Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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How Highways Hurt Dallas

To grow the urban core, we need to rid ourselves of the conventional thinking that destroyed American cities.
Illustration by Phil Foster

On a recent business trip to Dallas, I was shocked by how much concrete and how few people I saw. My first impression was that Dallas is a city stuck in an outmoded way of thinking about transportation. It was like my plane was a time machine that had taken me back to 1970, when everyone still thought that the way to fix congested highways was to build more and wider highways. Coming into town, I saw more concrete going down, from the DFW Connector Highway Construction Project north of the airport to the massive LBJ Express Project. I learned that about $15 billion is currently being spent on highways in North Texas, more than in any other region of the country. All the construction seemed bizarre because the area already seemed to have an unhealthy abundance of highways. This is not bragging material for the city; this should be embarrassing. Given what has been learned about highways in cities over the last 40 years, priorities could have been better placed elsewhere. 

In my experience as a transportation engineer, debates about inner-city highways nearly always boil down to a fight between two competing paradigms: the “traditional” and the “conventional.” Regardless of the specific transportation challenges in a city, people tend to line up on one side or the other. Within 30 minutes of landing at DFW Airport, it became obvious to me that the conventional forces dominate in Dallas, and they are failing the area.

Of the two paradigms, the traditional one is older by a few thousand years. Its fundamentals evolved and were codified in the first cities. Traditional transportation planning and design concepts arose from the need to create proximity and access, to facilitate the exchange of ideas and goods. For most of recorded history, that has meant walking. So city blocks were built to human scale, and streets were laid with connectedness in mind. Dallas worked under the traditional paradigm and thrived on its concepts until the late 1960s. Up until then, Dallas was an urban, vibrant, walkable, transit-friendly city.

The second paradigm, the conventional one, is relatively new in the history of cities, dating back only to around 1910 or 1920, when the automobile shifted our thinking. Conventional transportation planning and design are part of the broader modernist movement, which influenced everything from dance to architecture. Modernism rejected old, complex ideas and celebrated simplicity. This shift was fine for, say, a chair—an ornate mahogany Queen Anne becomes a sleek molded-plywood Eames—but it failed when it was applied to land use and transportation planning. Modernism allowed highways into cities because planners assumed that connecting distant objects on the landscape with fast roads was important enough that the damage done to inner-city neighborhoods was a price worth paying. Unfortunately for the affected cities, both assumptions were wrong. 

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President Eisenhower is known as the father of the nation’s Interstate Highway System. In fact, its full and proper name is the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Even Eisenhower—a native son of Denison, by the way, just north of Dallas—never intended for highways to run through cities. As the system’s name suggests, he saw them as a network laid across the country’s vast open spaces and as a way to move troops and equipment. In retrospect, bringing highways into cities was the biggest public-works blunder in American history. The move was championed by industries that stood to profit (car makers, highway builders, trucking companies). 

To create a culture that would embrace the conventional paradigm, those same interest groups worked hard to change the organizing principle of cities. Rather than accommodate pedestrians (the traditional approach), cities would cater to the car. Pro-automobile marketing, research, policy, measures of effectiveness, funding, projects, and development followed.

As one example, consider the history of the term “jaywalking.” According to Peter Norton, a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the term gained prominence thanks to the efforts of auto manufacturers. A turning point came in 1923, when 42,000 citizens of Cincinnati, fed up with pedestrians getting mowed down in the streets, signed a petition to limit the speed of cars to 25 mph. The auto industry fought back. Local dealers got Boy Scouts to stand on street corners and hand out anti-jaywalking fliers (“jay” being a term for a country rube who didn’t know how to conduct himself in the city). 

On a national level, Detroit started offering a free service to newspapers. Reporters could send in a few facts about traffic accidents in their cities, and the auto industry’s safety committee would generate a bogus report on cities’ overall situations. “The newspaper coverage quite suddenly changes,” Norton told the BBC this year, “so that in 1923 they’re all blaming the drivers, and by late 1924 they’re all blaming jaywalking.” 

The auto lobby took the fight into schools, too, getting the message out that streets were for cars and not kids. By the 1930s, anti-jaywalking laws were commonplace. The conventional paradigm put people into the category of barrier, and that barrier got removed. 


Dallas Embraces the Car—and Its Own Demise

For the majority of its history, downtown Dallas embraced the traditional paradigm. The Dallas Municipal Archives contain no shortage of black-and-white photographs of bustling street scenes from the ’30s and ’40s. Then the thinking changed. City leaders decided that all congestion had to be alleviated. In the early ’50s, under the leadership of Mayor R.L. Thornton, who would eventually get a highway named after him, Dallas began making most of its downtown streets one-way so that the cars could more quickly get out of the city and into the suburbs. Of course, city planners claimed streetcars didn’t work well on one-way streets, so the city got rid of those. In 1955, the Dallas Railway & Terminal Company shut down its Belmont–Seventh route, and the Dallas Morning News proclaimed the move “the beginning of the end of streetcar service in Dallas.” To make way for diesel buses, the city set to paving over the abandoned tracks. 

Then came the noose of highways around the city’s neck. A study of aerial photographs from the 1970s to 1980s shows how the concrete and cars devalued the land around downtown as they choked it off from surrounding neighborhoods. The city has worked to change that dynamic, building an impressive Arts District, but those silver bullets can’t bring life back to the city on their own. Dallas cannot become vibrant again as long as the conventional paradigm prevails, except perhaps in small urban pockets. 

Dallas has a nice skyline. The buildings look like an arrangement of perfume bottles on a shelf. But great cities are best appreciated from the perspective of the pedestrian. Dallas was like that half a century ago, before planners decided to get rid of all that congestion.

Notice the pattern. Where conventional values prevail, the city becomes less vibrant and exports people and value to the suburbs. Detroit is the poster child for this process. After World War II, the vibrant and traditional city embraced conventional highway building, arterial widening, and superblock development with gusto. Its reward: more than 60 percent of its 1.85 million people left for the suburbs via those new highways. 

In downtown Detroit, a decaying I-375 leads directly to the Renaissance Center, General Motors’ headquarters (another silver bullet, built in 1977, to help revitalize a downtown). The Michigan Department of Transportation had plans to rebuild and expand I-375 but is instead considering tearing down the highway to restore Detroit’s traditional, slower, multimodal street network. It is remarkable that a city like Dallas—a city awash in oil and gas money, a city with the slogan “Big Things Happen Here”—has been beaten to this big idea by Detroit.

The Difference Between Traffic and Trips

So why does the conventional paradigm fail and the traditional one succeed? Let’s ignore social, environmental, and other concerns and just focus on traffic. Cities exist because they facilitate social and economic exchange. A portion of these exchanges require travel so that people can meet, get to a job, or buy food. The total number of such trips is a function of the social and economic activity in the city; the more trips, the more activity.

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A long trip and a short trip, if each is made for the same purpose, have the same value—but they have different costs. For example, a dentist going from her home to her office by driving two blocks has the same value to society as another dentist who drives 16 miles to her office. However, the latter costs about 100 times more in public infrastructure.

“Trips” and “traffic volume” are two different things. In cities, we want lots and lots of trips but not a lot of traffic. Imagine two cities, Southtown and Northtown. Each accommodates the same number of trips, except that, on average, Southtown’s trips are twice as long as the trips in Northtown. If you put a counter on a sample of streets in both cities, you’d find that Southtown enjoys the same level of economic and social exchange, but it suffers twice the traffic volume. Northtown is as vibrant as Southtown but it has half the traffic. Trip lengths are determined by transportation infrastructure, land use, and density. Differentiating between trips and traffic volume helps us understand how cities can grow their populations and economies while lowering their traffic volumes. Cities such as Vancouver, Copenhagen, and Melbourne have figured this out. 

The population of Dallas proper, not coincidently, has remained nearly static for the last decade. The blame can’t be placed solely at the guardrails of the highways encircling downtown (the sorry state of Dallas ISD plays a big role, too), but they have done their part. The modernist idea of driving a car quickly over a long distance in a city does not scale up without damaging the city. That was unknown in 1910 and 1920, but it is well known now.

This doesn’t mean that high-volume streets are bad. Great cities can have high-volume streets. In fact, America’s cities used to have wonderful downtown arterials that were home to theaters, shopping, department stores, dense housing, and civic buildings. They were the best addresses in town, with lots of pedestrians, vibrancy, and social and economic exchange. They had the highest rents and were central to city life. Unfortunately, the nature of the arterials and their markets were damaged through incremental changes driven by conventional thinking of the sort that led Dallas to pave over its streetcar rails. Average trip lengths rose, vibrancy was destroyed, and value was exported to suburban shopping centers. The arterials became barriers and the worst addresses in town. Some even became highways.

Conventionalists will scare people with simplistic questions such as “How will people get to work?” Rest assured, people get to work in good cities, too. London doesn’t have any inner-city highways. People get to work. The eggs still get delivered. Traditionalists recognize the complexity of cities. They know that, for success, many layers of city-making need to work together.

Cities are complex, but the vision for Dallas can be simple. Ask yourself, “What should Dallas look like in 100 years?” My guess is you don’t envision empty streets at night and the noose of highways around downtown. My guess is that you envision a vibrant, beautiful place that engages people on foot—something a lot like those old pictures from the 1940s, before the car became supreme and we let its highways run us over.