Saturday, February 9, 2013

Freeway removal

After getting multiple e-mails regarding an article published in D Magazine, I figured it would be worth a discussion. It is no secret that I am not a fan of the freeway ring around downtown. It has numerous negative consequences for the built urban environment.

Well, Patrick Kennedy isn't either. That's no surprise to me, since his blog,, is one I follow. In fact, his was one of the inspirations to start my own.

In the article, Kennedy states that TxDoT's approach to I-345, the unsigned freeway between I-30 and Woodall Rogers linking Central Expressway and I-45 is too limited. As it stands now, they are looking at two options, replacement or repair. Kennedy says a third option should be on the table, demolition.

I-345 severs, Deep Ellum and downtown Dallas, creating a dead zone between the two. Kennedy makes the case (using land use economics that I am not as well-versed in) that using an outmoded form of transportation thinking, TxDoT is keeping downtown's (not to mention Deep Ellum) urban revival muted.

The traffic impact of removal would be minimal, he argues, since it is a regional road, and there are freeways further out that are built and made to handle it and unlike downtown, their land use doesn't suffer because of it.

I made a similar point here when I was talking about Julius Schepps in South Dallas. Regionalism is great, but the problem in Dallas, as well as all inner cities across the country, is that neighborhoods built before the freeways ran through them are the ones to make sacrifices, not the suburban neighborhoods that were built around the freeways. That is why stopping at I-635 or even Loop-12 makes sense. There is no neighborhood decay by the freeways running through them there, since they were built in tandem.

The downtown inner ring road was built to take traffic off the streets of downtown. Back in that day, planners saw that many of the vehicles weren't destined for downtown, just passing through, it was still the nexus of the regional highway system. However, when it was built, two things happened that weren't expected.

Fitting with the Induced Traffic Principle, the new downtown freeways attracted more traffic than was already there. Inversely, downtown streets stayed as congested as ever. So the problem the ring road was supposed to solve, downtown congestion, was only made worse. Most of that traffic was generated from regional traffic, who now saw an easy way to get through the city to the other side. Today, four out of five cars that drive on the Downtown Loop aren't going to or from downtown itself, so 80% of the users aren't local. That would be fine on LBJ, where the freeway fits. If downtown and Deep Ellum receive little benefit, but have a long list negative externalities, then something needs to be reexamined.

The second was the decline of the neighborhood. The required space needed for storage and use of the vehicles was astronomical and, like many other American cities that followed this chain of events, historic, functional buildings were torn down to make room for the cars. The continuity of city blocks were torn asunder as the once uninterrupted, pedestrian-friendly streetscape, much of which were lined with storefronts, was pockmarked by asphalt parking lots. These places were no longer the attractive places to visit and shop and instead, folks moved to the strip center or regional shopping mall (ironic since they were and still are patterned after the Main Street shopping seen downtown).

Thanks in large part to their solid bones and clusters of businesses left over, America's downtowns were still viable business centers, but rarely anything else. The shopping was gone, as were the theaters and most entertainment options and residents fled to the fringes. Anything else left behind had to adapt to the new reality or fail, restaurants had to have business hours revolving around lunch, stores changed target markets or were inventive (Nieman Marcus was a pioneer in online retailing).

In addition, the new infrastructure required massive amounts of land. Each freeway is roughly a block wide. The entire downtown freeway ring is over five miles (it would be shorter to go from downtown to Loop 12 than it would be to circle the loop) and passes over 50 blocks. The exit and entrances usually take up at least a block. Add in the parking requirements and it isn't hard to see that downtown is dominated by the car's infrastructural requirements.

This is where I struggle with the concept of downtown freeways. Downtown is supposed to be the center of the city and region. Yet, it is dominated by a transportation system that whisks drivers by as fast as possible for the sake of a suburban development pattern that doesn't fit an urban area. Why is interstate traffic being routed through downtown? Why is the suburban interests taking a priority over downtown's?

If we can make downtown a more vibrant active place, everyone benefits. The City benefits with an increased tax base and a greater tourism draw, city residents benefit by having a quality urban environment and public gathering space (the oxymoron here is that they wouldn't have an abundant supply of "convenient" parking, which they do now, but don't use because there isn't many reasons to go downtown). The region benefits by having the same thing.

There are some groups (road building lobby, trucking companies, landscapers, etc.) that will see a negative impact from downtown freeway removal, but seeing as how they have little-to-no stake in the actual neighborhood, their concerns take a backseat to the neighborhood. You can even take out neighborhood and replace it with city and it would still ring true.

In the end, everyone benefits from a vibrant city core. Having one that is gutted on the inside, but looks great at 70 mph as motorist cruise on by doesn't have the same effect at all. Demolition of I-345 would be great for downtown, Deep Ellum and Dallas.

1 comment:

Ken Duble said...

Thanks for your remarks, Branden. I, along with Mike Dunlap, and several other activists among the bicycle, environmental and complete streets community, attended a public hearing on this issue some weeks back. My own position is let's say we'll support the Horseshoe, which would dramatically increase freeway capacity around downtown, in exchange for closing I-345. Politics it the realm of the possible. This might be something we could get.