Kvetchgiving on Nicollet Mall

In the interest of furthering my life’s work making mountains out of molehills, I’m going to complain a moment about the annual Thanksgiving Switcheroo on Nicollet Mall.  Every Thanksgiving from 6-10 in the evening, cars are allowed to, as the City puts it, “enjoy a drive along Nicollet Mall… For this special occasion, the speed limit is 10 miles-per-hour and drivers are not allowed to pass another vehicle or stop anywhere along the Mall. If you want to take the drive, you must enter and exit Nicollet Mall either at Washington Avenue or Grant Street.”  What they don’t mention is that buses are detoured to Hennepin while cars are granted their annual pleasure.

I took a stroll down Nicollet at about 9pm and counted 47 cars a-cruising, not counting a handful of unpatronized taxis.  Typically, you’d see one to three cars lined up at a red light.  The cars had higher than average occupancy, so I’d guess that during my 15 minute jaunt, there were around 130 souls motoring on what was normally un-motorable.  Not counting those already lined up in front of Target, I’d say about the same number were ambulating the Mall with me from 13th to Washington, although I wasn’t specifically counting pedestrians.

This might be a nice moment to rant about arbitrarily detouring transit at the pleasure and convenience of motorists.  Think about how often you’ve seen a portion of a street closed for construction, and some room is found for bidirectional general traffic lanes, but the bike lane is closed.  But I’ll save that rant for later.

It just doesn’t really matter that much that the buses are detoured.  Traffic of all types is very low tonight – in the four hours of the Switcheroo, about 85 buses were detoured.  Likely each bus had only a handful of riders.  So we’re not talking about very much traffic.

But maybe it’s the very lightness of the traffic that sticks in my craw.  Very few cars take their “once-a-year chance” and very few buses are detoured.  So why do the buses need to be detoured at all?  Why can’t cars share their special night with a few buses?

In closing, here’s a pic of two beagles in front of a tiny chapel near Blue Mound State Park, from this awesome travelblog:

Happy Pupsgiving



Boston & Minneapolis Family Feud

Sometimes it seems like Minneapolis was begat by Chicago, the two cities sharing a relentless grid, constant bluster, and a fixation with lakes.  But no, we were born of Boston; only the Eastern city was populous enough at the time to supply the requisite real estate speculators to found this like they did most other American cities (soon after, Chicago overtook Boston in population and was able to spread speculators far and wide).

But parent and child are very different, as I was recently reminded by Bostonography, a blog that rivals Mapping the Straight in terms of cartographic cleverness.  Here’s Bostonography’s awesome map of MBTA bus speeds.

Bostonography’s map reminded me of a similar one of Minneapolis peak hour bus speeds produced for the Downtown Transit Circulation Report:

The above two maps are not to scale, of course, but they are comparable in some ways.  It’s really interesting to me how closely spaced many of Boston’s bus routes are.  For example, in the area southeast of Malden Square on the map above, there are lines on Main, Hancock and Ferry Sts, all within about 1/3 mile of each other.   The lines on Main and Ferry are pretty frequent while the Hancock bus isn’t, but they appear to serve an area relatively similar to Minneapolis.  Areas that are more like the the dense brick Boston of the popular imagination, for example the South End or Roxbury, seem to commonly have bus lines 1/4 mile apart!

I’m not very familiar with Boston’s geography, and Minneapolis’ survey line street layout make it a snap to plan a bus network.  Still, Minneapolis’ bus routes clearly continue to follow the old streetcar lines rather than adapt to changing circumstances.    I don’t know the history of the MBTA, but it looks like a lot of bus routes are set up to be feeders to the T rather than usable in their own right.

There are important differences between the two maps.  One that makes it difficult to directly compare the speed data is that the Boston map shows the actual speed as the buses travel along their routes (wow!) but the Minneapolis map shows average speed over segments.  That means that although you see a lot more yellow on the Boston map, the average speed there may be closer to the ubiquitous orange of central Minneapolis.

Minneapolis may be a prodigal offspring that long ago parted way with its parent, but it seems that Boston and Minneapolis can still learn from each other.

Tracks of the Past

Links to historic Twin Cities transit maps, listed chronologically with publisher in parentheses.

1885 – Minneapolis only.  Street railway lines shown on plates, except Motor Line.  (???)

1888 – Minneapolis only.  (Mpls City Directory Publishing Co.)

1889 – Minneapolis only.  David Rumsey also has a version of this map that he dates to 1901, but it’s identical as far as I can tell.  The next two maps have features that don’t appear on the supposed 1901 map, so I’m assuming the earlier date is correct.  (George F. Cram)

1891 (MN Transfer Board of Trade)

1892 – Minneapolis only.  (C.M. Foote & Co.)

1897 (Rand, McNally & Co)

1898 (Northwestern Map Publishing Co.)

1900 – Minneapolis only.  (Hudson)

1901 – The U of M’s Borchert map library also has a 1903 map from R.L. Polk & Co but it appears to be identical.  I don’t necessarily trust directory maps, but included this because it dates from the brief period that Lake Calhoun was renamed Lake Mendoza.  (Edit – The Hennepin County Library claims that the Dakota name for Lake Calhoun is Mde Medoza, so it seems likely that Polk & Co just got that name wrong.)  (R.L. Polk & Co.)

1903 – Minneapolis only. (Mpls Real Estate Board)

1906 (TCRT)

1906 (Francis J. Reynolds)

1910 – This is Downtown Minneapolis only, but is cool because it shows the actual tracks.  (Nutter, Frank H.)

1911 (TCRT)

1913 (McGraw Electric Railway Manual)

1914 (McGraw Electric Railway Manual)

1915 (TCRT)

1917 (TCRT)

1920 – Minneapolis only (McGill-Warner Co.)

1946 – Minneapolis only (TCRT)

1948 (TCRT)

1948-1950 – kmz version of the 1946 map above, if you want to view it in Google Earth (TCRT)

Notice anything strange about this list?  What’s up with the 26 year gap after 1920?  Is this a symptom of the beginning of the decline of streetcars?  Did Americans begin to be more obsessed with the newfangled automobiles, and save scarce colored ink for highways?  Am I just a feeble googler?

Please link in the comments to any streetcar maps of the past that I missed.

1895 Paving Map

I came across a paving map of Minneapolis from 1895, and I had to post it here, considering the two posts I’ve done about street paving.

Here’s a detail (although it includes just about all the paved streets in the city at that time); click for the full map:

Yellow = cedar block; Blue = granite block; Brown = sheet asphalt; Red = macadam

I knew that wood was cheap in 19th Century Minneapolis, but I didn’t know how cheap.  My guess is this stuff was imported, however, depending on the type of Cedar used.  I’m not sure if this is the same type of paver you can still see in a few patches on 8th Ave NThis article implies that Minneapolis switched to pine in the decade after this map was made, but apparently Chicago was still laying cedar block pavers in 1909, albeit quite different in appearance from the ones on 8th.  Just another mystery of history…

(Credit:  I’m not sure, exactly.  Someone at the U of M has a huge online library of old maps.  Several are similar maps produced by the City Engineer, but most are of sewers.)

Update:  watch the spread of asphalt and brick in paving maps from 1899 and 1910.

Diverging minds


Engineering a way to make SPUIs look good

Dr Marohn over at Strong Towns has diagnosed an epidemic of insanity sweeping through the engineering profession.  Known as Diamantia, when stricken the victim will believe that down is up, black is white, and most commonly, that left is right.

Dr Marohn gives us a case study of the first known patient, in Springfield, Missouri, where the poor victim is so delusional that he thinks a narrow, dirty culvert as friendly for pedestrians.  Wikipedia lists 9 known cases in the US, with hot spots in Utah and near the source in Missouri.

Putting aside the over-the-top metaphor, diverging diamond interchanges really are insane – would a sane engineer design a street that encourages people to drive on the wrong side of the road?  Personally, I tend to favor seemingly-insane solutions, in part because I smoked too much weed in high school, but in part because I get the sense that motorists are more attentive when placed in unfamiliar situations.  If the diverging diamond really is safer than the traditional diamond (this is the claim; not sure if there’s evidence) then I’m in favor of giving it a shot.

Except that the majority of diverging diamond designs I’ve seen are truly terrible for pedestrians.  Chuck Marohn aptly analogizes the culvert into which pedestrians are herded in the Springfield interchange as resembling the grotesque bowels of the Death Star.  Worse, the design simultaneously

  • increases the time and distance required to traverse the interchange for pedestrians  (by requiring that they cross to the center of the road and back and by twisting and turning the sidewalk to accommodate turn ramps for cars); and
  • increases the dangers faced by pedestrians  (by requiring them to cross against the main stream of motor traffic, which is heavier and likely traveling faster than the cross streams, and by designing the turn ramps to maximize speed for motorized traffic).

This leads me to conclude that the diverging diamond is a symptom of something far more insidious than insanity.  It seems to be a systematic attempt to marginalize pedestrians.  Take a look at the 9 cases identified by wikipedia.  I’ve listed them along with the location of the pedestrian facilities, if they exist*:

Springfield, MO (I-44 and MO-13): Center

Springfield, MO (US-60 & National Ave): Center

St Louis Co., MO (I-270 and Dorsett Road): Side

American Fork, UT (Main & I-15): Side

Alcoa, TN (US 129 Bypass / Bessemer St / Middlesettlements Rd): None

Lexington, KY (Herrodsburg Rd & New Circle Rd): Side

Lehi, UT (Timpanogos Highway & Interstate 15): None

Salt Lake City, UT (UT-154 & UT-201): None

Pine Island, MN (US-52 & New Sprawl Rd): Center

Probably the best diverging diamond for pedestrians

The fact that a third of them allow the pedestrians to continue on the outside of the interchange shows that the center culvert is not a crucial design feature.  But the fact that a third of the diverging diamonds have no pedestrian facilities whatsoever indicates that the engineers that propose these things are not concerned with pedestrians.

MnDOT has adopted the Springfield design pretty much wholesale for a proposed interchange in St Cloud – included are the same crossings at obtuse angles to speeding motor vehicles, the same forced detours across the heavy main stream of through traffic, and the same creepy center culvert.  The two interchanges have a similar context: big box stores and ultra low-density housing with no effort on anyone’s part to accommodate pedestrians or cyclists (there is a bus stop about a block north of the Springfield interchange, but nowhere for the passengers to walk after disembarking).

Does a diverging diamond have to be so despotic and demeaning (Marohn’s words) to pedestrians?  I don’t think so, not if pedestrians are kept in mind in the project goals (as they should be when the interchange lies between a residential neighborhood and a hospital, as it does in St Cloud).  Simply add to the goals, somewhere between 1. getting as many cars through as quickly as possible and 4. saving money:

2. minimize pedestrian detours (no serpentine sidewalks or diversion to a center culvert)

3. maintain right angles at pedestrian crossings

Using only Visio and some chewing gum, I’ve redesigned the proposed St Cloud diverging diamond to keep these principles in mind.  Imagine what could be done if you were a Professional Engineer with whatever software Professional Engineers have.  The through or turn lanes are shown in a beige similar to the original (Warning!  The original layout is 32 mb and has crashed my browser more than once.) but I changed the sidewalks from pink to a more masculine dark blue.

Zig zag leg

This design maintains basically straight sidewalks on either side of the intersection and manages to achieve right angles at nearly every pedestrian crossing (the safety advantage of right angles, besides requiring the motorist to maintain awareness of his or her surroundings before mindlessly accelerating, is that neither stream of traffic is required to turn their head terribly far – if it’s more comfortable to look, people will take the time to see what’s coming).  I kind of cheated at the leg detailed at right, which might have to end up fairly oblique.

“What about the trucks?” you may ask.  “How can they turn on so tyrannical an angle?”  We don’t have to banish semis from the roads in order to make a walkable interchange (though maybe we should consider it).  Professional Engineers can use their knowledge of turning radii to design a softer angle ahead of the crossing, although that might result in the awful twists that sidewalks tend to go into around interchanges.  Alternately, the ornate stamped concrete islands that are always built on these things (because grass can’t survive in such hostile environments) could have a mountable curb, effectively softening the radius for that most American of occupations, the trucker.

Of course, putting sidewalks on the, um, side makes for a wider bridge, which is probably why the three diverging diamonds that are (sort of) walkable all are underpasses.  But I don’t see why the wide center median is needed – couldn’t you fit side sidewalks on the same width of bridge if you just shrink the culvert? Anyway, a right angle ramp design will save some money since it fits into a tighter footprint.

Making diverging diamonds walkable may seem like treating the symptom, not the disease.  But the insane part really isn’t forcing traffic to proceed on the left, it is the fact that people can design these things and think that it’s ok to send the pedestrians into a narrow concrete strip between two streams of speeding cars.  That shows a lack of contact with reality that is frightening, but all too common.  Good thing there are good doctors like Chuck Marohn to spread the diagnosis.


*Tennessee finished their walk-less interchange, connecting a residential neighborhood to a commercial strip, just 12 days before their complete streets policy went into effect.  Apparently they’re planning another diverging diamond now, but I can’t tell if it will accommodate pedestrians.

Light savers

Construction costs for Twin Cities rail lines.  It seems like I look this stuff up every couple months so I thought I’d write it down to save my future self the trouble.  For distances I used km to make myself look more professional; to get the miles still used in jolly old USA just divide by 1.6, um, or multiply by 1.6, I forget which.

All dollars are current unless noted parenthetically.

Hiawatha -$44.5m/km

Capital cost: $715.3m (2004)

Length: 19.3 km

Stations: 17

Target Field Hiawatha Extension -  $100m/km

Capital cost: $52m (2009 – This project was part of the Northstar’s $317m budget – Transport Politic lists the cost of just the commuter rail line as $265m, which I’ve verified but I can’t remember where.)

Length: .55 km (This is my measurement.  In addition, this project built a .45 km tail track that may be used for the Southwest line, depending on how it’s built.  I don’t think it’s fair to include the tail track in the cost per km because tailings were not included in the other lines.)

Stations: 1

Hiawatha LRT Tunnel – $62m/km

Capital cost: $120m (2004)

Length: 2.2 km

Stations: 1

Central – $53.2m/km (edit: don’t trust this number) 

Mulad pointed out in the comments that the entire corridor is 18 km – not sure how long just the new track is.  Let me know if you know, please!

Capital cost: $957m

Length: 18 km

Stations: 18 new

Southwest – $46m/km

(current dollars calculated using a 3.5% annual inflation rate following LPA Tech Memo #7A)

Capital cost: $1.25b (2015) ($1111040615 in 2011 dollars)

Length: 24.1 km

Stations: 17

Fun with numbers

Central subway – $60m/km

An all-subway Central LRT, assuming the tunneling costs from Hiawatha.  Of course, the 2.2 km Hiawatha tunnel has only one station, so if Central could have only 9 stations, where would you put them?

Capital cost: $1.1b

Stations: 9

Southwest with Uptown subway -$57.6m/km

To calculate the cost of a Southwest LRT line that proceeds from the West Lake station east on the Greenway at grade, then up Hennepin below grade, emerging again at the Cedar Lake Trail near Glenwood and going up Royalston, basically I just add the cost of the tunnel under Hennepin, assuming the same tunneling costs as Hiawatha, to the total cost of Southwest.  Pretty rough, I know.

Capital cost: $1.32b

Length: 22.9 km

Stations: 16 (This would assume an at-grade station at Uptown, then a below-grade station at Franklin.  There should probably be at least one more station in a subway below Hennepin, which would of course add to the per km cost.)

For comparison’s sake

I-394 – $45m/km

Capital cost: $450m (1993)

Length: 15.7 km

Crosstown Commons – $36.5m/km

Capital cost: $288m (2010)

Length: 7.9 km

For more incomparable comparisons, check Alon Levy’s list.

Mooneapolis, A.D. 2030

How to cross the street in February

The council voted yesterday on the items that came out of this cycle’s committee, so it’s probably a bit late to report on what went on in the Transportation & Public Works meeting.  On top of that, the Star Tribune, in their fitful effort to cover Minneapolis, scooped me on a few items.  One was the new civil fines proposed for failing to shovel snow, which I’m excited about.  The idea that we’ll be able to walk a block without sinking to your ankles in snow is one more reason to get excited about winter.  Maybe with the proceeds of this fine the city will be able to afford to finish their plow jobs, instead of leaving icy piles of plow debris blocking every crosswalk.

Speaking of the city affording stuff, I’m obstinately writing this post about the 10/25/11 TPW committee despite having been shown up by professionals because of one item:  the Infrastructure Study presentation.  Basically, Public Works looked at four major transportation infrastructure components and compared their condition to their funding level with the goal of coming up with an eye-popping number to report as a shortfall.

It all begins with the Pavement Condition Index (PCI), or Evidence A that engineers’ confidence in the omnipotence of math is why they shouldn’t be trusted with absolute control over our public spaces.  Here is how the presentation describes it:

The Pavement Condition Index (PCI) is a numerical index between 0 and 100 that is used to indicate the condition of a roadway. It is a statistical measure and is based on a visual survey of the pavement. A numerical value between 0 and 100 defines the condition with 100 representing an excellent pavement.

A 101 point scale would be fine if they were using lasers to measure the pavement surface to discern the level of distortion.  Sending Chuck in his Trail Blazer to glance at the road on the way to McDonald’s is not going to result in a reliable measure, and even a careful visual survey will not reliably tell the difference between a PCI of 71 and a PCI of 72.

Road to Mooneapolis

But the PCI is what we have, and in Minneapolis it’s the low end of the index that is seen more and more.  In fact, the presentation contains an apocalyptic chart showing the descent of many of the cities streets into a gravelly moonscapes within 20 years.  The presentation doesn’t clearly describe, however, what we’re sacrificing back to the elements.  It mentions four networks – 206 miles of Municipal State Aid (MSA) streets, 632 miles of Residential streets, 70 miles of Local streets, and 378 miles of Alleys.  The MSA streets, mostly the heavily traveled arterials such as Hennepin or Nicollet and including many Downtown streets, are fed by the state and projected to remain in roughly the same condition.  It’s Residential streets and Alleys that are going to crumble.  Local streets tend to be a)industrial streets, b)leftover bits of MSA streets or c) the slightly more traveled Residential streets that aren’t vital enough to be MSA routes – circa 2030, they will also be a lo0se arrangement of tar chunks, duct tape and car parts, but there are only 70 miles of them.

Chart Fail

The presentation is interesting, but with one exception it doesn’t really explain how we got into this mess.  (The exception being the Pavement life cycle chart reproduced at left, which terrifyingly predicts “Total Failure” after 16 years if pavement isn’t attended to.)  The problem is less one of underfunding today and more one of overfunding several decades ago.  Around 70% of Minneapolis’ residential streets were built in a 15-year binge from 1967 to 1982.  I don’t know for sure how this indulgence was financed, but a 1966 Citizens’ League report suggests that it was paid for with bonding, which of course is ultimately paid for with property taxes.  So more or less, the city just increased its budget for the massive push to pave Residential streets, and once they were paved the total budget just shrunk, or, more likely, went to other things.

Paved with intentions to pave

So now the city would like to double Public Works’ capital budget to address this crisis of crumbling Residential streets.    Residential streets mostly don’t provide corridors for transportation, except as the very beginning and end of trips.   Instead, both in terms of use and area, their primary function is to provide parking for the residences along them.  It’s difficult to justify expending community resources on such a local benefit, and according to the Citizens’ League report, Residential streets used to be financed mostly locally – at the same time the council decided to jack up property taxes to pay for smooth parking on side streets, it reduced assessments on abutting property owners from 2/3rds to 1/4.   (The local share seems to have been reduced to about 5%, if you can trust my math and this document.)

Smooth paving on side streets, like some rural roads, is probably not necessary for our society to function.  But like subsidies for corporate relocation or sports stadiums, localities feel like they need to shell out in order to be competitive.  I’d say it’s reasonable for people to pay for their own parking spaces, but any proposal to use local money to fund local streets is sure to be met with fury, and it certainly wasn’t mentioned in the presentation.  But if we ever start having a grown-up conversation about how to adjust our life-style to our declining economic situation, I hope that free parking is on the table.

Push me to blink

A quick word about another TPW committee item:  authorization for Public Works to spend $4,000 to convert a pedestrian crossing light “from constantly blinking to user activated.”  Apparently neighbors “observed that many drivers, having become accustomed to a continuously flashing pedestrian light, no longer stop for bicyclists and pedestrians at this location.”  They noticed that drivers yield more often a nearby user-actuated crossing light (no numbers were offered in the RCA, so apparently they took neighbors at their word).  Just another example of the expense we go to in order to avoid enforcing motorists’ legal obligation to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Bonus Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee item

Bicycle Regulations

Minneapolis will amend its traffic code to explicitly define bicycles as vehicles, and therefore include them in the definition of Traffic.  Vague statements in favor of clarity were included in the Request for Council Action rather than an explicit rationale for the revision.  My first thought was that this will now guarantee that cyclists can be charged with violations of the traffic code, although Gary Schiff says the goal is to “make it easier to issue a ticket to someone parked in a bike lane.”  I just hope it won’t settle the Great Crosswalk Debate in favor of requiring cyclists to stop and yield in a crosswalk.

Bonus Community Development Committee item

Minnesota Statewide Historical and Cultural Grants Program (a/k/a Legacy Grants Program)

Warehouse District atmosphere

Staff is recommending that the City apply for a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to help implement the Warehouse District Heritage Street Plan, which recommends rebuilding several crumbling patchwork streets mostly in the North Loop with brick pavers in an effort to restore their appearance as existed at a certain point in history.  The summary from the Request for Council Action is worth quoting in full:

Funded with a 2010 Legacy Grant, The Warehouse District Heritage Street Plan set out a detailed street-by-street plan for preserving historic infrastructure in the Warehouse Historic District. The Plan provides a practical, forward looking, and historically-sensitive approach preserving and rehabilitating historic streets and loading docks while improving pedestrian accessibility, and enhancing stormwater run-off by increasing sustainable practices within the Warehouse Historic District. The completed document was approved by the HPC in August of 2011. The document is a detailed street-by-street plan with specific trouble-shooting for how to preserve the remaining historic materials and industrial infrastructure, while accommodating the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and addressing the need for street and sewer repairs. The plan will be used to inform the individual site decisions that property owners, design professionals, and the City will need to make when properties in the District are rehabilitated. It is also being used as the guiding document for the design and development of City capital improvement projects for the reconstruction and repair of specific streets and alleys.

Now that the plan is completed, CPED and Public Works are beginning work toward implementation with a focus on reconstruction of 6th Avenue North. One of the challenges identified in the plan is that original brick material will be deficient to reuse throughout the district due to breakage or removal from past utility cuts. In order to reconstruct 6th Avenue North with full brick replacement, Public Works will need to find similar brick from other city streets under reconstruction. This grant will be used to salvage, palletize, transfer, and store subsurface brick from other City projects where the brick is similar to that in the Warehouse District. One possible removal project will occur in 2012 with the first phase of Nicollet Avenue South reconstruction.

The Plan is worth looking through, especially Chapter 5, or the design concepts for specific streets.  In one sense this is good news, because the sooner Minneapolis has more experience with textured pavement surfaces, the more people will realize their traffic calming effect.  The bad news is, if the first removal project won’t happen till 2012, it could be awhile before these plans are realized – and the North Lo0p badly needs new infrastructure.  I’m looking out my window at a big pile of brick pavers torn up as part of the new Lunds construction at 12th and Hennepin – Public Works, would it help if I gave you the number to Zeman Construction?