Nathaniel Barrett is a Strong Towns member and advocate who lives in Dallas, Texas. Today he's sharing a guest article about a dangerous, expensive street in his town and his community's efforts to change it.
Most communities have a few examples of “bulldoze the city to serve commuters” street projects and in my hometown of Dallas, they're particularly prevalent. You’ll be walking through a delightful streetcar suburb with its safe and navigable gridded streets, surrounded by historic homes, four-plexes and courtyard apartments when you’ll suddenly encounter a high-speed road with long curves that make it impossible to see if it’s safe to cross. It feels out of place because this kind of road was forced on a neighborhood that was never designed for it.
Destroying our City to Save It?
Like most inner-city neighborhoods in the US, Old East Dallas fell upon hard times in the 1960s and 1970s as new highways offered the promise of swift transport to the newly built subdivisions away from the city center. Today, Old East Dallas is one of the more charming and coveted neighborhoods in Dallas, so it’s hard to understand why the City thought it was a good idea to demolish houses for new roads. Some digging into newspaper archives from the time reveals that, at the urging of the Chamber of Commerce, a whole slew of street-widenings were planned across the area.
Many of these projects were described by the business leaders as efforts to make commuting and shopping more convenient. The logic fell along the lines of “If we can just make our streets as fast as the highways, merchants can compete with the convenience of car-based shopping in the new suburbs.”
Fortunately, many of these projects, like the four-lane expansion of Junius Street, a quiet residential street, never came to pass, which means that the home values and safety of the neighborhood were preserved.
However, a few of these “cross-town route” projects did come to fruition.
The Price of Progress
One that looms large both for its impact on the neighborhood and the way it has fallen short of its aspirations is the Main-Columbia-Abrams Road connection. As the unwieldy name suggests, that’s not actually one street but, thanks to the power of bulldozers and steamrollers, it was made to be one street. The idea of this project was to create an additional route for cars to get downtown from the new subdivisions of north Dallas by relieving traffic on parallel streets.
The tone of the historic articles I consulted made it clear that these projects were intended to connect the new neighborhoods of Northeast Dallas to Downtown with nary a mention of the impact on residents located between these two points. One article stated: “Eventually this throughway will extend four more blocks from Garrett to connect with Main Street, giving Northeast Dallas a new direct link with down-town.”
The best way to understand the impact of this is to look at the street today with the old streetcar routes laid on top. Blue lines represent the location of the old streetcar routes in the area and red are the 1970s connections.
First up we have the Main-Columbia connection. As you can see on the map, the streetcars moved along their tracks from Elm & Main onto Carroll at angles too sharp for a modern, efficient road system, so our traffic engineers erased the corners and made a nice smooth turn for all the motorists flying down the road at 45+ mph. The legacy of the old main street is evident in the comically large right turn lane on the south end of the intersection (also note the frightening sharrow in the middle of the image).
Gentle curves are great for keeping cars moving at a high speed. High speeds are great for squashing pedestrians. Combine this raceway geometry with the expansion to six lanes and it’s not surprising that Columbia Ave is one of the deadlier streets in the area.
After movng along Columbia Ave, the streetcar met another line along Beacon St. and continued north. As ugly and damaging as the Main-Columbia connection was, it pales in comparison to the destruction wrought upon Junius Heights by the Columbia-Abrams connection. Dozens of homes in this area were demolished to make way for what is essentially a mile-long, six-lane highway placed directly in the middle of the neighborhood.
On the right side of the photo below you can see Woodrow Wilson High School and JL Long Middle School separated from Lipscomb Elementary on the northwest side.
Multiple homes were demolished to build this road and today, it is virtually impossible to cross safely on foot (or even by car).
In my research, I found no account of protests from the residents who had their homes seized, or from those left behind who were now separated from their neighbors, schools, and library by a road too dangerous to walk across. Instead all accounts are of the “rah-rah-roads” type from planners, business groups, and “Citizens Commissions” all dedicated to boosting the project.
At least the City got the high-speed connection to downtown it needed, right? Not so. A six-lane divided road with left-turn lanes like Main-Columbia-Abrams is designed to carry 44,000 car per day. Today, according to the most recent traffic counts, Abrams carries about 16,000 cars per day or about the same number as a two-lane road with a center turn lane can handle.
This means that we’ve got four extra lanes of pavement that we are paying to maintain and replace, which are going almost totally unused. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the massive effort to build this road in the first place or the social damage to the neighborhood it split in two.
Rebuilding our City to Save It
Given all the harm we’ve done to one of our most pleasant neighborhoods, what can we do? On November 7, 2017 Dallas will be going to the polls to vote on a bond package dedicated to major street repairs and upgrades. Thanks to the efforts of a group of citizens from the neighborhoods along this stroad, if the bond passes, the City will be implementing a road diet to decrease the width of the street and slow down traffic.
Without the efforts of groups like Strong Towns we might never have heard about this shift in thinking from more (and wider) stroads to safe and productive streets.
About the Author
Nathaniel Barrett is a CPA and, thanks to Strong Towns and the Incremental Development Alliance, a small-time real estate developer and advocate for productive places. He lives in the historic neighborhood of Peak's Suburban Addition in Old East Dallas with his wife and two children.