owner and Dallas economic development officials had to line up extra parking in a garage next door.

“That and DART moved the needle for Jacobs,” said Cushman & Wakefield senior director Matt Heidelbaugh, who represented the tenant. “Proximity was very important for ease and security.

I understand corporate offices are finally moving away from needing increasing amounts of space for the same amount of workers. I am quite happy with the trend. However, most of the '80's towers still have abundant amounts of parking in an attached garage. Also, the vast majority are on a DART line or within two blocks of a DART station. I see Brown making no mention employers subsidizing a transit pass, only subsidizing parking, or in the case above, the city helping the subsidization of parking. No mention of the work to make biking a legitimate commuting option anywhere in the column.

The other thing Brown completely ignores is that as new development takes the place of the surface lots, they will include more parking than what was there, so there is a net increase of total parking spaces. However, those lots just aren't as convenient.

Brown also makes note that the new suburban projects have two to three times the parking of downtown office buildings. They have to, THEY ARE IN THE SUBURBS! Many of those new office buildings are in cities that are designed for the car and have no transit service. How else are they going to get people there? It also this design that ensures the suburban projects will never have any external activity and makes things like Legacy in Plano a nice idea that doesn't quite make for an urban area.

I have said it countless times. Downtown Dallas will never out-suburb the suburbs. It can never make it convenient for the car. It can, however, out-urban them. The suburbs will never be able to offer authentic, walkable urban areas like historic city centers can. Downtown Dallas leaders would be better off playing to those strengths, rather than complaining about the lack of parking.

It wasn't until the end that we got the idea that maybe it really isn't a terrible issue.

An apartment development planned on land surrounding the historic Dallas High School on Bryan Street and a cultural center in the works at Griffin and Woodall Rodgers Freeway will occupy more surface parking lots. Although they remove parking, these developments are good for downtown, almost everyone agrees.

“It is a very good problem to have,” said John Crawford, CEO of the economic development group Downtown Dallas Inc. “Ten years ago, this wasn’t that big a deal.

“As we look at taking away these surface parking lots, we are looking at other options.”

Crawford said the city of Dallas is developing plans to build an underground parking garage below the planned 3.5-acre Live Oak Avenue park.
And Downtown Dallas Inc. and city officials are working with other building owners to find additional parking.

“Parking, both in perception and reality, has been a problem downtown for a long time,” Crawford said. “As we have rebuilt our downtown, it’s become even more a consideration.”

Let me rephrase this. It is a good problem, we are replacing parking, perception of parking is bad. The real answer is that there will never be enough convenient parking options and what is currently there suppresses the desirability of the surrounding area. In essence attractive areas become less attractive to visit the more convenient the parking becomes. Since there can never be enough convenient parking options, alternative modes have to be considered. Without it is like trying to diet by drinking excessive amounts of soda.

I am glad to see Crawford acknowledge that the problem may not be that big. Dallas has leaders that have always thought capacity solutions are the answer to the problem, more parking, more freeways, more lanes, etc. Until Dallas gets decision makers who think otherwise then this will always be a problem. The solution to parking problems isn't more parking spaces, but rather changing the approach to parking.















“Corporate America is downsizing its space needs, and the densities of workers in offices is going up,” said Greg Langston, managing director of commercial property firm Avison Young’s Dallas office. “With some of these buildings — particularly those built in the 1980s — there is nowhere left to park.”

I think ultimately, I absolutely abhor this kind of article because there is always a quote like this. It is patently false and just continues the stereotype that there is nowhere to park to those who don't know. I introduce some maps that I made a few years ago to dispel that there is nowhere to park downtown. While there may be some minor errors from time, they are still pretty accurate.

There are over 100 distinct surface parking lots downtown.

These are the stand-alone garages, which are approximately equal to the number of spaces in the picture above.
Looking at those pictures, does it look like there is nowhere to park? Those pictures do not include things like basement parking in the office towers or residential buildings. City Hall and the civic buildings in the Arts District, among others, have underground parking, but it isn't there on those maps. I could go on, but here's the main takeaway: Between all the office workers, residences and visitors, there are roughly 150,000 people in downtown daily. How can 100,000 spaces for a downtown that sees 150,000 people and is the nexus of the transit system not have enough parking?

Truth is, it does not have a parking shortage. It has and will always have a convenient-parking shortage. But if the goal is to make downtown Dallas a true urban area, then it will always have that shortage, regardless of what the old guard thinks.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Success in Arlington

It has been hard for me to find information on the MAX bus service in Arlington that opened last month, but my Alma Mater's school paper was able to give some information on the early performance of the new express route from the TRE's Centrepointe Station to the College Park district at UTA and in downtown Arlington.


The bus system, which opened Aug. 19, averaged about 227 riders per day in its first week. The system averaged about 248 riders per day in its third week.


Arlington city officials are pleased with the numbers, said Alicia Winkelblech, Community Development and Planning manager.

“We estimated 250 riders per day at the end of the first year, and we’re already hitting the low end of that year one goal,” she said.

...

The city council will receive ridership reports quarterly with the next report coming in January, Winkelblech said.

So based on their metric, the express route is a success.

The MAX stop at the southwest corner of UTA Blvd and Center St.
I took the route and was pleased with what I saw. The timing wasn't perfect, though it was at least decently timed to not make the transfer times overly long. The main problem is that there are likely two transfers to make this work, one from the first mode to the TRE and the second from the TRE to MAX.

The stop at College Park was clean, noticeable and convenient, at least if you are going to anything in the immediate district. Considering that the major reason I would use it would be athletic events at the arena, College Park Center, it would work really well for me. The average student has a small hike if they are headed somewhere else on campus.

A close-up of the stop.
There are a few tweaks that would make the service a lot better. First, the University operates its own quasi-bus service that links parts of the disparate campus. Its primary function is to navigate students from the outlying parking lots to the main sections of campus. Increasingly, as the on-campus student population grows, it is developing into more of a bus service to circulate passengers within the service area, but it is still predominantly used by the commuters.

Not one of the shuttles has a stop at this location. There are a couple that get close, but not directly at the new stop. Certainly ridership would increase if at least one of the main routes did.

Second, I really feel that in order for this thing to take off, the transfer times have to be tightened. Coming from downtown Dallas, the hub of the DART system, it took almost two hours. Coming from the same spot, I could have drove in 25-30. I guarantee you, of those 248 average daily riders, almost all of them either don't/can't drive or are going someplace where there are external costs to motor vehicle operation, like paying to park. Otherwise, very few will take the service. About 15-25 minutes of that was waiting for the next transit mode to come.

Part of the issue in tightening the times is that MAX is timed to try and meet TRE trains in both directions. Inevitably with commuter rail, whose headways are roughly one hour in non-peak times, that will mean one direction will wait longer than the other.

Of course, that gets into a whole new debate about providing transit service in a low-density area such as ours, and I really don't want to dive into that again.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dallas' Does Bike Lanes

For those that know me personally, it may be a bit of a shocker to hear; I just have a hard time getting motivated blogging about Dallas' new bike infrastructure. I am really just weary of constantly sounding negative about the City's attempts to urbanize itself. I occasional feel that even though I am trying to give an objective, unbiased opinion, it comes across as overly pessimistic. Occasionally, something like Klyde Warren Park or Third Rail Lofts comes along that is very solidly urban and actually prove that I can like something Dallas does to its urban core.

Sadly, the City's attempts at bike infrastructure downtown follow the same, tiring pattern.

Allow some background information before I continue. In 2011, the Dallas Bike Plan was released. It was put together by the Toole Design Group, who is based out of Seattle and has offices nationwide. FULL DISCLOSURE: I was apart of the planning process of this report. For the most part, it was a solid plan. Like any planning study, there were some things I thought could have been better, but the whole was a really solid plan to move Dallas' biking infrastructure and culture forward.

However, as is always the case, politics comes into play. First, Dallas staffers told folks that it was too expensive, that ordinances would have to change, that intensive public information and meetings would be needed (click here for an Dallas Observer account). Then, thanks to intense pressure, it was able to get done.

That's the messiness of planning. Two very different planners could tackle the same issue and, with the same data and input, come to radical divergent conclusions. Add in the political process, either the will to get it done, or the desire to block it, or something in between and the reality that plans get half-implemented or just sit on the shelf is easy to see.

When it comes to bike infrastructure in Dallas, it has been all the above.

A plan done by a consultant is really the best-case scenario for a city. When the consultant turns in the final product, they are done with it. Should the municipality like it, they can then set the wheels in motion to get it implemented. If they don't, they can put up the required road blocks. And, in most cases, they decide to implement the politically pleasing ones while ignoring the ones that could be harder to explain to the constituency or donors. Again, it has been all of the above with Dallas.

Add in the bonus that the infrastructure implemented was done by someone who doesn't ride a bike, and the downtown portion severely underperforms.

There is at least one positive from the changes downtown, and those are actually the least intrusive and expensive. Several streets have had a bike emblem painted in right lane. While some don't like this, I can at least support it. It helps to illustrate to drivers that bikes do belong on the road.
                                          

Main street bike emblem. The bike shares the lane with vehicular traffic.
There are some whose placement is suspect. Most of the time, they are directly in the middle of the street, and the ghost lanes painted at the intersection help to indicate the cyclist is supposed to ride over this portion. The problem is that, like motorcycle drivers, bike riders prefer not to ride in the center where the oil leak lane is. The traction is different and occasional debris and other substances can be flown in the air. Most will ride on either side. My personal preference is just to the outside of the slick, as it also lets drivers know that I am in this lane and they should pass in the next lane.

Notice the darker part in the middle, indicating where oil drip has occurred, is right in the middle of the bike lane.
The ghost lane indicating the bike should ride in the middle.
As I mentioned in the Belo Garden critique, the lanes tend to change to correspond with the on-street parking. Cyclists will avoid changing lanes when it is unnecessary. Every time they change lanes, there is a chance, however, small, of getting in an accident. Doing it more than is necessary just adds too many small chances. Eventually, one of those will hit...literally. A system that automatically builds that in is poorly designed and/or implemented.

Otherwise, I do like the bike markers in the street. It is just the rest of what has happened downtown I don't like.

There are two bike lanes added to downtown, on the directly parallel streets of Wood and Jackson. The right vehicular lanes were removed and a buffered bike lane, resembling a cycle track, were put down. There is no discretion towards the existing part of the street, as they run over storm grates and drains, manhole covers and other obstacles.

There is a problem with vehicles pulling over into the lanes on both streets. It happens all day, everyday on both streets.

Three vehicles are in the bike lane on Jackson.

A maintenance is vehicle blocking the lane on Wood Street.
Both of those pictures were taken immediately when I arrived. I didn't have to wait for it to happen. This happens so much that even if cyclists do use the lanes, they have to keep going in and out of them. This is why most cyclists downtown will ride on Elm, Main and Commerce.

Another wrinkle is the property on the north side of Jackson has a bus lane that prevents vehicles from stopping there. If a delivery driver needs to make a quick stop at AT&T's corporate headquarters, should they block the bus lane on Commerce, block the bike lane on Jackson or go all the way to the subterranean loading dock off of Wood? Technically it should be the later, but we all know they won't. Heck, I wouldn't if it was an in and out delivery. What about taxi drivers? Where should they pick up and drop off passengers? There is no suitable solution here.

Bottom Line is that these two lanes are just in a poor location and then poorly designed on top of it.

One of the things some of the bike improvements have done is something I consider akin to an urban sin, take away on-street parking. While the bike lane could provide the buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians, nothing compares to a parked car. There is nothing like on-street parking. It gives every transportation user a benefit, even cyclists. Car drivers tend to travel slower next to parked which benefit riders too (just be careful to avoid opening doors).

Main Street was already a bicycle-friendly street. They didn't have to do much. I really feel it was made worse in some cases. Another example is the Central Expressway portion.

The bike land coming from Deep Ellum under Central Expressway

Under the freeway between downtown Dallas and Deep Ellum has never been a pedestrian or urban utopia. What it did have was a decent street with infrastructure to support Deep Ellum. What I mean is it was basically a mixed-use area for cars; freeway above, parking at surface and on-street, it was also easy to use for pedestrians and cyclists as well.

The addition of the bike lanes eliminated on-street parking, and though it wasn't extensively used, I have noticed that the cars traveling on this section seem to be going faster than before. I may be injecting my own bias in there, for what it's worth.

From a biking standpoint, what was once an easy pass by the freeway exit has turned into something a bit more complicated.

The bike lane past the Central Expressway exit on Main Street

According to state law, bikes are no different than motor vehicles in moving traffic. Prior to this lane, bikes could easily navigate the exit, just as the cars do. They had the full portion of the lane to maneuver if a vehicle didn't obey the yield sign.

However, with the addition of that lane, along with the ghost lane markings, the margin of error on this portion for cyclists is much greater. Expecting a cyclist to move from the far right of the street, equivalent to where the shoulder and on-street parking was, to the far left in a short distance, expecting the drivers to see and act accordingly is a recipe for disaster. For this reason, many cyclists have not used this lane when on the street. They continue to use the street, like before.

Any infrastructure design that increases the risk of cyclist injury is fundamentally flawed.

There is also a slight irony to how the city approaches the lanes too. In a large portion of downtown Dallas, there is an ordinance that prohibits riding on the sidewalk. It isn't often enforced, but tickets have been written from time to time. The Southern boundary is Young Street from Houston to basically the freeway by Deep Ellum.

The City closed the Houston Street Viauct for construction of the Oak Cliff streetcar. The detour is on the Jefferson Street Bridge, where the formerly one-way corridor has been converted to two-way and a bike lane connecting downtown to Oak Cliff was added.

The end of the Jefferson Street Bridge bike Lane.
Self-explanatory
Where the sign instructs riders to get on the sidewalk and the half-block stretch to where the sign says they can't ride on the sidewalk is adjacent to Young, where the City decided it should be illegal for bikers to ride on the sidewalk. 

I am aware that in construction zones, detours have to be made to accommodate construction crews. I would have less of a problem with this if there weren't any obvious alternatives.

Market Street is a one-way north of Young. Why can't cyclists go straight? Why do they have to turn left for a half-block, then have to make a U-turn and go back over that same half block. I understand that making a left across two directions of vehicular traffic is dangerous, but to not have the same option as drivers going the same direction is silly to me. The left lane is already going to be vacant as northbound traffic is on the east side to allow for two-way travel. There is no harm in letting them go straight. It also wouldn't violate the law of the City that told them to turn. Many cyclist just cut through to the left anyway and either go straight or turn on Young. It is not the safest thing to do, but it is the more convenient option.

It is these examples that clearly indicate that the person or folks who planned and implemented the downtown bike infrastructure isn't a cyclist. All too often, they either consult a manual to see what they accepted industry standard is, or, more likely, the traffic engineer does consults the AASHTO manual, which is close to a one-size-fits-all approach. The irony is most cyclist, as was the case with the 2011 Dallas Bike Plan, would willingly give their input. We'd rather see it done to a higher standard the first time. But, as the evidence on the ground shows, the input clearly wasn't sought.

Ultimately, this kind of planning will set back Dallas in the long run. If it doesn't make sense for people to use it, they won't. Then the "it's never used so why do we keep doing it" argument will surface and it becomes politically harder to do something that really can benefit everyone.

There are other parts of Dallas that have better bike infrastructure. The following pictures were snapped on Bishop Avenue, a street that had way too much concrete when it was recently redone to accommodate bicycle infrastructure.

Notice the on-street parking on the right, bike lane in the middle and auto lane on the left.
Between the parking cars, buses, intersections and turning vehicles, there are myriad points of potential conflict between drivers and cyclists on Bishop Avenue.

While not perfect, there are plenty of potential conflict points with motorized travel, it is a good example of how bike infrastructure can work in Dallas. There will always be conflict points, no system can completely avoid it, but at least here, unlike the lanes in downtown Dallas, the myriad transportation options don't have to be in a perpetual state of conflict.

I am a guy whose primary transportation choice is bike. Ultimately,the downtown infrastructure has done very little for that kind of biker. I like the bike markers, but don't use the lanes, even when I am on that street. The design is so rough that it is hard to use as the designer intended. That just shouldn't cut it. I speak for lots in the biking community when I say what has been provided has not disappointed, and that is truly a shame.

Dallas has a very, very long way to go for it to make biking a legitimate urban transportation choice.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Social Cause of Arts District Isolation

I commented on the Dallas Morning News' column from the architecture critic, Mark Lamster in the previous post. Today, I want to post a link about another, quite a bit more major, blog's response to Lamster's piece.

In fact everything built since the museum has been based on guaranteeing patrons that they will never have to set foot on a public sidewalk when they come to visit. Hence, when you drive through the arts district on most days now it has a certain dystopian aura, as if somebody set off one of those bombs that incinerates all the people without harming the buildings. Otherwise known as the sun, in Dallas.

So is that about pretentiousness? Don't be silly. It's about avoiding black people. We talked about this in May when I was writing about an attempt by the performing arts center to shut out the one serious black cultural institution in the arts district, the Dallas Black Dance Theater.

I told you the whole arts district was inspired by a so-called consultant's study in 1977 finding that the art museum, then still in Fair Park in black South Dallas, was in "a poor location for a facility whose patrons came primarily from North Dallas."

Ahem. Say what? What could that possibly mean? Oh, gosh we don't know, do we? Well, we wouldn't want to say. In fact, for a big brash ostentatious zhay erra city like that one on TV, the cat's just got our tongue, don't it? We're just all knock-kneed squiggle-toes when it comes to why rich white people don't want to go to South Dallas.

I won't comment on this other than to say Jim Schutze, who wrote the Dallas Observer's response, is a published author on race relations. I generally find him to be well-researched when it comes to his stuff.

I bring this up because it illustrates just how difficult the planning process can be. How do you balance the wants and desires of becoming an urban area, with other, sometimes conflicting issues that have no quantifiable measurement? In this case, the desire of the creators of the Arts District to that of the social concerns of those who plan to use it?

If I ever seem overly critical of Dallas' urbanizing attempts, it is because I come from the ideal of what urban areas should be. In cases like this, it can complicate that ideal. Which one is right is purely a matter of opinion.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Museum Tower and the Arts District

Though it reads like I might have, I didn't write the subject of this post. In the Dallas Morning News, Matt Lamster, the architecture critic, focuses on Museum Tower, but touches on the Arts District too. Added bonus, Lamster is a professor at my Alma Mater, UT-Arlington, which has a recognized architecture school.

The following are what I consider to be relevant points in the article.

The hot glare of contention has had the unfortunate effect of drawing attention from what is rightly the building’s fundamental flaw. Reflectivity issues, however serious, can be mitigated. But there’s no easy way to alter Museum Tower’s essential nature as a gated vertical community sequestered from the neighborhood that surrounds it.

...

It’s hard to imagine a less-urban urban building. Pushed back from the street grid, Museum Tower stands at a remove behind stone walls, generic landscaping and a barren, circular driveway. Think of it as an outpost of the suburban bubble dropped into the heart of the city, where it does not belong.

...

Just imagine what could have been: An engaging street presence with retail options to benefit the entire neighborhood, its own inhabitants included, and to encourage passage from the new deck park to the arts institutions along Flora Street.

One Arts Plaza, the gridded mixed-use tower at Flora’s northern terminus, at least makes some effort in this direction, as will a pair of towers in development along Flora, designed by Dallas-based HKS. A plan for artists’ housing on a site adjacent to Museum Tower should also improve matters. But those projects are no cure for Museum Tower, which saps vitality from the street.

On this score, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the principal victim of the tower’s reflected rays, would do well to think about its own street presence. The stone walls that shield Museum Tower were modeled on the Nasher’s own ramparts. If the Arts District wants to be something more than a bastion of privilege, it needs to come out from behind its walls.

...

The building was conceived as a standing sculpture, much like I.M. Pei’s landmark Fountain Place, a model for Museum Tower. But Pei’s prismatic tower is a far more rewarding form, a mutating, abstract obelisk, and it is a wonder at the street, where its signature fountains, designed by the seminal modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley, remain a great urban amenity.

Museum Tower, by way of contrast, is a rather banal stalk and offers nothing back in terms of public space.

That leads us to the barren driveway, minimally landscaped so pedestrians might have an unencumbered view of the tower’s tapering 42 stories of (brightly!) shining glass, its panels alternately fritted to add a bit of animation. That facade slips up above the roofline, smartly occluding mechanical equipment while emphasizing its verticality. The tower is far less successful at the base, where it sits on a boxy pedestal that has little relationship to the shaft, a problem that is especially acute from its dreary Pearl Street backside — too much junk in the trunk, as it were.

...

Museum Tower boasts all the amenities expected of a modern luxury tower and many, in addition, that seem intended more for marketing brochures than for actual residents.

Clubrooms and event spaces at ground level, meant to promote community, will see light use at best. Those same spaces should have been oriented to the street and programmed to genuinely develop a sense of shared experience. Residents might be happier with the convenience of a nice cafe or a grocer in the building — let alone a pharmacy or a dry-cleaner — and the whole area would benefit.

...


Such insularity is self-defeating and speaks to the building’s broader reluctance to engage with the surrounding community.

It’s one thing to have a kennel and pet-grooming station and another to have a private dog run, when Klyde Warren Park has one of its own directly across the street. Are Museum Tower residents really too precious to walk their dogs — or have their minions walk their dogs — in public? Even Jackie O. took her dogs out in Central Park.

At Museum Tower, exposure to the neighborhood is primarily visual, through the fishbowl-style floor-to-ceiling windows that have been vogue in contemporary apartment towers since Richard Meier ignited the trend in the early aughts.

...


It is, for example, difficult to square a building that boasts of “private estates in the sky” with any serious notion of green living. While environmentally friendly development should always be encouraged, there’s no escaping the perverse irony that Museum Tower’s theoretically sustainable facade is scorching its neighbors. That’s not sustainable, in any sense.

The only thing I would add  is the similarities of Museum Tower to the four main performance venues. Aside from the reflective glare, they suffer the same anti-urban flaws that Lamster recognizes in Museum Tower. They have unneeded setbacks, useless landscaping, single-use designs, blank walls and attention-grabbing architecture that lacks urban substance.

Lamster mentions that Museum Tower inhibits the Arts District from becoming the 24-hour vibrant community it was planned. The problem is, the Arts District itself does that already.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Humorist on DART

If you don't know or have heard of Gordon Kieth, You are in a decreasingly smaller pool. He started out at Sportsradio 13010 The Ticket, a station I used to work for back in the day. Keith was known as a humorist. He didn't talk or know much sports, but was up to date on current events. Despite his occasional annoying, confrontational style, he was a likable guy as well. He has been at the station since the beginning, 1994.He has the ability (but doesn't always do it) to have a deep discussion with a side of laughter. In the last few years, he has been increasingly on TV and in print, branching out.

Why do I bring this up on a planning-related blog? Well he commented on DART on the DallasNews.com page.

http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/columnists/gordon-keith/20130822-gordon-keith-missing-the-bus-on-dart.ece

While it isn't meant for an academic discussion, I bring it up for several reasons. One, it does come from a common man perspective. When he says:

The buses and trains don’t run frequently enough, far enough, quickly enough, or close enough. DART can’t correct those problems until enough people ride it. And enough people won’t ride it until DART corrects those problems.

it has the depth that shows there is more to it than he can get to in the column.

There is only one thing I take excpetion to and that is:

There’s also a psychological reason beyond the practicality. Cars are our independence. They’re our bubbles. They give us a justifiable aloneness in a day filled with the needs of other people. They get us door to door and leave when we want to. Texans are rugged individualists. We like our horses hitched outside and ready to ride at a moment’s notice. Life on another man’s schedule doesn’t sound much like freedom, and nobody likes to share a horse. So we settle into our commuting routines.

If you read my blog enough, you will know why. If you don't, let me explain. People, regardless of race, culture or status, will do what is convenient. Here, we have made only one thing convenient. It has nothing to do with independence. Are you really independent if you have to rely on something, in this case a vehicle? Yes, they may provide you with isolation, unless you consider there are three million other cars in our region a driver has to share the road with in their solitude.

So, I hope you take it for what it is worth and read it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Is Arlington on the Bus?

Small bit of transit news I have to relay and comment on, something that is near and dear to me. I love my Alma Mater UT-Arlington, which obviously happens to reside in Arlington, a city I happen to dislike. It creates a very big conflict for me. One of the big reasons I dislike Arlington is that for all intents and purposes, having a car is mandatory.

That really hasn't changed, but the City, UTA and business leaders funded and worked up plans to launch a shuttle bus that runs from downtown Arlington, specifically near UTA's new arena in the College Park District, to Centrepointe Station on the TRE commuter line. That debuted on Monday. It runs weekdays, 6am to 10pm. Since Centrepoint is the fare boundary on the TRE line, riders need only one fare, regardless of destination.

Website here
DMN story here

This continues a trend of area suburbs, without a full time agency providing service, contracting with Dallas Area Rapid Transit for some form of shuttle. With Mesquite, it was a commuter shuttle to the Green Line. For Allen, they want to funnel shoppers to their shopping centers. McKinney is a hybrid. Only Mesquite has gotten their service off the ground so far. As of this week, they now aren't alone.

First, I want to say I am proud of my Alma Mater. They convened something akin to a sustainability council several years ago and were able to get a lot of things done to lower their environmental impact. One of their recommendations was a transit service of some kind. They operate a shuttle service within the campus, but there are no broader connections. I thought this particular point was going to rest in the report and stay there. But, to my surprise and happiness, they were one of the main driving points in getting this shuttle running. My campus is now like many of the Dallas County Community College Campus and has at least some form of rudimentary transit service. Kudos to them for finding a way to get it done.

For this particular route, I really like it, especially when taken into context. Unlike the Mesquite route, this runs all day. Love it. Wish the frequencies were better, but they were timed to coincide with the TRE train, which is commuter and therefore a transit service with long headways, and that has nothing to do with this shuttle route. UTA is a school of 33,000, and since roughly 20,000-25,000 don't live on campus, it should have at least some using the service. Selfishly, I can now attend a weekday basketball game and not drive. Awesome.

But, as was my problem with Mesquite, this is still just a piecemeal approach, and is still plagued with the same political stumbles.

The rest of Arlington is still suburban-oriented. A car is still a must to be here and this bus doesn't change that, though there are plans for a stop in the sprawling entertainment district (I hope there is more than one, because the distance between the stadiums and amusement parks are great and a freeway even bisects the area. If it is just one, that will assuredly lower the ridership).

A lot of Arlington leaders recognize the shortcomings, and say that this will help change the attitude of Arlington residents toward transit. They have voted against transit initiatives three times after all. However, I debate that.

They voted against the 1980 Lone Star Transportation Authority, 741 for to 5,381 against but so did about 60 other area cities. Only four approved it. It was too vague and no details about service, governing structure or day-to-day managing made it very sketchy.

In 1985, a serious proposal came through that would have had only Arlington bus service, with a light rail line on Cooper or Collins with a Commuter rail connection to Dallas. Other than the lack of regional connections, just one on a commuter line, I liked the proposal, but it was defeated, 4,507 for to 5,735 against.

Then in 2002, a city-only bus proposal was put forth and it failed. In my opinion, it was so pitiful that I couldn't support it either. The vote totals were 7,716 for to 10,576 against.

So, of the three rejections, a transit proponent like me would have voted against two of them. Does that make them anti-transit?

Looking at the vote totals, the closest outcome was in 1985, when 44% supported it. That was also the best overall service proposal. With the change in times and demographics, I seriously believe that a simple yes or no vote to join either the Fort-Worth-based T or DART would be successful.

I can't say for sure if this made a difference in the votes, but a local bus service isn't worth much if there aren't regional connections. In a region this size, very few stay within municipal borders. There are also economies of scale at work. Look at the northern DART suburbs as an example. One route can cut through Garland, Richardson, Dallas, Addison and Carrollton. That route would be far, far less effective if it was only in one of those. Making the citizens vote on a regional transit service will likely change enough minds that it would pass.

In many ways, I think it may be the addition of something I believe to be a waste of municipal dollars and energy that is responsible for the renewed focus of Arlington civic leaders, Cowboys Stadium (or whatever the latest corporate name is for it). The auto traffic is so bad there that there is no choice but to realize the car is not the only piece here.

There are a lot of reports that contain Arlington is the largest city in the country without transit and that Arlington is hostile to the idea of transit. I would say that is somewhat inaccurate. Arlington leaders are very receptive to transit, but they don't have a lot to work with. Their sales tax doesn't allow for them to join the T, which needs a half cent, let alone DART, which is a full penny. Within the framework of how North Texas provides transit, what are their options. Until just recently, they couldn't even contract for bus service like they do know.

In the end, it doesn't matter if this helps change negative minds about transit in Arlington. If there isn't sales tax room, there can never be a vote, unless somehow a different funding mechanism is found AND agreed on by all parties. I don't think it is impossible, but the provincialism that runs rampant in DFW is no small mountain.

For what it is, I think it is really solid. This is a route I will use, as will several more since it hits one of the denser parts of Arlington, specifically the University and its potential student population. It will require multiple transfers if they are Dallas bound, since Union is adjacent to very little.

I'm often asked if something is better than nothing, even if it isn't perfect or near it. In this case, I would have to say yes.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Central Teardown

I am ashamed to admit this, but what I am about to post was published in the Dallas Morning News in early June.

http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/local-voices/headlines/20130606-j-branden-helms-downtown-could-use-one-less-highway.ece

The Texas Department of Transportation has its eyes on the roughly 1.5 mile stretch of highway between Woodall Rodgers Freeway and Interstate 30. Officials have presented nine rebuild or repair options. But some of us favor a 10th option: demolition.

As an individual with a master’s in planning who isn’t actually working in the field, I certainly am not the most eloquent spokesman for this project. That more aptly belongs to Patrick Kennedy, who has written about this on his blog and been the featured crusader in this paper on the topic. He even has a website devoted to it, anew
dallas.com.

I, however, do have a unique perspective. I have lived in downtown Dallas for seven years and worked in the core almost as long. In all that time, I have used the freeway only a few times.
I have endured the long, lonely walk between downtown and Deep Ellum far more often, and almost every time have lamented the vast emptiness the freeway spawns between two important Dallas urban neighborhoods.

That is what this is about.

Some drivers do use this stretch of highway to get downtown, but most are just passing through. Why are we sacrificing our urban neighborhoods to continue to help Plano, McKinney or Lancaster grow? They are doing great and don’t need Dallas to destroy its urban fabric to help them.

Meanwhile, something the entire region is facing a shortage of — a true, urban, walkable neighborhood — is divided. Imagine if we developed the freeway area. It could be transformed from something that requires money to maintain into something that provides tax revenue.

To some degree, we in Dallas already know this. Look no further than Klyde Warren Park. It has been hailed as a wild success exactly because it un-freeways the area. Instead of dividing these neighborhoods, the park stitches them back together.

So if we can make that case that demolition can be a good thing, why is it not even an option? The answer is really twofold, but both lie in the planning process.

First, TxDOT has built highways for as long as its officials can remember. It is their first responsibility. That works in outlying areas, where there are real estate prices to consider when opening up new land for development. But that doesn’t work for Dallas. What new land will be ready for development if this freeway stub is redone?

The other reason demolition is not considered is how the planning process actually works, usually with an objective listed. With this project, as with almost all of TxDOT’s, officials start with how they can move as many cars as possible for the lowest cost.

Many of the options will require a complete teardown anyway, so the project costs for this option would be drastically lower. And certainly this option has the best return for the city of Dallas and for cash-strapped TxDOT.

Ultimately, the best way to get TxDOT to consider this option is local pressure. The city of Dallas has to care enough. Otherwise it would be a long and bruising battle. There are those who are skeptical that a city that thinks with its car would actually pursue freeway demolition as an answer to some of its urban problems. I think it is possible, but those who are its advocate have to be loud and convincing.

As I alluded to in the article, there are better spokespeople than I. I leave you with the site.

http://www.anewdallas.com/

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Belo Garden. I promised it and as a man of my word (eventually) I will give forth.

Belo Garden is the second on four major parks planned for the downtown area. It opened in May 2012 to great fanfare. Paired with Main Street Garden, Belo bookended the Main Street District, the heart of urban Dallas. The idea was to extend the activity of the Main Street District out, provide urban greenspace and encourage redevelopment around the parks.

While Main Street Garden was designed to be a programmed park, chock full of activity possibilities and special events, Belo was intentionally designed to be passive and reflective. In many ways, they achieved their goal, and that is where a big problem with the park stems from. Downtown is not lacking of this.

 
In this Google maps above, aside from Pegasus Plaza, Main Street Garden and Klyde Warren Park (not pictured), all these parks have two common features: they were designed to be passive. Consequently, they have very few visitors.

One reason I waited to post until many months after its opening was I want to see how the space operates on a day-to-day basis. I had my suspicions but wanted to see in real time. Sadly with Belo, I wasn't wrong. Except for a few dog walkers, this park is empty most of the time. That is partly by design. A passive park that offers little activity possibilities will do this.

The most active portion of the park is a water feature that gets moderate use during the weekend mornings in summer and the Pegasus Charter School kids spend some afternoons here. It isn't uncommon to see kids running through and enjoying themselves. But otherwise, an empty, but pretty, Belo Garden is the norm.

The main active feature of Belo Gardens.

The other part of the park where activity is possible is the tables and chairs on a course dirt surface on the east end of Belo Garden. Designed as a picnic area, it succeeds in drawing some folks here. But as is often the case, the powers that be think many who are using it don't belong. This friction that exists between the homeless and downtown Dallas is evident here as well. Add in the fact that many folks already have a negative perception of the homeless, regardless whether they are actually doing something negative or not, and is another point of contention for the park.

I don't like that this animosity exists, but Dallas is a much more pretentious city than many of the true urban areas in the country. There exists a perception that Dallas' homeless population is also a bigger nuisance than these other cities and it has all the ingredients for a recipe in conflict.

Unlike the grassy section in Main Street Garden, all the grassy areas in Belo are tree covered. While shade is almost a universally a good idea in public spaces in Dallas, in Belo Garden, it makes the space useless for anyone who isn't dog walking. Picnicking would be a possibility, but in summer, the ammonia smell can be overwhelming in parts of Belo. The trees are too young for hide and seek, too thin to climb, too clustered for throwing or kicking a ball and there are no benches in the immediate vicinity to enjoy the shade.

Note the one bench you see in this picture is not near a shade-providing tree.

All grassy areas are similar to these.
Halfway down the park on the Main Street side is a hill. The main point of the hill is too minimize traffic noise. That is an admirable quality. The issue I have is the hill is so small compared to the rest of the park that it doesn't really do the job. Add in the fact that the higher volume of cars as well as the faster ones are located on Commerce Street and it is little more than a way to vary the terrain of the park.

This hill is better as a park feature than noise reducer.


A true noise reducer, as well as pedestrian-comfort amenity, would have been to allow on-street parking on either side of the park along Main AND Commerce. Main is already a street with slower speeds. Coupled with the setback of One Main Place, the primary noise and echo effect are not the greatest from Main. It is Commerce, with its higher speeds, higher vehicle count and the Earle Cabell echo that really causes the noise. No hill or metered street parking on Commerce mean that noise hasn't been reduced by the hill.

The bike marker and no parking sign are the final pieces of evidence that on-street parking was nixed. The noise-reducing hill is on the right.
Ultimately, it was this aspect that delayed my post on Belo Garden for so long. I kept hoping for something, like a different city department that was just late in the installation (or really re-installation, since both Main and Commerce had parking meters prior to Belo construction) of the meters and this wasn't overlooked. I rationalized they were on their way, since Main Street Garden was careful to include them in its design. Since the bike markers occupy the middle lanes of Main Street before arriving at Belo and after leaving the park, it then became obvious, with them on the edge of the street here that on-street parking is out. Sigh.

I don't like this for several reasons. When I get to the bike lanes in downtown, I will say that switching lanes, which is what is happening on this stretch of Main, raises the risk for accidents. In this case, it also guarantees no on-street parking, one of the few things that benefit both car users and walkers.

At least on Main Street, there is enough other urban activity and amenities going for it that it still has the feel of an urban street. Commerce Street is much less so and really could have benefited from the presence of on-street parking.

Straight, narrow and fast, a bad combo for pedestrians. This Commerce Street view illustrates the lack of cover for anyone walking next to this speedway.

One of the biggest controversies during the planning phase of Belo Garden came between the park organizers and the Metropolitan condos, which are adjacent to the park within the same block. The Belo foundation didn't want a driveway, which borders the west side of the condo tower, to be directly adjacent to the park. Their solution was a wall, which the building then opposed.

The wall between the park and neighboring condos.
This is one of the few times where I see both sides and can agree with both too. On the one hand, I understand the condo owners wouldn't like the front view of their lobby to be a wall, when it could be greenspace. I also understand they wouldn't like to have to walk to the edge of the property to go around and enter the park. I also see why the Belo Foundation wouldn't want their intentionally-designed "peaceful" park to be next to a driveway.

The sad thing is, both violate good urban design practices, which is why I really didn't take one side or the other. An urban building shouldn't need a driveway, especially when the property has to garage entrances on the north and south side. Why does there need to be a driveway on the west? From the park's perspective, building a wall, by definition divides things. Good urban areas are seamless and transition well from one to the other. In the case of this park, well, there clearly is an end point. Since neither side presented a good urban solution, I just didn't care, and ultimately, it is downtown that suffers.

One of the main positives talking points of the park by the way it was designed is also a negative. The designers intentionally used native, drought-resistant grasses, which is a really good thing, but the placement segments the park. They are tall and dense enough to tell users don't pass through here (besides, there may be a present from a four-legged friend in here). And on top of it, they built it on the edges too and it segregates the park from the sidewalk, a major urban violation.

Here, the grasses separate the picnic area from the rest of Belo. It happens in way too much of the park.
At the very least, Belo has an intangible that no other park in downtown has, something of comedic value. I'll let the sign speak for itself.



I hate that I sound overly negative...again. But Dallas talks a good game about making downtown urban, or rather returning to its urban roots. But then produces what they have been doing for the last 50 years, which turned it from an urban area into an office park. Main Street Gardens is a good urban park, though it has flaws, its urban design, things like on-street parking, sidewalk width, pedestrian amenities, integration of sidewalk to park, etc., are really solid.

Belo is not. The design separates the park from the sidewalk, isolates the pedestrian and offers the pedestrian little urban activity. Yes, it is better than the parking lot that was there, but downtown Dallas, especially in the Main Street core, doesn't need incremental improvement. It needs to, if not a home run, at least get an extra base hit every time. Belo is a walk.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Physical Importance of Walking

Planners, urbanists and those who advocate for walkable neighborhoods have done a really good job of giving overarching reasons why we need to increase the amount of walkable neighborhoods in our cities. One of the more obvious reasons why we need to increase them is health.

While it seems obvious, more walkability means more healthy citizens, where they haven't done a good job is getting into the whys, though it is beyond the scope of what they do. So I wanted to get into some detail on that, just why more walking is better for everyone.

Our bodies receive fuel from two sources, fat and carbohydrates. At its basic, the body converts fat into the energy it needs to operate. As I sit here and type this, as you sit here and read this, our bodies are burning fat, just to stay alive, as well as the small amounts of energy required to carry out those duties. Now, not very much fat is burned, so you can't claim to be working out by sitting.

The thing about fat is that it requires a lot of oxygen to convert to energy. That's why as we sit here, we breathe. It is also why as we exert ourselves more, we breathe faster and heavier.

It is at this point that our body switches to the second energy source. Carbs are a short-term energy source that do not require near as much oxygen to convert to energy. They are also not stored in any large quantities. If you have ever seen a bike race, the most popular being the Tour de France, they are constantly eating. The reason is to keep the carbs supply high enough to operate efficiently.

We most associate physical activity and muscle use with increased breathing, but it can be other parts of the body. If a person is sitting out in the mid-August sun with no shade, their body may switch to carbs to operate the cooling system because it is having to work a lot harder and also keep the vital organs going. At that point, they will start to breath faster, even though they aren't moving.

Unlike carbs, fat is able to be stored in very large quantities, in some cases beyond a reasonable health level. But the average person doesn't need large amounts of carbs, so the human body developed a system to store the energy we need. At some point, the body will convert carbs to fat and store the energy for future use.

Now the point at which the body begins the switching to carbs varies, but generally speaking, the better physical shape a person is in, the longer it takes. In other words, a person in good shape can run longer before the body switches. It is also important to note that just because you start to breath faster, doesn't mean the body has started the switch. It just means it needs more oxygen right now. Someone who is huffing and puffing is virtually guaranteed to be burning carbs, but one who is at a slightly elevated breathing level is likely to still be burning fat, just more of it than normal.

This is where walking comes in. The average person burns between 50 to 100 calories if they walk for 10 minutes and most people minus the exceptionally out-of-shape would burn fat to fuel that walk. If we lived in more walkable areas, going to run minor errands would not only accomplish the task, but burn fat, since that is likely the fuel source used at low levels of exertion.

An extra ten minutes of walking a day, taken out over the course of a year, using a conservative 65 calories per walk, would burn a total of 23,725 calories. One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, so walking an extra ten minutes a day would equate to a loss of almost seven pounds a year.

Now imagine if that came out of doing day-to-day things, instead of having to find the time to walk. Replacing neighborhoods that require a car with one where it is one of many options has a huge health benefit. Just living in a more walkable neighborhood, and changing a lifestyle to match the neighborhood, would slim the waistline tremendously.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

D2 in the DMN

Frequent commentator Ken Duble and I did a dual column for the Viewpoints Section in the Dallas Morning News.

Link here: http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/local-voices/headlines/20130308-j-branden-helms-and-ken-duble-where-should-a-second-downtown-dart-rail-line-go.ece

Ken Dublé and J Branden Helms live and work in downtown Dallas. Both have strong opinions about where a second downtown rail line should go. DART and city planners and experts have discussed this for years, and they have a few options (though no funding yet). The map above shows the options they are debating, but you can explore other alternatives on the interactive map at www.DART.org/D2. Some people, like Ken, want the rail system to help support major events, tying the airports, major hotels and the convention center together, creating a large multi-modal hub around Union Station. Others, like Branden, want the system to be affordable and convenient for the greatest number of daily commuters.

Branden: If we want DART to be a true transit system, the focus has to be on riders. Among other North American cities, the ones with the highest ridership are the ones that focus on residents.
There are two options that will give users of the DART system the most destination options: the subway under Commerce Street or the line on Young Street. Commerce Street has the most density and most pedestrian-friendly urban design of all the options to really boost ridership potential.
Ken: Concerning the alternatives you cite, Commerce has the highest ridership, but it would be second only to the convention center hotel route in cost. Young Street is the least costly, and it’s the only route DART believes it could build without outside funding.
Before deciding where to lay a track, you must first decide what you want it to do. Commerce would create a tight circle around one part of downtown, but that area is already developed. We ought to anticipate growth, not chase it. Let’s make the loop as large as possible and let streetcar lines serve the interior.
Branden: Ken, what you say has merit, but my major concern with using development potential as a factor is Dallas has a very poor track record of true transit-oriented development. Due to a lack of development controls, existing transit-oriented development like Victory Park or the Shops at Park Lane are more accurately “transit adjacent.” There is no connectivity. Neither development pumps any significant amount of everyday riders, mostly due to poor design.
Meanwhile, Commerce already has great design and land uses. If a subway were put down, the density of offices, residents and hotels along the route would add riders. The design and density are already done.
Ken: I share your frustration with Dallas’ history of poor land usage around suburban stations, but the issue before us is a route downtown. The entire system now shuts down when there is a problem along the Pacific-Bryan track. Also, providing a second track means DART could double its schedule.
We’ll lay the track someday. The question is where. This could be our last rail line. Given the size of downtown, do we really want to lay a second track three blocks away from the existing one?
Branden: I would say yes, if it moves the most riders. Why would we make folks who work at the large office concentrations like AT&T or nearly every resident downtown walk farther to use the new line or risk losing riders with yet another transfer? Every major city’s transit agency has major lines a block or three away, so this isn’t outside-the-box thinking.
Ken: While Commerce ridership projections look impressive, many now catch the existing line three blocks away, so they wouldn’t represent new ridership. DART currently operates two bus transfer centers along the corridor, including the poorly located East Transfer Center.
The Union Station-convention center option could replace both with a single multi-modal terminal at Union Station, which could someday serve high-speed rail service from Houston. The former Reunion Arena site has a mammoth but underused parking facility in place. To focus on the West End is to bet the 21st century will be much like the 20th. Is this a bet Dallas can afford to lose?
Branden: If the Orange and Green Lines will run on the new track, and the Red and Blue on the existing track, then it doesn’t matter their proximity — they run to different destinations.
Ken, nothing suppresses ridership like lengthy trips and transfers. A Union Station alternative does both. Additionally, there is very little around the station. So anyone who now uses the two routes that would run on the new track will face the choice of a longer trip or a transfer to a streetcar or bus. Many choice riders will choose their cars. I fear that overall ridership could actually dip if Union Station is the chosen alternative.
Ken: It is out of concern for lengthy transfers that I advocate a giant transfer terminal near Union. Many low-income people, who have no choice but to use DART, make two transfers both morning and evening. Some arrive and depart into one transfer center and rely on light rail for transport to catch a bus at the other. They would benefit from closing downtown’s West and East transfer centers in favor of a mega-transfer center at the site of the former Reunion Arena. It could serve high-speed rail, Amtrak, Megabus, Greyhound, bus lines to Mexico, taxis, the streetcar, the Trinity River Express and the light rail trains.
Branden: Union Station is too far removed from the rest of the urban fabric downtown to be a quality transfer point. Transit service works better when it is point-to-point, not a hub-and-spoke model. With little to walk to from Union, transfers will become a must, therefore adding time and reducing ridership potential. The walkable West End Station is by far the most used station in the DART system and should be the central point. Moving it all to Union would be a disaster.
Ken: That West End is the most used station right now is entirely due to the transfer activity you dismiss. The Akard and St. Paul stations are situated in similar points of density. What they lack is the West End-Rosa Parks transfer feed. Were this relocated to the Reunion site, then Union would be the busiest station.
According to a Brookings Institution report released last week, Amtrak boardings at Union grew 482.9 percent from 1997 to 2012. Even without high-speed rail, activity is increasing at Union. The Oak Cliff Streetcar will add even more. We mustn’t allow the present to limit our future vision.

I don't want to speak for Ken, though he did express the same thoughts during the process. The format was restricting: we each got 5 responses, one after the other, at roughly 100 words per response.

There are a few supplementary points I would like to add.

Ken says that the line would parallel the current line. That is true to a point, but the lines aren't the access point, the stations are. Since he advocates for Union being the transfer point of the new line, by proxy, I am advocating that the West End Station/Transfer Center/Rosa Parks be the transfer point for the urban system.

Therefore, you can't say the the West End Station is parallel, since that's the transfer point. Akard Station @ Pacific and Akard Station @ Commerce are three blocks apart. However, since Main and Akard is the center of urban life in Dallas, that is actually a plus. This would become the second busiest station on the Green Line if the Commerce alignment were chosen, after West End.

After that, the stations drift further and further apart. St. Paul Station would be five blocks from a potential Harwood Station. Pearl Station would be over eight blocks away from a potential station on the Young alignment. It would be possible, but I don't think DART is planning a station for the Commerce option.

Second, Commerce isn't all built out. There is lots of potential for development near the West End Station on the north, south and west side. 

Akard doesn't have anything immediately available, but there is potential on small parcels to the east and south. That is also why it would be such a highly-used station, because it is built out with pedestrian-focused buildings. Finally, the Harwood Station would have almost the entire southeast to redevelop. 

The Young Street option would also have greater. In fact, it would have more than either Union Station alternative, since it runs close to the middle of downtown, unlike the Union options, which are on the very edge until at least Young Street.

However, I really dislike using development-potential as a selling point. Most Transit-Oriented-Development's in this country do not increase ridership in any large way. Modern development, spurred on by development codes and institutional controls, will always accommodate the car first. A look across the country sees this effect. From transit-pioneering Portland, to transit-heavy New York, new development, billed as TOD, is actual not pumping many riders into the system. What is doing that, is larger redevelopment of buildings and neighborhoods built before WWII. This also doesn't account for a lack of TOD guidelines from Dallas, which is why we see so many "TOD's" in Dallas do little for DART's ridership numbers.

So, development could occur all along a Union Station alternative, and very little to moderate, at best, ridership increases would be seen.

Commerce, on the other hand, already has a large collection of pre-WWII buildings, all ready to have a complimentary-transit component built.

Finally, as far as transfers go, I do not dismiss them. Even the 800 lbs. gorillas of transit systems require transfers. The key for them, and what we MUST do, is minimize them as well as their impacts. A West End Station transfer point is much more conducive for urban travel than Union.

I have said why, but I will try to do a better job of explaining. Within three blocks around West End Station is over 3 million square feet of office, 379 residences, two hotels, El Centro College and its 10,000 students, county offices and the retail/restaurant areas of the West End.

If you live, work, visit, eat or shop, you have a reason to be there. Yes, there is a lot of transfer activity, but it isn't the majority of trips. It may seem like it, since people transferring linger longer, but that station attracts a lot of activity.

Compare that to the East Transfer Center, where there is the Sheraton Hotel and a whole lotta nothing. Even the nearest rail station is a block, and a pedestrian-unfriendly one at that.

In many ways, that's what Union Station will be like if it were a transfer point. Yes, one day there could be high-speed rail, but does that mean we inconvenience everyday riders with a longer trip and more transfers.

With the West End, it is a possibility that the area is a final destination for riders. For the super, vast majority, Union won't be. For those where neither station is the destination, the West End provides the quickest route, as it runs through downtown, instead of around. 

Simply put, the West End is the quickest, most central point, and if transfers are the focus, then the West End makes sense, if the point is to minimize their adverse impacts.

And yes, Amtrak bookings may have gone up, but the average is still less than 200 a day. 

Add that with the murky future of high speed rail in Texas, with funding completely unknown and TxDoT favoring a station at DFW. Did we make DFW a central transfer point in the DART system? No, because it doesn't make sense to do so. It is too far removed and Union is the same way on a micro scale. In essence, Union is to downtown Dallas what DFW is for the region. Yes, there are plans to make a transfer point at DFW on the Cotton Belt route, but it isn't the central point of the entire system.

For me, it always comes down to this: those who use the system multiple times a week should be the focus. As it stands now, Union isn't even the central transfer point of the DART system, by a long shot, not even in the top 5.  So why would it be forced to with the new line?

The last bit I have to offer is a case study from other cities. Foreign systems fit, but I will keep it in this country for simplicity's sake.

New York has two major transfer areas. Midtown/Times Square and Lower Manhattan, though they are a misnomer, because just about every station is a transfer to another line. Both of those spots are in the middle of urban bustle, not the edge like Union would be.

Washington D.C. has three major ones, all in the middle of the urban area. Their Union Station, the destination for every commuter and Amtrak rail line (including the only high speed rail line in this country), serves only one out of their five lines. The sixth, the under-construction Silver Line, won't serve Union either.

And in a system very similar to Dallas', with similar veins of thought and time in the planning process, San Francisco's BART system operates a lot like the current DART transit mall now. All of the transfer activity is under Market Street, the heart of the financial/downtown area. It is also where MUNI and the cable cars run. Instead of a transfer point, it creates a transfer corridor.

I have criticized DART for being a commuter system. The Commerce Street option would be a great step in swinging that pendulum a bit toward urban. The Young Street option would, though not as much. None of the other options would. In fact, it might even swing that pendulum more toward commuter.

Now, try putting that into 5 different 100 words bits.