Tuesday, April 16, 2024 Apr 16, 2024
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Good Public Transit

How Urban Planning Consultants Can Shape the Future of Dallas

As it turns out, DART riders prefer better service over more service. How the agency got those results tells a powerful story about the nuts and bolts of urban planning.
Munn Harris Architects

Would you rather bring the family to a restaurant that offers you a few pages of menu items or a restaurant that only makes two or three dishes? Probably the former, right? Now what if the first restaurant had a terrible health department record, was panned by every dining critic in the city, and takes an hour to get the food on the table—but the second restaurant has a Michelin star?

Different story.

This is, essentially, the game Dallas Area Rapid Transit played this summer when it surveyed Dallas residents about its planned bus system overhaul. DART has long insisted that Dallas residents favored a bus system that covered as much of the city as possible. After all, whenever the agency threatened to change a bus line, riders pushed back. And when DART asked riders, non-riders, and other stakeholders in its survey whether they preferred a system with broad coverage over one that focused on increasing ridership, 55 percent said they wanted coverage.

But then DART asked the question again in a different way. Would Dallas residents prefer a short walk to a bus stop followed by a long wait for the bus, or a long walk to the bus stop followed by a short wait for the bus? The results flipped. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they preferred the long walk and the short wait, while another 29 percent said just make the whole damn hassle with the bus go as quickly as possible.

In other words, 76 percent of the respondents preferred the ridership-oriented, high-frequency bus network model. The question just had to be asked in a way that made it clear that they were choosing between quality over quantity.

When DART briefed the Dallas City Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on these survey results yesterday, I immediately thought of Jarrett Walker. Walker, you may remember, is the transportation consultant that DART hired last year to help guide the agency through the bus redesign process. Urbanism advocates were excited when Walker got the job, and yesterday’s briefing showed why. The simple rephrasing of the choices facing Dallas residents shows how the right consultants — the ones who understand the scope and stakes of complicated urban planning problems — can propel a public process toward new and more beneficial solutions.

For decades, public transit has been discussed in Dallas like a kind of mobility welfare, the last transportation option for poor people who can’t afford to get around Dallas in any other way. As a result, DART has built out a bus network designed to get buses as close to as many people as possible. But a bus network that covers a sprawling geographic region yet takes hours to get riders anywhere is not only not very useful. It is also something no one really wants. It took more than 35 years to get someone like Walker in the room to frame that choice in such a way to make it clear that DART’s customers want something different than what they were being served. DART riders want quality over quantity.

That is how good consultants can shape public planning processes. Conversely, it also shows how bad consultants can ruin urban planning. This came up a second time at yesterday’s briefing, but you had to be watching carefully to notice it. The council committee received updates on most of the pending big ticket transportation projects in the city. Now that the Trump administration is on the way out, DART officials are confident the federal funding for D2, the second downtown light rail alignment, will be green-lit by the spring of 2021.

There are other transportation projects underway at the same time. The I-30 “Canyon” redevelopment near downtown and the Cedars is moving into a more detailed engineering phase, though the planned improvements to the freeway east of downtown to Fair Park and beyond are still some ways out. Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Transportation is moving into the next stage of detailed study around the future of I-345.

I-345, as we all know so well by now, is that short strip of elevated highway that disconnects downtown from Deep Ellum by connection Central Expressway to Interstates 30 and 45. We believe it needs to be torn down and replaced with a boulevard and dedicated an entire issue to making that argument. In 2016, TxDOT’s CityMap study looked at how replacing the elevated highway with an at-grade boulevard could stitch back the urban core and free up huge swaths of land that could completely revitalize the city’s urban heart.

With accompanying and equitable land use policies, the boulevard-ing project would ideally create a more vibrant urban district by allowing for the development of desperately needed affordable housing, helping lure jobs back to the center of the region, and expanding the city’s tax base. This could generate billions in new economic value that could be recaptured by public entities and used for both funding the project and bolstering city services.

TxDOT officials told the council committee yesterday that they will begin to look at the traffic implications of turning I-345 into a boulevard, rebuilding it below grade (like Central Expressway), reconstructing the road as an elevated highway, or doing nothing, an option TxDOT says it always has to study.

TxDOT doesn’t really need to do that study to know the results—we just need to know which traffic consultants it hires for the project. If the state agency conducts its I-345 traffic study as it has in the past, we can be sure that they will show that turning the road into an at-grade boulevard will create a traffic nightmare — a dreaded “carmageddon.” This is what typically happens when traffic engineers look at traffic problems, even though in case after case the removal of urban highways has not created traffic problems but reconstituted urban street grids that can improve overall mobility.

During the presentation, Council member Cara Mendelsohn of Far North Dallas urged TxDOT to expand the range of its traffic study to ensure that it accounts for all the drivers that currently use the road. This is precisely the wrong way to be thinking about the next steps around I-345. Rather, the council should be pressing TxDOT to hire a traffic consultant who has a proven track record with dealing with urban transportation planning with the nuance and subtlety it deserves.

That’s because the future of I-345 is about so much more than traffic; it’s about revitalizing Dallas’ urban core. If the council bases its decisions around the road’s future on traffic projections—which have been proven to be a dubious science—then it will likely fail to see that that I-345’s future is not about a road, but about rethinking the city’s historically disastrous approach to urban mobility. It is an opportunity to embark on the single greatest economic- and equity-minded development in a generation.

As with DART’s bus redo, it all comes down to how the engineers, consultants, and bureaucrats working on the project frame the question. Is Dallas trying to solve for moving traffic through the city center or is it trying to revitalize the urban core?

Put another way: is this about the quantity of traffic on Dallas’ roads or the quality of the city’s future?

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