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Why Everyone Needs to Read Steve Blow’s Pro-Highway Argument

Tear down this road? Some think we should. Click through to read Patrick Kennedy's argument.  (photo by Scott Womack)
Tear down this road? Some think we should. Click through to read Patrick Kennedy’s argument. (photo by Scott Womack)

As Cristina mentioned in Leading Off, Steve Blow weighed in on the I-345 teardown over the weekend in a Dallas Morning News column that succinctly summed up the attitudes and opinions of those inclined to dismiss the idea out of hand. It’s worth digging into it a bit.

Of course most of Blow’s column is rhetorical hot air. Blow says the idea of tearing down highways is not serious (“It’s about the silliest notion to come along in years”), and masquerades as a champion of common sense truth (“Talk of tearing down freeways has gained a kind of urban hipster cache that makes it hard for people to speak the plain truth”). He slathers on false humility (“Some really smart people have praised this really dumb idea”) and then simplifies his opposition by feigning sympathy (“I’m all in favor of the sentiment behind the proposal — less concrete, a more walkable city”). He disguises a scoffing refusal to explore the issue in any depth with false realism (“I also like living in the real world”), and then dates himself by equating “The Dallas Way” with a love of highways (“Pigs will fly before Dallas rips out one of its most important freeway links”). Blow also reduces those who oppose him into false caricature (“urban hipster”) and then demonizes the idea in order to dismiss its legitimacy (“You can usually count on crazy-town proposals to quickly die on their own… It’s a time-waster and nothing more”).

The fact is, after peeling away the blather, Blow really only has a few simple objections.

1. Where does the traffic go?

Blow: “We all know what happens with just one rush-hour fender-bender on any downtown freeway. It bottles up traffic in nine directions. So imagine the impact of permanently closing one side of the downtown freeway loop.”

Blow doesn’t understand how traffic works. Traffic behaves like a gas, not like a liquid, which is to say, traffic doesn’t exist independently of the roads it travels on, but rather it fills volumes that it is allowed to fill. There isn’t a stream of 160,000 cars (Blow uses the exaggerated 200,000 number, but whatever) trying to flow through the east side of downtown every day. I-345 isn’t an artificial riverbed that captures the already flowing stream of traffic. Rather, the road provides capacity — a line of least resistance — and so car trips become concentrated on that available road. If you remove the road, the traffic won’t bottle up, it will dissipate and flow across a variety of alternative routes in, through, and around the city.

This may be difficult to grasp because it is a somewhat paradoxical concept. Removing capacity quells traffic; building additional capacity increases traffic. This is what baffled traffic engineers when roads literally fell down in San Francisco (due to an earthquake) and New York (due to neglect) and the traffic simply went away. It is what happened when Seoul reclaimed its central city by tearing down its own 160,000 car per day highway. It is why Milwaukee knew they could tear out a connector route that functioned similarly to I-345 and not create “Carmageddon” in the central core.

Traffic analysis of I-345 can’t rely on crude traffic count numbers. Any analysis needs to drill-down into more detail: Where did those cars come from? Where are they going? In traffic engineering terms, this means that roads like I-345 force both short and long trips onto the same piece of transportation infrastructure. Remove that road and the short trips will find more direct ways through and around the city, while longer haul trips will follow the least line of line of resistance around the city on highways like I-635 and Loop 12. It’s important to remember that the real argument here is not that highways are bad, but rather that highways are best suited for moving cars in between municipalities. Urban cores are best served by a diversity of transportation arteries — from smaller side streets to multi-lane boulevards — which are suited to disperse traffic more efficiently through an urban environment.

2. We need to trust in the wisdom of TxDOT.

Blow: “Traffic is already so bad through the Dallas mixmaster that the Texas Department of Transportation is doing an $800 million overhaul. And you really think we’re going to demolish an adjoining freeway segment at the same time? . . . TxDOT needs to start a $100 million rehab project on the elevated freeway. That work can’t wait, but doing just the federally required studies for a tear-down could take up to 10 years.”

First off, this isn’t true. TxDOT could buy five years by making some immediate repairs, but regardless. The real issue here is Blow’s insistence on TxDOT’s needs. The reason most American cities look like they do is because for the last 60 years transportation policy has been dictated by a state and regional organizations whose priority is to move traffic between municipalities, with little regard to how those municipalities function in themselves. TxDOT is essentially a highway building company, and its decision-making matrix doesn’t take into account Dallas’ needs as a city. They will always say that they “need” to build more roads to relieve congestion. TxDOT’s “needs” in Houston created a highway that’s half-a-mile wide. TxDOT said it needed to turn North Central Expressway into double-decker highway like Austin’s I-35. Dallas leaders better understood its city’s needs and fought for a better design of that road.

Dallas needs to look out for its own needs, and what Dallas needs is to invest in its urban core in way that allows it to develop into a more livable and sustainable environment. This isn’t about “hipsters” or “urban lifestyles.” This is about figuring how to attract economic investment, expand with that growth, and do so in a way that remains efficient and sustainable. The most efficient cities in the world are those that are the densest. Cities characterized by the kinds of dense urban environments that facilitate greater social and economic interaction attract both businesses and younger generations of skilled workers. And as growing populations strain existing resources and car-dependent communities take their toll on the environment, Dallas will need to grow a denser urban core just to compete and remain feasible for future growth.

The legacy of post-war highway development is an exportation of the value of urban cores out to speculatively-developed communities on the ever-receding fringes of urban sprawl. The only way to substantially reverse this trend is to remove the infrastructure that led to that syphoning-off of value in the first place. TxDOT’s insistence on sustaining this highway-centric development model only perpetuates an economic model that turns city centers into a mix of blight and high-end development, while low and lower-middle income brackets are pushed further out on the freeway.

3. The development is already there. Tearing down the roads is not that important.

Blow: “No, it’s not ideal. But it’s not the Berlin Wall either. Good development has already been taking place along both sides of the freeway. With more landscaping, lighting and pocket parks beneath it, the freeway doesn’t have to be a pedestrian barrier at all.”

Before writing his column, Blow probably got in his car at the Dallas Morning News headquarters and drove up Ross Ave., taking note of the new developments that are going up on vacant lots just outside of the loop I-345. Of course he didn’t ask himself why these developments are happening 30 years after the connector highway was built, nor did he consider that the existence of the empty lots themselves are reflective of the disintegration of the urban core facilitated by the construction of the highways. This, along with Blow’s truly silly reference to the shade the highways provide, is a disingenuous argument at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. It’s like saying that because a man whose leg was torn off in a car accident can walk with a prosthetic, he wouldn’t want his actual leg back.

I-345 is a delineation that creates two distinct real estate submarkets on either side of the highway. That’s why you may see development on Ross, or pushing up against the highway north of Deep Ellum, but you then see troughs of undeveloped land on the western, downtown side of the highway. Without the highway, the two submarkets would become one, and the market equilibrium created would push development back into the center of downtown. Developments north of Deep Ellum would essentially flow into the Arts District, and the Farmers Market would flow into Deep Ellum.

And I’m not sure how often Blow has walked around under I-345, but his suggestion that we simply dress-up the underside of the highway to promote “walkability” — a catch-all phrase that doesn’t just mean the ability to walk under the highway — is misguided. The urban planner Kevin Lynch, who was involved with early designs of the Dallas Arts District, used a better term: “place legibility.” Lynch argued when we walk around a city we move not only through a physical environment but through a mental representation, a cognitive map made up of our memories. This map consists of a network of paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. The density of features, of memorable pedestrian encounters, makes a vivid city; the lack of such features leads to an urban space lacking in distinctness and identity.

The fly-over highway is too dominant a feature in the “mental maps” of pedestrians, and it dilutes the pedestrian inter-connectivity between the neighborhoods on both sides of the highway. It is too broad, dark, dominating, and frightening. It is a dead zone, and as previous efforts to dress up the area have demonstrated, bells and whistles can’t overcome the fact that pedestrians read it as an edge.

4. It’s not going to happen. It’s impossible to tear down a highway.

Blow: “Let’s not waste another moment talking about tearing down a freeway in downtown Dallas. It’s never, ever, not-in-a-million-years going to happen.”

I urge Blow to go to this website to read about the many highways that have been torn down in other cities, as well as the roads slated for future demolition. Again, this entire conversation is about the need for cities to wrestle control of transportation planning in their urban communities away from regional-minded planning organizations. It has been done, and it has been done in a many types of cities, from already dense coastal cities to cities which suffered similar problems as Dallas, ravaged by post-war transportation policy.

But what is really sad about Blow’s argument here is its tone. Dallas pretends to be “Big D,” to have bold ideas and grand ambition for building a great world city. But too often when it comes to our big ticket projects, our vision reflects Blow’s defeatist, petrified, small-minded, head-in-the-sand, risk-adverse, have-it-both-ways, provincial attitude. I could go down Blow’s rhetorical route, substituting his dismissive “hipster” label and accuse him of a solipsistic suburban mindset — a way of viewing the world which prizes the ability to run from the driveway to Wal-Mart and back again in under 15 minutes as the ultimate expression of individual freedom. But it’s not that simple. Blow’s grit-less resignation is indicative of why so many of Dallas’ big projects end up failures, and why our conversations around so many issues of urbanity — from transportation to culture — can sometimes seem like they lag 20 years behind the rest of the country. It’s part of this city’s penchant for making foolish civic compromises, for mistaking conventional thinking — no matter how wrong-headed — for common sense.

It hasn’t always been that way. In the 1870s, city leaders knew that the city’s future lay in convincing railroad developers to crisscross their new routes through downtown. In the 1960s, J. Erik Jonsson knew Dallas needed an airport to sustain its viable role as a center of economic exchange in a rapidly globalizing economy. Jonsson also knew that the highways that were being built through his city would destroy it. He tried to stop I-30 from being built through downtown, but it was too late. The federal dollars had already flowed to the state highway builders who were dead set on trudging through. And just as Jonsson was right about the value of the airport, he was right about the highways killing downtown.

Now, thanks to the example set by cities around the country, Dallas has an opportunity to revisit its highways and do what Jonsson couldn’t do. If this city still shares his ambition to be a great city, it should start by tearing down I-345.