Riding the NETT

November 6, 2013 § 6 Comments


The trail least traveled yields the most adventure!

written by Jonathan Braddick

I love rail corridors that are no longer in service, have been rail banked, or abandoned for private purchase.  They have layers of history that end up over lapping with new ones when rail trails are developed, like a palimpsest does.  They provide a glimpse into our past when this form of transportation dominated our country’s landscapes, our industries, and was the most often used form of transportation.  In our area of the nation’s prairie land, we have a fair share of these rail corridors.  However, one in particular is special and provides a unique adventure unlike no other can in North Texas.

Last Saturday, I rode 50 miles of the 130 mile long, North East Texas Trail, starting at the western trail head in Farmersville, TX.  Located approximately one hour from Dallas’ city center, it’s a complete escape and contrast to our urban trail environments.

First a brief history lesson…

The land for the NETT and other rail-trails was first made available by the National Trails System Act in 1983.  At no cost to the rail bank entities, it preserves established railroad right-of-ways for future reactivation of rail service, protects rail transportation corridors, and encourages energy efficient transportation use.  Trail advocates along the entire route have been developing plans and fighting court battles with some land owners since the 80s.  Now, quite a bit of the trail has been developed by several of the rail banking agencies that oversee it’s development.  The NETT is now a functioning, 501c3 non-profit able to accept donations to continue it’s development into the future.

Riding the NETT

I’d been hearing quite a bit about the NETT since growing up in Collin County, where Farmersville is located.  However, it wasn’t until I recently watched Dean Nix, a local cyclist and all around bad ass, talk about being the first to ride the entire distance from end to end and back, a total distance of 260 miles.  He did it in 3 days by the way!

Anyway, I heard through my Bearded Women Racing team members that Spinistry, a local race promoter, was organizing the first cycling event to ride the trail.  I have a full mountain bike racing season on my legs, so I took the challenge to ride the full 65 mile distance from Farmersville to Paris, one way, so I could be back in time for a mountain bike race the following day.

After a warm up start through Farmersville quaint and attractive downtown and onto local county roads, the ride put us on the first section called the Chaparral Trail .  The segment is owned by the city, and they’re very proud of their work to date on making it a true city trail.  They have lighting, benches, recently installed sod and other landscaping like you’d see on any local city trail.  The difference is that it’s not paved, a good thing for long term maintenance and use.  What make rail beds the ideal trail lies just at the surface.  Rails were built with rail ballast, tons of small portioned rock that drains very well and provides a solid foundation for the ties and steel rail.  When the ties and steel are removed, you can simply lay down layers of trail material to make it into a mult-use trail that everyone can enjoy!

Once we past through this section and out of the city owned section, the trail quickly showed it’s true grit. Think unimproved jeep trail in most sections, and that’s what the trail looks like.  We ran into a section where someone had removed a chunk of the rail ballast for some unknown reason.  This was the only section where standing water and mud was an issue.  A distance of probably 50 yards or so.  Most riders were either on mountain bikes or cross bikes.  All of the mountain bikers made it through this section with ease, however a few of the cyclecross riders did not ;).  Other than a bit of mud, the only other brief impediments are the multiple rail bridges.  We were instructed at the pre-ride meeting to not ride them, get off the bicycle and walk it.  Most of them are definitely NOT ride able, though a handful make for a fun, bumpy traverse.  You’ve got to be aware of the loose and brittle ties and the gaps between them.  They certainly made the trip more interesting, as your mind wanders back the over 150 years or so when they were first erected to ensure the train made it’s stops on time along the entire route.

I suspect that the NETT group will focus on repairing and making these bridges safe and ride able in the near future.  However, one in particular made me stop and remember that I’m afraid of heights, before I did a tight rope like walk across a 6 foot gaping hole.  This particular bridge crosses the Sulphur river, one of the main tributaries in North East Texas.  The bridge lies between Pecan Gap and Franklin, a designated un-passable section of the trail per the NETT group.  Anyway, the section you see in the following picture is the gap in the Sulphur bridge crossing.  IMG_2442

Here’s a look at the gap from another angle..  IMG_2444

Besides the adventure crossing these rail bridges, some of the most interesting sections of the trial came with the over growth.  We prepared ourselves like most riders would not that day by bring a few tools to help us make our way through anything we came upon.  I tied a machete to the side of my mountain bike and welded it like a soldier in the cavalry would have down.  While not necessary to traverse these sections, it was a blast to do.  Really, most of it can be bushwhacked by simply riding through it and avoiding the treacherous Honey Locust tree that have huge 3-4 inch thorns reaching out over the trail like spider webs ready to puncture any tubeless tire it comes across.  30 years or so since the National Trail Act leaves plenty of time for some gnarly over growth to leave it’s mark!  I definitely recommend having tubeless tires through most of this section of the trail, but not necessary.

Our adventure took us through some great, little slices of Texas’ beautiful country side.  Along the way we saw active farmers and ranches doing the same things they’ve been doing when the trail passed regularly, and kept the small towns economically viable and perfect places to raise a family and earn a living.  Now, the rail trial can pump new economic development back into them by adventure seekers ready to traverse the trail.  You can contribute by spending money in each town you pass through, filling up your car, eating at Pecan Gap’s all you can eat catfish buffet or another restaurant along the way or simply donate to the NETT.  Be apart of this resurgent effort to create a beautiful recreational resource for everyone to enjoy!

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2012 in Bike Friendly Oak Cliff blog review

January 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 92,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Angela Hunt Speaks Loudly About Bold Bike Plan Steps

October 29, 2012 § 4 Comments

Angela Hunt isn’t afraid of calling out city manger Mary Suhm and city staff for their “namby-pamby steps” to date on implementing the 2011 Dallas Bike Plan.  So far, we’ve got around 5 miles or so of on-street infrastructure in place, but much of that is shared bike lanes, not the buffered or barrier cycletracks Angela and Bike Friendly Oak Cliff is looking for.  Here’s her full post on her website, and the source page:

Dallas Should Take Bold Steps on Bike Plan
Monday, October 29th, 2012 at 11:29 AM

Dallas is not a bike-friendly city.

Over the last two years, the city has been taking baby steps to change that: We completed a new bike plan last year, put several millions of dollars into the upcoming bond package for hike and bike trails as well as several “complete streets” projects, painted bike lanes and “sharrows” on a handful of city streets, and proposed a vulnerable road user law that will protect bicyclists from cars.

But this isn’t nearly enough. Even fully implemented, these projects will barely pull Dallas into the latter half of the 20th century. And it’s not just the lack of urgency that’s dooming our attempt at bike friendliness. It’s the half-hearted infrastructure that’s being implemented.

In Downtown Dallas, the city has painted shared lane markings on Main Street to emphasize that bikes can share the road with cars. In reality, these markings do nothing to create a safer, more inviting environment for bicyclists. And encouraging bikes to use a major, narrow street through Downtown just further aggravates drivers who can’t pass slower cyclists.

Instead, we need to create protected bike lanes with actual barriers separating cyclists from traffic. Physically separated lanes are significantly safer: a recent study shows they reduce injuries by 90%. ) And protected bike lanes are more compatible with Dallas’ existing car culture, allowing bikes and cars to coexist safely.

Many Dallas streets are wider than they need to be for the level of car traffic they carry. We can take a traffic lane or parking lane from these streets, put up some bollards, and create bike infrastructure that will actually encourage people to get on their bikes. The change will be dramatic. We need to commit to building 10 miles of physically separated bike lanes every year for the next ten years.

The lack of connections of Dallas’ bike infrastructure is also ensuring its failure. Throughout our city, there are plans to put in short spans of bike lanes connecting nothing. No cyclist is going to use bike lanes that go nowhere and suddenly end. Instead, we need to connect neighborhoods, off-street trails, light rail, work centers, schools, shopping, and locations of interest. No “lanes to nowhere.”

Lastly, we need to repeal the mandatory helmet law for adults. In cities that have eliminated helmet laws, ridership has increased significantly and safety has actually improved. (NY Times article “To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets.”)

Dallas’ current, half-hearted approach to making our city bike friendly is going to doom it to failure. In a couple of years, the city will determine that bike ridership hasn’t increased in Downtown or on the bike lanes to nowhere (surprise!). This will then be cited as proof that there is no bike culture in Dallas, that we can’t transition to a bike-friendly city, and that bike infrastructure is a waste of money. The city will paint over the “sharrows” and wash its hands of this silly experiment.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can go all-in on bike infrastructure and get it done. We can dramatically increase bike ridership in our city. We’ve seen what can Dallas can do when it sets its heart on Big Ideas. That’s why Dallas’ remarkably meek approach to bike infrastructure is so frustrating. We pride ourselves for taking on extravagant, bold initiatives — the Calatrava Bridge, a park over a freeway, a city-owned convention center hotel, a massive toll road in a floodway. Let’s apply that same laser-like focus to making Dallas the best bicycling city in the country.

Making the Valley View area more livable, bikeable, and walkable

October 10, 2012 § 8 Comments

Quick, someone make a rendering!

Just saw the report from Robert Wilonsky at the Dallas Morning News regarding the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce’s hopes to develop a land use plan for the Vallew View Mall area which suffers from massive auto infrastructure, and low livability. They’re planning to spend $250K to reveal the area’s greatest potential. My fear is that the plan will inevitably lead to: Step 1, tear down everything; Step 2, develop small grid road system; Step 3, create bond package to incentivize development; Step 4, watch land speculators hold property in-perpetuity while they use the carrot of TIF dollars to try and cajole land developers…show public millions of water color renderings of the potential for the area (see above) so that we’ll continue to allow public dollars to pour into infrastructure improvements to help make speculators earlier, cheap land buy a more profitable venture…probably never develop; Step 5, sell land to Wal-Mart Mega Store development group and do what we’ve always done.

So in an attempt to help save some money on planning, I thought I’d illustrate a quick plan that would simply re-purpose the existing building (no full tear downs! yay, begin development at Step 1, not Step 5). If you look at Valley View Mall, it’s basically the West Village with a roof and no residents.

Generic US mall. Imagine no roof and turn the hallway into a small one-way street with wide sidewalks, similar to West Village. Develop on street parking at intervals, or make it pedestrian only.

Why on earth could that not look like the Rue de Mouffetard in Paris? Extremely narrow streets, retail everywhere, pedestrian oriented environment…only thing missing is the roof and residents:

Okay, first step…begin removing the roof along the hallways. Next step, slowly phase out the second floor retail and move it to ground floor in new buildings that are created in the existing (massive) parking lot.

Second step, develop an incredible public square. With the food court removed from the second floor of the old mall, line the public square with the food vendors all along the edges and allow small market vendors in the center. The best squares have food and plenty of movable seating and tables:

Union Square in New York City

Check out all of the tables and chairs! Great place to sit outside and eat…just add plants and shade.

Third step, develop second, third, and fourth floor live work spaces above existing mall structure. An area packed with retail should have large density for residents. Plus, it will create more eyes on the street and make the area feel safer:

These buildings are probably 200-300 years old and are still functioning well with the same pattern…retail on the bottom, residents and/or offices on the top. Why break it if it works?

Fourth step, this really could be considered early on in the process as well. Be mindful of parking. You don’t want to leave cars out of the equation, but hide the parking so it feels less intrusive and more pedestrian oriented. Again, West Village has done a good job with the “Dallas Doughnut”, where the parking is centralized, connected via small streets, and stacked.

Fifth step, take a page from the new deck park and consider decking the elevated portion of LBJ Freeway at Preston Road so that you create a more humane and walkable connection between the residents to the South and the commercial to the North.

Sixth Step, re-take the HOV lanes on 635 and convert to light rail. Elevate the stations and allow extremely walkable connections at each elevation. Long term goal, connect to the Red Line at the East and the Green Line at the West. This way you’re using existing Right-of-Way. Encourage mixed use development alongside the frontage roads so that the first thing you experience when exiting the trains is retail.

Seventh Step, connect to the trail system.

There, planning done. Now that we’ve saved $250K, let’s use those funds for seed money for construction.

You’re welcome.

Renaissance Man?

September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment


Even the Economist is taking note of the “Cycling Renaissance” taking place in the US.  The article highlights cities that are making bike infrastructure a priority including Chicago, Washington DC and Portland.  Not surprisingly, Dallas is not mentioned.

While we’re finally seeing some change it does not seem that the City has truly embraced the importance of bike infrastructure.  Yes, Sharrows, the Jordan Catalano of bike infrastructure, are popping around town.  We’re even seeing a few short blocks of beautiful buffered bike lanes. Unfortunately, overall the City is doing a poor job of making the streets safer for cycling.  No bridges have been altered to benefit cycling even after Dallas Torres’ near death incident earlier this year.  Crossing the Trinity by bike is still an roll of the dice.   While the Hunt Hill Bridge looks great from a distance its a pure travesty that it can only be crossed in a car. Santiago, what’s up with that?  To add insult to injury, the Continental Bridge stands in the White Elephant’s shadow still open to traffic.  While there are big plans sitting on a shelf to convert the bridge into our very own Highline, it sits unchanged. Come on Dallas, lets get some of this renaissance energy flowing! Close the Continental Bridge to cars and make it our first safe crossing for bikes.  This low hanging fruit needs to be picked!

What Makes a Bike Friendly City?

June 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

In the latest Bicycling Magazine issue, Dallas came out on top.  That’s the top of the Worst Bicycle Friendly city in the country.  We all know there’s great bicycle culture here.  It’s been here for years going back to 1973 when the Greater Dallas Bicyclists first organized.  We also have claim to Lance Armstrong, spending part of his time growing up in Plano, and winning 7 Tour de France titles.  Hopefully he can keep them…

Then there are all of the Bike Friendly groups, Bike DFW, Dallas Area Tandem Enthusiasts, countless bike shops and many other bicycle inspired groups and businesses.  It’s thriving yes, but according to what Bicycling Magazine uses to evaluate a city with populations of 95,000 or more, we’re not there…yet.  Here’s their list in the July 2012 issue, page 70 & the status of each in Dallas, TX:

  • Protected bike lanes on bridges

  • Free tune-up stations

    • StatusUnchecked, RisingBike Friendly Richardson hosted an event during Bike to Work Day event that provided free tune ups for those commuters stopping by.  Even though it wasn’t in Dallas, they set a pretty cool bar for other bicycle groups to shoot for, and opened up the possibility of something like happening next to your route.  Bicycle shops should be encouraged to open along routes and provide free air and other services to build their clientele.
  • Car-free hours in parks

    • StatusUnchecked, Neutral:  Not even people here have thought of it, but Kiest Park would be a great park to test this out.  So would White Rock Lake.
  • Elevated bike paths

    • StatusUnchecked, Falling:  The Sante Fe bridge is probably still considered just a bridge, but it’s “elevated”.  It’s also not yet officially open and behind schedule.  But, no we have nothing remotely like an elevated bike path
  • Striped bike lanes

  • Bike boxes at intersections

    • StatusUnchecked, Neutral:  Can’t say these are going to be used at intersections in Dallas, but another item we don’t have
  • Bicycle commuter stations

    • StatusUnchecked, Rising:  This idea was discussed during meetings held for the 2011 Bike Plan, but I don’t see the city taking it on.  It will have to come from the private sector most likely, much like the Dallas Bicycle Cafe provides lockers and storage for commuters & recreational cyclists in East Dallas.  We can’t place a Check for this one, because bicycle commuter stations like the one in Chicago aren’t in existence yet here.
  • Bike-share programs

    • Status:  Unchecked, Falling:  Costs associated with these programs and the lack of funds from the city foresee no city shared bicycle program
  • Bike-themed festivals

    • StatusCheck, RisingCyclesomatic was the first bicycle themed festival in Dallas when it started in October 2009 as a one week festival.  Since then it’s grown to a full month worth of bicycle related events and activities for all
  • Elementary-school bicycle trains

    • StatusHalf-Check, RisingiBike Rosemont is a week long event at Rosemont Elementary school in Oak Cliff that encourages children to ride a bicycle to school.  Because is happens twice a school year, and the kids don’t ride all together at once, we can’t call it a bike train, but the program has increased awareness amongst the school’s parents, teachers and administration.  They also host a kiddical mass group ride at the end of the week for root beer floats, which is awesome to be apart of!
  • Cyclist-friendly cafe’s

    • StatusCheck, Rising:  From Oddfellows’ bicycle parking and discount (yes, it’s more of a restaurant we know) to Pearl Cup ride meet ups, the aforementioned Dallas Bicycle Cafe and countless other bicycle friendly businesses, we can go ahead and say we’re doing pretty good in this department.  Businesses are recognizing the economic value of catering to bicycles through parking, discounts and overall theme.
  • Bicycle parking

    • Status: Half-check, Rising:  There are fine examples in Oak Cliff where a business has made extra space for bicycle parking.  Glorias added a rack to their new location on Bishop, there are racks along Jefferson, though some need to be replaced (Texas Theatre).  Furthermore the Parks Department has put in some very nice parking at their latest downtown parks, however we can’t fully check this one yet.  Big box developments and large retailers need to join the effort, too.  For instance, at Colorado and Beckley, the Walgreens is a frequent stop for people heading into downtown or west onto Bishop, but yet there is no bicycle parking there.  Furthermore, we’re seeing a trend in the design of bicycle parking that tends to lend more toward creative design over practical function.  It’s good businesses want parking that fits their aesthetic or theme, but bicyclists wont’ use it if it doesn’t properly secure their property.  And just to be fair, other bicycle friendly areas in Dallas are still not quite there yet when it comes to this area either.
  • Bike racks on buses

    • StatusCheck, Complete:  Back in 2006- 2007 I was lucky enough to be on the DART Bicycle Advisory Committee.  This was when DART was still the largest transportation system without bicycle racks on their buses.  With a NCTCOG grant, DART finally installed the racks on all of the buses by early 2009  and they get steady use.  DART also updated their bicycle rider policy back then to make it easier to transport your bicycle on DART Rail as well.
  • Closed-street cycling events

    • StatusHalf Check, Rising:  To date, we’ve had one closed street event or Ciclovia here in Dallas.  Back in October of 2011, BFOC hosted the cities first on the Houston St Viaduct with a grant provided by Bikes Belong.  We’re hoping that the city takes this event on in the future and makes it even bigger and better!

Mary Suhm: Why doesn’t the Continental pedestrian bridge have bicycle infrastructure?

June 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

Crazy clown thanks to Don Raines!

An opinion editorial from BFOC Board Member, Jonathan Braddick:

Last week, Robert Wilonsky at the DMN reported about the delays in converting the old Continental bridge into a pedestrian park.  Because I was curious about bicycle infrastructure, and hadn’t fully seen the design plans for the new park.  I wasn’t shocked to find there are no plans for separated bicycle infrastructure in the plans. Yes, you’ll be able to ride your bicycle over the bridge, but no dedicated bicycle lanes separating bicycle traffic and pedestrian traffic.  This certainly backs up why Bicycling Magazine voted us Worst city for Bicycling.  See the full planning document below:


I quickly reviewed the 2011 Dallas Bike Plan, and noticed the bridge was designated as “Needs Further Review”.  Of course, I understood when I voted on the plan, that the plan for closing the bridge to traffic and making it into a park had already been made public, so that made sense to me.

But now that we’ve passed the plan, it turns out the City Council voted NOT to include bicycle infrastructure on the bridge.  I learned this from a quick email and quick reply from my council person, Scott Griggs.  He informed me that he was apart of a minority vote to include infrastructure, which the rest of the council voted against.

So, now we come to the purpose of this post’s headline:  “Mary Suhm, why doesn’t Continental pedestrian bridge have bicycle infrastructure?”  A simple question, deserves a simple answer.  Here are my many reasons why it should be included:

  1. The new bridge right next door doesn’t have bicycle infrastructure.  For good reason, it’s a highway. Period.
  2. Mixing commuting/recreational bicycle traffic with meandering pedestrians is not a good idea.  @KatyTrail, #Deaths
  3. Peter Laguerway, from Tool Design who helped the city put together our 2011 Dallas Bike Plan, spoke that we need to get our bridges right, because they are here for at least 50 years and in this case over a 100 years, in order to be a great bicycle friendly city
  4. The public didn’t get a vote on whether to include bicycle infrastructure or not.  If a route says, “Needs Further Review”, it means that “We’re not ready to make a decision right now on what type of infrastructure to include, not “We’re not going to include it at all”.  Since our council members also heard Peter say this about our bridge, I automatically assumed it was a no brainer.
  5. Because 8  and 80 year olds in West Dallas and Oak Cliff need safe connections across the Trinity too!
  6. Per the recent Ciclovia de Dallas and the Cedar Crest Better Bridge project, you can’t program the entire length of bridge, which this current design suggests with clowns and purple rainbows!  Creating nodes of activity throughout the bridge worked for Ciclovia de Dallas, with large sections open up to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.  This would then open up space for bicycle infrastructure.

Here are examples  of demonstrations done on the Cedar Crest bridge and the Houston St. Viaduct where both park amenities, bicycles, and bicycle  infrastructure co-existed.  By the way, these events where partially  funded or supported by the City of Dallas and implemented by Team Better Block and BFOC:

Dallas, You’ve Created a Monster

May 9, 2012 § 14 Comments

In our last post, I discussed how post-war government intervention systematically dismantled hundreds of years of pedestrian oriented environments by forcing property owners to carve up giant swathes of their private land for parking. What I failed to touch upon was the unsustainable levels of entitlement that now exist for people demanding endless parking and traffic-free roadways throughout our city because of this decision. Like a Ponzi scheme, the pyramid eventually buckles from its own weight. What we’re witnessing today is a generational divide where outdated philosophies are represented by a leadership that refuses to acknowledge the obvious fact that their children are all saying, “I’d rather live in Austin/Portland/NY/SF/Chicago than Dallas.” Stubbornly, the parents keep saying, “they’ll come back for the jobs,” without realizing that the new jobs are starting to go where the people want to be.

Michael Morris, head of DFW’s metropolitan planning organization (NCTCOG) and lead proponent of the Trinity Toll Road.

We’re well aware of the $1.4 Billion levee toll road, and the Winfrey Point parking debacle at the Dallas Arboretum (both ironic due to their nature vs. machine conflict), but another instance also making the news is the “lack of parking” headlines in the historic (and walkable) Bishop Arts District. Every week we’re seeing one costly issue after another related to our endless pursuit of maintaining unsustainable suburban development patterns, and the solutions are always the same: take more land, and give it to cars. For some reason, the adage “When you’re in a hole, stop digging” has been completely ignored, and I’m beginning to become numb to the monthly, “I’m finally leaving Dallas!” emails that friends keep sending me.

Janette Sadik-Khan, head of NYC’s Department of Transportation

For anyone curious about what the new leadership of cities is like, check out this interview with Janette Sadik-Kahn, the head of NYCDOT and chief architect for all those major new pedestrian and bike infrastructure improvements you’ve read about throughout New York City. The “Big Apple” is the textbook example of traffic congestion, yet she’s taking away entire boulevards to create pedestrian plazas, and while naysayers claimed the sky would fall, the opposite occurred. Economics improved, traffic improved, bicycle usage increased and most importantly safety improved.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom painting a bike lane

While other major US cities are disincentivizing auto use and incentivizing mixed transportation models in order to balance their costly strain on infrastructure, we continue to do the reverse.  It’s obvious that our leadership will have to eventually take a stand (and a few arrows) and say,”we’re going to have to try something different,” or else they’ll be the embarrassing “Before” picture to an inevitable leader who decides to take the path that every other city around them is taking. Like a defiant George Wallace in 1963, Dallas is waiting for its Bobby Kennedy to lead a brave new path.

“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.” Robert Kennedy

Subsidizing Sprawl

May 8, 2012 § 14 Comments

In Dallas, we’re currently faced with a heated debate on growth and the need for improved infrastructure to facilitate future development. Jim Schutze wrote a post on Unfair Park about the recent tollroad debate and how the Mayor is promoting regionalism vs. localism. I was struck by several commenters who dismissed urbanism and multi-modal transit options as a novelty and something that a slim minority cared about. What really amazed me was the lack of understanding many voiced in favor of our modern car-centric, sprawling development…a network that was completely brought about by massive government intervention and subsidization. The free market would never have created something so wasteful and inefficient on its own. An example I gave recently was the following:

If you wanted to develop a small bakery in your neighborhood, you would not be able to due to zoning restrictions brought about by local government separating basic uses (homes here, business there). This is the first step in deconstructing pedestrian oriented environments. It’s no longer the industrial revolution, yet we still base much of our land use on the ideas of separating factories from homes.

Next, let’s say you finally discover a plot of land where you can build your own bakery. Before you even begin construction, the local government will require you to use at least 40% of your private land for free parking. No if’s, and’s, or but’s…you’ve just been told by the government what to do with your property and your valuable retail shelf space has been truncated with the slash of a pen. Now, let’s extrapolate this out to hundreds of other businesses who own private land and are forced to provide everyone free parking. At some point, the system has been sufficiently gamed to where it no longer makes sense to walk.

You just drive, my business will make sure you have a free parking spot.

Next, let’s say you want to save money by living above your business and operating on the ground floor. Again, this option has been regulated out of existence, further promoting auto-centric development because now you have to live in the residence zone, and work in the business zone.

So far, we’ve separated land uses by great distances, required private property owners to ensure their land was split in half for free parking, and cut off the potential for live/work environments. It’s fairly difficult to justify pedestrian-oriented development at this point. For what it’s worth, we’d been allowed to do all of these things for hundreds of years prior to government intervention and our communities did fine. In fact, many of the problems we face today are related to our need to try and manage the unsustainable nature of suburban sprawl. From the subprime mortgage crises to constant highway/tollroad development (which we can’t afford to maintain), we’re continually having to accommodate an unnatural development pattern.

Okay, we’re not done yet. Now that we’ve separated uses and incentivized cars over other modes of transit, your bakery is going to have a harder time competing because now the all-in-one store can do away with your business model. Since everyone is now driving, it’s inconvenient to hop from one store to the next…you might as well mix the bakery, with the farmers market, and the butcher, and the pharmacy. Voila, small business can barely compete while the multi-national box store can now offer loaves of bread for pennies and chalk it up as a loss leader. Hey, that’s the free market working…except, the market was completely dominated by government intervention throughout the chain and we’re not even close to being finished. Also, though we’re saving a dollar on bread, the social fabric of our community is beginning to erode because the Super Target doesn’t seem to want to pay for the local school’s baseball uniforms, but Joe’s Deli, which is no longer around, was always supporting the team. If you don’t believe that’s the case, you don’t own a small business. As a local restaurant owner, I can tell you firsthand that we’re asked for and give out donations to neighborhood fundraisers (PTA’s, girl/boy scouts, soccer teams, chess clubs, etc.) on a weekly basis. Head to any community silent auction and you’ll see nothing but local products being offered as prizes…Home Depot and Tom Thumb are surprisingly absent.

Notice, 2/3rd’s of this lot is for free parking.

Now let’s look at the land itself that we’re developing on today. A 250 foot block on a classic Main Street in any downtown would have contained ten commercial buildings built next to eachother (saving on distances for utilities, and creating greater energy efficiency) with retail establishments on the first floor, service related businesses on the second floor, and space for business owners to live on third and fourth floors. Now, thanks to zoning and more, we can fit roughly 2 to 3 businesses on that same plot of land, and they’re separated by more free parking that isn’t really free. This is why your average suburban block will only contain a fast food chain, a gas station, and an auto parts store. Small businesses can be developed in shopping strips that are tied to large chain retailers, but once that chain decides to move on (from Wal-Mart to Super Wal-Mart), then your business will die a slow death as your customers move on to the next, larger strip two miles down the road.

You wouldn’t be allowed to build this today if you wanted to.

We haven’t even begun to touch suburban housing. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was created which subsidized middle class families moves to the newly developed suburbs. The Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) mortgage loan program provided over eleven million low-cost mortgages after WWII. These mortgages, which typically cost less per month than paying rent, only insured homes of a typical type and size – generally new single-family suburban construction. Furthermore, a home insured by the FHA was required to be of a certain size and quality desired by those of above-average means, to guarantee quick resale of the home. FHA did not support renovations of already-existing homes, construction of row houses, mixed-use buildings, and other urban housing types. These policies led to deterioration of the urban housing stock and disinvestment in existing urban housing.

Alright, we still have the Federal Highway program and a host of other government interventions that sufficiently tore apart pedestrian oriented environments that existed naturally for hundreds of years in favor of heavily subsidized (from the oil pumped out of the ground to the GM badge on the grill) auto dependency. Sadly, it was only in your grandparents generation when you could have opened that bakery at the end of the block, lived on the top floor, while the community walked by and picked up a loaf of bread.

So next time someone says, “public transit doesn’t work because it doesn’t go near my home”, remind them that had government not intervened, their home would have been next to the train station.

How does this help South Dallas?

May 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

The mayor recently stated that construction of the Trinity Toll Road would help grow South Dallas because it would create greater connectivity to jobs in North Dallas and help spur development along the route. Currently, 175 and I-45 carve through incredible South Dallas neighborhoods, and yet the land directly beside these roads has depressed values and relatively little development. How can this be? Sadly, the neighborhoods of South Dallas would be thriving today if they were connected at street levels with at-grade boulevard style infrastructure. Traffic would not be negatively impacted, in fact, pass through traffic that has no intention of stopping in South Dallas would be rerouted to other areas allowing neighborhoods to be turned back into incredible destinations.

South Dallas: In the shadow of the Highways

South Dallas: In the shadow of the Highways

South Dallas: In the shadow of the Highways

After a recent history bike tour of South Dallas, I really fell in love with the small neighborhoods throughout the area. It was hard to see so many of these areas cut in half by elevated roadways that created a moat effect, stopping development and growth at the foot of each highway. Fortunately, there has been some strong neighborhood focused redevelopment spearheaded by Councilwoman Davis with the Bexar Street area. Its development stops at the highway as well, but it shows a roadmap that the rest of South Dallas could follow in order to begin creating great pedestrian oriented places.

The topography, the culture, and the people in the area deserve great places so their family’s can thrive and feel a sense of place. The tollroad will continue the path of carving up neighborhoods and tear apart the foundation that is left which could quickly be built upon. Looking at places like the Bishop Arts District, which are far removed from highways and small scale, a template exists that could easily be adopted throughout South Dallas for far less money and far greater return on investment. My hope is that we quickly help these communities before more roadway developers in North Dallas strip what’s left of a beautiful opportunity for revitalization. There’s a reason why no one in North Oak Cliff or East Dallas is fighting to have a tollroad any where near their neighborhoods. The question should be asked, if tollroads do create major investment and development, why isn’t anyone in Park Cities (where the majority of our region’s wealth exists) asking for a highway through their neighborhoods? The reality is they would fight it tooth and nail…because they know the truth.

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