Keep or Crush I-345

Keep or Crush I-345

Back to Columns Issue

Erich Dohrer
Contributed by:
Erich Dohrer

Talk About It

There are no comments yet, be the first!

Keep or Crush I-345: A Formula for Developing Your Own Opinion

Two years ago, a group calling itself A New Dallas presented a vision for the removal of I-345, a 1.2-mile stretch of elevated urban freeway on the northeast side of downtown Dallas. The roadway has created a barrier between downtown and the Deep Ellum neighborhood for 40 years and is reaching the end of its lifespan. As a response to the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) nine alternatives, A New Dallas has proposed removing the roadway in favor of a new walkable neighborhood that reconnects two districts, creating an economic benefit that the group’s members believe outweighs any negative impacts of freeway removal.

Their argument centers on the fact that demolishing the freeway will cost TxDOT $100 million less than rebuilding it and will provide $3.5 billion in new development: a new neighborhood of 25,000 urban residents, presumably along with the usual array of retail and offices. Think Portland, Vancouver, San Francisco … basically any great urban city that we as residents of a sun belt city must visit. They remind us that walkable neighborhoods in Dallas are few and far between.

As a designer focusing on urban, mixed-use infill development, I admit that, upon first hearing this vision, my gut-level reaction was along the lines of “When can we fire up the bulldozers?” This idea could be a game-changer to truly transform our core and make our city more livable. But then, once I thought it through, the reality of the situation set in: What about the 160,000 cars a day that use that stretch of road? How are we going to absorb these huge traffic counts? How is this going to impact the I-30/I-35 improvements under construction on the other side of downtown? In short, I am conflicted. As a reader, if you are looking for an informed opinion, another voice added to the increasing drumbeat on both sides of this issue, you will not find it here. What I will offer is this: We will be stuck with whatever we as a community make, for good or ill. We had better get it right because most of us won’t be alive long enough to have another shot at “doing the right thing.”

The Public Drama of I-345

The discussion of the fate of I-345 is an extreme example of how the decision-making process plays out in the public sphere and one that has parity for us as designers. Interestingly, both sides of this discussion are essentially promoting the same thing – connectivity that will provide the greatest benefit to the community. While each side’s goals are the same, it is their values that are the area of dispute. A New Dallas focuses upon connecting people and districts by utilizing urban redevelopment, while TxDOT’s view of connectivity centers around connecting people through a regional transportation system. In many instances of controversy or disagreement, whether it be community-wide decisions or site specific ones, the differing sides of the argument usually have the same or similar goals; but the difference lies in the means of executing those goals.  Without concrete data to support an argument, the discussion is really based upon ideologies.

On ideological grounds, the side that wins the argument is the one that can be most persuasive, have the best political connections, or convince the most people to subscribe to their beliefs. This “trust me I’m an expert” approach to decision-making is dangerous because, in many ways, it places the emphasis upon the charisma of the person making the argument rather than the salient points of a position.  Rodger Jones, in The Dallas Morning News’ transportation blog,  touched succinctly upon this issue : “Many people who have staked out positions on the removal of I-345 have done so without benefit of what’s badly needed in this debate—hard data.”

In the absence of data, designers are, at best, making arbitrary decisions, or in extreme cases creating a detriment to the community. The example of the Shard’s “deathray,”—the angle of its concave facade concentrating and reflecting sunlight on the street—comes to mind. Without a framework based upon data, seemingly arbitrary decisions only help to reduce the relevance and credibility of our profession.

Opportunities and constraints diagramming, and other analytical approaches, are quick methods to determine strengths and weakness of a particular site; but for the most part, these tools only determine the physical attributes of a design problem. Emphasis is usually placed upon solving the problems of functionality (i.e. how our designs impact the physical realm), but rarely do they delve into deeper questions about what our decisions mean for a city or society. Using a simple methodology, we as a design community can change how we make decisions from the “trust me, I’m an expert” approach to one based upon measurable data.

Identify, Analyze, Prioritize

The obvious first step in any decision-making process is to identify goals.  Before any meaningful analysis of a problem can be made, the community, stakeholders, or end-users must provide input. Jointly determining goals and finding common ground helps to build bridges between opposing viewpoints early in the process. Using the previous example, both A New Dallas and TxDOT have similar goals of creating connections within the community. The next step is determining strategies for achieving a workable goal that both parties can accept.

The means to achieve the goal of connectivity as it relates to I-345 (tearing it down versus rebuilding) - have greater implications. The simple issue of connecting people becomes a much larger issue of how we see our city and how we determine future growth and direction for our community; in short this subject begins to present a new vision for downtown Dallas. Because it sparks a much larger set of determinations, the analysis of the strategies must present a holistic view of the implications. The future of I-345 quickly becomes more important than traffic counts.

Analysis: The Triple Bottom Line

To broaden the scope of analysis, and (most importantly) provide a meaningful structure to the relevant determining factors, we must look to the business community. In his 1997 book, Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, John Elkington presents the concept of a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) approach to measuring financial performance in the context of three dimensions—profit, people, and planet—with the goal of shifting a company’s responsibility from only shareholders to stakeholders. In an era where an immense amount of data is readily available, the TBL approach offers a tool to distill that data and to present it in a framework that addresses the multi-faceted nature of the decision we make and the broad-ranging impacts of those decisions. It ultimately provides a means of comparing and contrasting those impacts.

Illustration by Alberto Galindo

This concept is built on the premise of a19th century English physicist who stated: “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” It is generally true that, if you can measure something, there is a greater chance that you will pay attention to it. A company cannot justify social responsibility if it can’t measure its progress. Some examples of how this approach has changed financial decisions can be seen in how some companies have chosen to deal with resource extraction, outsourced labor, and energy consumption. The free trade movement can be seen as a logical extension of this concept in practice. Additionally, as the social awareness of the consumer has grown, so too has emphasis upon where goods come from, who made them, and how they have been transported. As consumer awareness has grown, so has the awareness of the business community.

As a society, our financial decisions (what we buy, where we live/shop/work) are increasingly taking into account social responsibility. As designers, it is incumbent upon us to understand these issues and incorporate the same awareness into our design processes. By adjusting the TBL diagram from a business model to a design model, the nature of how and why we make decisions will change and will be a quantifiable tool to justify our design process. Very simply, the more each design decision (or aspect of that decision) falls in the center of the diagram, the more balanced the approach.

Measuring TBL

A TBL approach provides infinite flexibility in determining what and how something is measured, tracked, and weighted. This scalability is key in developing a model that is appropriate for the question at hand,. The difficulty is that there is no common unit of measure. Financial aspects are easy to measure in dollars, but social and environmental issues are difficult to quantify and therefore only tangentially discussed in the design process. There are two common methodologies for creating units of measure in a TBL approach. One is to measure in dollars. The business community leans toward this approach because all decisions will ultimately impact profitability. Governments and non-profits approach TBL using a weighted index, removing incompatibility of units in favor of a predetermined benchmark.

Both approaches can be subjective. A weighted indexing complicates simple analysis. Adding a monetary value creates its own set of challenges. For example, what is the monetary value of a bike lane? Rather than becoming mired in a cumbersome and detailed system, a two-tiered approach to TBL can quickly outline the impact of decisions and provide a prioritization framework. First, measure common variables—financial impact, traffic counts, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), access to goods and services, or other variables determined by the stakeholder’s goals. Then, present the relative strengths and weakness of a decision and set the framework for creating a design that best addresses those goals.  Secondly, implement a simple “yes or no” or “positive/negative” approach when an issue is too cumbersome for metrics. For example, if one solution has access to transit and another does not, it is easy to ascertain that the scheme with transit connections provides positive benefit to the financial, environmental, and social scales.  To unravel the myriad issues any decision or goal might present, start with a simple matrix. It can be beneficial to create a framework and organize issues by similar metrics and attributes or benefits and drawbacks.

Using the example of connectivity, elements in a TBL approach might be organized as follows:

Illustration by Alberto Galindo

Some of these issues (traffic count, VMT, transit ridership) are metrics that are quantifiable, while the issues of access are simple yes/no answers for the purposes of this study. There is a case to be made that distances associated with access could be quantified if the variable is important to a particular study.

Within the context of TBL, many of these issues hit multiple touch points. In fact, every issue presented above impacts both the environment and social categories. [We’ll get to the financial category later.] For example, traffic counts are an environmental issue because higher traffic means more CO2 released into the air; likewise, it is a social issue because more traffic equals more time in a car, longer commutes, less personal time, etc.

Organizing these issues into a matrix creates a quick guide to compare and contrast each item and gives a snapshot of which alternative performs better in a given category.

Financial: It’s Not All About Money

There are two reasons to leave the financial leg of the TBL approach as the last step. For one, it is the area that most gravitate toward. Using the mantra that if you measure something you will pay attention to it, placing issues relating to environment and social categories at the top of the list ensures that they will be measured. Secondly, as issues are contemplated in the context of environment and social categories, some might impact the financial side and therefore be worth measuring. For some decisions, the environmental or social costs/benefits are important. In the case of I-345, the potential costs are very important to measure. For example, the cost of lost productivity due to (potentially) increased traffic does impact a community and should be quantified to make an objective decision. One day, carbon will have a value in this country; so, the amount of CO2 we are emitting will have monetary value.

When evaluating the financial or economic impact of a decision, quantify traditional financial benchmarks like hard and soft construction costs and potential return on investment, but also consider environmental and social costs/benefits. Speaking frankly, in the private development world, most developers only marginally care about these issues, but quantifying environmental and social benefits can directly correlate to increased return on investment.  All decisions based only on financial considerations will run the risk of negatively impacting the community. 

It is a natural tendency to try to assign value or importance to one issue over another, but this model is intentionally neutral. As designers, it is our role to understand the information from the stakeholders’ view. The goal should be to use the data as a means to facilitate a conversation, one that moves from goals into values, or as the means of implementing the stated goals. 

Illustration by Alberto Galindo

Final Note

The controversy of I-345 has played out in the public realm in much the same way as many other contentious issues that have impacted Dallas through the years. As our values clash, lively debate ensues. We are Americans after all; this is what we do. While the debate makes for good political theater, it does not really get to the heart of what the right decision for our community is.

For designers, who are used to talking with our pens, this can all seem pretty droll. There hasn’t been a single picture in this article that we can collectively ogle, and on the surface the charts and graphs seem to remove all of the beauty and whimsy from the design process. I submit to you that a TBL approach can enhance the visions we create.

For I-345, I would urge comprehensive and detailed study of the implications of removing the highway versus keeping it. This issue is too important to be left to those who bark the loudest or have the best connections at Dallas City Hall or in Austin.


View a "360" of 345—a panoramic perspective video related to issues in this article— at


Erich Dohrer is an urban planner and a principal at RTKL.