Harmon Place

Overview

Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Downtown, Harmon Place is officially grouped with the Loring Park neighborhood, and likely few make a distinction between the two.  But Harmon Place seems to me to have its own identity, especially considering the significant presence of large institutions like St Thomas and MCTC.  Loring Park feels like the extension of Nicollet Mall, orderly but fast-paced, whereas Harmon Place is the extension of Hennepin, a little sketchy but beautiful.

Harmon Place is definitely more oriented towards commerce, and the titular Place has been designated a historic district because of its automotive past.  Today the dealerships have filled in swamps and cut down forests in the suburbs and made their home there, and Harmon Place has been abandoned to ad agencies and other small office uses.  The historic district is good and bad news for developers: the neighborhood has the authentic feel you don’t really get in parts the Mill District or the North Loop because the historic fabric is still largely intact.  Unfortunately the regulations of the historic district mean more hoops to jump through, although for new construction they are more lenient.


The Harmon Place still has substantial room for development.  Before the sky fell, sometime around 2008, there was movement to develop the block north of Hennepin, between 11th and 12th.  Lund’s signed on, and an old hotel on Hawthorne was torn down.  This may mean that these blocks may be prime targets for development once things are developed again, especially because parking is less profitable here, further from the CBD.

The Map

Bing labeled it MCAD but it is really MCTC.

  • Many of the parcels here will certainly not be developed as housing, but rather as expansion space for the neighborhood institutions.  Though things haven’t been looking good for education in Minnesota lately, I was told recently that enrollment at Metro State (which leases part of the MCTC campus) has been growing at 15% annually for the past 20 years.  I labeled MCTC’s parking ramp as medium, but I certainly hope it is the first to go or be expanded.  I don’t think that any of the schools here have done much housing development here, but certainly they could, and it would fit right in.
  • I carved out a couple parcels out of an empty space next to one of the Loring Green condo towers and in the parking lot of Booth Manor.  I actually think the former is less likely, even though it is currently used for absolutely nothing, just because the residents can afford not to.  The Salvation Army and other affordable housing providers aren’t so lucky, and will eventually have to make use of the wasted space mandated by zoning codes.  For another example of this, see the designated parcel in the Jeremiah.
  • The days are numbered for the post office here, and its specialized and one-story building is ripe for a tear-down.  I’m curious to see what effect 394 has on the parcels unfortunate enough to line it.

The Numbers

Potential Low Density Med Density High Density
Low 22 31 39
Medium 248 342 435
High 2297 3158 4020
Total 2568 3531 4493

Prognosis

For such a small geographic area, Harmon Place has a lot of potential for development; according to this analysis, if all of the high-potential parcels are developed at 110 units per acre, there could be around 3,000 additional residents.  Most of this is clustered in the blocks that surrounding the intersection of 11th and Hawthorne, which are likely to be developed as residential, based on past proposals.

The area north of Spruce Place is lucky enough to be zoned as a downtown district, which not only allows high-density development, it actually requires it using minimum FARs of 2.0.  Most of the rest of the neighborhood is zoned OR3, which allows buildings up to 6 stories but is a bit restrictive in uses.  While OR3 is probably appropriate for some of the blocks surrounding the colleges, the proposed B4N downtown neighborhood district will better fit much of Harmon Place, since it allows for more and larger retail uses and higher density.

Even if the city support isn’t there, I predict the Harmon Place neighborhood will be a focus of future development activity.  Its perks in the form of parks and centrality, combined with its high visibility due to its location at some major entry points to Downtown make it likely that lots of dense development will work its way into Harmon Place.

I get my sausage on the street

Today the New York Times broadens our horizons by discussing the German national obsession with eating tubes of pork doused in ketchup and sprinkled with curry powder.

But the really amazing thing about currywurst is that, if your city has an active street life, people will be willing to wear hot griddles on suspenders dangling inches from their genitals in the fury of the August sun in order to sell it.

Reviewing Politics and Freeways

I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to track down the parties responsible for some dunderheaded planning decision and ask them what they were thinking.  In more violent moods, I confess to wanting to track them down and do more than ask them more than a question.

That’s why the premise of Patricia Cavanaugh’s Politics and Freeways was so intriguing to me:  the book aims to be an oral history of the contruction of the Interstates in the Twin Cities, as told by the engineers and policymakers giving birth to them, and the activist groups intending to abort.  Sensibly but frustratingly, the persons interviewed for the book were kept anonymous, probably for reasons like the second sentence of this blog post.

Mysteriously, the book never really picks up its mission, and relies more heavily on newspaper articles and government documents than the dozens of interviews the author conducted.  While that move gives Politics and Freeways more legitimacy as a history, it robs the book of the personal touch that would have made it a more compelling story.  At a slim 125 pages, I think the book could have incorporated more of those personal perspectives and emerged perhaps a bit more frayed but  not overly long.  At the very least, an appendix with transcripts of the interviews would have been valuable.

Politics and Freeways is still a good read for anyone interested in local history or the influence of politics on infrastructure.  The coverage of the early era of Interstate construction, that of I-35 and I-94, is a bit short, but still summarizes the action and provides useful details.  For example, the route of I-94 originally followed the design of City Planning Engineer Hermann Olson through the Seward neighborhood, crossing the river around 26th Street, but was detoured to its present route through the mechanations of the wealthy and connected downtown business interests.  Cavanaugh seems to mostly take her interviewee’s word for it, crediting the efficacy of citizen advocacy for burying the planned elevated segments of I-94 through St Paul, when really the generous layer of topsoil in the Twin Cities made a sunken construction cost-competitive with the extensive framework of an elevated freeway.  In a final dubious detail, Cavanaugh cites a Minneapolis Star article pricing the 9-odd miles of I-94 built in the 60s at $80m, which would be around $490m today.  Excuse my skepticism that a project that purchased and destroyed some 80 blocks of fully-developed urban fabric cost around the same as I-394, which was built largely on existing right-of-way.

I’m not as interested as Cavanaugh in the era from the 70s to the 90s, in which freeway construction was delayed and eventually forced to incorporate (or at least appear to consider) the opinions of neighbors.  This era saw the cancellation of I-335, the planned segment that leveled several blocks of Old St Anthony so commuters from New Brighton would be able to shave off a minute or two of their drive. Cavanaugh does a good job of describing the debate that occurred in this era, and how the cancellation of this segment was as much due to the development of the I-394 downtown spur as a replacement as due to the efforts of city activists to stave off more destruction.  I wish the author had devoted as many words to the earlier era as she did to this one.

Ultimately the historical documentation in Politics and Freeways succumbs to Cavanaugh’s academic interest in creating lessons out of the events she describes.  While the latter is valuable, what we really need is the former.  The Interstates impact most of us every day to some degree, and most of us have never lived a life without them, but it is important to imagine what life was like before they were built and the process that led to their construction if we are to truly understand our options in future transportation decisions.  To that end, Patricia Cavanaugh does us a great service with her book.  If you have wasted any time reading my blog, I urge you to spend it more wisely in the future by reading Politics and Freeways.

Minneapolis Freeway Fantasy

This fantasy freeway map of Minneapolis was drawn in 1947 by Hermann Olson, Planning Engineer for the City of Minneapolis for several decades, ending in the early 50s I think:

He was almost entirely wrong.  The only freeways on this map that were actually built were the beltways, which ran through mostly open land.

If instead of fantasizing about freeways, Mr. Olson had dreamed up streetcar tunnels, this city would probably look very different.

 

 

A sprawling post about density

My grandmother did not speak English on the day, early in the Great Depression, when she started school in a one-room schoolhouse on the flat former beds of glacial Lake Agassiz. She spoke only Plattduutsch, a lingual hybrid of German, Dutch and English that her grandparents spoke even after coming to Minnesota from a comparably flat area of Germany.

The Itzen clan of Itzen Corner, Grant County. My grandmother is seated in front, far right, and frowning.

The farm she grew up on was electrified a few years before my grandmother graduated from high school, after her father had finally saved up enough for a windmill generator. which only powered one room.  My grandmother would disobey her father, one of the sternest-looking men in the photo above, who did not believe that women needed higher education, and go to a teacher’s college.  She graduated, of course, and couple decades later taught from the Atlas of Minnesota Resources and Settlement (at the Book House, a bargain for $20), which was produced in 1968 by the now-defunct State Planning Agency thanks to a grant from HUD.

And thanks to the thrifty habits of my grandmother, a child of the Depression, a copy of the Atlas in good condition is now in my possession.  Never before and never again was a compendium of this detail and quality of geographic information published in Minnesota.  My grandmother claims that these were quite common in classrooms in the Golden Age of Minnesota, the late 60s and early 70s.  I, on the other hand, had one semester of Minnesota history, in the 4th grade, and exactly zero semesters of education in the geography of Minnesota.

My grandmother writes her name on every book she has

 

I spend a lot of Sunday mornings paging through this book, and wish more than anything that its progression of thematic maps didn’t end in the 1960s.  For the sake of an exception that proves the rule, here is a progression of maps of passenger rail volume that might as well end in the 60s, since it was all downhill from there:

The craftsmanship and idiosyncrasy of these maps really pop off the page to eyes accustomed to the products of ArcGIS.  I guess that’s why the U of M named their map library after one of the authors.

One map in particular caught my attention in light of my recent obsession with density in Minneapolis.  It comes right after a map depicting the percentage of dwelling units that are multi-family in the Twin Cities (in 1950):

One of the things I love about maps is the thousand words thing, that they contain so much more than their title announces.  This map, for example, is not just a snapshot of apartments in one metro area at mid-century, instead when viewed in conjunction with the map on the next page, it tells an untold story of suburbanization:

That untold story is of apartment-dwelling suburban pioneers, and actually it won’t be told here either, since I’m interested in what these maps say about the central city of Minneapolis.  Just a glance back and forth at the two maps shows, for example, that density intensified in the center and spread south and west, rather than north.  But I’m less attracted to the isopleths than the weighted dots representing units added between 1960 and 1966.  Assuming the largest dot on the map is the same value as the largest dot in the legend, Minneapolis added 11,685 multi-family units in just those 6 or 7 years! That’s twice the rate of last year, considered a pretty good one for multi-family rentals, if not for other housing types.

It is also puzzling, considering that the 1970 census showed a 5,959 unit decline from the 1960 census.  I actually have been studying the density of multi-family housing units in Minneapolis by neighborhood and year for my downtown potential population project.  I have compiled the units per acre density for 343 buildings in Minneapolis – that includes just about every building built downtown last decade but doesn’t come anywhere near the total number built in the 60s – and found another 3,555 that were built from 1967 through 1970.

Even taking the low figure of 15,240 units built from 1960 to 1970, for the total units to have dropped by 6000, at least 20,000 housing units must have been destroyed in the 1960s! With an average household size of 2.7, that accounts for the entirety of the drop in population of 48,472 between the two censuses.

Speaking of the 1970 Census, while it doesn’t consider a 6000 unit decline worthy of mention, it does describe Minneapolis’ 10% drop in population.  Like a conspirator calling a victim’s cause of death “heart failure,” it blames the population decline on “outmigration.”  Migrating seems like an obvious course of action if your house is destroyed, huh?

So who or what was the culprit for this mass razing?  I first thought of that ancient nemesis of urban planners (and, of course, at one time valued friend) URBAN RENEWAL.  The only problem with that theory is that by the 1960s the Minneapolis HRA was finished with most of its clearance activities.  Some wrecking balls were still swinging in the Gateway District as late as 1961, but my understanding is that the small clusters of 19th century hotels that provided the dense housing were mostly gone by the last years of the 50s:

The map above does list one clearance project from the 60s, however.  I don’t know what the goal of renewal in the Grant neighborhood was, if there was a goal, but after several decades it ended up as some school buildings, a park, an expansion of the Sumner Field housing project (which of course was re-cleared a few decades later), and several still-vacant lots:

historic aerials

historic aerials

historic aerials

It is hard to tell exactly how many units were cleared in Grant, but the seven blocks cleared could not have totaled 6,000 units, much less 20,000. Urban Renewal must have had an accomplice, but lucky for us that accomplice may have unintentionally revealed itself at the top of those same photos. This accomplice was Urban Renewal’s partner in crime in cities throughout the US, and is even listed in the Urban Renewal map above, under the name Near North Side and the year 1968.

I’ve tried to imagine how the conversation went, “Your life sucks here in Minneapolis! Burn down your neighborhood and they’ll build you another one.”

Hy Rosen, quoted above, owned a store on Plymouth and Logan at the time of the riots that burned out most of the businesses in the neighborhood. He wasn’t the only one who connected the 1967 riots and the urban renewal activities that began a year later.  Here’s the contemporary NAACP president Matt Little, from a July 19, 2007, Star Tribune article, on the riots:

“Sometimes it takes extreme action to get things moving,” he said.

Within 10 years, Little said there were noticeable changes along Plymouth : A shopping mall with a pharmacy, a hardware store and a grocery store. Farther down, he recalled, new housing, a barber and beauty shop and a bank were established.

“The powers-that-be delivered on some of the things the community had been asking for,” said Little, who was involved with the Minneapolis NAACP for more than 40 years. “It woke up the establishment to the plight that some blacks were going through.”

He also noticed that some of the businesses that arrived in the ’70s were gone 20 years later.

As stated in the article, the businesses arrived in the 70s, suggesting that most of the renewal activities took place outside of the decade in question.  So if Urban Renewal and riots played a small part in the Great 60s Tear-Down, what played a large part?

To answer that question, I’m going to digress for a moment.  With the completion of the Crosstown Commons project, some media coverage called it the most expensive road project in Minnesota history.  That seemed unlikely to me, and sure enough, I-394 cost $450 million, a damn sight higher than the Crosstown’s $288 million (although the Crosstown is more expensive per mile).  394 is the only freeway I’ve been able to nail down the costs for, but it always seemed to me that 35W, which leveled some 40 square blocks of South Minneapolis, must have cost the most.

35W leveled 40 square blocks.  And when was 35W built?  1966 and 1967.

35W and 94 were routed right through some of the densest parts of the city, which at the time were considered loathsome slums and the people who lived there considered loathsome slum-dwellers.  When thousands are forced to move, they have to move somewhere, and likely the triggered the sort of succession patterns described in books like Making the Second Ghetto.  In other words, it is likely that the massive movement of population triggered by the destruction of freeway construction was a major impetus for white flight.

www.historicaerials.com

www.historicaerials.com

www.historicaerials.com

www.historicaerials.com

My grandma says good riddance to those crowded old neighborhoods.  She says good riddance to the 60s, too, a decade with too few highlights that did not involve her children.  But we still have to deal with the consequences of the decades of disinvestment that followed the destructive path of the freeways.  My former landlord Larry, a 40-plus year resident of Whittier, says that today the neighborhood is better than ever.  I hope it stays that way, but history is my guide, and that cuts both ways.

Going back downtown

This blog started as a distraction from insomnia, and ever since has been consistent in its fecklessness, skipping from topic to topic and dropping themes like a child does an old toy.  As much as I’d like to stick to my guns, it’s time to pick up again a series I started several months ago, the Downtown Potential Population Project.

I think I gave fair warning that I’m obsessed with the idea that having a substantial urban population could change this city in important ways.  For as long as I’ve been alive, urban living in Minnesota has just meant parking on the street, or maybe walking to the bar sometimes.  The recent ACS numbers estimate a downtown inside-the-freeway population of just under 30,000 (which I think undercounts the new growth in the Mill District and the North Loop).  What happens to perceptions of urbanism when that population is 100,000, or 130,000?

Even though many parts of Minneapolis would benefit from a change towards urban living (i.e. walking places and talking to your neighbors every once in a while), the part of town where that is most politically feasible is Downtown.  There are many obstacles in the way of the density that would be required for urban living, foremost of which may be that zoning in most undeveloped parts of Downtown still limits building heights to 4 stories.  There is a new downtown residential zoning district under development in Minneapolis that would allow buildings up to 10 stories, but it is not being proposed for the area with the most potential, East Downtown.  Of course, Minneapolis has always governed by exception, so this is all a theoretical exercise.

Anyway, my project was on hold because I wasn’t sure what a good estimate for future density would be.  To that end, I’ve compiled units per acre density statistics for 350 multi-family buildings of post-war vintage in Minneapolis.  Obviously that falls far short of the total number of buildings, but I think I’ve gotten just about every building built downtown since 1945.  I counted buildings with retail on the ground-floor (though I didn’t differentiate them), but I didn’t count buildings that had a substantial mixed-use element, like Calhoun Beach Club (although now that I think about it, the Ivy Building and Centre Village are notable exceptions, as is Riverside Plaza).

I’ve found that my estimate of 110 units/per acre is pretty reasonable for Downtown:

Obviously some of these neighborhoods have a pretty small sample size; there is really only one post-war residential building in East Downtown, and the Core, the Gateway, and Harmon Place have only a handful (the Warehouse District has more, I think, but they are mixed-use).  I was, however, surprised at the low density of the Mill District.  That neighborhood is hampered by low-rise new development (there is that 4 story height limit in the C3A zoning district) and by the luxury income-bracket prevalent there, which requires large unit sizes and therefore a smaller total of units in each building.  The North Loop was more of a surprise:  the neighborhood is mostly high-density, but has a couple very low density developments (the Landings and Renaissance on the River) dragging the average down.  (It should be noted that I averaged by building, not by unit.  This is important in the North Loop, where the 348 unit River Station development, at 51 units/acre, may have pulled down the average a bit.)

There wasn’t much temporal variation in average density Downtown; instead it was all high density except for some of the very high-income buildings.  In the rest of the city, however, the density was very much tied to the year built:

Except for an anomalous spike in 1952 (because of the very high-density Park Terrace Apartments in Loring Park), the 50s and 60s built in the 50-80 units per acre range.  Then from 1970-77 there was a period of very high density that peaked at 156 units/acre and didn’t go below 95 units/acre.  It should be noted that the high-density construction actually began in the mid-60s (thanks mostly to the Minneapolis HRA’s public housing developments), and the high densities in the 70s reflect the decline in medium-density construction, so that the few buildings built were very high-density.

The late 70s and 80s were volatile, with most years in the 30-60 units/acre range, but quite a few in triple digits.  The 90s is what I call the anti-urban decade.  I had trouble finding any multi-family buildings of this vintage, and most of what I found were townhouses, which explains the trough in average density.  The census actually shows a population increase in the 90s, and from what I can tell, a great deal of single family detached homes were constructed, but very few apartments.  This is a puzzle for me, as I believe this was also a decade in which New Urbanism gained popularity.

In the decade we just finished, things started looking up again.  For one thing, the naughts were second only to the 60s in the number of units built, but perhaps more importantly, the density started picking up again.  In 2008, there was an average of 133 units/acre, and that is with 9 buildings in the sample (fairly high for this study).

Again, I think this is a rationale for using 110 units per acre when estimating density of buildings yet to be built Downtown.  Based on only the Downtown neighborhoods, even 140 units per acre may be justified.  The next few weeks should see a completion of my downtown population project – I think we’ll make it to 100,000 or beyond.

Here is the year-by-year list – note that the densities may vary from the charts above due to the addition of buildings subsequently (I’m still adding to the compendium and have started compiling pre-war densities as well – here’s a hint:  pre-war buildings are denser):

Year built Average Density Units in sample Buildings in sample
1949 44 27 2
1950 70 370 11
1952 180 380 2
1958 65 53 2
1959 56 100 7
1960 54 214 10
1961 55 116 7
1962 51 602 16
1963 47 1251 20
1964 58 251 7
1965 67 823 7
1966 61 837 15
1967 83 521 4
1968 76 364 4
1969 66 1226 11
1970 98 1539 12
1971 96 1699 13
1972 125 894 7
1973 97 1908 6
1974 113 391 3
1975 95 333 2
1976 124 77 1
1977 156 288 2
1978 89 578 4
1979 32 119 2
1980 54 91 2
1981 120 559 3
1982 59 651 9
1983 107 897 7
1984 92 420 5
1985 136 1426 8
1986 53 400 5
1987 58 245 4
1988 79 57 1
1989 139 609 4
1991 90 370 1
1993 19 8 1
1994 11 33 2
1995 15 65 2
1996 15 20 1
1997 20 97 2
1998 10 37 1
1999 47 236 2
2000 54 1412 4
2001 50 382 5
2002 52 819 8
2003 116 213 6
2004 68 1268 21
2005 73 1058 19
2006 89 763 9
2007 93 964 8
2008 133 1014 9
2009 85 159 3
2010 103 568 9
2011 89 862 11
Grand Total 77 30664 349
Row Labels Average Density Units in sample Buildings in sample
1949 44 27 2
1950 70 370 11
1952 180 380 2
1958 65 53 2
1959 56 100 7
1960 54 214 10
1961 55 116 7
1962 51 602 16
1963 47 1251 20
1964 58 251 7
1965 67 823 7
1966 61 837 15
1967 83 521 4
1968 76 364 4
1969 66 1226 11
1970 98 1539 12
1971 96 1699 13
1972 125 894 7
1973 97 1908 6
1974 113 391 3
1975 95 333 2
1976 124 77 1
1977 156 288 2
1978 89 578 4
1979 32 119 2
1980 54 91 2
1981 120 559 3
1982 59 651 9
1983 107 897 7
1984 92 420 5
1985 136 1426 8
1986 53 400 5
1987 58 245 4
1988 79 57 1
1989 139 609 4
1991 90 370 1
1993 19 8 1
1994 11 33 2
1995 15 65 2
1996 15 20 1
1997 20 97 2
1998 10 37 1
1999 47 236 2
2000 54 1412 4
2001 50 382 5
2002 52 819 8
2003 116 213 6
2004 68 1268 21
2005 73 1058 19
2006 89 763 9
2007 93 964 8
2008 133 1014 9
2009 85 159 3
2010 103 568 9
2011 89 862 11
Grand Total 77 30664 349

Give me an HSR, stat!

I should probably create a template for posts that begin “Streetsblog linked today to something amazing or fascinating…”

Today it is a report by America 2050 (apparently a planning research non-profit linked to Transportation for America) called High Speed Rail in America, which was written to evaluate the viability of corridors for HSR.  What it also does is provide a useful compendium and comparison of city statistics in America.

Two criteria for evaluating the viability of corridors is population and employment within a 2-mile, 10-mile, and 25-mile radius of a CBD.  Minneapolis ranks pretty well here – 13th in the nation for population within a 2-mile radius, and 11th for employment in the same radius (at 110,000 people and 190,000 jobs).  Interestingly, Milwaukee beats Minneapolis for jobs in the core with 240,000, though the jobs within 25 miles of downtown Milwaukee is 400,000 less.  Anyone looking at the skylines of the two cities would be surprised to hear that, since Minneapolis has at least twice as many skyscrapers.  Either the mid-rises of Kilbourntown hold more jobs than at first glance, or the factories of the river bottoms pad Milwaukee’s total.

The report ignores bus transit as a factor for determining HSR viability, so Minneapolis ranks poorly for transit use.  Interestingly, America 2050 calculated a population of 110,000 living within a half-mile of the Hiawatha train.  While the report generally considered commuter rail, they did not count the Northstar line, probably because its new and not because it runs too infrequently to be considered transit.

Ultimately the report ranks a Chicago to Minneapolis line as fourth-most viable in the Midwest region, although after Chicago-Milwaukee and Chicago-Indianapolis, four other routes are ranked within a few percentage points of one another (Chicago to Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati and St Louis, in order of rank).  If the report had included the St Paul CBD in addition to Minneapolis (it is hard to imagine a rail line stopping only in Minneapolis and not in St Paul, due to the layout of existing rail in the region), the Twin Cities would likely have rated better.

Although the report omits a listing of all corridors in the nation and their scores, glancing at the regional listings suggests that most of the Midwest routes rate behind most of the Northeastern routes and most of the California routes.  It’s not exactly a jaw-dropper that California and the Northeast are the most viable regions for high speed rail, but it always helps to back up your assertion and this report will still be a useful resource for US city stats.

PRT or PBT?

If you read a lot of urbanist blogs, you start noticing that commenters (thanks anyway, Firefox spell-check, but I will not call them commentators) often fall into certain categories.  There are the Philosopher-Trolls, who never miss an opportunity to re-kindle the Eternal Questions of the transportation world (on-street or separated bike facilities?  why does transit cost so much in the USA?).  There are the Trainspotters, who never miss an opportunity to point out the voltage difference between the Siemens A32B77 car and the Bombardier 7B2R6 car.

And then there are the PRTers, who pop up seemingly at random to preach the mystical transcendent qualities of Personal Rapid Transit, which apparently pays you to build it and will leave your teeth sparkling clean.  On a Market Urbanism post about elevated rail, which I guess is a primitive precursor to PRT?, a commenter linked to a summary of a conference held by MnDOT last summer on that maligned form of futurism, PRT.

I think Tom Sorel has done a good job at MnDOT, and he’s probably done more than any other commissioner to advance multi-modal thinking and spur innovation.  But I have to say I was a little disappointed that we’re still studying PRT in Minnesota.  Rep.  Frank Hornstein made the point at the conference, expressing his concern that “PRT has been under discussion since the 1970s, but most plans have been shelved.”  There’s a little more to the story:  not only did PRT fail to justify construction after all that study, but PRT helped kill rail transit:

In 1972 the MTC [Metro Transit Commission, which was later swallowed by the Met Council and the last word dropped] undertook an analysis of the metro area’s transit needs, called the Regional Fixed Guideway Study. The study recommended that UMTA [I'm not sure about this acronym - Urban Mass Transit Administration maybe?] and the state Legislature come up with $1.3 billion to build a 57-mile intermediate capacity rail system. “It was sort of the Twin Cities answer to the BART,” Metropolitan Council transportation director Larry Dallam says, so the council refused to look at MTC’s study and did its own, which concluded that a fixed guideway for buses was the solution to downtown congestion. The LEgislature promptly shelved both recommendations, did nothing for a year, then appropriated $500,000 so that the MTC could study the only form of transport that hadn’t been discussed: small, driverless, electrically powered vehicles called people movers.

Despite the bad blood (or maybe because of it), the summary of last summer’s PRT conference is a good read.  Apparently MnDOT held the conference after getting 21 responses to an RFI (Request For Information, something Carol Molnau would never have done) about PRT, including proposals to build systems in various Twin Cities suburbs and from Winona, which is applying for federal money to build a “PRT lab and partnership center” that would “integrate a test track into current city infrastructure.”

But unfortunately the conferees agreed on a defeatist attitude about transit in the suburbs.  Steve Elkins, a city councilmember from Bloomington led the charge, with the unsupported assertion that transit service “cannot be a faster option for suburban commuters.”  Well, transit is faster, of course, at rush hour on commuter bus rides that have shoulder lanes.  CM Elkins makes clear later that he is actually talking about local routes on the Bloomington Strip, which is currently served by a tangled mess of buses:

The important thing to note about the Bloomington Strip is that it  isn’t more than a half-mile wide in most places, making it actually pretty walkable.  So when Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities, describes the area as “too hostile and dangerous for people to get from one place to another,” it is true, but only because the cities have built it to be that way.

Last year I had a training in an office park on the Strip, and at lunch I went to find a scenic spot to munch at.  Hailing from this part of town, I knew that Centennial Lakes and its corporate landscaped grandeur wasn’t far, so I set out to hoof on over.  Needless to say, after several speeding turn lane near-misses and a few Amazing Disappearing Sidewalks, I was pretty frustrated.  But the worst was when I was late getting back, after the confusion of too many T intersections and random sidewalk turns led me on an unnecessary detour.  Yet the spot I found wasn’t any further than my normal lunch spot.  All it would take is a little road dieting (this area is loaded with low-volume four-lane streets), a policy of sidewalks for both sides, and some way-finding and it would be a pretty nice place to walk.

The Bloomington Strip, composed of superblock after superblock of low-slung buildings surrounded by empty lawns or parking lots, is actually an excellent testing ground for the Fused Grid.  Here is one I whipped up with almost no thought:

The orange lines are pedestrian or bicycle ways (ideally both), creating a grid system similar in size, if not regularity, to a standard city grid.  With some decent signage (to Progress Drive, for example, or No Through Walk, for another) it would be a fine place to walk.  With some infill of buildings on these vast parking lot fields, it would be a nice place to walk.

Do we really need a network of elevated monorails to take us from exactly where we are to exactly where we want to be?  I don’t think so, not as long as we can still use our old familiar Personal Biped Transit.

USPIRG Report: Do Roads Pay for Themselves?

Streetsblog links today to a new report out from USPIRG that comprehensively and compellingly debunks the myth that roads pay for themselves.  Some highlights:

  • The gas tax is not a user fee:  Not only are taxes “based on fuel sales, not mileage driven,”  but “most of the money that is spent on local roads and streets—which account for the majority of public road lane-miles and about 13 percent of vehicle travel—comes … from other taxes, often local property taxes.”
  • Gas taxes are levied in lieu of sales taxes in most states: “Had New Jersey, for example, charged its 7 percent state sales tax on motor gasoline purchases in June 2010, it would have generated approximately 15.4
    cents per gallon in general revenue for the state, compared to the 14.5 cents per gallon the state actually took in through its gasoline tax. …   If gas prices continue to rise faster than inflation while gas taxes lag behind inflation, then this net tax subsidy for gasoline will become more common.”
  • The federal gas tax was created to plug a general fund deficit, not for the construction of the Interstate Highway System: Only from 1956 to 1972 was the tax dedicated to highway expenditures.  “The last two major increases in the federal gasoline tax—in 1990 and 1993—were dedicated in whole or in part toward deficit reduction, the original purpose of the federal gasoline tax when it was adopted in 1932.”
  • Roads need subsidies: “Since 1947, America’s spending on highways at all levels (federal, state and local) has exceeded the amount of money collected in gasoline and vehicle taxes and tolls by more than $600 billion
    (2005 dollars).”  “In 2008, local governments spent more than $31 billion on highways raised from property taxes, assessments, and general fund revenues.”  I’m surprised the figure is that low, since in 2010 Minneapolis spent more than$16m on roads through bonding, property taxes and assessments.
  • Driving incurs tremendous external costs: “A 2009 study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI) estimates that 35 percent of the cost of driving consists of external costs. VTPI estimates that the full cost of a mile of driving—including fuel, ownership and external costs—ranges from 94 cents per vehicle mile for rural driving to as much as $1.64 per mile for urban rush hour driving.  Another 2007 study, by researchers at Resources for the Future, estimated that the external costs imposed by driving amounted to approximately $2.10 per gallon.”
  • Interstates largely serve local traffic: “Two out of every three vehicle-miles traveled on the Interstate system are on urban Interstates, which presumably serve local or metropolitan mobility needs—just as do transit systems.”
  • Dedication of state gas taxes to roads limits the funding of transit capital projects: “While transit projects technically can receive an 80 percent federal match, in practice the match is typically around 50 percent, since the New Starts process favors application in which state and local governments provide a greater share of the funds.  In many states, finding those local funds is extremely difficult since gasoline tax revenue is off-limits for transit projects.”

One of the safest predictions about the upcoming MN legislative session is that someone will propose to extend the sales tax to a wider variety of goods.  It is also safe to say that gasoline won’t be included in that list of goods.

Not the final fantasy

When I started this blog on an insomniac night many months ago, one of my goals was to use it as a showcase for my planning ideas, which I vainly believe to be valuable.  I noticed when writing the entry on my proposal for an 8th St Transit Mall, though, that I haven’t yet written any posts about my ideas.  Maybe the biggest reasons is that I don’t have any good illustration software, but I just got visio so maybe things will improve in that realm.

Anyway, to start off the new year with one of my ideas, I thought I’d dust off an old one:  a fantasy Twin Cities rail rapid transit system.  I believe I started working on this in 2007 or so.  You can see from the overview how ambitious it is:

It is hard to imagine a justification for rail transit much outside the beltway, where residential and employment density is so low that it doesn’t even justify freeways (not that you need justification to build a freeway in the US; our local example being the Carol Molnau Highway).  But I had light rail going to Anoka, Burnsville, Apple Valley, and White Bear Lake.  In some ways, they’re mostly logical termini:  Anoka is pretty high-density, both in population and employment, Burnsville Center is a big employment center, and White Bear Lake is only a couple miles past Maplewood Mall and relatively dense.  Unfortunately they’re all surrounded by many miles of very low-density suburban areas, which really would only justify light rail where right-of-way is very cheap (which actually might be the case with the purple line through Coon Rapids to Anoka, which I routed along the rail line that carries the Northstar line).  And honestly, the one I’d most like to see is the one that is the least justifiable, the extension of Hiawatha to the Minnesota Zoo:

I just think that a facility like a zoo with such a big public benefit should be accessible via quality public transit – but that could take the form of BRT instead, maybe through a branch of Cedar BRT.  Certainly any light rail should use the herky-jerky route I created here; instead Cedar Ave is an available and more linear right-of-way.  And I routed it over the old Cedar Bridge over the Minnesota!  Well it is a fantasy system – it would be cool if the bridge could be rebuilt for LRT, but probably very expensive.

My fantasy system is even ambitious in Downtown Minneapolis – an area that certainly justifies large rail transit infrastructure investments, but maybe not as large as my system would require:

One of my pet peeves about the Hiawatha train is that the segment that deserves the best ride actually has the worst: the train is often slower than the bus downtown, and how can you really justify building Nicollet and Hennepin stations a block apart, instead of one station between the two streets?  My system would consolidate those stations, although I left it at-grade (probably unintentionally).  I’ve since learned some detriments to circle lines, but I was pretty proud of this one, particularly because it would use mostly existing right-of-ways, but also because it would link some of the highest-density neighborhoods.  The other good thing about this fantasy system is the routing of the Central Corridor extension (which I would send through to the 394 corridor) allowing for a stop at 8th and Nicollet, the core of the CBD.  In hindsight, it might make more sense to route the Hiawatha through this station rather than cut a separate tunnel for it.

St Paul has a pretty cool feature:  a circle line built into the routes that run through it.  The trains would run at the foot of the bluff, making for what I think would be a really cool ride, but might require stations (I only have one at Wabasha here but I’d think you could put one at Robert too) with very expensive elevators  and might be thought of as inconvenient.  One plus to a circle line here is it provides a station to the Capitol East complex, cutting out the zig-zag alignment planned for Central LRT.  Don’t ask me why I didn’t put a station at the capitol – it’s all the way out at Marion, I guess to provide easy access to that space-fortress McDonald’s.  Another oversight: no stations at Victoria or Western, which will probably see a lot of growth once the train goes through, despite St Paul’s failure to increase allowable density there.

The award for Most Questionable Segment probably goes to this route through New Brighton, which runs through a very low density area and follows a serpentine path that includes several fantastically sharp turns.  I think I was trying to increase the connectivity of the system and facilitate suburb-to-suburb movements, but this segment probably couldn’t even be built, much less attract riders.

I’m not sure what exactly I was thinking about here in terms of technology – certainly a fantasy system would use higher-capacity heavy rail, but it’s conceivable that the system could use light rail with some longer trains (if this is possible).  I think that some segments could be operated as BRT, specifically the purple line along 35W and the blue line along 394, but the idea of a fantasy is that lots of people would be using this and the capacity of BRT would be overwhelmed.  Also intrinsic to this particular fantasy is an increase in density throughout the city.

As I point out many of the failures of this fantasy, you may have guessed that I’ve replaced it with a new fantasy.  My ideal rail rapid transit system is constantly under revision, of course, but maybe I’ll post the latest version one of these days.