I just took the Nicollet Mall survey that I guess they borrowed some interns from Fallon to write, and I have to admit, I had a little bit of trouble understanding the questions. They just didn’t speak my language I guess, they really had trouble seizing the urbane zootgeist that emanates our primer throughfare. So I came up with my own survey, hope you like it:
Today on streets.mn I write about Hennepin County’s half-assed new design for Minnhaha Ave, and their pathological use therein of one of the dopiest beasts in my menagerie of pet peeves: bus pull-outs. On probably one out of every four bus trips I take, I witness some schlub motoring recklessly around a bus and into some crosswalk, careless about the pedestrians that might be there that he or she has no way of seeing. That’s every other day I witness this personally, and spend most of my time on the bus staring at a piece of paper covered in ink markings.
There are other horrors of the roadways that I experience on a daily basis in Minneapolis. Related to the Crosswalk Plunge described above is the Half-cocked Hook, where a motorist completes most of a turn but slams on the brakes right before entering the crosswalk that’s occupied by a pedestrian that the motorist didn’t care to look for. This happens to me daily. Literally every day. Of course I already described in probably my greatest ever piece of writing that slimy piece of human garbage known as the Crosswalk Creep. I encounter this scum I would say once or twice per mile of walking.
All of this adds up to some truly terrifying (in the literal sense) and constantly frustrating walking conditions in Minneapolis. So why not just ride a bike? Well, because I encounter at least one bike lane blockage per ride. At least one driver buzzes me per ride. And on top of that, bikes also have to deal with Half-cocked Hookers who have no idea how to judge the speed of a cyclist so they delay their turn until just when the cyclist is entering the intersection. On a bike I probably get that every second or third ride.
This is not an inherent quality of city life. I’ve walked in countless cities that are more congested but don’t make me fear for my life with every step. This is an inherent quality of living in one of the most sprawling cities on earth, where there are entire municipalities of people who think it’s their god-given right for the government to provide them with an unclogged road to anywhere they want to go with a free, easy to find parking space at the end of it, and without having to pay a dime in taxes for it. That’s why a bike lane here and a bump-out there isn’t good enough. No, when the walking is deadly and the biking is deadly and the buses are only good for homeless shelters, but the streets are kinda bumpy, you don’t take new revenue and put it into filling potholes. At least you don’t if you’re a leader with integrity. You put it into the modes that have been marginalized and underfunded for decades. At least you do if you’re a leader with integrity.
That’s why it’s frustrating when there’s an opportunity to entirely rebuild a street, because that’s exactly when they should be optimizing streets for these historically marginalized modes. But instead we see stuff like the design for Minnehaha, which is much better for pedestrians, about the same for bikes, and much worse for buses. There has been some progress in the last 10 years, but we’re coming from way behind, so we can’t afford to let any opportunity pass us by.
The great tragedy of urban planning is that its practitioners, constantly challenged by their arch nemeses the civil engineers, feel compelled to discuss it as though it were a science. Confusion here is understandable, both because it’s common practice in the radically libertarian United States to consign all planning tasks to the engineering office (or alternately in the radically corporatist United States to the economic development office), and because, as a bureaucratic practice, planning comes with a plethora of codes, ordinances, regulations, and complicated maps.
Planning is not a science anymore than music, with its galaxy of modes, notations, and technologies, is a science. Just like there is no one song for every situation (well, maybe MacArthur Park), there is no one planning technique for every situation. Even worse, there is no one set of proscriptions that apply to a given set of conditions. In other words, urban planning doesn’t have an instruction manual, it can’t have an instruction manual, it can only be done well by someone with an eye who takes time to know a subject location intimately.
But if urban planning did have an instruction manual, Walkable City by Jeff Speck would comprise an important chapter. As you might guess, I see that both as a strength and a weakness. On the strength side, it’s probably the most complete and readable compendium of the current state of urbanist thinking (the urbanists being the faction that dominates discussion in the planning field, if not practice) on urban design. Speck does a great job organizing what is in reality a complex set of tools and approaches into 10 comprehensible categories. An example is the chapter Make Friendly and Unique Faces, which I’d summarize as the need to front public space (e.g. parks and streets) with permeable or at least interesting building frontages. Speck of course goes deeper than that, to cite just two examples: demanding parking ramps have first floor retail or be hidden on the interior of blocks, and recommending right-sized parks that facilitate recreation but don’t cut neighborhoods off from each other. These two topics could have been covered in a chapter about parking ramps and a chapter about open space, respectively, but by instead organizing them according to their effect, rather than their mere form, Speck guides the reader to the next level. This approach is a means of understanding the components that make up a place not just as a collection of Dungeons and Dragons characters with their various powers and differing attribute points, but as a collection of unique individuals that don’t always fit into categories and come together with unpredictable results. This approach is an artistic one.
Unfortunately it is not found consistently through the book. Speck too often falls in the engineeringist trap of absolute declarations. One that rubs me the wrong way is his insistence that on-street parking is always a good thing for a street. Certainly, in a place with high parking demand on-street parking will act as a buffer for pedestrians against the motorized traffic in the roadway. But even this is only beneficial if the parking also has the effect of making the roadway feel narrower for moving traffic, resulting in reduced speed – too often (Lake St in Uptown is a local example) roadways are designed with 12′ traffic lanes and 12′ parking lanes, in which case the parking is also a mental buffer for motorists, who can speed through their expressway without having to draw their attention to the human life in the margins. And on-street parking can have a significant downside at intersections if not paired with bump-outs or at least significant clear zones, since parked cars can often obscure any traffic using crosswalks to a turning motorist. Finally, on-street parking is only a buffer if it’s used. Empty parking spaces, as can be seen locally on 38th St, are just a psychological widening of the roadway, predictably increasing top speeds of cars and degrading the walking experience. For all the buffer that on-street parking can provide, a well-landscaped and ample boulevard is just as good a buffer, as can be experienced on Chicago’s State Street or even in places on our own Hennepin Ave. My point, of course, isn’t that on-street parking is always a bad buffer, but rather that it’s one of many tools in the toolbox and shouldn’t be universally prescribed as Speck seems to do at a couple points in his book.
But such absolutist moments are the exception, which is itself exceptional. The best ever book on urban planning – Death and Life of course – took an artistic approach as well, famously describing cities as a sidewalk ballet that couldn’t be taken apart and rebuilt as so many interchangeable or even reliably specialized lego blocks. Unfortunately, Jane Jacobs didn’t win the 20th century, the engineers did. And so engineeringese has predominated in too much of the planning discussion, which wastes vast quantities of hot air attempting to prove that because such and such a signal timing or so and so code phrasing worked in Town A, it’ll do the same thing in City B. While not perfect, Walkable City is a step in the right direction towards a discourse that acknowledges that cities are not perfect either, and as such there is no perfect approach to urban planning.
So this week (Tuesday the 15th at 7pm to be precise) streets.mn, urbanmsp, the Minneapolis Bike Coalition, the U of M’s Interdisciplinary Transportation Student Organization and Minnesota Urban Studies Students Association, the League of Concerned Cyclists, Minneapolis Swimmers Against Swimmer’s Itch, and NASA are hosting a mayoral candidate forum on transportation. We all know how it will go – two hours of cracker jack talking points about streetcars and cycle tracks. In the interest of not being bored when I show up out of obligation, I’ve come up with some questions. With these questions comes a challenge: can you top them? My questions suck of course, but are yours any better? Prove it, post them in the comments on streets.mn! Anyway here goes my dreariest queries:
- What will you do as mayor when a proposed piece of infrastructure that is a critical link in the city’s bicycle network is opposed by neighbors?
- What does your ideal bus stop look like?
- What is the number of your favorite bus route and why is that bus the best?
- Should Metro Transit stop accepting cash fares on-board and why or why not?
- Is it better to have most bus routes converge downtown or should they be arranged in a grid?
- What is the value in retaining a bus route network structure that is nearly identical to the streetcar network?
- What makes a street complete?
- What is the primary purpose of a street?
- What role should induced demand play in street design?
- Is Minneapolis walkable and what makes it so?
- What is your favorite restaurant to walk to?
- How important is it to connect Minneapolis’ non-motorized transportation network to the networks of the surrounding suburbs?
- Is it generally better for retail business parking to be accessed from a street with a curb cut or through an alley?
- From a transportation perspective, what do you think makes Nicollet Mall successful or unsuccessful? What can be done to build on its success or improve on its failure?
Show me up! Stump the candidate! Post your questions at streets.mn!
A pleasant surprise awaits weary crossers of the Plymouth Bridge, after many months of narrow laned, jersey barriered tribulations, as they drift down the gentle sand plain bluff:
What’s that in the distance? Through the hazy heat lines of a brutal Minnesota summer I think I glimpse an oasis on that bridge:
These are easily some of the most badass bike lanes in the city. They took one of the four previously-existing 12′ lanes on this bridge, made 1-2′ of it into a big ole candlestick bollard buffer, cut off a good 4′ of that heinous gutter pan, and left a solid 6′ of riding space.
Such a quality facility should not exist in a void, so it’s too bad that the City didn’t put in sharrows or advisory lanes on 8th Ave NE when they resurfaced it last year. At the very least they should extend the lanes to the lanes at Marshall. The roadway appears to be 44′ there, which makes it a bit tight, but surprise surprise the parking on the north side of the street is rarely used, fronting as it does two blocks’ worth of parking lots. Would it really be a big deal to cut the parking on the north side of the street and extend these awesome lanes to Marshall?
Just because I can’t be entirely complimentary, here are also photos of a cop cam taking up the entirety of the bike lane on University on Frat Row:
I’m all for spying on frat houses (although this cam was strangely aimed at the U’s new pseudo-frat dorm), but maybe they could have used one of those three through lanes? Or how about that sod farm to the right? To be fair, the bike lane symbols have long since warn away here, so maybe officer Bulleigh from Andover just assumed this was a shoulder, not a bike lane.
I recently took a fairly long vacation, which gave me time to review and comment in detail on Hennepin County’s draft Pedestrian Plan. It’s a small but welcome first step for the County, but has some significant shortcomings, most of all the failure to address land use and urban design impediments to walking in Hennepin County. My comments are below, in a format that the County’s online feedback form did not take kindly to. General comments are first, then specific. Comment period closes at 5pm Monday, so while I certainly don’t recommend wasting 4 hours on it like I did, you should at least put in a quick word against beg buttons (which are not addressed in the plan).
I’ve spent the majority of my life as a pedestrian in Hennepin County, so I welcome the creation of the first Hennepin County Pedestrian Plan. This is particularly welcome from an arm of the County that not too long ago was called the Highway Department, and only within the last decade or so showed any consideration of non-motorized transportation (we’re still waiting for it to pay attention to transit). Still, pedestrians in Hennepin County are used to having to push inaccessible beg buttons, cross superfluous motor vehicle lanes, and walk in ditches, shoulders or even travel lanes along County roadways. Hopefully this plan is an indication that the County intends to value pedestrian travel as highly as it currently values travel by personal car.
Unfortunately, the plan is probably too timid and high-level to make a practical difference in the short term. The goals are all rather basic (Why is it necessary to have a goal of improving pedestrian safety? Surely there is an existing requirement that County activities take safety into consideration?) and the strategies for implementation mostly call for further study (e.g. 2.2B. Identify and prioritize pedestrian improvements to enhance the pedestrian environment at Transit stops and along common routes to LRT and BRT stations – why doesn’t this plan serve as a foundation for identifying and prioritizing these improvements so that every new context for consideration of pedestrian facilities doesn’t have to start from scratch?) and only rarely call for concrete improvements (e.g. 1.2A. Install leading pedestrian intervals (LPI), Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacons (RRFB), and High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk Beacons (HAWK) where appropriate and feasible).
The plan has a second fatal defect in its singular focus on infrastructural solutions to degraded pedestrian environments in Hennepin County. In fact, land use has a huge impact on the decision of County residents whether or not to walk, which despite having a major bearing on Goals #2 and 3 is not considered in this plan at all (presumably an effect of the compartmentalization of County departments, as well as the intention of this plan to be folded into the Transportation System Plan that similarly fails to consider land use). In other words, this plan is solely focused on mobility, and entirely ignores accessibility, which is probably a bigger factor in encouraging pedestrian activity. Without a land use component, this is not a pedestrian plan, it is a sidewalks plan. While the County has a less direct impact on land use than on infrastructure, surely the pulpit of the state’s second largest unit of government by budget reaches enough ears that it could be an effective advocate for land use solutions. So the power of persuasion could be used, as could the County’s substantial granting programs (e.g. TOD, NSP, Brownfields, etc). While land use strategies could be incorporated into the plan’s draft goals, I suggest a fourth goal as well that Hennepin County affirmatively advocate pro-pedestrian policies when interacting with other jurisdictions.
Pedestrian activity in Hennepin County is too complex to be planned for in 54 pages. I suggest the finalization of the plan be delayed to accommodate a significant new chapter that attempts to define the universe of facilities related to pedestrians and prioritize them, as well as the incorporation of a fourth goal that commits the County to the advocacy of pedestrian activity to all interacting jurisdictions, and additionally considers land use (and ideally urban design, i.e. what happens to the pedestrian after he or she leaves public right-of-way) strategies to implementing the goals in addition to the infrastructural strategies identified in the draft. While this will certainly add some delay and likely cost more, it will result in a more effective plan. As noted on pages 5 & 6, there are significant costs to avoiding pedestrian activity, so every dollar the County invests in promoting it will be well spent.
2 Goals (p 7)
In addition the three existing goals, I propose Goal #4: Hennepin County should affirmatively encourage policies and activities that promote pedestrian behavior when interacting with other jurisdictions. Hennepin County is a patchwork of overlapping jurisdictions, and the County government has only so much direct responsibility with which to further the goals of the plan. Therefore the plan should explicitly state that its principles should be extended to every fingertip of the County, in order to reach those other jurisdictions and maximally impact the pedestrian environment. There are many opportunities to do so, starting with County granting programs, which could have pro-pedestrian criteria embedded in them; moving through County review of other jurisdictions’ plans, on which pedestrian impacts the County could comment; and extending even towards directly inviting municipalities to formulate their own pedestrian plans or adopt the goals of the County’s plan. The plan already agrees with this goal in such Strategies to Implement as 3.2A. Advocate in the Hennepin County legislative platform for statewide policy to mandate pedestrian safety education in school curriculum and the Practice to Continue outlined on page 32, Support the Development, Implementation, and Coordination of Municipal Pedestrian Plans. It would be further strengthened and made central to more of the County’s activities, however, if it were explicitly included as a goal.
4 Existing Conditions (pp 12-13)
This section contains valuable information about County residents who currently choose to walk to work or other destinations. It would be improved with information about the number of County residents who, based strictly on land use and intensity of use, potentially could walk to destinations but choose not to. This is feasible through GIS. For example, on page 68 of the Appendix, it states that the Met Council TBI found that the average walk journey was 10 minutes in duration. It is possible using GIS to calculate how many county residents live within a 10-minute walk of retail, office or industrial land uses to get a general idea of how many County residents could potentially walk to destinations but do not. This would be particularly useful to get a sense of the feasibility of the performance measures in Section 7.
6.1.1 Practices to Continue: Stripe Zebra-Style Crosswalks (p 23)
The plan states that “are currently the standard style of crosswalks installed on Hennepin County roads outside of Minneapolis.” The plan then continues to describe the rationale for this choice as that they’re “more visible to drivers”, presumably leading to a safety benefit for pedestrians. Why, then, are they not striped in Minneapolis? The plan should include as a Strategy to Implement that the County standard style of crosswalk should be extended to Minneapolis, as the site of 76% of the County’s pedestrian-vehicle crashes (p. 17). If the County standard is not practiced within Minneapolis city limits due to resistance from local officials, the plan should include as a Strategy to Implement a coordination of city-county roadway standards.
6.1.2 Signals (pp 24-25)
This section should include as a Strategy to Implement “Lagging Left Turns as Signal Timing Standard”, as was included for example in the City of Chicago’s Pedestrian Plan (chicagopedestrianplan.org). This practice has the benefit of increasing pedestrian safety and convenience, thus contributing towards all 3 goals outlined in the Hennepin County Plan. By allowing pedestrians to go first, goal 2 is obviously furthered. The contribution towards goal 1 is perhaps deductive, but it is observable that when the protected left turn is at the beginning of a phase, pedestrians tend to not notice and thereby enter the intersection at the same time as a driver has the right-of-way. This situation is absent when the protected left turn is at the end of the phase, and in addition in most cases the pedestrian traffic will have cleared by the time the left-turning vehicular traffic enters, effectively removing this conflict point. Lagging left turns should be the default signal programming, with engineers required to submit documentation of exceptional purpose for programming protected left turns at the beginning of a phase.
Additionally, this section should include as a Strategy to Implement “Require Documentation of Exceptional Purpose for Installation of Pedestrian-Actuated Signals.” These signals, less jargonistically known as beg buttons, reduce pedestrian safety both by requiring the pedestrian to touch a non-sanitized surface and by making the default signal timing unaccommodating to pedestrian travel. While the latter is mitigated by requiring the pedestrian to stop and wait until the next phase, this works against Goal #2 by significantly reducing the speed and convenience of pedestrian travel (depending on the season, comfort can also be significantly reduced). Further, it is unrealistic to expect pedestrians to always obey the signal, especially when they arrive at a signal while vehicular traffic moving in the same direction has a green light, so in a very real sense beg buttons criminalize pedestrian travel. It is difficult to evaluate any pedestrian plan’s outcome as pro-pedestrian if the plan does not call for default accommodation of pedestrians in signal phases.
6.1.2 Practices to Continue: Install Countdown Timers on all County-Owned Signals (p 25)
Page 25 of the draft plan states that countdown timers are a “proven safety strategy.” Yet research on the safety benefits is mixed at best. Most studies seem to show that countdown timers do not discourage pedestrians from beginning to cross even after the Don’t Walk sign begins to flash, although usually it encourages pedestrians to cross more quickly (see for example Countdown Pedestrian Signals: A Comparison of Alternative Pedestrian Change Interval Displays by Jeremiah Singer & Neil Lerner). The latter effect is not a safety benefit, of course, given state law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians who remain in the intersection even after their phase is up, and considering that rushing pedestrians may encourage them to stumble or make some other dangerous error. Even if there is some safety benefit to countdown timers, it is much less than other benefits, such as the basic provision of sidewalks and crosswalks. Therefore countdown timers should be installed when logical as part of other processes, but not necessarily as part of its own initiative.
Strategy to Implement 1.3A. Formalize an Internal Procedure for Evaluating Pedestrian Safety Needs at Specific Locations in Response to Pedestrian-Vehicle Crashes and Community Concerns.
This strategy is laudable, but should be modified to include as a priority the inclusion of a method of public transparency of the evaluation process. That is, not only should residents be able to “report pedestrian connectivity and safety concerns”, they should also be able at least to monitor the evaluation process and outcome in as close to real time as is reasonable, and further there should be a mechanism for public input into the evaluation outcome.
Practices to Continue: Seek Opportunities for 4-to-3 Lane Conversions on County Roadways. (p 28)
This is an excellent strategy for more efficiently and safely accommodating multimodal transportation. Based on the brief description included in the plan, it seems that opportunities for 4-to-3 land conversions are sought on a piecemeal basis, as restriping of individual roadway segments is undertaken. The county should consider coming up with a master plan of 4-to-3 conversion opportunities. This would not only allow perhaps for a more logical and consistent rollout of this practice, but also for early notice of candidates, which otherwise occasionally can take neighbors by surprise and introduce controversy to the process.
6.5 Partnerships (pp 40-41)
It is unclear if the strategies outlined in this section are of equivalent priority to the strategies in sections 6.1-6.5. The plan states that these “goals” (are they goals or strategies? Where is the difference elucidated in the plan?) are “are outside of the county’s role and will be led by others” but some are clearly within the County’s purview, for example 6.5.3 mentions county participation in providing pedestrian wayfinding, which is explicitly mentioned as a part of StI 2.2A (and possibly is allowed in the REPP program mentioned on p 33). In addition, while the County Sheriff’s Office is a quasi-separate organization, it obviously has many natural synergies with the rest of the County’s operations, and frankly if it wasn’t a participant in this planning process, it certainly should have been. Further, if the County isn’t willing to play a lead role in the accomplishment of these goals, why should other jurisdictions? Why couldn’t the County develop a wayfinding plan, for example? Why couldn’t the County develop a crosswalk law enforcement strategy, or an awareness strategy (as MnDot recently did, for example)?
7 Performance Measures (pp 42-44)
It’s not clear how the performance measures correspond to the Strategies to Implement or Strategies to Continue. Without explicit relation, the plan risks having a performance measure that has no strategy to measure, or a strategy the effect of which remains unmeasured.
7.2 PERCENT OF HENNEPIN COUNTY RESIDENTS WHO WALK TO A DESTINATION AT LEAST ONCE PER WEEK (p 44)
As I commented above regarding Section 4, it is difficult to gauge the feasibility and/or aggressiveness of many of these performance measures in the absence of more detailed date on existing conditions. However, this goal strikes me as particularly weak. If the County achieves its goals, walking should be seen as an attractive option for a wide variety of trips for the vast majority of the County’s population. In that case, if almost half of county residents still chose to effectively never walk, even to the neighborhood retail or park, than what would the point of this plan be?
Today on streets.mn I bemoan the lack of transit in the City’s plans for a Nicollet Mall redesign. Instead of a knee-jerk RFP looking for trendy urban design firms to put the same thing back where it is, only with sleek grey slate tiles instead of 90s-ish purple flagstones, they should have had a public process that asked looked realistically at how the Mall is being used (hint: primarily for transit), asked tough questions about its weaknesses (hint: too much surface-traffic interference, problematic passing at stops, rich people don’t like transit), and attempts to build on strengths (hint: it’s in the middle of downtown, there aren’t smelly dangerous cars everywhere).
I believe the outcome of such a process would have recommended a transit tunnel. Not only would that speed up buses by reducing interference (even after a number of stops were removed a few years ago, buses are still scheduled at an abysmally slow 6mph; the Mall’s speed limit, famously, is 10mph) but it would likely require an even further stop consolidation. That, in turn, if we dare to dream could allow enhanced stop facilities such as real-time displays and ticket vending machines, further increasing speeds. Of course, this alternative would allow for the maximum number of street-level pedestrian and public space amenities, maybe even the long-dreamed for high-quality north-south bikeway.
Not even I dare hope that any of this will ever remotely come true. The liberals in this town have had too much success talking about transit without ever doing much for it, and now they have the excuse of a streetcar sometime vaguely in the future to avoid real solutions for our real transit problems: gold-plated transit for some streets, miniature american flags for others. Anyway, dealing with our dysfunctional real world, I hope at the very least the design allows for buses to pass each other at stops. Buses that are ready to go but are forced to sit and wait for the bus in front of them may be the largest source of delays on Nicollet Mall (maybe behind gridlock). This could even be done with a curbless design. Of course it eliminates the possibility of a high-quality bikeway, which is why I prefer the transit tunnel. Seattle and its Pacific Rim geology got it done decades ago; why can’t we?
By the way, if it seems like I’m thumping on transit a lot, it’s because I am. I think transit is our best hope for a comprehensive transportation solution to the imminent existential threat of climate change, though of course increased opportunities to bike and walk will play a role (robot cars, not so much). The amazing thing is that we can get it done very quickly through better bus facilities; think a transformation of Twin Cities transportation in ten years (a 4T program?). What will it take to get people excited about buses? Neon undercarriages? Is there such a thing as a fixie bus?