A More Multimodal Dallas Is Just A Vision Away
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With a Downtown subway in the pipeline and whispers of better bikes lanes, integrated last-mile public transit, amended thoroughfares and sidewalks, Dallas has a lot of plans to make the city more appealing to non-drivers.
But without a clear vision between public and private interests regarding how to allocate resources toward a common goal, these initiatives stand to make parts of the city marginally more multimodal, without truly transforming the city’s relationship with cars.
Initiatives like DART’s D2 subway, Downtown Dallas Inc.’s 360 plan and CityMap are working to give Dallasites options in how they get around. And while data shows Dallas is starting to loosen its grip on the keys, especially in the urban core, cars dominate all other forms of commuting, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
“Obviously, we’re trying to change that,” North Central Texas Council of Governments director of transportation Michael Morris said. Morris cites vehicle emissions, safety and poor land use for roadways as reasons to increase other modes of transit.
Too Many Choices For Funding = Too Few Choices For Residents
Patrick Kennedy wants to see more choices afforded to Dallas residents. Kennedy is the urban planner behind Space Between Design Studio and A New Dallas, and he sits on the DART board. He got a lot of attention for his blog called Car-Free In Big D that chronicled the life and times of an automobile-less urbanist in Dallas. Kennedy’s voice has become one of the loudest on transit and urbanist subjects in Dallas.
He does not want to make cars less appealing (though some of his opponents may say otherwise based on his campaign to tear down Interstate 345), but by making other modes more appealing.
“We don’t have enough choice. I don’t think people would drive by choice,” he said.
Deep Ellum Foundation executive director Jessica Burnham thinks viable and appealing choices are lacking.
“We don’t have to be a car-centric city,” Burnham said.
But DART is not very reliable, the new D-Link in Deep Ellum takes a complicated route, sidewalks randomly end, and there are few protected bike lanes throughout the city, she said.
Many of these transit conversations have become more important in the last real estate cycle because the urban core has reached something it never had before: critical mass.
It is too difficult to build and maintain good transit without density that creates walkability to drive ridership, according to Greg Lindsay. Lindsay holds a slew of urbanist titles such as senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation and Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, director of strategy for mobility festival LACoMotion, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management and co-author of "Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next."
In an ideal world, cities would build better sidewalks, bike lanes, public transit, roadways and thoroughfares all at once. But in the real world, you have to build incrementally and innovate where you can, he said.
How decision-makers (and voters, to a lesser extent) choose to fund maintenance and improvements to roadways impacts the car culture in the city.
Because of this, NCTCOG may be the organization with the most power to shape mobility. NCTCOG, Dallas’ metropolitan planning organization, funds various infrastructure and transportation programs that advance regional priorities. In partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation and Regional Transportation Council, NCTCOG decides how to spend federal, state and local dollars on transportation projects.
Though NCTCOG holds the purse strings, few would say is it spearheading an overall vision that aligns with a multimodal future for Dallas’ urban core. And that is a problem, experts say.
“Every city must decide what it wants to be and what it wants to look like five, 10, 20 years from now,” said Michael Flynn, director of city strategies at Sam Schwartz. “It’s impossible to answer that without a vision. Knowing a city’s overall priorities helps you figure out how to use resources.”
Mobility 2040, NCTCOG’s road map for funding allocations, identifies regional solutions for travel options. Top priorities for Mobility 2040 include congestion alleviation and regional planning.
Morris likens NCTCOG’s role to a three-legged stool. The metropolitan planning organization must balance local, regional and international transportation agendas to make Dallas’ network attractive on all levels. Approximately 85% of NCTCOG’s budget comes from federal, state and local grants. (In 2015, the last fiscal year publicly available, NCTCOG spent $154M on government activities.) The organization cannot prioritize one at the expense of another, Morris said.
Kennedy believes the chain of command and breakdown of public dollars is part of Dallas’ transit problem.
“The local market always knows better what it needs, but [the] federal government gives most of our [transportation] money, which is then funneled through MPOs,” Kennedy said.
Regional and local needs can be in conflict, Downtown Dallas Inc. CEO Kourtny Garrett said. But part of DDI’s job is to find those potential conflict points and determine how regional projects (such as high-speed rail or the future of I-345) can integrate into the local grid in a gentle and interactive way, she said.
A clear vision for the future should make prioritizing choices of where to spend resources easier, Flynn said.
“Is the ultimate goal to offer more mode options in Downtown or is it to offer more options for commuters? Is it to relieve traffic congestion or promote economic development?” Flynn said. “If you have one agency focusing on one goal and another agency on a different goal, that can be hard to coordinate. You can do multiple things, but if it starts to be too much, it’s difficult to move any one thing forward.”
Voices that are loudest, wealthiest and best-connected often find themselves the recipient of new public transit developments, Lindsay said. Many criticized DART’s October decision to fund both the Cotton Belt suburb line and the D2 Downtown subway by saying it showed DART’s inability to prioritize sprawl or urban core density, which could cause both to suffer.
“We have to recalibrate the public sector and how we fund public infrastructure dollars. Right now, everything is geared toward sprawl,” Kennedy said.
A Plan To Have A Plan
Dallas has parking issues, traffic woes, public transit inefficiency and little biking infrastructure. But stakeholders in the public and private sector have been making progress to mitigate these transit challenges as the city urbanizes.
TxDOT's City Center Master Assessment Process plan (aka CityMap) assesses the status and potential solutions of the area’s aging interstate system using expertise and opinions from stakeholders. Or, as Burnham describes it, CityMap is a plan to have a plan.
“It’s a forerunner in having stakeholder input at the beginning process, and it’s also unique in that it’s looking outside of roadways,” Kennedy said.
At 426 pages, CityMap might be the most comprehensive urban planning document Dallas has, but it is not the only set of initiatives or proposals available.
Many, including Kennedy and DDI, want to increase non-driving options between areas of the urban core where people take frequent trips.
By determining that, for example, a significant population of Baylor employees lives in Uptown, more direct public transit options could be implemented or thoroughfares amended to make for better DART routes, biking or walking experiences between the two districts.
More than 95% of workers commuting to Baylor and the Medical District use a car to get to work compared to less than 78% Downtown.
Much of Downtown Dallas Inc.’s 360 plan acts like a road map to better mobility. Within the 2.5-mile radius of Downtown, DDI has identified streets that run through multiple neighborhoods called district connectors (streets like Flora, Market, Main and Pearl). DDI is presenting updates to 360 to city council likely in June, asserting how to better design these roads, intersections and districts to facilitate all modes of transit, Garrett said. Improvements to the area could include redesigning the intersection or adding sidewalks.
The idea is to use public investment to spur private dollars, Garrett said.
Lower Greenville has been redesigned in the last few years and has seen increased foot traffic and entry and exit by car.
Scores of elected officials and media outlets (including Bisnow on occasion) have touted DART as the country’s longest rail system. That is not necessarily an accolade, Lindsay said. DART is working on refining its routes to make the city’s public transit more efficient.
Private transit-oriented development dollars play a role in the success of DART routes. More development begets a larger tax base that begets more public money for transit innovation and upkeep.
“If we put in high-quality transit, we give people choices so that they don’t have to be driving,” DART vice president of planning and scheduling Todd Plesko said. “Now what we see today is that there is an increasing interest in private sector. Developers want increased density around rail stations.”
This increased interest in transit-oriented development must apply to more than rail to be successful, Kennedy said.
“We seem to think of rail as Class-A development and bus as Class-B,” he said.
He sees a need for the city to up-zone where transit is highest because density is a key aspect of ridership.
“If we have a high-quality bus network, everything could be TOD.”
DART is pilot testing mobility on demand concepts that would integrate last-mile ride-sharing, Plesko said. A rider could use one app to see which rail line or bus route would take them closest to their destination, then order a ride share for the last leg of the trip all from a single application.
“We hope in future, we can offer people opportunity to not have a car. We have a ways to go before that,” Plesko said.
Dallas has not seen a lot of public money invested in biking, from an infrastructure or programming standpoint.
The Deep Ellum Foundation has been supportive of many biking initiatives, including installing several more bike racks to the neighborhood and advocating for a protected bike lane on Commerce Street.
Local Hub Bicycle Co. runs a bike rental program with stations at the Katy Trail and Uptown Urban Market (in addition to its retail storefront). Co-owner Kristie Holt said the program has been successful.
She said bike rental programs are less expensive for Local Hub to install than the city, and if Local Hub’s rental program proves to the city that residents will use a public bike program, she is all for it.
“If we can do our program affordably, we can show people that they don’t need to own a bike. They’ll see how accessible biking is and then we can change the car culture,” Holt said.
Holt and Burnham support the addition of a two-way protected bike lane on Commerce Street. Infrastructure is the only thing missing from Dallas’ bike scene, Holt said.
The Deep Ellum Foundation has been working on protected bike lanes on Commerce for two years. Burnham has pushed hard with Dallas’ Public Works Department to put a bike lane option on the November bond election. Burnham believes Commerce will get redone in the next two years, pending funding through the bond.
The most talked about initiative to better facilitate multimodal transportation in Dallas’ urban core is D2, DART’s future second light rail alignment that will run through (or, more accurately, under) Downtown.
Public improvement districts like DDI and DEF are working with DART on where stations will go. DDI is pushing a comprehensive approach that layers how it envisions the highest and best use for each street and how surrounding infrastructure would interact with stations.
Aside from those conversations, the subway could run into issues if the future of I-345 involves suppressing the highway. How the two underground routes interact would need to be solved. Plus, city council planned on the billion-dollar D2 using federal funds from the Core Capacity grant program that President Donald Trump has vowed to eliminate funding for in his budget. Such federal funding cuts could force the city’s hand in deciding how to fund D2 and the Cotton Belt without hundreds of millions of federal dollars.
Down The Road
The idea that every stakeholder in Dallas transportation would have a singular idea about best practices may be unrealistic, and such conversations are not unique to Dallas. Other classic Sun Belt cities such as Houston, Phoenix and Atlanta are also determining how to balance regional and local needs while urbanizing their cores.
In a lot of ways, Dallas is just young but on the right track. Kennedy has been pleasantly surprised at how quickly the urban conversation has progressed since he moved to Dallas more than 15 years ago.
“We’re having bigger and broader dialogues, and more people are willing to listen. I think the private sector gets it more than anybody right now. They see the need for walkable neighborhoods,” he said.
And Flynn, with his national viewpoint, is optimistic.
“Dallas has been showing a lot of ambition and putting energy into doing things a little differently. It’s not all coordinated, but there’s a definite interest in offering a broader range of mobility options.”