In Louisville, Echoes of the Trinity Toll Road Debate, and a Reminder of How Dumb It Is
The question of new and more highways in city centers is too profound, too generational, too close to the heart of things: it's never going to get a rational answer. The whole thing is way beyond reason. We'll have to go with our guts, after we decide what our guts want to do.
Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for The New York Times, has a piece about downtown Louisville with all sorts of interesting echoes of our own dilemma here in Dallas. Louisville has already sacrificed a lot of its riverfront to cars. Now Kentucky business leaders want to cover up even more of downtown Louisville with roads and bridges, while new urbanists argue that's exactly the wrong direction to go for a better downtown.
When I read his piece, I thought of the years-long struggle of road-foes here to get anybody in the academic community to address these basic underlying questions honestly and publicly. Because there are basic underlying questions. There are rational measurements that could address those questions. There are experts who possess that expertise.
Sadly, those experts, even the ones who teach college, are all standing on street corners with too much makeup and their skirts hiked up or their pants too tight, waiting for the next real estate developer Johns to come along and hire them as traffic-study consultants. The field that ought to give us the answers, traffic engineering, is already sold-out before it even shows up for class. So we're back to our own guts.
In his piece today about Louisville, Kimmelman touches on a question that's at the heart of our own debate here over the proposed tolled expressway that business leaders want to build in the floodway along the Trinity River, walling off downtown Dallas from its only waterfront and from a vast natural area, not to mention the curious notion of building a highway everyone knows will be underwater part of the year.
The principle Killmelman talks about in Louisville is "induced demand." It's the heart of things here. Road proponents here have always based their pitch for the new highway on a promise it will reduce traffic congestion downtown. But they were flummoxed last May when three city council members produced numbers showing that the city could do a better job reducing congestion and spend less money if it simply fixed existing downtown freeways instead of adding a new one.
To counter that argument, the proponents, with the mayor as their chief pitchman, simply changed the rules of traffic engineering, which have always been based on the principle of "congestion mitigation," a rule enshrined in federal highway law and policy. It's what it says it is: a measurement of the degree to which congestion will be reduced by a project.
The champions of the new Trinity River Toll Road decided that the congestion mitigation principle was suddenly inoperative here. Instead, they said their toll road was the better idea because it will increase "capacity," which is more or less a measurement of the total amount of concrete available for cars.
The principle Kimmelman invokes in his piece today -- induced demand -- is a refutation of that argument based on years of history and measurement. All of the evidence is that simply adding capacity usually increases congestion instead of reducing it. If life were a sentimental baseball movie, the capacity argument would be expressed as "build it and they will come."
And in fact that's what the proponents really want. The Trinity River Toll Road was never really designed to reduce traffic. It's what developers call a development road, designed to bring more traffic to downtown, based on the post-World War II axiom, "access is success." They think the way to make their downtown property worth more is to bring more cars to it.
That idea happens to fly in the face of everything going on in city centers around the country, where, as Kimmelman recounts, cities have been tearing down highways to air out their downtowns and create new opportunities for walkable urban development.
But wait. Where did we start? I opened up here by saying there are answers to these questions. There is math. I think it's more like arithmetic. And there are people who know how to do that arithmetic.
For the last several years I have been following the efforts of Dallas city councilwoman Angela Hunt to recruit even one credible member of the traffic-engineering profession willing to publicly address these questions. It ought to be simple. Come to Dallas. Look at this plan. Tell us: 1) Will the new underwater highway along the river reduce or increase the amount of car traffic in downtown? 2) Is more car traffic good or bad for downtown re-development these days?
They won't do it. It's like asking the tart on the corner to come home with you to visit your parents. The tart, no fool, smells trouble in that.
Hunt has told me time and again of experts willing to tell her all sorts of things off the record about how stupid the toll road idea is, as long as they don't have to stand up in public. I have had the same experience repeatedly as a reporter.
So, as I've said before, at some point we have to abandon the search for expert help with this. It's not up to the experts anyway. It's up to us. I guess what we have here is a basic exercise of democratic prerogatives. We just have to go with our guts.
So how's your gut this morning?