The Chosen One

Mark Dayton’s pick for Met Council Chair is, on the whole, good news for urbanists.  The best sign that Susan Haigh will lead the Met Council back to the city is her credentials as an administrator, both at Habitat and as a commissioner at Minnesota’s most urbanized county.  I have never heard of the Metropolitan Counties Light Rail Transit board mentioned in her bio, but even if it was made up it would be a good sign that she thought it to be a beneficial lie.

I always had a knee-jerk negative reaction to Habitat for Humanity because they seem to perpetuate that American myth that all you need is a single-family home and a mortgage (plus they’re Christian).  They do, however, build some multi-family units, and are definitely in the trenches of the affordable housing crisis.  Haigh says that she “would like to see the council do more work on housing.”  Presumably, not a lot of that work would be with Habitat, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.  There certainly is a lot to do; Housing Link says that in 2009, only a third of Twin Cities families that needed affordable housing could get it.

THAT MEANS 100,000 FAMILIES PAID MORE THAN THEY COULD AFFORD FOR HOUSING.

(sometimes I wish this blog could shoot lasers from the screen, you know, for emphasis)

Meanwhile, has-been Peter Bell claims to have overseen a “golden age” for transit.  I sure hope not.  The Strib article, while prefacing with the profound insight that Republicans are not generally disposed towards transit, give us hope that the “golden age” will soon be outshined:

In an interview Wednesday, Dayton said Haigh’s background on affordable housing makes it very important for her to select a senior staff “that has transit as a certainly, co-equal priority.”

Probably just politics, but Dayton has promised to fight for a billion-dollar bonding bill, which could get a lot of transit built (hint, hint, Minneapolis:  it’s time for alternatives analysis on a Hennepin-University streetcar).

Susan Haigh says she’ll keep her day job at Habitat for Humanity, which is disappointing.  She says it’s because both posts are “exciting,” but the $60k salary for the Met Chair’s part-time job kind of points to a different motive.  Mark Dayton has said that he has had trouble finding commissioners since state law forces a $110,000 ceiling to their salary.  How many multi-billion dollar companies pay their executives that little?

Another Nicollet Mall

A deep lonely feeling can come from spending weeks on a project that will never amount to anything.  So it is with the East-West Transit Spine Plan.  Today I finally sent my comments in, hopefully driving a nail into the coffin of my obsession with this topic.  Here is the email I sent to Anna Flintoft:

From: Alex Bauman
Subject: comments on East-West Transit Spine Plan
To: Anna.Flintoft
Cc: Cam.Gordon
Date: Tuesday, December 28, 2010, 1:48 PM

Anna,

Please find below my comments for the East-West Transit Spine Plan:

As a daily transit rider, I welcome the improvements proposed in the East-West Transit Spine Plan.  But all are improvements that could be made without the plan:

  • Metro Transit has the authority to make route changes without a plan, but consolidation of routes has already been called for in the Downtown Action Plan.
  • Curb extensions are already called for by the Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks, which recommend recommends sidewalks 5 to 9 feet wider than currently exist on 7th and 8th Streets.
  • Metro Transit policy recommends the installation of a shelter at stops with a minimum of 40 daily boardings, which means, as the plan notes, that every stop on 7th and 8th should have a shelter today.  The plan does not explain why that has not happened.
  • Real-time displays are a standard feature of 21st-century transit systems, but I’m not aware of a Metro Transit policy for their installation.  A policy should be developed based either on average daily boardings or junctions of Primary Transit Network routes, and certainly any policy that could be imagined would call for RTDs at the major stops along 7th and 8th Sts.

The proposal to split stops at 7th and Nicollet does not have an existing plan that supports it, but neither will it be welcomed by transit riders.  Splitting the stops will reduce the effective frequency of the spine and make it more confusing, contrary to the stated advantages of consolidating service into spines.  It would benefit the plan to go back to the drawing board on ideas for this stop.

Minneapolis has had a successful example of a transit spine operating for 40 years: the Nicollet Mall.  A transit mall would better serve the goals of the East-West Transit Spine Plan, but it was not even studied. A transit mall would be a very visible connection between Target Field and Elliot Park, and would attract investment to the parking lot fields of East Downtown (8th Street in particular shows promise in this role).  The impact on automobile traffic will be negligible if 8th or 9th Sts are selected because neither street connects to a major commuter route (Hiawatha represents a small fraction of downtown’s car commuter traffic, and has the best potential of any commuter route for converting car commuters to transit commuters).  Since the beneficial proposals in the East-West Transit Spine Plan can be implemented immediately, the plan should not be approved until a transit mall can be studied as an alternative.

Thanks,

Alex Bauman

I know that I should be grateful for the bones thrown to transit riders in the plan – the shelters, RTDs and curb extensions will make it less of a hassle, or even pleasurable, to wait for the bus – but I just couldn’t get past the “this is it?” feeling.  Most people, I think, can deal with most bus stops.  The stops on the E-W transit spine are some of the worst in the system, but if it’s sunny, who cares?  And if it’s cold, does a shelter really help that much?

But the reason most people don’t take the bus, I think, isn’t because it’s uncomfortable, it’s because the bus is too slow.  And the E-W Transit Spine Plan does nothing about that.  Check out this graphic from the Downtown Transit Circulation Report:

The proposals in the E-W Transit Spine Plan are about the impact of transit on other users of downtown, not the service itself.  Of the eight recommendations, only one deals with service improvements, and that’s a vague goal to increase Go-To card use.  Three of the recommendations have nothing to do with transit service at all, including one that just aims to make it easier to drive downtown!

The Downtown Transit Circulation Report, which led to the construction of the dual bus lanes on Marquette and 2nd, is explicit about what it takes to speed transit service: dedicated lanes.   It includes this illuminating chart:

Transit Lane Type  

 

Maximum Capacity 

(buses/hr)

 

Exposure to Auto 

Congestion

 

Exposure to Bus-Bus 

Interference

Mixed flow with autos 60 High Moderate
Single-width lane 

(no passing capability)

70 None High
With-flow lane 100 Moderate Moderate
Double-width lane 180 None None

There are currently 105 buses running on the E-W transit spine every PM peak hour, at least 45 of which are the local buses that will be consolidated onto 7th and 8th Streets according to the E-W transit spine plan.  The Downtown Transit Circulation Report points out that “there will be an eventual need for two lanes” dedicated to buses in each direction.  So why does the E-W Transit Spine Plan propose that transit continue operating in mixed-flow?

That is why I cling so stubbornly to the idea of a transit mall on the E-W spine – some kind of dedicated lane is necessary for transit to function here.  When I asked Anna Flintoft about why they had not studied a transit mall, she contradicted her own report, saying “bus volumes don’t necessitate bus only lanes in the E-W corridor.”  But her answer dwelt on the impact of a transit mall on cars:

“Car traffic on 7th and 8th Streets is an important modal consideration.  These are both busy downtown streets, and vehicle traffic needs to be accommodated.  7th and 8th streets provide important access to streets outside of downtown, such as Hiawatha Avenue , 7th Street N , and I-94 to the east ( 7th Street is the main route from the 5th Street I-94 off-ramp now that we have LRT on 5th Street ).  On both streets, there are many properties that require vehicular access to off-street parking and curbside uses such as valet zones, taxi stands, loading zones, etc.

“As we design streets that support increased walking, biking, and transit use, automobile traffic will continue to be an important modal consideration.”

But she skirts the truth here too.  There is no denying that 7th and 10th Sts provide important connections to streets and highways outside of downtown.  But 8th and 9th Sts do not connect to streets outside of downtown.  Here is a snapshot of the western termini of 8th and 9th:

Despite the giant right turn access lane (which may have been removed as part of the Hennepin-1st two-way project), it is actually not easy to drive from the main segment of 9th St to the confusing remnant at the top-left of this image because you have to turn left across 1st Ave anyway.  You might as well turn at Hennepin or Marquette.  Of course, nothing is going through from 7th St to 8th St – there is a one-way in the wrong direction.  At the east end, too,  9th Street dead-ends at Elliott Park.

Ok, I fudged a little when I said that 8th and 9th do not connect to streets outside of downtown – there is a ramp from 8th Street to Hiawatha Ave.  But Hiawatha is probably one of the least important streets for people who drive downtown.  It is, however, one of the most important routes for people who work downtown and take transit.  If the city wants to increase transit’s modal share of downtown commuters, Hiawatha is an ideal place to start.

My point is that 8th and 9th Sts are not important through-streets for cars downtown, except to Hiawatha, where people should be taking the train anyway.

So how about parking?  There is a smattering of on-street parking, but with tens of thousands of off-street spaces downtown, I will not listen to arguments for keeping it.  Other curbside uses may actually benefit from a transit mall – loading can still be accommodated and trucks will face less congestion without cars on the street.  Taxis will also benefit by the increased pedestrian activity attracted by the removal of automobiles.  Valets are really not very common, and all that I’ve seen can be moved around the corner to a street that allows cars (see layout 3 below).

The benefits to a transit mall really are stellar.  Besides greatly improved bus service, many cyclists prefer dealing with only the occasional bus to dodging cars left and right.  Pedestrians would benefit tremendously – my layouts below show the sidewalks at 14.5′ at their narrowest, and often around 20.  I have yet to meet a pedestrian who doesn’t prefer a quiet, car-free street to a smoggy arterial.

But the real benefit may be the boost to development that a transit mall could provide.  There is no doubt that the construction of the Loring Greenway spurred tens of millions of dollars in investment.  Many developers will believe that the same success could be found in East Downtown.  Nicollet Mall itself is another example.  It is easily Minneapolis’ densest street, and most of it was built after the restriction of cars.

Finally, a transit mall would be an ideal connection of disparate downtown neighborhoods – it would mentally and physically connect Target Field to Elliott Park (hopefully to the developers that are salivating over the ballpark area’s possibilities).

If you’re still reading, you probably agree with me about the viability of a transit mall, so let me get started on my conceptual layouts.  I chose 8th Street because it is a more direct route, it goes through to 11th Ave, and it’s more central to the core.  9th Street might work too – but we’ll never know because it wasn’t included in the study.  First an overview scratched out in Paint:

The yellow line here is the part where personal cars would be restricted.  HCMC’s front door is on the block east of Park, and the 5, 9 and 19 turn off by then anyway, so it is less justifiable to be transit-only there.  I do, however, think that it makes sense to include pedestrian improvements from Target Field through to 11th, and brand the whole route accordingly.  The large T is the existing bus garage, which would be used by eastbound buses.  The little Ts are stops in my plan – a bit fewer than currently exist, which should help service as well.  The Ps are driveways to parking facilities, the Ls are loading zones, and the Hs are hotels (kind of like Monopoly but boringer).

And here are the layouts, block by block (in each layout, the east- and westbound bus lanes are 13′ each)

At 60′, this is the narrowest segment, so to maximize sidewalk space I moved the EB stop to the other side of Hennepin (EB buses would have stopped at Ramp A just west of here anyway).  That leaves 17′ on each side for sidewalks, a big improvement over the existing 11′.

The EB stop is on the left here because the buses should stop as close to Hennepin as possible.  As a result, WB buses may have to be restricted from using the passing lane here.  Cars in the ramp will have to cross to La Salle – that will probably mean that they’ll need a signal, but I hope not.

The hotel valet is moved around the corner – La Salle doesn’t need two northbound lanes because cars can no longer access 8th.  The hotel currently has an arcade to its door.

East of Nicollet, 8th St widens to 80′ and there is finally some breathing room for wide sidewalks.  I think it is reasonable to remove the garage ramp here because it shadows a busy sidewalk, leading to perceptions of danger and general unpleasantness.  In addition, there are two access driveways to this garage on Marquette.

There is no room for an access lane for this ramp – maybe they could use the bus lanes (it’s a small garage) but maybe they’ll have to do some serious remodeling.  Frankly, the Baker Center could use it.  I made the passing lanes 11′ but they really could be 10′.

The ramp on this block could probably be reconfigured to open onto 3rd Ave, but I put the lane here to be conservative.

There is no configuring the ramp access here – it is an underground ramp smack in the middle of the block.  The loading dock could be reconfigured to open on 4th pretty easily, but I’m sure they’ll want the city to pay.  The access lane solves that problem.  By the way, the access lanes on this block and the preceding would be one-way facing each other.

This may be the weirdest block yet.  The Centre Village ramp requires an access lane, but boarding volumes this far east make it not a huge deal to give up a passing lane.

Here we finally see what we’ve been missing by providing all those access lanes for garages:  a planted center median would give this block a park-like feeling.  Anyway that’s what we would be seeing if I wasn’t using Excel and Paint to do these layouts.  By the way, shallow curbs would allow fire trucks to get through this block, although sometimes I’d rather burn up than live in a world where we let the obesity of emergency vehicles dictate the width of our streets.

The 14.5′ sidewalks on this block are anemic compared to the rest, but still wider than the existing sidewalks.

East of Park, there could be two 11′ mixed-traffic lanes in each direction, with 15′ sidewalks.  Here are the numbers, if you’re that type:

Segment Hennepin to 1st Nicollet to Hennepin Stop E of Hennepin Stop W of Nicollet Stop E of Nicollet 4th to Nicollet Stop btw Marq & 2nd Ramp btw 2nd & 3rd Stop E of 4th Stop W of 5th Park to 4th Stop btw Portland & Park E of Park
Sidewalk 17 22.5 17.5 17.5 21.5 20 16 20 19.5 17.5 19 14.5 15.5
Driveway 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 12 0 12 0 0 0
Median 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 2 0 0 0
WB lane 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 11
WB pass 0 0 10 0 11 0 11 0 10 0 0 10 11
Center median 0 0 0 0 0 14 0 0 0 0 11 0
EB pass 0 0 0 10 0 0 11 0 0 0 0 10 11
Waiting median 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
EB lane 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 11
Sidewalk 17 22.5 17.5 17.5 21.5 20 16 20 19.5 17.5 19 14.5 15.5
Total 60 71 71 71 80 80 80 80 75 75 75 75 75

I think it could work, and I did this in my spare time.  Imagine what it could be if there was an engineer working full time on it.  Too bad it will never happen….

The Secret Annex

Steve Berg has a very in-depth treatment of the newly released ACS estimates in his column in MinnPost.  His point is that the metro area is not doing enough to reduce demographic disparities between the center cities and the suburbs, and as evidence he offers a statistical comparison of the suburbs and center cities of the Seattle and Cleveland metro areas with MSP.

Seattle comes off very well in this comparison, but Berg neglects to mention that it got a bit of a head start.  The city of Seattle’s website offers this map of annexations, which shows that Seattle kept annexing neighboring areas through the 1950s, meaning that its center city contains extensive areas that are suburban in character.  If Minneapolis had annexed St Louis Park and Golden Valley, it would look more statistically similar to the entire metro area as well, but instead Minneapolis stopped annexing in the 1920s.  (Incidentally, Minneapolis is more typical of Northern cities in this regard.  Southern cities mostly still annex their neighbors – Western cities are a mixed bag.)  I can’t find a map of Clevelands annexation but this page suggests that not much was annexed after the 1910s.  St Paul has some suburban areas (they developed in the 50s and 60s) but they are due to slower-than-expected growth and are smaller than Seattle’s suburban areas.

While I agree with Steve Berg”s points, I am wary of the ACS estimates – it looks to me like it severely under counts the mostly new downtown Minneapolis neighborhoods.  For example, the tracts fronting the river downtown are estimated to contain around 3,600 units.  My own compilation of units in these areas shows about 5,000 units in these areas.  I think that the 2010 census will come out closer to the Met Council’s estimates than the ACS estimates.

Densities I’ve known and lost…

A map I’ve oft looked for over the years is one that depicts a fine-grained measure of density throughout a long period of time.  I recently came across SocialExplorer.com through a New York Times feature that credited them.  I used the site to make the following maps, all of which are at the same scale:

1940

Our first glimpse of density in the Twin Cities is also the high-water mark, showing the greatest number of census tracts with densities greater than 15k persons per square mile.  Note the Village of Morningside gets its own tract but Wayzata and White Bear Lake are merged with their respective counties.

1950

The 1950 census was the zenith of Minneapolis’ population, and it is reflected in this map, with nearly as many high-density tracts as 1940 and significantly higher densities at the edge of the city limits.  St Paul, on the other hand, has room to grow (and would reach its own peak population in the 1960 census).  This census, however reflects a housing crisis as the market failed to keep up with demand even five years after the war ended and the troops poured home.

1960

The suburbs gained definition and density as the central cities had long since quit annexing their neighbors, presumably preferring to consume themselves with urban renewal.  Saint Paul suffered most, as the capital area renewal guts the apartment districts on the north sides of downtown.  Renewal in Minneapolis has more subtle effects, but is evident in the drastic decrease in density in the Glenwood area, the city’s first Federal renewal project.

1970

The freeways make their presence known – notice the drop in density in the tracts that follow the route of 35W through South Minneapolis.  Rondo disappears here, too.  The 60s are famous for their turbulence, and the Plymouth riots are present on this map in the disappearance from the North Side of the last two tracts with densities over 15k.  The reason I keep mentioning that level of density is that it is often considered the threshold for rapid transit, which would be considered and ignored in the 70s, even with the densities shown here that are much higher than today’s.

1980


It’s hard to find good news in the 1980s census, but if we ignore the dispersing sprawl we can focus on the urban renewal housing projects such as Riverside Plaza and the Gateway Towers, which are likely responsible for density jumps in their respective tracts.

1990

Ouch. Moving on…

2000

Ah, that’s better.  2000 shows a significant increase in inner-city density, often attributed to increases in immigration.

2007 (estimate)

Which makes me think this estimate is low.  Certainly immigration has subsided since the 90s, but at the same time multifamily residential has been built at levels not seen since the 60s or 70s.  The Mill District is still blank on this map, ignoring the thousands of new residents of that neighborhood.

Currently listening to: “She’s Too Much for My Mirror” by Captain Beefheart

Spinal tap

The last decade has been 10 years of fat for transit riders in Minneapolis, with the opening of two new fixed-guideway lines and significant improvements in the operation of buses on Nicollet, Marquette and 2nd Aves downtown.  Now a new Draft Plan for an East-West Transit Spine in Downtown Minneapolis signals a return to the old familiar lean years of little investment or prioritization of transit.

The idea of an East-West Transit Spine had a grotesque name but a promise of a huge improvement when it was first included in the Downtown Action Plan of 2007.   While only roughly sketched out at that time, consolidating service onto one main route had the goal of “organizing service delivery and making the transit network easier to
understand and use,”  although the plan also acknowledges that it “frees other streets for different modes of transportation that also need accommodation.”

Though rough, the Downtown Action Plan does describe the alternates for an East-West spine, quoted here from the new report:

6th and 7th Street one-way pair
7th and 8th Street one-way pair
8th and 9th Street one-way pair
9th and 10th Street one-way pair
4th Street contraflow lane
6th Street contraflow lane
7th Street contraflow lane
8th Street contraflow lane
9th Street contraflow lane
Two-way operation on 8th Street

Study on the E-W Transit Spine got underway soon after the Downtown Action Plan was approved, and apparently the first step was to ask business leaders what they thought of the plan.  Specifically, the Downtown Council, which not long ago suggested destroying the most successful pedestrian street in the state, appears to have been consulted.  Is anyone surprised that they immediately vetoed the option that would be most useful for transit riders, the two-way operation on 8th St?

[Update:  Anna Flintoft clarified that the comments that nixed the 8th Street option were received as feedback to the Downtown Action Plan, not as a special consultation during the development of the E-W Transit Spine Plan.  I regret the error, but still think it's a bit fishy.]

A traffic analysis had been completed showing that “acceptable levels of service could be achieved at most intersections on all streets” even with two lanes in each direction on 8th.  Apparently business leaders also think they are transportation engineers and planners (maybe I do have something in common with them) as the E-W Transit Spine Draft Plan describes them as “skeptical about the ability to divert enough traffic for 8th Street to operate acceptably as a two-way street.”

So what survived the line-item veto of this small, unrepresentative group of business owners?  The plan calls for two main changes:

  • service the 14 and the 9 will be moved to 7th and 8th street, joining the 5, 19, 22 and 39
  • infrastructure bump-outs will extend the undersized sidewalks at the stops at Nicollet and Hennepin, and shelters will be added and modernized

Both the draft plan and Anna Flintoft’s presentation to the 11/30/10 Transportation & Public Works committee describe in detail the lack of current facilities (which pale in comparison to other downtown transit spines, the draft plan notes) and the significant ridership along the spine.  This picture from Flintoft’s presentation shows a typical scene at 7th & Nicollet, where 14,500 cars per day spread out over 35 feet and three lanes while 3,800 people a day wait for a bus and bump elbows with thousands of pedestrians on a measly 15 feet of sidewalk:

The plan includes some killer charts, a rare glimpse into closely-guarded Metro Transit statistics, including this one showing that 7th & Nicollet is the most heavily used bus stop in the region:


(btw a later post here will argue for a Transit Center at Lake & Nicollet, which has 5000 daily boardings if you consolidate the currently scattered stops)

The plan proposes a 6′ curb extension at the stop, increasing the width to 21′.  However, to cope with the volume of buses, the plan proposes a split stop, with half the buses boarding on one side of Nicollet and the other half boarding on the other side.  This will cut the effective frequency of buses here, most of which travel in the same general direction for around a mile (including, crucially, past Target Field and through the job-rich North Loop).

Curb extensions are proposed at 5 corners total, all at Hennepin or Nicollet.  Other infrastructure improvements in the plan include some 14 new or improved shelters (all with heat and light), and 9 real-time display (RTD) signs – all of the type you will find at any reasonably busy bus stop in even the smallest Western European towns.   As usual, streetscape improvements such as bike racks and trees are called for, “if funding can be found.”  Unfortunately no part of this project is funded, although Flintoft mentions that curb extensions could be constructed as part of the 35w Detour Route Rehab projects.

To recap:  After 3 years of study, Public Works and Metro Transit have written 40 pages recommending common-sense route changes and basic modernization of shelters.  The plan might be implemented someday when a giant bag of money falls from the sky and all the road projects are done.  People catching the bus on the Streets downtown may soon wait in a different spot, but they’ll still be waiting in the wind and snow.

There’s a darkness…

A strib article today about a farm in Brooklyn Park that may be razed to accommodate a freeway intersection.  And it’s not just a farm that is disappearing, it is the edge of town.

Due to a unique instance of long-range planning, a large swath of Brooklyn Park remained rural for decades.  In the 70s the city made the decision to develop the southern portion of their jurisdiction at slightly higher densities, allowing for the northern half to be developed very gradually, in pieces.  From what I’ve heard (this info came from a consultant who taught a seminar I took in college) this strategy has worked out fairly well, as the development that has occurred in the reserve has been valued higher and brought a higher tax base due to the induced demand created by the development scarcity inherent in the reserve.

The only other town that I’m aware of having a similar policy, though on a smaller scale, is Plymouth, which has an urban reserve in its northwestern corner.  Plymouth, however, hasn’t coordinated growth in the rest of the city as well as Brooklyn Park did.  The “reserves” created by anti-growth policies like Lake Elmo’s are quite different, as they will turn into the typical slash-n-burn boomburb strategy that most American cities take as soon as a developer-friendly council is elected.

In the meantime, the city has grown around Brooklyn Park’s edge of town, so that it is now entirely engulfed in suburban development.  And the city that exists today no longer has an edge.  As we’ve decided to build our cities to the lowest densities imaginable, we’re surrounded on all sides by houses that have farm-like veneers, but whose occupants (pending foreclosure) have thoroughly suburban lifestyles.  The edge of town may be gone, but the darkness remains…

20 years ago, the urban reserve had already been chipped away a bit, but it still reached the Coon Rapids Dam and had a narrow escape passage between Maple Grove and Champlin.

This image from 2006 shows the shriveled state of the edge of town, scarred by freeways and surrounded on all sides by suburbs.

Who shot down J.R.’s condo?

Every policymaker should take a moment to read, or have an aide read to them while they’re talking to their broker and walking on the treadmill) yesterday’s Transport Politic about Dallas’ pathetic transit ridership, despite having the longest light rail system in the country.  His point is basically:

that density matters a whole lot more than overall length of rail lines.

This paragraph contains the crux of his argument:

what Dallas really lacks is residential compactness: The downtown itself has grown from 1,654 residents in 2000 to 10,446 today (that’s pretty impressive!), but neighborhoods immediately adjacent to this area are primarily made up of single-family homes. Moreover, the alignment of the rail corridors, generally following existing highway or rail rights-of-way, often do not reach the densest areas or the biggest destinations. The well-populated (and popular) neighborhoods north of downtown, including Uptown and Oak Lawn, are mostly inaccessible to light rail. An underground station on the Red Line originally planned for Knox Street, which likely would have attracted plenty of riders, was not built because of local opposition.

I love that local opposition felled the station with the highest ridership potential!  God bless America, love it or leave it.

Interestingly, although Minneapolis has a density advantage over Dallas (thanks mostly to history – Mpls grew larger earlier), light rail lines built or proposed here aren’t much better in terms of serving potential riders.  Check out these screen prints from the HTA index site for Dallas and Minneapolis, taken at the same scale for comparison’s sake:

The Hiawatha line runs through the lowest-density portion of South Minneapolis, the Southwest line is proposed to run through the Bassett Creek industrial yards and Kenilworth parklands, Bottineau will either destroy the already low-density area of North around Penn or skip through North to Wirth Park.  Central will serve neighborhoods that are barely more dense than Hiawatha’s, but I think will appear much more dense after this census, at least, since there has already been a lot of infill along University and in Stadium Village.

TOD, of course, is the goal of many of these lines; but the Transport Politic implies that TOD was a goal of Dallas’ system as well.  At best, TOD will be a long-term aid to ridership – maybe we should focus on building trains where riders are now rather than where they may be someday.

 

Red Star vs. Northstar

Is it just me or is the Strib being a little hard on the Northstar line?  The paper’s second article in two months on the commuter rail line again screams the low ridership numbers from the headline.  What is doesn’t mention is how cheap the train was to build, a fact that gives it time to build the ridership that will pay for it.

Using the Transport Politic’s sortable chart of major transit projects in the last decade, Northstar comes out fifth cheapest per mile to build, at $7 million per mile.  This isn’t just cheap compared with other “boondoggle” transit projects – consider that I-394 cost $46 million per mile in 1984-1993 unadjusted dollars ($67m per mile adjusted for inflation using 1993 as start year).  Not surprisingly, when you look at the numbers, transit comes out to be very conservative.

Of course, the operating cost per rider is the number that matters, and that is still tough to measure, considering all the free rides that have been given for the first year to drum up interest.  I would love to know the cost per trip for various roads – a project for another day.

 

Times Square and Block E: D.O.A.*?

Today the New York Times celebrates the revival of its eponymous square, which in the past few decades “has been transformed from grubby to gaudy.”  The article is short and sparing of details, seeming to ascribe the renaissance to an uptick of corporate interest (then Disney bought this theater, then McDonald’s opened, etc.) rather than the likely hundreds of millions of dollars of government subsidy that likely went into the area since the redevelopment effort, which “outlived three mayors, four governors, two real estate booms and two recessions” began.  Minneapolis’ admitted and attempted Times Square imitator, Block E, has not been as successful, and the article has a few hints as to why.

The Times, as usual, does not skimp with their graphics: check out this panoramic collage comparing the facades on 42nd between 7th and 9th Aves as they were in 1989 and as they currently are.  Two things struck me:  one, the block is completely different today; two, the block is thoroughly unattractive today.  Billboards for fratboy booze bump up against flashy corporate logos, the battle spoils of the victory of capitalist architecture over humanistic or intellectual styles of the past.

Those very brash billboards were exactly what the Minneapolis city council of the mid-to-late 90s was going for when it conceptualized and largely paid for Block E, according to a consultant who taught a seminar I took at the U in 2004 or so.  He knew the developer of the project, whom he quoted as calling Block E the most difficult development of his career.  It seems that the Times Square-like signage that the council considered a crucial display of our prairie city’s sophistication were problematically illegal under Minneapolis zoning code.  In addition, he had qualms about the amount of retail space in what has been a slumping retail market for the past 70 or 80 years.

I think this is one piece that Minneapolis got wrong.  If you look at the graphic from the NY Times, there are several skyscrapers along the block, providing a fairly captive market for the retail uses at street level.  It is sort of baffling that Minneapolis didn’t work harder to get some office space into this building, which at two stories dramatically underutilizes one of the most central locations in the city.

The other thing that Times Square has is tourists.  Part of that is the fact that it is fucking New York City, but on top of that the article points out that “officials sign[ed] deals with Madame Tussaud’s wax museum,” implying that the city subsidized these attractions to shore up the retail attractiveness of the site.  Hell will look like Minneapolis on the day that Madame Tussaud’s opens a branch here, but there has to be some kind of museum that would be willing to open up here.  In fact, it is hard not to notice the lopsidedness of Block E’s retail today, with the 1st Ave side (facing Target Center) booked up and the Hennepin side vacant.

The aesthetics of Block E have been so roundly criticized that I don’t feel compelled to make citations here.  But this is again where Times Square is instructive.  As I mentioned before, blocks don’t get much more homely than the chunk of 42nd St highlighted in the NY Times article.  But the environment is uniformly exuberant, adding up to an experience that transcends the gaudiness of the individual facades:

The Disneyfied Block E is notable for how it manages to be bland and gaudy all at once, but for blandness it doesn’t hold a candle to the City Center ramp across the street, the Multifoods Tower on the next block over, or the fortress-like building that houses the Skyway Lounge and other mysteries behind its forbidding walls.

Yes, Block E is bad, but if it were surrounded by other gaudy buildings, it would at least be an experience.  Minneapolis has a few things to learn from Times Square:

  1. If you want exciting buildings in your city, you should allow them.  Create an Entertainment District zoning overlay that basically jettisons all the rules on signage, and then apply them to all non-historic buildings in the Theater District.
  2. Give people a reason to come.  Well, they’re working on this, I suppose, but a year-round attraction like a museum would buttress the existing entertainment features.
  3. Be patient!  Times Square took 30 years, and they had Giuliani.  Minneapolis’ Theater District is humming along, but real change may not come until (a) Downtown is a holistic urban neighborhood (with residents and businesses to serve them) and (b) a regional tourism network gets going again (think High-Speed Rail).

Now that I’ve written all this, I’m afraid I’ve given the impression that Times Square is a place I like and believe should be reproduced.  It is not.  When Minneapolis’ Theater District is as successful as Times Square, I will likely go there less often.  But in Block E, Minneapolis has made an investment in the Times Square model.  I humbly offer suggestions as to how best to continue that model to success.   Whether it should be done is a different question.

*the D.O.A. I refer to is the poem D.O.A. (Disneyland On Acid) by Danielle Willis