Friday, February 4, 2011

The Un-carved Block

Sometimes, I digress seriously from the original intent of the blog. So, to paraphrase one of my favorite chapters from the Tao Te Ching, the time has come to regress to the state of the un-carved block. Exploring new ideas and concepts is always welcome to me, but there are times when it makes sense to go back to the beginning to put things in context.

I grew up in Baton Rouge. It is a college town, but it is not yet a truly urban town. Some parts of it are further along in this kind of development, but it has a long way to go. I attended private k-12 school in South Baton Rouge which was quite a ways from where I lived. There was no chance that I could take public transportation or walk and so from an early age I became heavily dependent on the automobile. Sprawling development was springing up around the school neighborhood and outpaced BR's ability to keep up with roads and infrastructure. The result was grueling traffic that might result in a commute taking half an hour when it should have taken 10 minutes.

When I moved out of the dorm on campus at LSU I started living in South Baton Rouge and commuting to school every day. The traffic had gotten worse because of neighborhood developments that went unchecked by city planning or any kind of zoning management.

This is why when I moved to Dallas, one of the most exciting prospects for me was to eliminate the need for a car for most of my daily needs. Dallas is by no means a walkable city, but the prospects here are way better, and getting better all the time. We first lived on the very edge of uptown, right across Woodall Rogers from the Arts District. It was only a mile from my office in the West End, so I began to walk.

What I found was that walking was far more enjoyable even in the pedestrian desert that is the boundary between downtown and uptown. (As an aside, this is rapidly changing. The road that I followed for my commute is currently being converted into a deck park with great planned amenities!) I now realize that I hate being in a car. Perhaps I am crazy to think this, but the car has an effect on me, and I think and behave differently in a car than on foot. I am more relaxed on foot, and most things don't bother me like they do in a car. For example, if someone randomly walks in front of me, I don't freak out and shoot them the bird, its just not a big deal.

If I am accidentally bumped into, no harm no foul. Imagine if at some red light somebody hit your bumper, but no damage was done. Would that stop you from freaking out and possibly calling for a police report?

After a post on Facebook, a former classmate and fellow conservative pointed out that several pedestrians and cyclists demonize cars. This is true. I will not because I own two, and use them for things that Dallas's public transportation system can't yet handle efficiently (it could be a 3 hour ordeal to get to a grocery store vs. 30 mins in the car) But in spite of all of this, I prefer to walk or ride a bike any time I can.

My attitude towards DART has changed somewhat over the nearly 4 years we have been here. Coming in, I saw the DART rail almost as the L in Chicago, getting you awfully close to where you need to go. As I rode and experienced the system, I learned that outside of downtown, this is largely not the case, but is more like a commuter rail for people way outside the city center. What's funny about that is that others apparently had the same expectation that I did, so now livable transit oriented developments are popping up, and the train becomes an urban island hopping vehicle. There is still a long way to go before people can huddle around a train station both at home and at work and still address the needs of everyday living, but we are getting there.

Our new neighborhood, Oak Cliff, is now beginning to embrace this kind of urban density. As the first harbinger of change, the Oak Cliff Transit Authority (with the help of Fort Worth) has obtained a TIGER grant to begin building a street car connecting North Oak Cliff around Methodist Hospital with Union Station in downtown. The consensus seems to be that the line will be extended down Davis to create a more walkable and desirable commercial corridor. This has been recently buttressed by the radical re-zoning of Davis by the city to make the area more appealing to developers, and interestingly enough, this is accomplished by reducing parking requirements. What will take the place of the almighty automobile? Feet, Bicycles and Public Transportation, I think...

It's a dream that many people have of the ideal city. I grew up hearing stories from my father about how kids would ride bicycles everywhere, and people didn't have hour long commutes. This ideal, manifesting itself in new forms, is making a comeback in a major way, and one only needs to look around to see that the seeds have been planted. It won't be long now before the roots take hold, and public transportation and other automobile alternatives will prove to be the preferred method of travel for the citizens of Dallas.