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.
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.