Don’t Mess With Texas Highways Part II: Demolish a Downtown Dallas Highway to Spur Real Estate Investment? What Makes a World-Class City?

I345 image006.jpg Dallas metro

Yesterday,  Ed Woodson, a Dallas attorney, and Aren Cambre, a computer scientist, gave us part I of their insightful, well-researched counter to Patrick Kennedy et al’s passion to tear down I-345 in downtown Dallas, an elevated highway they believe is choking urban living, creating a schism of disruption between neighborhoods and sucking up dirt that could be developed as housing units. Etc. Today, Ed and Aren bring you part two of their post, asking what makes Dallas a “World Class” city? They also ask, if we tore down I 345, where would the traffic go? A very interesting question as I spent the morning looking at development proposals and learning that Northwest Highway is already choking from extra traffic as people avoid LBJ/635 construction. A NCTCOG traffic study reports that Northwest Highway, essentially our city’s cross-town expressway, held 56,659 cars per day in 2011. With the current LBJ re-routing, that number is probably closer to 67,000 cars per day today. Traffic is like water: while a small amount may evaporate, most just finds the route of least resistance:

Dallas as a “world class” city

With regard to what constitutes a “world class city”, Mr. Kennedy sees densely urban cities like New York, Boston, or European cities. We see a “world class city” as one with a large population, healthy job market, and typical “big city” amenities like good restaurants, arts and culture, sports teams, good airports, and major universities. Dallas is already a world class city! The fact that we can drive from place to place does not change this.

Dallas also offers something that many other “world class” cities can’t: affordable single family housing. Key to the American Dream is home ownership, and all levels of government have supported that through tax breaks and other means, including the construction of highways connecting citizens to major employment areas. The result is, in many of the high-growth areas of the United States over the last fifty years (e.g., Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta), we see lots of suburbs and smaller urban cores (sometimes called “sprawl” for those who don’t like it). There are downsides to any type of growth, but in the absence of fifty years of suburban expansion the greater Dallas area would be a pale shadow of its current self. It might be denser and more walkable, but it would be a lot smaller and wouldn’t be “world class”. It also would not be what, by all appearances, Dallas’s citizens want.

Mr. Kennedy also invokes the flip side of this argument, namely that in the absence of embracing his concept of a new urban Dallas we will slowly devolve in to Detroit. We applaud his ingenuity in using a modern boogey man to try to bamoozle us. The argument is also scare-mongering that ignores the historical differences between Detroit and Dallas. Dallas has a stable population, better city government, and a lack of race riots and rampant crime, and has not experienced the near wholesale departure of entire industries, for example.

Mr. Kennedy’s argument regarding “world class” cities also begs the question, “What about Uptown, the Dallas area of fastest growth in the last decade?” Does one high growth area adjacent to downtown equate to a provincial city, but two high growth areas adjacent to downtown equal to a “world class” city?

The “noose” around downtown

As for the “noose” around downtown, or “wall” as Mr. Kennedy also refers to it, we don’t have a strong opinion. Based on the fact that many surface roads flow under I-345, the wall at the very least seems quite porous. In addition, there has been eastward renewal over the last 20 years in downtown. However, Peter Simek at D Magazine strongly disagrees with that line of argument and we do not understand real estate development enough to push harder on this issue, particularly since there are low hanging fruit elsewhere.

However, we do have one observation. For pedestrians, cyclists, and cars, getting from one side of I-345 to the other is a dream compared to the closest corollary we can think of: Northwest Highway near Preston Road. That’s exactly what we’ll get if we replace a freeway with a series of congested surface streets. I-345 helps us avoid this mess by getting traffic away from the surface, leaving the resulting area safer and more tranquil for everyone.

Considering the longer answer, and “New Urbanism”

Mr. Kennedy is a new urbanist. “New Urbanism” is an urban design movement promoting walkable neighborhoods and the balanced development of jobs and housing in urban environments. A central tenet of New Urbanism is that “high density” cities (more people per square mile) are good, and “low density” cities are bad. Corollaries of New Urbanism would be that the features of high density cities are good, such as multi-family dwellings (apartments and condos), and less reliance on cars. Traditional single-family houses are, if not bad, at least undesirable. Cars are bad. SUVs, we can only image, must be very, very bad. Living in Dallas must inflict physically pain on Mr. Kennedy. He would like for us, for our own good, to leave our single family houses, ditch our cars, move into the urban core, and heavily use public transportation.

So if the impact on traffic of tearing down I-345 is more intense than he admits, and causes a substantial reshuffling of Dallas living habits, that is probably a good thing in his view, as long as it is realized by Dallasites after the fact. After all, according to Mr. Kennedy, tearing down I-345 is just the first step in reimagining Dallas. How does the teardown start the process beyond obvious new development immediately adjacent to the current I-345? By changing our driving habits.

Induced Demand

Many teardown advocates love the concepts of “induced demand”, and “disappearing traffic”. What these theories boil down to is if you build more roads, more total traffic will be created, and if you remove roads, the total traffic will eventually be reduced. This seems true. We built highways in Dallas to aid suburb development. The suburbs developed, and now more people use the highways. If we tear down some highways, and capacity is diminished, over time the total traffic will go down as people avoid the traffic issues by driving less or elsewhere.

Where would the traffic go?

How do people adjust to (more) horrible traffic? By reducing commute length, by using alternate freeways or surface streets, or by using public transportation.

People can reduce commute length by either working near where they live or moving where they work. This effect would seem to be a clear positive to a new urbanist. Some people would move closer to downtown to be closer to their jobs (greater density in Dallas), and other people would move to jobs closer to their suburban homes (less driving in the ‘burbs). Mr. Kennedy specifically states that some of the traffic which dissapears following I-345’s destruction will be attributable to people moving to his new urban oasis east of downtown. Hypothetically, the worse the post-teardown traffic, the more rapidly the density of central Dallas would increase as people would be highly motivated to be closer to their jobs. Of course, the opposite could also occur. Jobs are already moving out of downtown, especially to Uptown, Plano, and parts farther north; reverse-commuting is already on the rise, and worse downtown traffic will accelerate that movement.

There is also the key issue of most people not wanting to change where they live or where they work. Mr. Kennedy’s proposed disruption is for the benefit of well-positioned property owners and hypothetical people who would move to the urban core at the expense of everyone else. There may also be very real limits on Mr. Kennedy’s perceived “pent up demand” for urban housing. While downtown, Uptown, and newly developed areas may be very appealing to single people or childless couples, relatively few suburban parents will be abandoning houses and school districts for apartments adjacent to downtown.

Through traffic, hypothetically, would find different freeway routes through Dallas in lieu of I-345. Mr. Kennedy estimates that 75% of traffic on I-345 does not exit into or out of downtown, and argues that following demolition such traffic would divert to other freeways, such as I-635, or surface roads such as Northwest Highway. Unfortunately, the details regarding traffic origins and destinations are very important, and this is why we and others argue that we should defer any demolition until after a definitive traffic study identifies such origins and destinations. To the extent the traffic in question is true “through traffic”, and both originates and terminates outside I-635, then alternate routes may be less problematic, if we are happy to subject current users of I-635 to more time stuck in traffic. That portion of the traffic, however, which either originates or terminates within I-635 will probably not have alternate freeway options, and will instead have to move to surface streets or, more likely, traverse the Mixmaster. The true breakdown of traffic types on I-345 is poorly understood, and rational people would want to know the answer prior to the irrevocable destruction of the only direct connector between two freeways.

But let’s suppose Mr. Kennedy is right, and the 150,000 daily vehicles (75%) of I-345 through traffic diverts. Where’s this traffic going to go? Loop 12, I-635, Bush Turnpike, and other roads. In essence, the rest of the Dallas area are victims who must endure far worse traffic misery so that Mr. Kennedy and his allies can play utopian games while enriching some property owners.

Some of Mr. Kennedy’s allies have very explicity cast this issue as a conflict between the city of Dallas and its suburbs, and we have little doubt that additional traffic on such routes is immaterial to them at best. But even if Dallas wanted to turn its back on its suburbs, everyone should recognize that the city of Dallas is more than its urban core. Many of the negatively affected suburbs, and the alternate routes which would aborb through traffic, are either wholely or partially within the city of Dallas!

As for public transportation, we’re all for it if someone wants to use it and pay their way. But it strikes us as totalitian and cynical to intentionally damage existing driving conditions to force people to use public transportation. As one Twitter follower of Wick Allison noted, while bemoaning the width of I-35E, “we wonder why mass transit doesn’t get utilized by the masses. They don’t have to.” Indeed, so we guess Mr. Kennedy should make them.

Lets all take a deep breath.

We like urban living. Both of us live inside I-635 and enjoy the city’s amenities. Ed lived downtown for a few years and thoroughly enjoyed it. More high-density development in the DFW area, if supported by adequate demand, sounds like a great idea. But urban planning on a blank slate is categorically different from urban re-planning in the midst of a metropolitan area of 5 million people, where billions of dollars have already been invested in infrastructure supporting the city as it exists today. So we do have an issue with tearing down I-345 when a cursory review of Dallas traffic patterns suggests catastrophic effects of a teardown. Perhaps our concerns would be ameliorated by a traffic study, but we won’t know if the teardown occurs before a traffic study is completed. We have a major issue arguing that we should tear down I-345 and, in the words of Mr. Simek, follow “the example set by cities around the country”, on the basis of Mr.Kennedy’s wildly optimistic, deceptive case studies. The proposed removal of I-345 is unprecedented, both in terms of raw traffic flow and I-345’s critical function.

So let’s take a deep breath before we do something stupid that we will regret later. Let’s determine what the traffic flow actually is comprised of. Let’s see if other alternatives exist. Perhaps we could also determine what the citizens of Dallas actually want, which is probably not more traffic misery.

10 Comment

  • Candy, this discussion was pretty much spot on. The I-345 situation clearly differs in crucial respects from the patterns in the cities cited as examples of freeway abandonment success. Demolishing I-345 would be a giant step backward. Not only would it disrupt traffic catastrophically, it would also anger and frustrate drivers who would have few other options. The geniuses who have proposed and advocated such a step should be institutionalized.

  • What is being missed in this whole discussion is there are those of us who not only want to see I345 torn down, but would like to see it replaced by tunneling under, like Woodall Rogers Freeway or more to the point Boston’s “Big Dig”.
    I’m sure we in Texas can do it without the headaches that plagued that project.

    All one has to do is look at the new Klyde Warren Deck Park to see what in redouble thing this would be for the eastern side if Downtown Dallas, and Deep Ellum.

    As for this series of articles by Ms Cambre and Mr Woodson, their whole tone is very rude and condescending – and makes having a fair and balanced conversation kind impossible.

    • mm

      Patrick, it’s your turn! I love the idea of another tunnel!

    • If you can come up with the cubic dollars to tunnel under, I’m all ears. The urbanists’ plan for I-345, however, clearly calls for sticking it to motorists. Avoiding massive congestion erodes their vision.

    • BTW, I love invocation of Boston’s Big Dig.

      Original estimated cost: $2.8 billion

      Actual cost: $14.6 billion

      Inflation does not explain much of that. 🙂

      • mm

        Could it be that the water/Boston Bay created more cost and problems than we might have in Dallas? I know it also took forever, as we took that route every summer on our way to Maine. The folks who have contracted to do LBJ apparently are bringing it in on time.

  • BTW – we also need to explore having a tunnel or two under Dallas for east-west traffic flow – AND include rail service with it

  • mm

    We need some development in Dallas to get the tax base broadened so we can afford all this stuff! That and to stop our City Council from creating stupid costly lawsuits that suck up dollars. Klyde Warren Park could be just the beginning! The Trinity Horse Park is another, and the re-development of Valley View Mall. Unfortunately, it all takes DOLLARS!

  • I agree that Bostons’ Big Dig was a huge financial fiasco, and maybe not the best example – but that doesnt mean it has not worked to Bostons’ advantage now – just ask ANYONE who lives there. The parkway that is there now is amazing and really connects downtown to the North End.

    Maybe I should use the Chunnel under the English Channel, or the two Baltimore Tunnells, for example.
    It can be done – and it NEEDs to be done – both with the I345 overpass, and at least one east-west connector.
    As for how to pay for them, let them be toll-roads.

    I would imagine that, if the I345 overpass is put into a tunnel, then development will come. And surely it would help the area it destroyed in South Dallas.

    Here’s the way I view things – Dallas is my home town, and I love it. No, it’s not perfect, but that doesnt mean we cant strive to be. Im in this for the long haul; long after Im dead and burried (though at 52, I hope to see some more great things happen in our city)
    I feel that these are things we HAVE to do for future generations – we cant just have the mind set that it’s too expensive now, that it’s too hard to do now – we have to look to the future.
    I think the mess that the I345 Overpass created in the early 70’s could have been avoided had there bee forethought.

    • I do not believe its’ accurate to say that I-345 has destroyed that part of downtown, nor do I believe it’s incompatible with desirable development.

      I observe renewal and redevelopment to happen in waves. In the current wave, the core downtown renewal is heading east. Except for the Arts District, you’re only now seeing it start to spread much east of City Hall. Interest is picking up on both sides of I-345.