Sunday, February 24, 2013

Politics at Play in D2

Last Wednesday, DART hosted a public meeting on the progress of D2, the second downtown Dallas rail line. The planning effort faded when DART's finances were on shaky ground after the sales tax that funds the majority of the agency declined during the recession.

DART planners narrowed the alternatives a few years ago to four options (seen in this PDF on page 4). They all run on the surface through Victory Park, submerge in a tunnel just south of Woodall Rogers and have a station at Lamar and Pacific. From there, they take different routes before rejoining the current Green Line at Good-Latimer and Commerce.

B7 runs in a subway under Commerce, B4 surfaces after the West End and runs in the old Santa Fe ROW by the current Aloft Hotel and proceeds east in the median of Young. B4a runs in the same Santa Fe ROW, but underground with a subway stop at City Hall before resurfacing on Marilla Street headed out of downtown. The final alignment was B4b, which stayed in a subway to the Omni, made a roughly 300 degree turn to City Hall and then headed out of downtown as B4a.

Those four are still in the running, but thanks in large part to the Downtown 360 plan, DART was forced to look at Union Station, regardless of the fact that they already looked at in the preliminary rounds prior to the four finalists. I talked about that specific section in a 2011 post. Ironically enough, much of what will come when I dissect the "new" alignments has already been posted there.

The preferred alternative for many city officials now is the C3a option, here the line would run at-grade on the current ROW of the Green and Orange Line from Victory Station to Woodall Rogers, where it would submerge into a tunnel towards Union. It would turn east after Union and run in the subway under property owned by Belo. If Marilla were extended west, it would roughly run under it. It would proceed east under Marilla using the similar routing as B4a.

Described as the poor man's version of the previous alignment, C3 has a similar feel. It too would run in a subway from Victory, but instead of having a station underneath the current platforms, it would veer east at the northern part of Reunion Boulevard/Young Street, surface between Market and Lamar Streets and proceed east in the median of Young.

Finally, to appease concerns from First Presbyterian Church, planners are looking at elevating the entire portion of the B4 option, as well another option eliminating the station at Harwood Street. This was done to "protect" their garage. It could be a casualty of ROW requirements for any Young-running option. I don't think either of these option are viable. Elevated railways have disappeared across the country in urban areas for good reasons. Minus a few exceptions, the are basically extinct. And not having a station at Harwood Street would be a terrible idea. What good is the rail line in the neighborhood to increase coverage if there isn't a station for those there to ride?

For me, any favored alignment will depend heavily on ridership. For other folks, different factors could be economic development, geographic/neighborhood coverage, cost or owned properties. Neither of those reasons are better than the other, but is just a point-of-view.

If we are talking ridership, the Commerce Street option is my favored alignment. It is closest to the dense section of downtown. AT&T is one of the largest employers in the region, and it is right on the alignment. Visitors are also more likely to ride the system than any other demographic and there would be a station at the 428-room Adolphus Hotel and the 330-room Magnolia directly adjacent to it. Within a block or two sits the 125-room Joule (they are currently expanding) and 169-room Indigo (at the Harwood Station), while the old Grand hotel is being redeveloped. The vast majority of residential buildings are in the Main Street core, of which this line is directly adjacent. The majority of offices are above Commerce Street, with the exception of AT&T, which is directly adjacent to a station, and Dallas City Hall. Add in the fact that Commerce, despite being too wide with too many one-way traffic lanes, is relatively walkable, it adds to the viability of the transit line. Simply put, this alignment is the most urban of all of them. If riders feel comfortable walking, then they will. Of all the options, this one is the most urban with the most compatible land uses and urban design.

Coming in a close second for me is the B4 Young alignment. It lacks the urban vibrancy of the Commerce alignment, and therefore will detract from potential ridership right there. It is also further away from the big drivers of transit ridership.

The first time around I was a bit more opposed, but because it splits the big employers of downtown (AT&T and Dallas City Hall) and it fits in with the fact that DART is a commuter system, I am a little less so now. That statement may confuse loyal readers, as I have railed against DART for designing a commuter system over an urban-style rail system (that's why I prefer the Commerce option), but that was before the streetcar became a serious option.

There were rumors at the time, but there has been concrete progress on the Oak Cliff line since and the momentum to connect it to MATA in Uptown is growing. The streetcar has the chance to be the true urban transportation system. It currently runs in the heart of Uptown. Though the first phase of the Oak Cliff portion isn't the greatest, the subsequent phases will run through the urban heart of Oak Cliff (I also have more faith that the folks running it "get" urban design, and therefore will produce a great product). So the DART rail system will function as the commuter system and the streetcar could function as the urban system, especially if the downtown portion is routed properly. As such, the Young option would be a good commuter line. Coupled with the Orange Line, the North Central corridor and the Northwest corridor from Bachman Station into downtown would reach both the current transit mall and the new line. With B4, it would split the difference, providing adequate coverage.

While I don't think it will produce as many riders as the Commerce subway would, the urban design, land-use and density just aren't there, it will do a decent job as a commuter option. Another big detractor for me is the lack of a quality pedestrian environment between Young Street and the walkable part of downtown. This would almost assuredly have to be addressed if this was the chosen alignment.

From here, there is a big drop off between second and third. The Commerce option is like getting a hundred dollar bill, the Young nine ten dollar bills. My third choice is like getting two $20's.

B4a is okay, but will lack for riders compared to the previous two. The only real draw is the City Hall Station, though even that is tempered by the possibility of closure after hours for security reasons. After that, there isn't much to attract any riders. The potential Farmers Market Station at roughly north of Canton and Ceasar Chavez is near some residential (though with huge suburban parking ratios) but that is it. The Farmers Market is actually several blocks to the south, on some of the most auto-dominated streets in downtown. The walk would be unfriendly and the current land-use and urban design won't help attract many riders.

Of the original four, B4b is my least favorite (maybe worth $15). I am glad to see that city officials are backing away from this option (though maybe not, since they are favoring a worse one). The Omni will not attract many riders to the rail system. As I chronicled in this post, across the country, regardless of the mode of rail, the airport stations carry a very small fraction of total system ridership. This was true in the bigger more traditional east coast cities, to the newer light rail systems similar to Dallas. This is likely that the regular everyday users aren't going to the airport and those using the airport aren't likely to take a load of luggage on a rail system. Those that do use the system are airport employees (and since airports are sprawled and decidedly low on the density scale,  they don't use it in any high proportion) and some business travelers. Most of the riders the Omni will attract is employees, and since there are greater concentrations of workers in other parts of downtown, it just doesn't make sense. It suffers from the same problems as the Marilla option, but will take way more time for riders to go from point A to B (reducing ridership) and cost a lot more to build.

Sadly, when adding either C3 option, nothing changes for me. Since their routing and station placements are so similar, the drawbacks are the same. If the other four were worth something, this feels like we have to pay something.

My biggest problem is directly tied to ridership. With most alternatives taking a near direct path through downtown with a central transfer point at Pacific and Lamar. That point is in the middle of downtown. And being direct, it will have no adverse effect on ridership. The C3's will avoid the heart of downtown. Having a central transfer point is great, but Union Station should not be it. Even if all the redevelopment talk materializes, most riders will still be destined for other parts of downtown. So picture yourself an Orange or Green Line rider, with a destination that is the most common, the center to northern part of downtown. From the north, they have to travel from Victory to Union, transfer at Union, then take a train up to at least the West End Station. Because either station is a subway, the transfer will take a bit more time, C3a will be directly under the current Union platform, C3 will be on the other side of the building. The trip length for most riders will be at least ten minutes longer than any other option, and likely closer to twenty. For captive riders, they will take it no matter what, but for most choice riders coming from outside of downtown it will be a deal breaker. Downtown doesn't need rail service on the outskirts. It needs it to be where it is most convenient for riders, not developers.

This is one of the critiques thrown at planners. They see Union as the location where Red, Blue, TRE and Amtrak trains meet, with a possibility of high-speed rail one day, and say that is where every other train line needs to be routed to make it multi-modal. West End works because there already is a great concentration of places to go for a great deal of people. It naturally morphed into a great transfer place because of what was already there. One can go in any direction and find places to go. The same can not be said for Union.

As an added bonus, I will critique a loyal readers proposal.

From Ken Duble in an e-mail:
My thought: rather than tunnel under Lamar and have two separate West End stations, why not tunnel underneath the Omni -- a shorter and less costly tunnel -- and use existing track between Union Station and the West End, as well as the existing station, then send the line north into the Victory area from there? Not only would this mean less track and less expenditure, but it would make Union a transit hub.

There's a something to this, but I don't think it is feasible. It keeps the West End as a hub but it doesn't solve the time problem of the C3 options. The core of downtown workers, residents and visitors is still above Jackson Street, and tunneling under the Omni ignores these key riders. It also doesn't relieve potential bottlenecks along the existing transit mall, which is a goal of the project.  I don't know his exact routing from the Omni out, but there is a horseshoe effect here, Omni, Union, West End. That means added time, which will have an added effect on ridership reduction.

Bottom line, there really is no way to serve Union without adding time and transfers for existing riders. I think if any Union Station alternative is chosen, there is a really good possibility that overall ridership of the existing Orange Line and maybe the Green could decline. I really believe the added time to take the rail system along with an unneeded transfer will really be a deal-breaker for some current riders.

I really hope the process will be able shake off the political pressure Dallas officials are putting on DART to get this route. They look at the rail line like a freeway exit, but it doesn't work that way. Also remember there are a great many riders who do not go downtown, but just pass through it, like from Plano or Richardson to Las Colinas. Adding an extra 20-40 minutes round trip will be a deal breaker. It already is time consuming, which has put off potential ridership gains, as seen in this post.

 These are one-and-done proposition. Once the lines are laid, that is it. Here's hoping it is done right. If not, DART will still rank at the bottom of U.S. rail systems per mile.

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.

Raising Kids Downtown

Some of you may know, but for those that do not, I am a volunteer columnist for the Dallas Morning News Community Voices page that runs every Saturday. Several weeks ago I submitted a piece that ran a week ago. In it, I talked about the reason my wife and I decided not to eave for the suburbs, a uniquely American phenomenon when we have kids.

As cities across the country have continued efforts to repopulate their downtowns and urban areas, Generation Y and the millennials became known as urban pioneers. Even before they could count on neighborhood amenities like close grocers or dry cleaners, they moved to places like Uptown, which was once devoid of urban amenities. Now the place teems with life and activity.

Downtown is following the same path. It isn’t there yet, but in the six years I have lived in this neighborhood, it has made much progress. My new neighbors are no longer urban pioneers, except in one important way.
Urban pioneers dated and married. Some then had kids. Conventional wisdom dictates that they would then get a house in a suburban setting. Certainly, some have followed that path.

But those who haven’t are the new urban pioneers. I often feel like my family is part of a group blazing a new path. I’m not going to speak for the others, but we have specific reasons we choose to raise our two boys in an urban area.

It’s not, as some anonymous Internet commenters have suggested, that we want to appear hip and trendy.
One of the biggest reasons is health. For a lot of reasons, kids today are the fattest, unhealthiest they have ever been. Giving them an environment where they can be active is very appealing to my wife and me. We envision a future where the kids, when they get older, are able to live a semi-independent life, where they do not depend on us to be their chauffeur. In the process, they will burn calories as they go, or so our line of reasoning takes us.

We also hope some level of exposure to people who don’t all look and behave the way we do will help them, too. They will see rich and poor, all races, genders, religions and everything between. We hope this understanding of their fellow citizens will offer insights that others may not have.

Even some commonly considered problems in this regard have benefits. I grew up in a small farming community in West Texas. Drug education basically consisted of “don’t do drugs ’cause they are bad.” However, my sons will see firsthand where drug or alcohol addiction can actually lead.

My wife really likes the idea of having many cultural facilities nearby. The Arts District venues are within walking distance. Fair Park is an easy train or bike ride away.

Certainly, as in any parenting situations, there are challenges. The schools zoned for our area leave a lot to be desired, even for me, a guy who thinks that parents matter far more than the school does in a child’s education. We are looking into Montessori schools, magnets, charters and other options.

There are also fewer kids in the urban neighborhoods than in the suburbs. More are coming to downtown all the time, but most of our kids’ play time comes at their school.

Now, we can debate all of the above, but I think there is one important thing to remember about any decision parents make. The best choice is the one they truly believe is best for their children.

If parents choose one lifestyle over another without that focus, the children are in trouble. But if parents do what they really believe is best for their children — no matter where they choose to live — then the children’s best interest is served.

In the end, isn’t that what we all need — more kids who are cared for?