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Dallas Issues

Density & Dallas

By Joe Esposito |

Highways and local surface streets serve two very different purposes, and when you have a city dominated by one or the other you get very different results. It’s like momma used to say, “Too much of anything is a bad thing.” Too many regional connections (i.e., highways), and you get a hollowed out city that looks like Swiss cheese with large swaths of blight and small clusters of density. You get a city that looks a lot like Detroit (sorry Detroit). No matter where you fall on the political spectrum – blue, red, green, purple – I think we can all agree that we don’t want to be Detroit.

At the other end of the spectrum is New York and San Francisco where thinking small is king. Very few highways penetrate these cities, leading to dense neighborhoods where local surface streets are favored. Public transportation systems thrive here because everything is scaled locally. But the downside to these cities is cost of living. Both New York and San Francisco are prohibitively expensive, and lower-income households struggle just to pay rent. Forget about saving, purchasing a home and accumulating wealth. The middle class has no place in these great cities. This is why New York instituted rent control and built massive public housing projects.

For better or for worse, Dallas will never be New York or San Francisco. Hopefully, we never become Detroit either (really, I am sorry Detroit). If you had to guess, which end of the spectrum do you think Dallas lives in? Are we more focused on regional or local connections? In other words, are we more like Detroit or New York? Perhaps we’re neither and we’ve found the perfect balance between regional and local transportation modes and we’re a venerable Garden of Eden and all of those other cities are just jealous of our awesome job creation and population growth. After all, that’s what the newspapers say. But before you buy into it, let me point out a few unsettling facts.

Fact – Dallas has some of the highest number of highway lane miles per capita in the United States. The ranking varies depending on which study you look at, but DFW consistently ranks in the top ten.

Fact – Notwithstanding Uptown and Deep Ellum, some of the most blighted areas of Dallas are near the urban core despite their ideal location. It’s not your fault, but I’m looking at you Old East Dallas, the Cedars, Southside, and Fair Park.

Fact – Despite being the ninth most populous city in the United States, Dallas ranks around 113 (depending on your metrics) in density for cities with populations over 100,000. For a little perspective, Dallas has about 3,600 people per square mile while New York has 27,000 and Detroit has 5,100. Yes. You read that correctly. Detroit, which has acres of vacant land and scores of abandoned properties, is denser than Dallas. Hell, we’re not even the densest city in North Texas either. Garland, Arlington and Plano all beat Dallas in density. Let that sink in for a moment.

Are you still there? You haven’t jumped out of the office window just yet have you? I know. I’m just as astonished (embarrassed) as you are. Now let me ask that question again – where do you think Dallas falls on the spectrum of balancing local and regional transportation networks?

I know what you’re thinking. “But Joe, what does density have to do with highways? And who are you to make these claims?” Density is directly affected by highways because the easier and faster it is to travel across a region, the more far flung its populace will be. It’s simple. If it’s harder to escape to the suburbs, then less people will do so. As for your second question, don’t worry. I’m an attorney. You can trust me (*wink wink). Seriously though, I’m not an urban planner or traffic engineer, just a concerned citizen who cares about his city and knows just enough about land use and design to be dangerous.

Let’s face it fellow Dallasites – the local grid is fractured and a good chunk of the city is hollowed out (abandoned you might say) to the advantage of the far-flung suburbs and the high-capacity highways that serve them. In short, Dallas is not a world class city. At least not yet.

But where do we start? How can we turn back fifty years of unchecked, highway-centric planning? One option, discussed in great detail lately throughout this city’s publications, is to start tearing down freeways instead of building more. First proposed by this blog’s founder Patrick Kennedy, this option has been argued for and against with much passion. Both sides make fair points, which I will not discuss here. But as it relates to density, if this is truly your goal then taking away a primary means of mass exodus (i.e., eight lanes of reinforced concrete) is a pretty effective way of promoting density.

Another option, which will be my focus in future posts, is to look at the intra-urban connections within the city of Dallas and find areas where the grid has been compromised. Just like any enterprise, a city needs sound fundamentals to succeed. Nothing is more fundamental in a city than its streets. Sit tight for my next installment of “What’s up with that city council?” where I explore particular streets, intersections and blocks to see what went wrong (and sometimes right).

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