CNU23: Unsure About Expectations, Dallas an Unexpected Delight

I saw my first cowboy hat within my first five steps off of my Frontier Airlines flight into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

The truth is, I didn’t really know what to expect from Dallas – hell, I’d never even been to Texas. What I found during last week’s visit was a clean, cosmopolitan city filled with music, art, and a personable populace that exceeded my expectations.

Things didn’t get off to the best start. I had to spend a couple of hours at the airport waiting for my girlfriend’s flight to arrive. Leaving Terminal E for the train at Terminal A, the Terminal Link bus felt, indeed, terminal, as it would its way through an unintelligible maze of ramps and roadways.

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We then faced another hour on Dallas Area Rapid Transit‘s (DART) Orange Line to our accommodations, the historic Hotel Lawrence in the West End of Dallas. I would not recommend this hotel unless you’re looking for something cheap and you’re not planning on being there much, because it’s currently under a heavy renovation to rebrand it as a LaQuinta Inn & Suites and won’t be completed until early next year. But it is served by several bus lines, is across the street from Dallas Union Station, and is a short walk from Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum, which is located in the building from which President Kennedy was shot. Oh, and the 561-foot Reunion Tower (1978), where for $16 you can access the GeO-Deck. (I declined.)

(Tip: Buy a 7-day DART pass for $25 and enjoy unlimited rides on all trains and buses!)

I was in town for CNU23, which was being held downtown at the beautiful Hotel Adolphus (1912) on Commerce Street. The first two days were spent getting to know writers from other Streetsblog affiliate sites and brainstorming ways to build better stories, better sites, and a better national network. We also traveled to the adjacent Deep Ellum neighborhood, which, with its restaurants and bars, would be considered the city’s hipster enclave. While there, we heard a presentation on tactical urbanism and took part in a project to build seating out of reclaimed wood pallets for a street festival.

The rest of the conference – which was extremely well-run, by the way – was focused heavily on transportation and designing around transit. Called “Meeting the Demand For Walkable Places”, the conference featured speakers presenting on topics ranging from in-depth to broad, tours of place making initiatives that are working, and meet-ups.

I will say that the architecture in Dallas left me a bit wanting. Many of the downtown buildings are constructed in the modern/brutalist and postmodern styles, indicative of the postwar boom that saw the city grow from a population of under 300,000 in 1940 to an estimated 1.3 million today. But there are pockets of “old” Dallas here and there, and numerous public plazas from which to enjoy them.

(Note: Yes, there is a McDonald’s with a drive-thru in downtown Dallas!)

On the way back to the airport on Friday, I was able to get a good look at some transit-oriented development near the Orange Line’s Victory station (near the American Airlines Center) and the massive planned community of Las Colinas in neighboring Irving.

The airport was no better the next day.

I would definitely recommend Dallas. The people were fantastic, the food was great, and the positive vibe was palpable. It may have just been the great minds that were in town for the conference, but, if it’s even half as nice on a daily basis, I’d still enjoy it. And the “CVB” weather made it all the more enjoyable.

CNU24 will take place June 8-11, 2016 in Detroit. I’ve been to Detroit several times, but not for a few years. Perhaps it will be time to visit again.

CNU23: Conversation on Transit Should Focus on Access, Not Technology

The language we use when discussing transit is fundamentally flawed, according to Jarrett Walker, an international consultant on public transit design and policy and author of the book Human Transit.

Walker’s remarks were delivered at the CNU23 conference, which was held last week at Hotel Adolphus in downtown Dallas.

“The North American transit conversation is mostly using false binarisms,” Walker said.

Examples of this kind of “either this or that” thinking can be seen in debates over profit vs. subsidy, infrastructure vs. service, rail vs. bus, aesthetics vs. abundance, and choice riders vs. dependent riders, he said.

He also believes that too much of the conversation has been about technology and engineering, political wrangling, or how the system will be financed.

In doing so, we’re ignoring what should be transit’s goal: providing abundant access and expanding opportunities for all to enjoy the city’s riches. In other words, he said, we should be designing the transit network to maximize peoples’ liberty and opportunity.

Mariia Zimmerman, principal and founder of public policy consulting group MZ Strategies, agreed with Walker that too much of the discussion and advocacy surrounding transit is about the infrastructure itself.

She noted that such thinking has had the effect of the trickle of funding transit gets through the Federal Transit Administration being used almost entirely for buses, tracks, train cars and shelters, with precious little available for actual operation.

“Transit, at best, is the poor stepchild,” Zimmerman said. “In many cases, it’s the bastard. When we’re investing in the infrastructure instead of the operating, it’s tough. How can we sell and persuade people to support transit – outside of the infrastructure?”

Without access, there is no transit service, only symbolism, Walker said.

“One thing to know is that access leads overwhelmingly to ridership,” he said. “The idea that transit infrastructure has outcomes just by itself is a false analogy imported from buildings and highways.”

Walker quoted Alan Watts, the British-born philosopher, writer and speaker, who said that “Western cultures are prone to eat the wrapper and throw away the food.”

“This existing view of transit is all the wrapper,” he said. “The freedom and opportunity of people to access their city is the food.”