Thursday, November 29, 2012

New Urbanists' Road Rage

Do you drive on freeways?

If you do, that's two strikes against you right there.

One, you drive.  That's bad.

Two, you drive on freeways.  Freeways are bad, too.  And if you don't live in an urban core neighborhood, that's three strikes against you.

New urbanists are out to take away your freeways, and the cars you drive on them.  And if you don't live in a central-city neighborhood, that's just more bad news for you.

While you've been stuck in traffic, just trying to get back and forth to work every day, an elite group of altruistic yuppies have been working to undermine your lifestyle so they can champion theirs.  Call it the revenge of our old downtowns, in which young urban professionals have re-branded themselves as not just reclaimers of unwanted, forgotten inner-city neighborhoods, but warriors against suburbia.  And exurbia.

Bike lanes have already become one of their favorite weapons against the car-driving public.  Touted as miraculously healthful and environmentally cool, bike lanes promise wonderful things, but sit empty most days, displacing motorized vehicles from roadways built with taxes paid by drivers of those motorized vehicles.

Bike riding is enjoying a trendy renaissance, even if most people can't afford the tricked-out rides some of the most ardent proponents of bike lanes own.  And it's hard to argue against exercise and reducing pollution.  Or creating more of a neighborhood vibe, by freeing a community's residents from the constraints of riding in an enclosed box of glass and metal.

Freeways on Progressives' Hit List

Which is how new urbanists have successfully transitioned their assault on the automobile to freeways.  In cities across the United States, they're slowly, quietly winning some stunning victories.  Buffalo, St. Louis, San Francisco, Syracuse, New Orleans, Seattle, New York City, Cleveland, and Milwaukee are all cities where portions of freeways have either already been removed, or will likely be removed soon.  Just as the federal government has provided incentives for cities to paint bike lanes on their roadways, it is now encouraging local planning offices to identify freeways they want to destroy with the help of federal tax dollars.

Now add to that list Dallas, Texas, where activists are ramping up their campaign to have one side of the congested loop ringing Big D's downtown torn down.

The argument for tearing down freeways is a simple one:  the physical presence of a freeway can act as a wall - both literally, and figuratively - separating two or more parts of a community.  This is true for both the Robert Moses style of freeway, in which urban planners brutally carved serpentine highways through existing neighborhoods, and the more modern suburban freeway, in which master planners can lay out their new roadways across undeveloped land and let communities spring up around them.  A freeway isn't like a landscaped boulevard, with strategic intersections that you can cross, even if, at six lanes wide, it's a bit risky to do so.  You can go over or under a freeway, but not across one.

Here in Dallas, the freeway new urbanists want to take down is a vast swath of concrete and steel skirting the eastern edge of the downtown core.  It's a ten-block stretch of elevated freeway that's always been in search of an identity, since it's where one highway ends, and another one begins.  I-45, coming up from Houston, ends at downtown Dallas, and Highway 75, a major artery through Dallas' northern suburbs and on up into Oklahoma, starts wherever I-45 stops.  Officially called I-345, it varies from eight to ten lanes wide, with off-ramps and on-ramps slicing to and fro.  Two major interchanges with two other freeways anchor both ends of this corridor.

Taking down this freeway will go a long way to restoring the ground-level connectivity between Dallas' bustling downtown district and its hip grunge bar neighborhood called Deep Ellum.  Currently, plenty of surface streets run underneath the freeway and its many ramps, along with a number of dim parking lots that only come close to filling up on weekends.  The idea is to remove the oppressive aesthetic of the towering freeway's superstructure, along with its noise and air pollution, and create a pedestrian-friendly boulevard in its place.  That way, people can walk and bike between downtown and Deep Ellum like they used to in whatever good old days Dallas used to have.

Um, like lots of people in Dallas walk and bicycle anywhere already.  Sure, plenty of folks ride their bikes for pleasure in parks, but hardly anybody is foolhardy enough to wrangle on Dallas' potholed streets with SUV-crazed soccer moms and entitled Maserati-driving business executives.  Plus, with our heat, you're crazy to try and ride after dawn or before dusk much of the year, and expect to show up at your destination fresh and dry.

It's not even as if downtown Dallas is a walker's paradise.  Too few people live downtown to make its streetscape truly vibrant, and the same heat that makes bike riding unpleasant also keeps pedestrians off the concrete sidewalks.  Deep Ellum may have plenty of sidewalks, but it's hardly a beautiful neighborhood.  Industrial, yes, and gritty.  Just right for Dallas' brand of designer warehouses.  You'd think the steel and concrete of an overhead freeway would add to - not detract from - the faux grim vibe.

Still, plenty of people are moving into Dallas' urban core, which includes both remodeled old houses to the east of Deep Ellum, and brand-new condominium complexes all around the center of the city.  All of those people don't need access to freeways as much as they need walkable neighborhoods that are quiet and safe.

Righteous Indignation Against Suburbanites

Which brings us to the main problem with tearing down freeways in urban centers:  New urbanists self-righteously disdain suburbanites and exurbanites.  Young urban professionals - and many of them aren't even young anymore, but empty-nesters - believe they are redeeming the long-forgotten neighborhoods of America's struggling cities and helping to bridge racial, economic, and political gaps with groups of people who have been marginalized by our suburbanized society for years.  Just as freeways helped to speed the decline of central urban cores, new urbanists want to remove those freeways wherever they can so that some sort of "healing" can take place in communities that have been ravaged by white flight.

Even here, the intentions aren't entirely wrong, and there's much to be said about the merits of reclaiming existing streetscapes and infrastructure.  Not only for environmental reasons, but simply to be good stewards of the municipal resources that never went away just because white folk did.  Aging neighborhoods closer-in to the oldest parts of our cities may not boast the sprawling parking lots and deep backyards of suburbia, but most of them feature mature trees, admirable architecture, and a convenience to high-density employment centers that can obliterate mind-numbing commutes in to work every day.

But just because new generations of city dwellers are advocating the merits of their lifestyle doesn't mean the freeways leading to the lifestyle they've left behind are obsolete.  Or that people who remain in the suburbs and exurbs should be penalized for their more car-centric lifestyles.

For one thing, our urban cores can't absorb the populations who live in the 'burbs.  The number of people living in our downtowns may have declined during the past couple of generations, but people still live there.  And many of them live in homes they're being priced out of as gentrification takes place.  Gentrification is what has been making our downtowns even more attractive to new urbanists, most of whom were raised with unprecedented levels of suburban comforts and amenities.  Plus, new urbanists don't want the genuine grime and grittiness that existed when these old city 'hoods were newer.  Today's urban pioneers want a false veneer of some sort of romanticized urban ideal, the look and feel of what historical city life could have been like without all of the soot, raw odors, noisy mechanics, and greasy laborers who helped make city life as tedious and undesirable as it was when suburbs were invented.

Remember, it wasn't just racism and freeways that caused white flight.  Living in such close proximity to other people who may not share your values isn't easy.  Having to deal with scarce parking spaces every day isn't fun, either.  It's hard running a small retail shop or diner when your customers can't park close to your front door, or have to walk across six lanes of traffic to reach you.  Waiting for mass transit gets old quickly.  If somebody burns something on their stove, everybody in your building can live with the smell all evening.  Kids complain about not having enough space to play, and city parks aren't ever as safe as you'd like them to be.  And if you don't have kids, listening to other peoples' kids in your building can be maddening.

As much as anything, suburbia offers space, which can be a buffer and insulation, both in terms of noise, as well as sight and even awareness.  Of course, we've learned that this can be a bad thing in terms of fostering an inferior sense of community in our new suburban neighborhoods.  We've also learned that, in response, some people are more willing to give up their personal space for a particular brand of urban community than others.

But are the folks still living in suburbia the bad guys?  Should new urbanists penalize people who don't want to live in urban neighborhoods by crippling their commutes?  After all, that's what tearing down freeways like Dallas' elevated Central Expressway downtown would do.  In all of the counties that comprise the Dallas - Fort Worth Metroplex, downtown Dallas boasts both the highest concentration of - and the most - jobs.  During rush hours, which can last for hours, all of the freeways coming to and from Dallas' downtown can be practically gridlocked with traffic.  And that's with the city's new light rail system, commuter buses, and conventional buses operating at full-steam.  If there's a wreck on any of those 4 freeways, then things get really bad.

In some cities where older freeways have been ripped out, the downtown cores have already lost much of their luster, so the impact of one less freeway connection may not be as noticeable.  But as somebody who has witnessed gridlock around all four of the freeways ringing downtown Dallas at close to midnight more than once, I can testify that taking down even this 10-block stretch of elevated highway could cripple what vibrancy Dallas' central business district has managed to protect from suburbia's allure.

Proponents of the freeway's removal blithely retort that commuters can simply learn new routes to their workplaces, or they can navigate the proposed new boulevard like everybody else.  Serves them right for relying on a car in the first place.

Yet isn't that a woefully myopic attitude to take?

A New Kind of Road Rage?

Face it:  cars are here to stay.  So is suburbia.  In fact, as they get older, our suburbs are beginning to look more and more like the cities people used to flee.  Shouldn't urban centers and their suburbs be concentrating on linking themselves together for sustaining the viability of their broader communities?  These petty turf battles didn't help cities during white flight, so what makes new urbanists think they'll help now?  Besides, if new urbanists want everybody in the suburbs to come back into town, even if cities could hold them all, who will live in the built environments that will stay behind in the suburbs?

Beyond our suburbs, the exurbs got a good start earlier in this decade, branching out in a sort of "ecru flight."  However, the mortgage meltdown and rising gas prices may be convincing people to reconsider living so far away from everything.  New urbanists should cheer this pause in the exurban trend, but how does reducing access to - and traffic flow in and about - our urban centers help convince people that exurban sprawl isn't a good thing?

Isn't raging against suburbanites who drive a silly tactic?  Particularly here in Dallas, where almost everybody has to drive someplace?  And isn't tearing down freeways because you think they pose some sort of barrier to community development akin to shooting your economic foot?  Downtown Dallas may not be hemorrhaging office tenants like it was a generation ago, but its occupancy rate in all of those glassy high-rises is only about 73%.  That's still pretty low, folks, especially for the landlords sitting on all that empty office space.  The mid-rise Uptown district, just north of Downtown, is the area's hottest office market, but then again, nobody's talking about taking away any of its three freeways.

They may not be trendy, they may not give anybody any warm fuzzies, and saying they're a necessary evil doesn't win them any points, but like it or not, freeways serve a purpose.  Even this one.  The only people who want this connector in downtown Dallas to be torn down are likely people who've never relied upon it to get to where they want to go.

And as for Deep Ellum, whose entertainment-focused tenants took over warehouses that post-industrialism would have rendered obsolete with or without this freeway, why bite the hands of customers who use this handy access road to reach you?

Look beyond your own little seedy-chic corner of Dallas and see how this stretch of highway - and your neighborhood - fits into the broader picture of urban mobility in north Texas.  That's all the rest of us are trying to do.

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