Thursday, February 22, 2024 Feb 22, 2024
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The City Planner Comes to Uptown: A Conversation With Author and Designer Jeff Speck

Uptown Dallas Inc. welcomes the author of one of the most popular city planning books to talk about what could be Dallas’ most walkable neighborhood.
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Courtesy Jeff Speck

Last week, Jeff Speck was looking at a map of Uptown and trying to make sense of McKinnon Street. It is basically an elongated freeway on-ramp that shoots drivers onto Harry Hines and the Dallas North Tollway. It’s a big wide street in a neighborhood that should be the city’s most walkable, but you wouldn’t want to be on two feet here. Elsewhere in Uptown, there are enough one-way streets that the neighborhood still functions, in part, as a commuter spoke for drivers.

Speck is a city planner and urban designer who authored the best-selling planning book over the last 45 years, Walkable City. It explores ways municipalities can achieve the goal spelled out in its title. He followed that with Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places, which is also very literal. (And includes some dings at Dallas: how our high-rises come paired with surface lots and garages, how we practically trademarked the “Dallas Donut” of apartment buildings flanking parking lots.)

Uptown Dallas Inc. flew him in to speak on Monday night at the Crescent. It finally appears that the city will soon convert McKinney and Cole streets from one-way to two-way streets, a core tenet of Speck’s goal to help cities design streets to make neighborhoods safer for perambulators. (The city recently made public 30 percent design documents pertaining to making those streets two ways.)

He was still researching the neighborhood when we spoke last week. But he still had plenty to say that Dallas can learn from. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk a bit about how you’re approaching the lecture? Uptown is heralded as one of our most walkable neighborhoods, but there are still significant design challenges—one way streets, narrow sidewalks—that prevent it from reaching its potential.

My lecture will have probably 40, or 50 images in it from Uptown. Because there are the generic principles, and then there’s asking, okay, how are those principles evident and how are they applied in this place?

Look at the one-way pair of McKinnon and Harry Hines. I mean, McKinnon is basically a highway. Then we look at the very wide lanes, and the number of lanes, on Cedar Springs Road.

McKinney Avenue is four lanes with the train in it. And so maybe that makes sense. But McKinney, there is an absence of parallel parking.

There are some really nice, walkable parts of Uptown. But its principal axes are really car-centric at the expense of the pedestrian. Let’s have parallel parking that protects the curb instead of these wide open curbs where you’re walking literally within three feet of cars going 45 miles an hour, and it just feels horrible, right? It has the makings of a fairly complete district. Geographically, it’s the size of about two neighborhoods, because neighborhoods tend to be a five-minute walk from edge to center. It’s got a dead center, quite literally, in the cemetery.

I’m sure a lot of people commute to it and commute out of it. But it has the greatest potential as a somewhat self-sufficient sector in the city.

When you’re visiting these Sun Belt cities and advocating for better pedestrian infrastructure, most of these cities are struggling with design decisions from generations ago that have benefitted the region often at the expense of the city and its neighborhoods. If I’m a city councilman, what is your advice to figure out ways to create walkable neighborhoods and environments within a city that has roads that effectively operate as highways?

In terms of political opportunity, it’s often difficult in a city to get the suburban city councilors to support the downtown efforts, right? When I was working in Oklahoma City, Mayor Cornett asked his fellow councilors, ‘hey, do you really want to be a suburb of nothing?’ And that was effective in spurring their support.

But we all know downtown Dallas isn’t nothing and has a lot of great districts. I think it’s important to distinguish the interstate highways that can potentially be removed, but in the meantime, effectively separate the city into disjointed sectors.

That’s pretty impossible to fix without moving the highway to distinguish those from surface streets that have taken on highway characteristics. The opportunities we see and we act upon to make cities more successful is to identify those surface streets that are unnecessarily designed to highway criteria when they could just as easily and effectively be designed to neighborhood criteria.

Engineers are often confusing volume with speed; you can actually move more cars on a road at 30 miles an hour then you can at 50 miles an hour because of spacing distances that are required by drivers. The attenuation that happens among vehicles when they speed up actually makes a 30 mile an hour road have a higher capacity than a 50 mile an hour road. That’s just an interesting fact.

Courtesy Whole Foods

In frequently congested urban areas, the limit to the volume of vehicles occurs almost entirely at intersections. It’s the capacity of intersections that determines the speed of travel, and not the design speed of the road. So many of your city streets like McKinnon and Cedar Springs Road are designed to a high-speed standard, based on the misconception that that’s going to cause it to handle more traffic when, in fact, its capacity is a function of its intersections.

Is vehicular capacity the driving factor in determining how the city should function? It’s the responsibility of city leaders to decide what they want the capacity to be.

You mention highway removal—what to do about Interstate 345, which separates downtown from Deep Ellum, has been something the city’s been weighing for almost a decade now. But it starts to feel like cities don’t have the power when it comes to state-led transportation projects. You’re seeing that gridlock in Austin and Houston, as they oppose TxDOT highway expansions that the state prioritizes.

The chairman of the board of TxDOT once said Texas is not a public transit state. TxDOT views its mission as moving cars. Plain and simple.

You say the city has no power. That’s really not true. A unified city that wants to stop a state highway expansion can do that. The problem is that rarely is the city unified behind stopping a state highway expansion, because there’s always some at some portion of city leadership, either public or private, who sees the benefit from the money being spent. And that’s why it’s so important to me to paint the full economic picture to the degree that I’m able of how urban freeways can economically help regions, but they always, always punish the inner city. There’s no countervailing evidence to contradict that statement that urban freeways sunder center cities.

How does designing for neighborhoods affect the commute?

There’s a chart in in my book also that contrast the 20-minute commute with a 20 minute and 48 second commute. And the difference is, yes, you can average 45 miles an hour for your whole commute, except that last mile, right? We want that last mile to be 25 miles an hour. Because the last mile is the difference between having a downtown that’s easy to get through into a downtown that’s worth arriving at.

If we want to have a downtown that’s worth arriving at, we’re going to ask you to spend one more minute on your commute, going a little bit more slowly through the downtown core. The downtown core is a minor part of most people’s commutes. And therefore, your commute entirely doesn’t have to be impacted.

Then, what are the ways we can make the street safer? I talk about safety, comfort, usefulness, and interest. But I find I can really focus on safety and that gets me where I need to go, in terms of explaining things and convincing people.

There are about 20 different things that you can do to make the streets safer. Like number of lanes; there are probably some streets that have more lanes than they need. The width of the lanes is super important, whether it’s 10 feet 12 feet or more, has a dramatic impact on driving speed. When you have more than one lane in any given direction, such as your one-ways, then you have the opportunity to jockey and people become different kinds of drivers.

There’s no countervailing evidence to contradict that statement that urban freeways sunder center cities.

Jeff Speck

There is the presence of parallel parking, presence of street trees, whether you have a centerline or not—on a two lane, two-way road, having no centerline has been shown to reduce speeds by seven miles an hour. That’s part of the counterintuitive thing, which is the fundamental distinction between properly designing highways and properly designing urban streets, which most engineers forget, is that on a highway, we set our speed based on the speed limit. Therefore, anything you can do to reduce friction makes it safer.

On a city street, you’ve set your speed based on the environment. Therefore, anything you can do to reduce friction makes people drive faster and makes the environment more deadly. A very important thing, and this relates to getting cars through downtown quickly, we can replace signals with stop signs. According to one study of 199 signals in Philadelphia, you reduce severe pedestrian injury injury crashes by 68 percent when you remove signals for stop signs. Why? Because no one driving legally is ever going quickly through the intersection. Right? When you convert a multi lane one way system to a two lane two way system, that’s when it becomes possible to replace the signals.

How does public transit factor into this?

The challenge regionally is to get is to get the large job centers on transit. Unless you encourage large job centers on transit, then you can’t live without a car however walkable your neighborhood is. And that is a long-term zoning objective that should be part of your planning.

If you have a good transit plan that is dovetailing into a good land use plan, then you don’t need every neighborhood to be balanced. The first two rules of planning are to locate density of housing and jobs on transit. And the second rule is locate transit where you have a density of housing and jobs. You need to have a high frequency transit plan that maps out where your high frequency routes are, and they could very well be bus like you see in Houston.

But you map out where your high frequency routes are. And you have a separate plan that maps out where, as a region, you’re doing your best to incentivize density of jobs and housing, and those should be the same map. They connect to each other, on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

It’s much easier to add housing to a heavily business neighborhood than it is to add business to a heavily housing neighborhood. Residents tend to resist mixed uses, whereas businesses tend to welcome it. You know, try to bring a 7-Eleven into a suburban neighborhood and they’ll meet you with pitchforks, but we had the strange thing in the United States, unlike almost any other country where we had this concept of the CBD that was strictly commercial. And those are the places that have seen the most growth.

Transit is the key to still having a functional region, even though you may have concentrations that are heavily housing or heavily office.

Dallas historically hasn’t invested in infrastructure for cyclists and other forms of micro-mobility. But maybe if it did, if the city did install more protected bike lanes, for instance, that it would lead to more people using them.

Saying you don’t need a bike network because no one cycles is like saying that you shouldn’t build a bridge because no one’s swimming in the river. Once you create that infrastructure, you create the culture.

There used to be this misunderstanding that somehow climate or culture or typography were the dominant factors determining bike population when it’s become entirely clear that bike infrastructure is what creates a bike population and specifically low-stress, separated bicycle infrastructure.

You have a lot of smaller streets in your cities where the bikes can just mix with traffic, but on on the major thoroughfares, the bikes need their own protected space. And obviously, with all the different forms of micro mobility we have now with E bikes, making it sweat-free on a hot Dallas day, with scooters and all the other strange devices that are landing in our streets, it’s all the more reason to have this separate lane for smaller, less dangerous vehicles—or I should say less dangerous to others.

One of the great frustrations observing the implementation of bike infrastructure is that you can invest a hell of a lot in it, but until your network is connected and safe and actually reaches most downtown destinations in a safe way, they won’t cross that threshold where it becomes widely used. And so cities actually have to make a very large investment—of course, it’ll be the cost of one cloverleaf, or less than that. Portland, Oregon over 30 years spent $60 million on bike infrastructure to become the Portland, Oregon that we know. But that was half the price of the one cloverleaf they rebuilt. It’s a question of priorities.

The cities that invest massively in bike infrastructure now, or micro mobility infrastructure, will see the benefit very quickly.


Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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