Thursday, March 6, 2014

Changing My Mind About Freeways - ctd

Yesterday, I wrote about how I am forced to rethink freeways, to at least consider the possibility that freeways through cities aren't some Frankenstein's monster, the unintended consequences of legislative sausage-making. I am forced to consider the possibility that freeways through cities were a deliberate attempt to solve a problem that was already apparent to urban planners of 1939 -- that America's cities were becoming clogged by automobile traffic.

After the jump, what does all this have to do with Richardson? Or Dallas?

What does this have to do with Richardson? Well, I'll probably have to let go of my quixotic dream of tearing down Central Expressway. Central Expressway is not an urban freeway. It's one of those interstate arteries that even the urbanists who dream of tearing down urban freeways concede have a purpose. But if support for tearing down urban freeways needs rethinking, support for tearing down suburban freeways needs rethinking, too.

What does any of this have to do with Dallas? Well, Dallas is in the midst of a debate about tearing down IH 345 (a truly urban freeway, it's the connector between IH 45 and Central Expressway). Steve Blow of The Dallas Morning News waded into the debate this week with a dumb column (sorry, read his column before criticizing my word choice -- he practically begged someone to use that word). His argument against tearing down IH 345 boils down to "Where would the traffic go?"

That question has been answered repeatedly by some of the "really smart people" that Blow dismisses, answers that Blow fails to address at all (which is why his own column is really dumb). Earl Swift of The Atlantic uses that report from 1939 to show why the smart people's answers aren't necessarily valid. The highways were built in the first place because there was *nowhere* for the traffic to go. It was choking our cities already in 1939.

Swift doesn't say we are necessarily doomed to suffer freeways through our urban neighborhoods forever. He does say that tearing down freeways is feasible only when they are no longer needed. And getting to the point where they are no longer needed is going to take a lot of work.
It will take weaning American drivers off their dependence on the car, off their passion and demand for it. This is not an easy assignment, seeing as how cars are purchases we make with our hearts, more than our heads. Logic won't convince Americans to change their ways. What will? Maybe, over time, prohibitive fuel prices and withering tolls, and, most importantly, investment in useful and convenient public transit. Only when the carrot is irresistible, and the stick stings too sharply to bear, will the shift begin, and it will take years to play out.
Source: The Atlantic.

So, maybe the dream of tearing down those urban freeways is still alive. But we have to prepare the ground first. We have to keep working on both the carrots and sticks to get to the point where tearing down the freeways becomes the popular choice, not just of the urban planners, but of the everyman like Steve Blow.


Mark Steger said...

Carrots and sticks...

"there are two ways to shift more commuters out of single-occupancy vehicles and into other modes of transportation, whether that’s biking, carpooling, walking, or transit. We can incentivize transit by making all of those other options more attractive. Or we can disincentivize driving by making it less so. What’s become increasingly apparent in the United States is that we’ll only get so far playing to the first strategy without incorporating the second."

-- Grist

mccalpin said...

I wanted to add my single data point as to why, when I lived in Rome, I used mass transit when I did.

Rome, Italy, has a widespread bus system, and also some trams, urban rail, and even two subway lines. But when I lived in Rome (just outside of town, actually), I had use of the university's car, which I was delighted to drive. Driving in Rome was actually fun, once I learned that the rules on the signs aren't the rules that the population follows ;-).

So why and when did I use public transit? When I needed to go to the center of Rome. You see, I could easily drive to the center of Rome (sadly, this is not so legal any more for non-residents), but once I got there, there was no place to park. The result was that I would drive to the Vatican which was on the western edge of the center (I lived outside the City on the west), and park there, because that was the last place where I could reliably find a parking place. From the Vatican, I would proceed to the center by bus or on foot.

There was another reason why this worked - Rome is a pleasant place to walk in. That is, there is life right at street level on nearly every block, the buildings are human-scale (not huge blind faceless towers of glass),and the streets are narrow (again, human scale). Compare this to downtown Dallas where there is little retail at street level, many of the blocks are sterile glass faces, and the skyscrapers don't invite human contact.

So the lesson from this single data point is simple - (1) make the area an inviting place for people to get out of their cars, and (2) don't let people park once they get there anyway. Stop subsidizing Dart AND building parking garages...why isn't it obvious that if you make a place attractive to go but make it hard to park, that people will choose to find other ways to get there??? Europeans and old city Americans get it...