Brace Yourselves, Dallas is Going Through Puberty

Dallas: Third from the left

Cities have lives, personalities and ages just like people. London is a great grandfather. New York is an old man. Chicago grew up, OD’d, went to rehab and then flourished. It’s the Robert Downey Jr. of cities. Dallas is in its teenage years – a place between old and new, between the peaceful serenity of childhood and the calm stability of adulthood. We’re going through a change. And change creates chaos: We’re moody. We’ve got record rain accompanied by dramatic floods within months of dry air and impending drought. We’re angry….earthquakes are literally shaking the foundation of the city. We’re starting to talk back. ‘Because I said so’ is no longer a valid excuse from authority, and as the old guard loses influence new power and ideas are emerging. Nobody knows where we’re going, we just know we’re going somewhere. Our priorities are all over the place. We’re still focused on superficial things – we’d rather eat candy than vegetables, investing in shiny new bridges while leaving our core infrastructure in shambles. Our face is marked with potholes. All signs that we’re entering that phase that no one likes to talk about…puberty. Nobody’s going to blame you if you look away until it’s over. It’s a stormy time for anyone and everyone going through it does stupid things. All a bystander can do when watching a teenager is hope they can make it through these turbulent years and come out on the other side without doing anything so dumb they completely wreck their future, like getting a tattoo on their face. This lack of order and turmoil is exciting, and as Jim Schutze said, it’s what drew a lot of us here in the first place. We aren’t yet fully formed so we have a chance to make a greater impact on what our city becomes. You can’t build the personality of NY, there isn’t much potential left there. Not so here. The effect of our impact during these years is going to be transformative, and if we make the wrong choices we may not be able to recover.

A person changes a lot more between the ages of 6 and 16 than they do between 40 and 50. Take a look at both Dallas and NY in 1959:


NY obviously hasn’t changed as much. It’s gotten more vertical, but its density and character are very similar. This is probably a large reason why Peter feels that history in Dallas feels more elongated, “that moments in this city’s past feel further away than moments happening concurrently in other places.” They are further away in a certain sense. Again, 6 feels a lot further away from 16 than 40 from 50.

In the same way, technological developments have disproportionate impacts on different cities depending on their age and maturity. Showing a picture of a naked woman isn’t going to have much impact on a 40 year old man, but it can be borderline life changing for a 6 year old. When cars went mainstream in the early 20th century, New York was already an older gentleman – solidified, infirmed and set in his ways. The impact wasn’t as great as it was on young, impressionable Dallas which might as well have walked in on an orgy. We dropped our stuffed animal and blanky, ran to our room and set to building a shrine to the car as quickly as possible, erecting highways and parking lots while tearing out our streetcar system with eyes as wide as a chainsaw juggler.

In hindsight it seems clear we should have tempered our mania a bit which could have saved us a lot of money on our current transit system, preserved our neighborhoods, diversity, and prevented concentrated poverty, but it’s hard to blame people at the time. We weren’t the only city that did this. And our region actually fared quite well. From a traffic standpoint, we haven’t seen the hyper negative consequences yet (other cities sure as hell have) because there hasn’t been enough density for this to cause too much traffic congestion. But that’s changing. The core is growing more dense at a rapid pace, reaching a critical mass where attractions are now close enough physically that people want to walk. We should encourage that to create a more balanced mobility, utilizing different modes than just the car -otherwise our growing density is going to generate a traffic congestion disaster. Imagine if everyone in NY or downtown Chicago drove everywhere. It wouldn’t work. If we continue growing, a more balanced mobility HAS to happen at some point. Our bones forming, we’re undergoing structural changes, so our developments and policies have to change to match our age.

First, we need better transit. Currently, nearly all of our transportation dollars go toward highway building. but we’re in an urban environment and we simply don’t have enough land left to build our way out of automobile congestion. It’s no wonder they want to build a toll road over a river – it’s the only piece of land available. It’s the laziest solution possible. Unfortunately, more money for transit is a hard sell when our system is underutilized as it is. As Jeff Speck explains about Dallas in his book ‘Walkable City’:

“Civic leaders insist that driving remain as cheap and convenient as ever and new systems like DART go hungry for riders. Why take the train when you can drive there just as quickly and park for a dollar an hour.”

We don’t use DART because there’s little incentive to, thanks to another policy: parking requirements mandating that developers must add a certain number of parking spots to their projects. We have close to 70,000 parking spots downtown, yet some people still think we need more (even though one recent study claims 7000 spots remain empty during peak hours). These lots spread things out, making the neighborhood less walkable. Shifting this mindset is going to be a tough because when it comes to cars, we still have the attitude of a petulant tween. As Eric Jaffe notes (h/t Peter Simek):

“When we say we can’t find anywhere to park, what we usually mean is we can’t find a free or insanely cheap parking spot within spitting distance of our destination.”

It’s hard to blame people for this. It’s easy to get used to a certain lifestyle, and it’s hard to change. But the reality is not that we have too few parking spaces, it’s that we have too few people walking and taking transit so parking spots are being taken up even by people who would prefer those other modes. Those that might want to take transit can’t afford to, not because of price, but because the system isn’t dense enough. Speck continues:

“You get off the train, and…? The likelihood that you can then walk to any destination of utility is preprosterously slim. This might be expected in the system’s more exurban locations, where a park-and-ride commute is the norm. But park-and-ride only works-when it does work-if you don’t need a car at both ends. Downtown, only a few of the system’s stations could be said to provide anything resembling a quality pedestrian experience, and that experience doesn’t last long, because very little of downtown is truly walkable. Simply too much of it consists of over-wide streets carrying high-speed traffic along treeless sidewalks flanked by blank walls and parking lots. Like so many American downtowns, Dallas’s passes the Litman test of having been designed before the auto age, but it has been so transformed around the demands of the automobile that pedestrians appear to be more of a parasitic species”

It’s almost a Catch 22 – the abundance of surface parking dis-incentivizes transit riding, makes the city less walkable, which makes the place less attractive. But if we had less lots, downtown would be more attractive and walkable, so there’d be less need for a car and it’d be more justifiable to take transit – so there’d be less crying for the lots. The more lots are taken up by attractive development, the closer we get to not needing them at all. It’s like we’re pushing a heavy box up the side of a triangle and once we get it over the tipping point, gravity will slide it down the other side. Minneapolis is removing parking requirements to lower congestion and rents. They’re lower for older, denser cities and we’re getting older and denser. Philip Kingston recently discussed removing this parking requirement in downtown, and it’s the right move.

Finally, we have to be smarter about development. This is going to be an awkward transition because it’s a tragedy of the commons situation. It’s in each developer’s individual interest to continue to build car friendly developments because the city’s collective mindset hasn’t yet shifted from cars. But if they all do this, the core will be congested, less livable and inefficient using its land. All the developers will lose. The value of the developments will be lower than if they are linked. As Jim Schutze explains:

“There’s much more money to be made when developments are linked in fabric. ‘Connected together in a more uniform city-shaping or city-building effort, it’s like all boats rise. When you build the connectivity, the value actually goes up. It’s not just a destination, a one-stop. It’s about a larger community. It’s almost intangible in a way.'”

The tragedy comes into play when developers don’t do this:

“Brown told me there are lots of landowners and developers in Dallas who can make money on their own scraps of land, which he said they can do, “without having to come in and ask for zoning or things like that. Individually they can probably make some money. It would be profitable.”

Fortunately, some developers are taking that risk and building for our future. Whole Foods on McKinney, which opens today, is a great example of a neighborhood, multi-modal design. There are wide sidewalks with outdoor seating and a big entrance at the convergence of two streets. It’s also directly on a streetcar transit stop. There is parking, but it’s below ground with an inconspicuous entrance – it doesn’t take away from the pedestrian or transit experience. It’s the best of all 3 worlds. The Union Dallas will have a similar Tom Thumb, and both the Crescent and Dallas Museum of Art are reconfiguring the way they interact with streets to be more pedestrian friendly, city-age appropriate projects. Meanwhile, other developers are still giving us Hotwheels for our 16th birthday.

There is a very delicate balance to strike between parking, access, livability and vibrancy. Too little parking without adequate transit and you don’t have enough access. Go too far for access & parking and you get downtown 10 years ago….high vacancy, unappealing and dead. But in the past decade downtown has significantly lowered vacancies even as accessibility by car has decreased. People and companies aren’t coming back because of easy parking. They’re coming back because it’s starting to become an interesting place to be. Same for many other places.  It’s difficult to park at Klyde Warren, but it’s incredibly popular. Victory is trying to make this shift because they had too much access and not enough human scaled design. They seem to have learned their lesson so they’re two waying their streets, adding a bike lane and developing over their surface lots.  A downtown area ballpark is a much more fun place to be, but it’s going to have less parking. That’s just the tradeoff in a lot of cases. But it’s a tradeoff that a lot of people take…many people take the trolley to Klyde Warren Park. People will start taking DART to Mavs games as parking there becomes harder. That’s what people in older cities do. We’re just not used to this stuff as a city yet. We have to have a shift in mindset collectively.

These changes would have positive effects. More people would use DART so more of its operating costs can come from revenue instead of tax dollars. They could use this to increase service, which would further increase ridership lowering the socioeconomic divide of transit and decreasing traffic congestion. Lower parking requirements would lead to less regulation on developers, who could spend less on constructing parking which would lower rents around the city. They could use that space for development, so we’d have more efficient land use which would increase the tax base, which could be used to fix our shoddy roads. Look at the benefits…we get lower rents, better traffic, more livable places and better roads. That sounds like the sensible, adult thing to do. Unfortunately, I get the sense that it’s not going to happen because there are a lot of people out there that don’t want to get older. They’re clinging to childhood because becoming an adult is scary. They like Dallas just like it is. They like their lollipops, bubble gum, stickers and rainbows. It’s familiar, it’s comforting, it’s all they’ve ever known and they’re going to fight like hell to keep it that way. But growth is inevitable, it’s not a choice….Father Time comes for us all. We’re growing out of our Spongebob pajamas, and it’s time to let them go. It’s time to grow up.


  • kduble

    Great column, Patrick! This is some of your best work.

    At the risk of straying off topic, the Speck quote seems relevant to the plans we’ve heard thus far for high-speed rail stations in Houston and Dallas:

    “You get off the train, and…? The likelihood that you can then walk to
    any destination of utility is preposterously slim. This might be
    expected in the system’s more exurban locations, where a park-and-ride
    commute is the norm. But park-and-ride only works — when it does work — if
    you don’t need a car at both ends.”

    Perhaps in the 21st century, Uber solves everything. I have my doubts.

  • Bradley Petty

    Mundy! Awesome man. I love the analogy. Those of us with deep roots understand what the city was like in the 50’s and 60’s from our parents and grandparents. I ran into a gentleman today who graduated from SMU in the 90’s and subsequently moved to Chicago. He didn’t recognize what we have now. Indeed a physically maturing city.

  • Kevin L. Walker

    Great great article Robert. We are indeed in puberty but we are going to have to ask leadership to transform their vision, this is the 21st century not the 20th. We have new tools, new infrastructure needs and need a more inclusive mindset. Great stuff!

  • MattL1

    Excellent stuff. Wish I’d written it.

  • topham

    Nice, Robert! I wish developers had to repeat these two sentences six times a day: “People and companies aren’t coming back [downtown] because of easy parking. They’re coming back because it’s starting to become an interesting place to be.”

  • Foster Goldstrom

    I visited Dallas last year and walked Turtle Creek Blvd and then over to McKinney and people asked, “You walked?”, in total horror. It’s a wonderful walking city, but I was the only one.