The Transect

Something we covered in the Bike Lane Primer article that I wanted to focus more on here is the concept in Urbanism known as Transect Zones. When we’re debating on how to properly build city infrastructure and specifically where bike lanes would work, one thing I’d stress is that how you build for one part of a city, is completely different from how you build in another part. This is a very timely issue, as members of BFOC are attempting to open a bike shop now, but are being hampered in receiving a Certificate of Occupancy by mid-century era zoning restrictions requiring a specific number of parking spaces for their retail space. More about that later.

From the Center for Applied Transect Studies

“A transect is a cut or path through part of the environment showing a range of different habitats. Biologists and ecologists use transects to study the many symbiotic elements that contribute to habitats where certain plants and animals thrive.”

New Urbanist use this model when defining the transitions between dense urban areas to open rural areas, and have identified 6 different Transect areas or “T-zones”:

transect2

Now the problem we see most often is that a generic plan for infrastructure and zoning is attempted for an entire city. This one size fits all approach is typically based on the T-3 “sub-urban zone”, which has larger land scales, separation of business and residency, greater distance from a core, and fragmentation of natural community. Developers in the past would attempt to contrive the latter by creating “gated communities” or themed suburban tracts which they hoped would resemble a natural organically created community. Ironically, retail zoned areas follow suit and create themed spaces that mock organic walkable communities (ie. Macaroni Bar & Grill feels like a small Italian villa until you walk outside into a sea of parking and wide concrete thoroughfares, with cars travelling 40 mph). Where I grew up in far North Garland, developers gave the area we lived the charming name of “Camelot”, and all streets were named for people and places from medieval folklore. Since there was no center for community to gather, children rode bicycles on neighborhood streets and were locked into a specific square area bordered by a larger concrete moats of 6 lane roads that few crossed without a vehicle. If retail existed, it was typically built the opposite from the town model, and only along the perimeter. This model is a staple of cars-over-people planning. Here’s a picture of one of the corner moats where I grew up…Ironically, it’s also only blocks away from one of the most ardent VC’s houses:

I’ll break down the components that make this a car-over-people environment. Most notably, 7 lanes on each side (which includes left turn lanes). These streets are marked at 40 mph, which if you take in account that many drivers (read: most) drift 5mph over posted speed limits, you’re nearing highway speeds that butt up to residential tracts. It’s miles from any public third space like a plaza, outdoor market, or civic center. Next, all retail is setback from the sidewalk to allow for parking. In the case of the grocery store, you have an added 50 to 75 yard moat separating the street and creating an added barrier. The environment is unwelcoming to anyone without a car. If you are too old, too young, or without means to own a car, you are either out of luck, or extremely inconvenienced. This area was first developed in the 1970’s, so its form is based on much of the ideas developed in mid-century planning.

Now here is an example of a street corner in Historic North Oak Cliff, which is relevant to the article in that BFOC members are attempting to open a bike shop here:

First of all, the city of Oak Cliff (which was later annexed by Dallas), was created around a streetcar line. What you see in this image was storefronts built in the 1920’s, directly in front of the streetcar track. What you don’t see are the homes which are less than 30 feet behind these retail establishments. We did away with allowing small business space to develop within a neighborhood in the 1950’s, preferring instead to separate businesses from homes and creating greater distances which required automobiles to travel. In other words, we engineered out the neighborhood tavern. Another thing to note, buildings are set flush against the sidewalk and street, making it very people-friendly, and inviting. Next, you’ll notice there are no parking lots. There was no need, as a streetcar allowed service to the areas, along with the fact that these were nestled into existing neighborhoods. Customers simply rode their bikes or walked. There were neighborhood theaters on most every corner with no parking lots. The first air-conditioned movie house in Dallas was the Texas Theatre on Jefferson Boulevard which opened in 1931 with a 2,000 seat capacity and not a single parking lot. Pretty cool, eh? We engineered exercise into our city planning. After you left the theater, you spent the rest of the day walking up and down the street window shopping, and enjoying community, then walked or rode a bike/streetcar home. Since we are a car-based culture now, New Urbanists have learned to continue developing parking lots, but to hide them at all costs from the store fronts. The last thing I’ll note is that these spaces have permeable exteriors (ie. glass) along the fronts, that make people want to window shop. Many buildings in the 1970’s were built like solid shells, and if they had windows, they were fully tinted.

Now for the problem. In order to fully embrace the car-first model, the city turned the once small two-way 4-lane street w/median, into a one way and removed the median. This created distance between neighborhoods and made the area feel unsafe to cross. This also had the effect of allowing cars to move at greater speeds through the community. Zoning was then added to require each retailer to have 1 parking space for every 200 square feet. If you want to find a way to kill small business, there’s no faster way than to make a mom and pop shop pay for additional space that has no potential for product placement. So what happens? Well, these storefronts stay vacant, and the fact that they exist on a one way street lessens the chance for visibility, further damaging the potential for sales. We have shops like this sprinkled throughout Oak Cliff. Fortunately, we have a very strong city council person in this district, and she’s working to overcome some of these obstacles, but you can see how we’ve managed to engineer out humans from the environment.

Now an example of a “Complete Street”, which put people-first:

I grabbed this image from Google Maps. For fun, I suggest pulling up Google Maps, typing in Amsterdam, and then just drop the StreetView dude anywhere on to the city…this type of planning is everywhere. Ironically, Amsterdam is much denser than Oak Cliff, but they’re getting away with only four small lanes for cars. Now, for starters, the buildings, though taller, are no different in form than the ones we showed in Oak Cliff. They’re flush to the sidewalk with no visible parking. If they did away with the bike lane, removed the median, and turned the traffic into a one way street, you’d then have a car-first model. Life would dry up, and businesses would shutter shortly after. Instead, they’ve kept their wide sidewalks (which allows for patio dining and more), added a dedicated bike lane, a streetcar line, AND left room for cars. Another cool thing to note in this picture…the three white-haired people on bikes without helmets at the top right. Without bike lanes, they’d be indoors.

So what do we advocate for the North Oak Cliff street? First, return the streetcar. Next, turn the road back into a two-way street, extend the sidewalks, lower the speed limit, and allow for a dedicated bike lane. Lastly, drop the zoning requirement for needed parking. You will have then created a people-first model for city planning, one that brings out young and old, engineers in exercise, and doesn’t rely solely on fearless cyclists and cars to battle each other. It becomes an inviting environment, that feels safe. This model also educates drivers automatically to adapt and become aware of their environment.

Does this form work throughout the city? Absolutely not, which is why we’re not advocating alternative transit planning in areas that are sprawled out many miles from the city center. But in North Oak Cliff, we developed a people-first model for planning that began in 1887 and lasted 80 years. We then attempted to adapt a suburban, car-first model, that kept people indoors, and children away from the dangerous streets…the same modelVehicular Cyclists prefer. But just like Portland did, we can and will return to a people-first model for our community.

10 comments

  1. amandalbs · ·

    wow! seriously, when do you sleep?

  2. ha! rarely. 😉

  3. One of the things I don’t like about bike lanes is that our road users are becoming increasingly diverse. It is hard to clearly divide everyone into only three groups (ped, bike, car). Where do you see Segways, the GM PUMA or other NEVs, for example, fitting into the New Urbanist model?

    Also, they didn’t have bike lanes in the 1920s, why do you think we need them now to achieve the same goal?

  4. “Also, they didn’t have bike lanes in the 1920s, why do you think we need them now to achieve the same goal?”

    Great question, and I was actually wondering when that was going to be asked. I’ll precursor my answer with this…I began my path to discovering and championing urbanism, not through bicycles, but through streetcars. I’m president of a non-profit in Oak Cliff that advocates for streetcars in our area at a local and federal level. On a visit to Portland last year, I met with their transit officials and noted the incredible turnout of residents on bicycles. Their streetcar team gave me their presentation on the transit system they had in place, then expounded on Urbanism in general and how they were simply returning to transit planning from the 1920’s. I then asked the exact same question you did. I’ll answer it the way they did, but using Oak Cliff as the example:

    Here’s a map of Oak Cliff from 1929 (the bold lines indicate streetcar lines):

    Notice two things: We had approx. 20 miles worth of streetcar line, and the inner city portion of OC (T-4 zone) has more than quadrupled in size. So bearing in mind that we’d be hopeful in returning a mere 5 miles of streetcar line, we’d need something else people-friendly to cover the other distance…bicycles. What brings people out on bicycles? Creating an infrastructure that makes bicyclists feel safe…bike lanes.

    Hopefully that answers your question.

    Also, Segways are already allowed on sidewalks and bike paths in Texas. The daily tourist group in West End regularly “segs” (?) over to the Katy Trail. The GM Puma is no different than a moped or motorcycle.

  5. palchik · ·

    Again, that’s the beauty of bike racks on buses! Most people are only willing to travel so far by bike, and in a city as sprawled out as Dallas, buses can’t be everywhere, but when you put the two modes together, you really do have pretty good coverage (even better if you have bike lanes radiating out from bus/rail routes). I wish DART’s bike racks would get a bit more exposure on this site. They are new to the residents of Dallas, and many people still have no idea what they are or how they work. Route 21 in Oak Cliff runs directly into downtown, and then up into Uptown and terminates at Mockingbird Station. A lot of people feel pretty comfortable biking around Oak Cliff, but are a bit intimidated (understandably so) by the prospects of biking across the bridges into downtown. With the new bike racks on DART buses, that problem is solved. Just bike as far as the nearest bus stop, stick your bike on the rack, and off you go!

  6. Michael · ·

    I’m curious….How many Delta Credits does the bike space have and how many parking spaces does the landlord provide and how many does the city say it needs? Do you know how to research them in the basement of that building on Jefferson?

    For example, in our building, the last C.O. that was on record (which was not the last business, the CO is the one that counts) for one of our addresses was in 1942 and it was a dance school. I had to research that and the appropriate city ordinance for 1942 before we bought our building. Otherwise, we could have just been stuck with an empty building that we couldn’t pay for.

    We were lucky that besides the Delta Credits, Bishop Arts had reduced parking requirements. That is what put those buildings back into use. Such remedies should be explored for other old structures we want to rehabilitate. Placing requirements at zero would allow each space to be a parking space hog restaurant which could be a cluster#%*k. A reduced formula like Bishop Arts would get a wider variety of businesses.

    So anyway, what was in that space last and how many parking spaces was it required to have at the time the CO was issued to go into business? That is how many Delta Credits you have. And then, how many parking spaces are you required to have today? Subtract the first number from the second and that’s how many parking spaces you have to come up with. Thirdly, how many spaces does the building supply if any? Hopefully, you come out ahead.

    I know it all sounds stupid and I don’t disagree, but to get the store open…. You probably already know all of this but these facts aren’t addressed in the article so I didn’t know. Good luck! Since the bicycle shop on Tyler and Jefferson closed, we’ve needed one bad.

  7. Hi Michael,

    These are great questions, and I’ve forwarded on to the guys opening the shop. I know they have one parking space, but need a total of three for their sq. footage (which is 600 sq ft.). They were told about the delta credits option and submitted the information regarding that along with the buildings history (which included former retailers), but came back empty handed from the city. The building itself has no parking beyond that which exists at the front.

    They are researching an option that would allow them to “borrow” the spaces from a business about 30 yards away. This business said they’d be willing to help, but the paperwork has a fee, and requires time. Sadly, they’re limited on capital, because they’ve spent so much on buildout and prepping the space over the past few months. At this point, they really need to start moving inventory as quickly as possible, so they’re getting a bit apprehensive.

    Thanks again for commenting…hopefully there’s an option you mentioned that hasn’t been thoroughly vetted.

  8. Stuart, i understand your frustration, me too i have become increasingly frustrated with them too, they are way too dangerous and too close to the other lanes, i hate that, that also has prevented me from going too far on bike ride with my little cousins, it’s just too dangerous.

  9. […] third places, and completely dismantled community. Remember, we’re advocating for cycling facilities in urban environments, where community is intact (ie. men and women can bicycle short distance to work, young and old can […]

  10. Brian Phillips · ·

    It is such a relief to find out that these efforts are going on here. Since my time spent living in Germany I have felt that we here in the metro-mess needed more pedistrian/bike zones, and bike friendly mass transit. I am glad to see that plans are in the works for this.

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