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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.

123 comments on “Why Everyone Needs to Read Steve Blow’s Pro-Highway Argument

  1. A higher tax base from greater density inside Dallas’ city limits one way to fund Dallas’ infrastructure needs. $900 million is a lot of lettuce. Should Dallas promote projects that suck property taxes out to Plano and Allen? Those towns could adopt “I drink your milkshake” as their motto.

  2. Maybe this author can use his breakdown of Blow’s hot air to demonstrate how the GOP and DNC treat Libertarians. It’s pretty much the exactly the same.

  3. I am old enough to remember when I-30 was a toll road to Ft. Worth. When it was paid for, the toll booths came down.
    I remember when the toll from NW Hwy. to downtown was a quarter. When that road was paid for, the toll was doubled to help pay for the extension to the suburbs. I am not sure what it is now.
    Dallas residents pay DART taxes to pay for systems that bring commuters in from the suburbs.

  4. A higher tax base from greater density inside Dallas is one way to fund Dallas’ infrastructure needs. $900 million is a lot of lettuce. Should Dallas promote projects that suck property taxes out to Plano and Allen? Those towns could adopt “I drink your milkshake” as their motto.

  5. For those counting, Aren has used the word “misery” seven times so far. But he really loves driving!

  6. Different argument for a different day. We’re not talking about building a new highway, we’re talking about preserving an existing one. Also, I am more than happy to talk about ways to make sure roads are funded by their users, but that, too, is a different argument for a different day.

    BTW, I do not agree the Frontier Group’s take on taxes vs. fee. Furthermore, their conclusions depend on a lot of opinions, like how we’re somehow giving motorists a free ride because gasoline is subject to gax tax instead of sales tax. I guess all those shoppers of groceries, medicines, and essentials are getting a free ride, too? Plus a key assumption that’s patently absurd: “The amount of money a particular driver pays in gasoline taxes bears little relationship to his or her use of roads funded by gas taxes.” “little relationship”!?!?! I can buy into “imperfect relationship”, but to use “little relationship” as a key premise is absurd! I could go on, but like Simek’s article, this report is unsound opinion masquerading as fact.

  7. “People Who live along north Central have multiple modes as options currently.” Not if they value their time. Again, why do you act as if everyone’s time has no value? Do you really think I want to spend an hour on a train to avoid a 15 minute drive?

    Also, where does your “60 seconds longer” proposition come from?

  8. I appreciate your perspective. I am talking about the transportation planning models as conveyed in traffic engineering 101 textbooks, which has two steps reversed between traditional American and European models. In a nutshell, the reversal of the steps means conventional American transportation planning responds to the need, whereas conventional European planning dictates or plans out the need. And it appears that American traffic planning models are moving closer to the textbook European-style models. But, again, this is just textbook stuff, so your perspective is interesting.

  9. “How can you favor an endless government subsidy of an underused road over turning that land over to the private market and the invisible hand?” There are valid uses of eminent domain for public goods. I am not a Libertarian, by the way.

    “I have a map of Dallas from the 40s, there is no 345 type road on the map because the free market didn’t want it there.” Those were fanciful maps that informed future planning. They are not locked-in-concrete blueprints. In the ’40s, certainly nobody envisioned entire computers worn on our hips, so I guess we should throw those away, too!

    “Why not just let it come down and let the free market react?” If the free market was dictating road uses, then I-345 would come down _after_, not _before_, traffic levels plunged.

  10. “this one, short, road is underused” 200K AADT for 6 through-lane highway = underused? Hilarious!

    Core premise blown up. Next?

  11. “BTW playing around on Google maps I can’t find a trip that this adds more than 6 minutes to.” Distribute the 200K cars around all these roads. What effect does that have on their congestion?

  12. It is under capacity, are you arguing with that? Look up the TXDot numbers.

    Re: your earlier question about 60 seconds, use google maps to plan a trip, drop a pin at the Haskell exit.

  13. @Aren Cambre – it is funny to me that in a conversation about eliminating a portion of highway to allow city neighborhoods to grow together, mass transit is treated like an unwanted step-child. IF your time is so valuable, use it on the train as you don’t have to be driving. For example, if you are an attorney, which encompasses most of the people I know who are obsessed with the value of their time, you could easily bill out 4 fifteen minutes segments while riding the train. You could periodically look out the window and smile at the folks backed up on the highway. On the other hand, if this is a trip to fair park as this discussion began with, enjoy the time talking with your family.

  14. Stop telling him that. I use Haskell every year to get from Lakewood to Fair Park for the Texas-OU game. I don’t need that route clogged with people who can’t read a map–let them continue to take I-345 to I-30.

  15. For better or worse, it is an unwanted stepchild. Light rail has significant limitations (including huge swaths of Dallas not be accessible without also using a bus). The vast majority of Dallas has zero interest in using buses. If your arguments rely materially on use of public transport as a means of ameliorating traffic issues, you have lost the debate. It does help clarify, however, that this debate isn’t just about tearing down a highway to spur development in one local area. Many of the proponents of the concept have loftier goals, namely moving Dallas towards European/Northeast-style urban lifestyles.

  16. I am not a real-estate investor. I live in Oak Cliff, so the project has no immediate impact on the aesthetics of my neighborhood. I am not an “anti-car bigot,” as I use mine on a daily basis. But I support the teardown —- as should every other resident of Dallas — because it simply makes good financial sense. For a 2 mile bridge to deprive the county, city, and DISD of $4 billion off taxable property is simply unjustifiable, given the state of our schools, parks, streets, jails, etc. This is a no-brainer.

  17. I’ve followed the I-345 debate rather closely, and I empathize with those who wish to see it go, but agree with Mr. Blow, but not entirely for the same reasons. I-345 not only exists to get people around downtown, but it is part of the master plan of interstate highways. It is a continuous extention of I-45 that has been planned to extend north beyond tulsa to Kansas City at some point.
    I agree that its removal would significantly alter traffic patterns and cars would flow elsewhere, but where? Dallas surface streets aren’t entirely jammed at rush hour, but they are near capacity in many places. I often use Live Oak to avoid traffic on 75…but if 75 weren’t there, where do you think everyone would be going? On the side streets. A great example is the lack of a limited access highway running east-west between35 and 75 from Woodall Rogers to LBJ. Your choices are limited: Inwood, Mockingbird which is intentionally sabotaged by Highland Park, Loop 12, Walnut Hill, Royal, and Forest. I challenge anyone who wants to get across town between 5 and 7pm on those roads at any reasonable speed, and that’s with LBJ and Woodall also running at full capacity. If you took Woodall Rogers out instead of building the park on top, what do you think would happen? The cars have to go somewhere, and here’s why:

    Take European cities as the great counterexamples, these cities grew up way before cars and with limited exceptions, still have not highways in them. They build a ring road, like LBJ, that encircles the city and if you want to get downtown, you fight your way through endless city lanes with numerous stops and lights. Life does not meltdown in Rome, Paris, or Berlin, so how do they do it? Well, they have extensive public transit systems to move people around. Aside from being inconvenient to own a car, it’s unnecessary even if you have one because it’s quicker to use the subway, street car or bus system to get around than getting out the automobile…that’s for intercity transportation. DART is completely inadequate for moving Dallas’ people around if we’re in the business of tearing down highways. It needs probably another ten lines including a couple that exist to connect other lines together. When I lived in Uptown, it would’ve taken me 1:45 to get to work in Plano, when a car got me there in 25 minutes. To build out DART adequately, it wouldn’t cost the billion dollars that it would cost to bury I-345, but more like 100 billion since the rights of way do not exist and mass transit is crazy expensive to build. Look at what we have after 30 years of DART.

    I used to live in Boston and we got rid of our Central Expressway to reconnect neighborhoods and it has been great for Boston, but we still replaced it with the underground highway, and yes, it cost over 20 billion dollars to do it. If you want to reconnect Deep Ellum with Dallas, then pay the billion to put it underground, but I don’t think anyone wants to live in Deep Ellum without that highway, because the streets will become parking lots.

  18. The Deep Ellum Community Association (DECA) has publicly asked TxDOT to consider tearing out I-345.

    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.597584476934837.150882.205435736149715&type=3

    No one traveling I-345 now has Deep Ellum as a destination. It is used to fly past it. They would find other ways to go around and Deep Ellum and the east end of the CBD would have an enormous amount of space opened up for development; space that could easily be used to accommodate additional parking demand. There is currently a colossal amount of extra road and parking lot capacity in Deep Ellum and the east end of downtown anyway. Other than a few peak weekend hours, the roads are mostly empty and parking can be found anywhere.

  19. Everyone who opposes highways lives in suburbs outside of the city’s with highways stated for demolition. They always oppose these things but dont live where they exist. They are happy with living in suburbs that do not allow highways through their communities. But throwing a highway through a urban community is ok.

  20. I fully agree with and support Mr. Blow’s comments. I envy a city like Dallas for it’s great freeway system and I applaud the TxDOT for continuing to invest in and improve that system. I live in a “left-wing, out-to-lunch” city in Canada (Vancouver) where there is no good highway system. The result is that it costs hundreds of thousands of us dearly every day – in wasted time, wasted fuel and wasted energy. It harms business. It robs time away from our family and friends. It cripples the quality of life because you can’t get anywhere unless you have a lot of time to kill and a lot of money to waste on gas while you idle needlessly on city streets that are forced to handle freeway-volume traffic. The nickname for our mayor is “Mr. Moonbeam” because he thinks we all should all ride our bicycles everywhere. Just how can a sensible person respect an out-of-touch idiot like that! I have absolutely no interest in riding a bike anywhere… I did that as a kid before I grew up! Vancouver thinks by not having freeways, they did the right thing. Well… this area is the most congested center in Canada and the second most congested in North America. They spent billions on transit and the result is that we are the most congested city on the continent. Smart move, eh? Traffic congestion takes no break and its not only a curse on weekdays between 9 and 5… its each and every day! A distance as short as 20 km (about 10 miles) can take well over an hour. And this is because there are no expressways so you have to use city streets and stop at every block (literally) – it’s stop and go all the way while bicycle lanes sit empty and buses spew fumes into the air.

    So Mr. Blow is correct in his statements and I hope the TxDOT will continue to show such wisdom and vision in building and maintaining their vital freeway arterials. Way to go, Texas!