Guest Post by Austin Rucker, a Realtor with Dallas-based Von Buren and Associates
Back in 1904, the city of Dallas had about 72 miles of electric streetcar lines worth around 32 million dollars. In today’s dollars, that is $804 million or $11 million per mile of track. In fact, the first streetcar opened in spring of 1873 from the courthouse down Main Street to the Houston & Texas Central Railway Station. In 1940, the fare was seven cents.
McKinney Avenue is named for Collin McKinney, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and the man credited with suggesting that all Texas counties be made 30 mile square, so you could travel to the county seat and get back home all in one day. McKinney Avenue was the road that was used to get to the town of McKinney. The streetcars are the first modern transit option the city ever had. Rail has left it’s mark in Dallas: Pacific Avenue is named for the eponymous company whose rail ran through our downtown.
The current MATA (McKinney Avenue Transit Authority) line was put together using only $28 million from TxDOT, and soon will have one of the original streetcars from the original line that was sold to GE and Goodyear. The line was disbanded in 1956 to make room for a bus route that never happened.
Tourists visiting Dallas love our trolleys. They wait for a chance to ride on the streetcar. Stranger still, Uptown commuters take the line to work downtown. It provides an alternative to driving (and parking), and ridership in 2015 was over 635,000. Trolley conductors take careful headcount, and the balance of commuters to visiting sightseers swings 80/20 between weekends and weekdays.
The original McKinney Avenue Trolley line ran up and around what is currently Javier’s curve just north of Knox and Henderson, and I believe it needs to run there again. The road swoops around for a nice loop on the one way road. Anybody who goes into that part of town on a Thursday night can tell you how driving a car there is a huge liability. Roads are packed beyond belief at that corner, and with at least one twenty-two story apartment building going in, there will be even less room for anything on four wheels.
A handful of us envision returning the MATA line to its roots. There is no other solution to congestion in the McKinney and Cole corridor. The closest related concept is a bubbling of business interest to transform McKinney and Cole into two-way thoroughfares. While moving the trolley into the middle of the road is not a problem, it brings up the mightiest debate in all of traffic history: one way or two?
Once upon a time Dallas had two-way streets. But, beginning in the early 1950’s, under the leadership of Mayor R.L. Thornton, the city changed most of the downtown streets to one-way, presumably so drivers could get out of town more quickly. It was a national trend. City planners du jour claimed streetcars didn’t work well on one-way streets. The Dallas Railway & Terminal Company shut down its Belmont–Seventh route in 1955 and the rest is streetcar history.
City departments of transportation in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere have generally favored one-way traffic flow from impact studies done mostly in the 1940’s. These studies generally found that under one-way traffic flow, accident rates, especially involving pedestrians, were considerably lowered while traffic was able to flow with less delay and greater speed.
Almost universally these older studies found that one-way streets had 10-40% lower accident rates than when previously two-way. Most significantly, pedestrian accidents declined far more, by 30-60%
But then came the ’70s and ’80s and slumping downtowns. There are many examples of cities that have revived slumping downtown areas by reverting back to two-way traffic which, they claim, slows cars and permits more engagement. Vancouver, Washington’s downtown was stone dead until they switched the one-way roads into two-way. Minneapolis tried to do the same thing with a somewhat lively district and was not as successful.
Since 1980 several one-way streets have been converted back to two-way flow in downtown areas. In 1986, Denver converted seven streets on three one-way couplets. Average intersection accident rates increased 37.6% while average mid-block accident rates increased 80.5%. The City report noted that accident rates were up on all three couplets “as is expected with two-way operation” (Pages 23 and 29, Source 7). Lubbock, Texas in 1995 converted two streets back to two-way. Overall accident rates increased there 41.6% (Source 8).
One-way operation permits much better traffic signal progression for smoother traffic flow. This results in traffic moving at regulated speeds with less stop-and-go driving. Less fuel is consumed and there is less air pollution. One-way signalized operation also tends to cluster traffic into “platoons” with wide gaps between them . This makes it much safer and faster for cross street traffic, bicycles, and pedestrians to cross major streets.
Another benefit is in use of space. Because one-way streets move more traffic per lane than two-way streets cities with one-way systems need to devote less space to roadways. Four lanes of a one-way couplet carry as much traffic as a seven-lane two-way street. The one-way dynamics leading to superior safety and capacity are similar to why three-way intersections work better than four-way ones. A grid with only one-way streets has only two-way intersections.
But most two way streets have lower traffic speeds than one way streets. Since the issue along McKinney and Cole is really parking, the only thing traffic speed does is improve how quickly people with nowhere to park can drive around getting frustrated, looking for a place to park.
Switching from one-way to two-way roads just means people with nowhere to park will be able to drive in circles.
When the problem is parking, traffic speed is irrelevant.
Full disclosure: Michal Motorcycle, Siobhan Winfrey and I are actively pushing to have the McKinney Avenue Trolley run up to Knox Henderson, thereby eliminating a few hundred cars from the streets. Anyone who wants information on this, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
The most difficult thing about moving the Trolley to run up to Knox Henderson would be dealing with under the road utility lines. But it could be done.
And it could ultimately prove fruitful to real estate: extending the line to Henderson could reset sales prices of multi family units along the new path. It would be another huge buyer plus: a truly walkable community with the added benefit of a trolley line that serves historic significance and moves large numbers of people in an organized, sustainable manner to parks, businesses, restaurants, bars and home
Before tw0-car families existed, the electric streetcar moved Dallas. And as anyone who has been on State Street in Santa Barbara, or downtown San Francisco, or Brooklyn can tell you, the streetcar combines a near perfect blend of historic throwback for tourists and modern efficiency for commuters.
Let’s right a historic mistake and restore the McKinney Avenue Trolley to run the original route all the way up and around Knox Henderson this year. Who knows, with success, we could even bring it full circle to SMU.