Speed, or How to Get from Phoenix to Minneapolis?

Pop quiz, hotshot.  You need to drive your grandmother from Minnesota to Phoenix.  A nasty sciatic means that 1600 mile trip will take three days, for an overall average speed of around 30 mph.  Once you’re in Phoenix, the need to minimize vacation days will join forces with your hipster sensibility to get you out of that lame-o town as quick as possible.  But there’s a catch – you’re neurotic about air travel, due to its tremendous environmental impact.

Do you go by ground transportation?  There’s no Amtrak in Phoenix, of course, and the Texas Eagle, which picks up in nearby Maricopa, takes 60 hours to get to Chicago (I think part of that is due to a transfer to bus in East Texas because Southern Pacific is repairing some track, although there seems to be a 10 hour layover in San Antonio all the time).  A bus from Phoenix to Minneapolis doesn’t take terribly long (only about 40 hours), but that much time on a bus is itself kind of terrible.

So the least terrible ground route is to catch a Greyhound at midnight in Phoenix, which arrives in Flagstaff about 3 am.  Then you kill two hours in scenic Flagstaff by night, before catching the Southwest Chief a bit after 5.  32 hours later, you’ll be in Chicago just too late to catch the Empire Builder to St Paul.  The Megabus only has redeyes after 3pm so you’ll have to get a 5 o’clock Greyhound.  That’ll roll into Minneapolis at 1 am, only 49 hours after you left Phoenix, giving this itinerary an overall average speed of 32 mph.

Or do you fly, hotshot?  A direct flight to MSP from Phoenix costs the same as ground travel, and takes less than a tenth of the time.  If you’re willing to put up with a layover, the trip takes 5 whole hours but you can save $50.  Will the incredible time advantage and sizable price advantage overcome your neurotic resistance to flying?  Or will you cave to societal pressure and join the cadres of cramped, stressed, timesavers of the sky?  What do you do, hotshot?  What do you do?

This picture is way too classy for my blog

Downtown 2025: The Future is Now

King of the Urbanists Steve Berg has written the Mother of Downtown Plans, which was released last week to much copying of press release in the local media.  In this plan Berg has given us the answer to why his summer break from MinnPost turned into a forever break – the plan is an intimidating 111 pages that comprise a whopping 329 MB pdf!  Most of the pages are a disjointed but pleasant collection of HD images, so the plan ends up being a pretty quick read.  David Levinson has snarky comments on all 10 initiatives recommended in the plan, but I’m going to hold it to four.

In the future we will all be tube men

Double Downtown’s Residential Population

Sounds impressive, but Downtown is already on the way to doubling its population.  By my count, Downtown added around 5,000 units in the last decade – the DTC says 15,000 units will need to be constructed in the next 15 years to achieve a doubling of population, which would require doubling the rate of construction.  That doubling seems to be in the works, though, since around 2,000 units have been proposed or are currently under construction Downtown.

The 15,000 units needed to double Downtown’s population are “the equivalent of three large residential towers each year”, according to the plan.  But it could also take the form of low-rise buildings like the 6-story stick-built ones currently proposed in several places Downtown.  At the average unit density of recent low-rise proposals (120 units/acre), 15,000 units could fit on only 125 acres.  My long-languishing Potential Population Project found 150 acres with a high potential for development in just half of Downtown, which was as far as I got before I flaked out on the project.  So it seems likely that most developers will opt for the cheaper type of development, which is fine as long as they don’t skimp on soundproofing.

The ambitious part of this initiative is to achieve an occupancy per unit of 2.33 persons (a 35,000 person increase in population from adding 15,000 units).  That’s a lot higher than the current average household size Downtown and would require a lot more 3 bedroom units than Downtown currently has.  The plan calls for a school to be built to attract families, which seems logical, but I’m not sure developers will follow the cue.  My guess is that for larger bedroom sizes to be built, there has to be a policy incentive or direct subsidies – not surprising that the plan didn’t call for those.

Curbless Mall and Gateway Park Expansions

The issue of Downtown park development is near and dear to my heart – the Nicollet Hotel Block in particular has been a favorite of mine for years – but it’s a bit too big for this post so I’m gonna hold off for now.  I’ll only address the park expansion part of the Plan as it relates to the concept proposed for Nicollet Mall.

The Mall of All I Survey

Their concept kicks off with a map showing how the Mall will annex territory north and south, becoming the imperial capital of colonies stretching from the Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi.  There’s nothing particularly controversial about that – that was basically the idea behind the Loring Greenway – but the Plan doesn’t specify how it will leap the hurdles that prevented a Greater Mall in the past.  The first and foremost hurdle is the nightmare that is the Bottleneck – it’s tough to create a unified pedestrian corridor with a giant concrete trench running through it (a similar but lower hurdle is on the north end at Washington Ave).

But on another level, maybe a bigger problem with the concept is the scale – their proposed corridor is almost 2 miles.  Considering the differing environments of the various segments of their proposed corridors (I can think of three environments for four segments – 1. Sculpture Garden and Loring Park are Parkland 2. Loring Greenway is Residential Pedestrian Mall 3. Nicollet Mall is Commercial Transit Mall 4. Gateway Park Expansion is Parkland) it makes more sense to think of Nicollet Mall as a centerpiece of a branded pedestrian network.  Think of it as a network of Street-level Skyways, or Groundways.  The advantage to this strategy is that if anyone ever wants to improve the pedestrian realm of a block that’s not on the Downtown Council’s corridor, there will be policy support for it.

Whatever form it takes, I really like the idea of a curbless mall.  Nicollet is really more of a transit or taxi mall as it stands, with prime real estate effectively off-limits to pedestrians due to the curb barrier.  As sidewalk cafes get wider and wider, pedestrian space is shrinking, for example at Zelo, where there’s maybe 5 feet between the tables and the light poles.  You can imagine how that can get uncomfortable when there’s a convention of biker twins in town.  It would be nice to just look back to see if a bus is coming and step over if there isn’t.  Alternately, all the buses could play obnoxious chirpy music constantly.

Frequent and Free Downtown Circulator

Maybe I’m misunderstanding the plan, but it seems to me that the Downtown Circulator is the one purely terrible idea here.  So you want a vibrant street scene and robust transit options, but you want to provide a vehicle that is faster and easier than walking and sucks funding away from regular transit routes?  I guess it makes sense if the circulator goes to more outlying destinations, but even in those cases it seems to be duplicating service.  I’m not sure that fares are high enough that they are a deterrent for tourists considering transit.

The Free Ride buses seem like a reasonable compromise.  It costs nothing to run them, for one thing, since they’re a part of regular routes.  They look like regular buses, so they’re confusing enough that they’re less competitive with the simple act of walking.  The plan calls for features on the Downtown Circulator – “wide doors, roll-on features and zero emissions” -  that should be extended to all local buses anyway.  Adding Free Ride segments on Hennepin (using the 6?) and on 7th & 8th (using the 5?) would a accomplish everything that a Circulator would, without the drain on transit funds.

Most controversial element: demolishing a parking ramp

Metropolitics

Steven Dornfield recently did an article on the Met Council’s Livable Communities grants.  Since 1996 the Met Council has been granting for developments or planning that encourage location efficiency or affordable housing.  As Dornfield writes:

From 1996 through 2010, the council awarded 633 grants totaling more than $212 million in Livable Communities funds. Of those, 68 awards have been relinquished, for a net of 565 grants totaling $181 million. The net results of these grants are expected to leverage billions of dollars in private and other public investments.

Dornfield does not mention that grants to projects in Minneapolis and St Paul are capped at a combined 40% of the total granting.  He does link to a Met Council staff report that displays all the fury of a bureaucrat politicized.  If your sense of humor is as nerdy as mine, you’ll agree that it’s worth quoting extensively:

Impact of the 40/60 ratio between the central cities and the suburbs

The previous Council instituted guidelines for funding that allow the LCAC to recommend no more than 40% of the available LCDA funding for projects located in the central cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The LCAC may, if it desires, suggest an additional amount to be awarded to the central cities above the 40% threshold. In this funding cycle, the LCAC is recommending 39.13% to the central cities. Between 1996 and 2010 42% of LCDA funds have been granted to the central cities out of the total $98,014,453 awarded, or $40,711,364.

As a result of the requirement to consider the urban/suburban ratio, in some funding cycles higher-scoring projects in the central cities are not funded, while lower-scoring suburban projects receive awards. In the 2011 recommendations, five central cities projects were not recommended for award in whole or in part in order to maintain the required 60% recommendation for suburban projects.

…To make their recommendations for Development awards, the LCAC starts with the highest-scoring projects and works down the list, making funding recommendations for each individual application. During this process, the LCAC monitors the overall percentage of funding being recommended for the central cities. When the percentage equals the 40% limit, the LCAC skips any further recommendations for central cities applications, moving down to the next-highest scoring project from a suburban applicant.

This makes the funding recommendation process somewhat complicated. For example, the top five scoring Development projects are all located in the central cities. However, when the two Pre-Development projects from the central cities are added to the top five Development projects, the amount for the central cities exceeds the 40% threshold. The LCAC therefore withheld their recommendation for the fifth-highest project, Currie Park Lofts, until they could determine how much was available. They then recommended the full funding for The Enclave Trails Apartments. Because the 40% limit had already been exceeded, the LCAC did not recommend any funding for Corcoran Triangle, from Minneapolis, but instead recommended full funding for the next three projects, all from suburban applicants. The Committee then skipped West Side Flats, from Saint Paul, and recommended full funding for Cobblestone Senior Housing and 9805 Highway 55 Apartments. They skipped Minneapolis’ Spirit on Lake, recommended full funding for Woodbury’s City Walk Apartments, skipped Saint Paul’s Beacon Bluff, and fully funded Watertown’s Downtown Redevelopment Phase II. With the available remaining funds, the Committee opted to recommend partial funding to the Mahtomedi request and, skipping back up to the highest-scoring unfunded central city project, they were able to recommend just over 40% of the requested amount for Currie Park Lofts, rounding out the full $9 million available for 2011.

The Met Council, of course, “serves at the pleasure of the Governor”, so it’s not surprising that Pawlenty’s council would cap the amount of money going to an area that never voted for him.  Seems like bad policy, though, to limit grants for multifamily housing in the part of the metro that has the most available land for multifamily housing… and that was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.  Hopefully this new council will read the frustration in this bureaucratic report and allow merit to be the primary determinant of grant recipients.

Can you find the brown in the suburbs?

Traveling in Moderation, part II: Multimodal Mad Town

Having posted the first Traveling in Moderation, a thought popped into my head:  traveling 270 miles really isn’t very moderate.  My great-grandfather left Traverse County only once, for a church-group trip to Pennsylvania.  Our modern standards for travel have been explosively expanded by the availability of cheap oil, and will contract as oil gets more expensive.  So I suppose I should be flying now while the flying’s cheap.  Anyway, let’s get back to Madison…

As built, Madison is one of the most walkable cities in the Upper Midwest.  Most streets are narrow, and the wide ones almost all have crossable center medians.  The grid shifts with primary travel patterns, and is often sliced through with diagonals, for more efficient paths.  The destination density seems pretty good (although it is hard for me to tell with small cities) – grocery stores are pretty well spaced, and walkscore is fairly high excepting some Suburban Hells on the Far West and East Sides.

The result is a good mode share for walking.  Of course, university towns tend to be walking towns and Madison may not be exceptional among its peers (it’s topped by Columbia, South Carolina, which is so walking-friendly that it’s responding to an increase in pedestrian fatalities by ticketing more pedestrians).  Despite a natural advantage for pedestrians and a municipality that seems to have more consideration for pedestrians than most, drivers do not necessarily have a lot of respect for pedestrians.  Williamson Street, north of the Capitol, has 20′ tall pedestrian crossing warning signs on just about every block that are routinely ignored by drivers (and, as Jarrett Walker points out, actually distract drivers from any pedestrians that may be trying to cross).

Look sharp

Ah well, Americans will be Americans.  Madison still has much infrastructure of interest for pedestrians.  I’ll take you on a short tour of Pedestrian Madison, with some side trips to Bike Madison.  Any such tour must begin with State Street, which a prominent Twin Cities urbanist recently dubbed “the best street in the Midwest.

State Street is similar in layout to Nicollet Mall – a two-lane roadway reserved for bikes, buses and taxis is flanked by wide, attractive sidewalks with frequent benches and quality bus shelters (and without pointless meandering) – but there are two important differences.  One is that retail is still alive on State Street, with storefronts packed with the sort of shops found in Uptown Minneapolis.  Think American Apparel, Urban Outfitters and Ragstock.  I say packed because the density of retail is such that second-floor stores are not uncommon – and that’s without any skyways.  Related to skyways, and like them possibly a reason for the tenacity of retail here, is the fact that most of State Street is lined with buildings of the classic Storefront vintage of the 1880s-1920s.  That gives it a more “authentic” feel but frankly is also mostly more interesting, since buildings are much smaller you don’t have the monolithic giant empty glass lobbies that line Nicollet.

State Street is a great street


The Mall of East Campus

Moving down State Street to the University, take a left after the library onto the East Campus Mall.  Though this mall has been under construction for the last three years, those segments that are finished display a streetscape that is even higher quality than State Street, in part because East Campus Mall is a full-on pedestrian mall, whereas State Street is merely a bus mall.  However, East Campus Mall is missing something that State Street has in spades: pedestrians.  They may be deterred by the construction, but probably more by the lack of retail on East Campus Mall and the fact that it isn’t really a crucial connection.  I’m probably overstating it – in comparison with State Street, it’s meager, but there is still plenty of pedestrian activity on East Campus Mall.  For the record, I don’t know if there’s a West Campus Mall.

Look both ways

Before you get too far down East Campus Mall, pause a moment at University Ave.  Although its intersection with East Campus Mall uses colored pavement to highlight the pedestrian crossing, University’s streetscape is generally bleak.  But look closer, and what at first appears to be a wide expanse of one-way concrete has some interesting, skinnying features.  On the north side of the street is a bus-right-turn-only lane, conveyed simply with a solid lane marking and a diamond symbol, with occasional signs permitting right turns.  Between the bus lane and the general traffic lanes is a bike lane that appears to be about 8 feet wide.  Then, on the south side of the street is another bike lane, this one contraflow and protected with a low, mountable, concrete divider separating it from the general traffic lanes.  (See this photo for an overview.)

Generally I’m not very excited about contraflow bike lanes.  University – which is the half of a one-way couplet that’s closer to the heart of campus – may be one of the better candidates for it though.  Considering the high demand for cycling in both directions on this street, they may have had an ineradicable salmon problem anyway, and merely made it safer by making it official.  What I really like about University Ave is the simple, functional way they handle the with-flow bike and bus lanes.  Why mess around with experimental markings when drivers already know to stay away from a solid line with a diamond symbol?

In the green

For now we want to avoid the University Ave traffic, so keep going down East Campus Mall and go up the on-ramp to the Southwest Commuter Path.  Once up there, be careful – while this path, which was carved out of one of the abandoned beds of a double-tracked rail line that slimmed down to single track, is signed for pedestrian use, it’s only striped for cyclists and isn’t really wide enough for both modes.  Clamber over the brightly painted crossings at the corner of Regent and Monroe and follow Monroe to the southwest.

crosswalk envy

In a few blocks you’ll get to a nice little 1920s retail strip similar to ones you’ll find in the neighborhoods of the Twin Cities.  This strip has a couple examples of Madison’s revolutionary attitude towards pedestrians, which subscribes to the bizarre theory that walking should be viable even outside of Downtowns or Universities.  The first clue is the refuge median in front of the new – ahem – Trader Joe’s on the first floor of a condo building.  The great thing about Madison’s ubiquitous refuge medians is that apparently police actually enforce the law in them.  As the picture shows, it actually does snow in cities other than Minneapolis.  Go a block up the street for maybe a deeper indication of Madison’s commitment to pedestrians, where a construction site required closing the sidewalk.  Instead of forcing pedestrians across the street, they also closed the parking spaces and built a concrete enclosure temporary sidewalk.

Before we finish our tour we need to hit Willy Street east of the Capitol, so let’s grab a B-cycle at Regent and Monroe and take the bike path along the shore of Monona to the intersection of Wilson, Williamson and John Nolen Dr.  The B-cycle station is before the intersection, but after you dismount, notice the bright red bike boxes at this intersection.  Cars actually stop behind them, and cyclists actually use them – possibly because the paint allows people to actually see that there’s a bike box there.

Stop in for a drink at the Cardinal bar, in that 5 story redbrick building in the background

Begging for change

About a block behind the bucky-red bike boxes is the last innovation of our tour.  The three-leg intersection of Jenifer and Williamson Sts is designed so that only buses, bikes and pedestrians can access Jenifer from Williamson.  This was presumably done to cut down on cars driving through on mostly-residential Jenifer, but the restriction also provides a slight transit advantage.  Or would, except the traffic signal seems to be programmed to give as much time as possible to Williamson St.  When I pressed the beg button to cross Williamson, I counted full minute without any signal change.  (Of course it changed after I’d already crossed about halfway.)  Neither Jenifer nor Williamson seem to have enough traffic to justify giving Williamson so much priority; hopefully they can reprogram to make the signal change a bit quicker and the intersection will be more helpful.  Frankly I don’t know why any pedestrian would use it currently; there is a striped crosswalk about 60 feet southwest that would be much quicker for crossing Williamson.

The last stop on our tour will be Capitol Square.  We’ve walked and biked long enough for now, so I think I’ll save it for next time.  But as we walk towards the square we’ll go up King Street, which is one of my favorite streets in Madison and worth a few more blathers.  King is on the opposite side of the Capitol from State (which was originally also named King), and the two share a basic form – somewhat narrow, lined with 2-4 story buildings.  What I like about King is that it shows how nice an everyday street can be – just make sure it’s not so wide that you can’t see across it and even if you give two-thirds of the street to cars, it’s still not bad for pedestrians.

Hail to the king

Apartments go boom!

With all the chatter about apartment construction in the last couple months, I wanted to see whether the current level of activity is really an aberration or just a way to sell newspapers.  There certainly are a lot of proposals floating about, but after the severe downturn of the last few years, it’s hard to know what’s normal.  Besides, is it a coincidence that the paper that says the most about the new construction just happens to have a subscribers only online map of it?

But what exactly is the current level of activity?  If 8500 units were under construction or proposed as of September, what does that mean in terms of eventual places to live?  Presumably almost all of what is under construction will be finished, but much of what is proposed will never see the light of day.  I thought it safe to compare the number proposed to building permit data, although probably a bit more is proposed than actually gets permitted.  From F&C’s 8500, I thought it safe to subtract 2000 considering my count of 1,732 units that were under construction in 2011 just in Minneapolis (most of which would have been permitted in 2010).

So how rare is it for 6500 multifamily units to be permitted in the metro area?  Met Council data going back to 1970 gives us a hint:

Permit rainbow!

Well, not very rare.  10 of the last 40 years saw 6500 units permitted.*  In fact, in the 70s the average year saw 6100 multifamily units permitted, helped out by the massive years 1970-1972 that permitted over 10,000 multifamily units each.

I think the story here is more likely that not nearly enough rental units were constructed in the last 20 years.  As I’ve noted before, the 90s were a disastrous decade for dense development.  When multifamily heated up again, it was the condo craze, leaving little room for renters.  But while the ownership housing stock was increased, sometimes at the expense of rental housing, the number of renter households was increasing faster than the number of owner households.

In other words, it’s true that there is more multifamily rental units being proposed and built than in recent years, but don’t think of it like a speculator-driven bubble.  Instead it is more likely to be a “new normal,” where the market is providing a supply in reaction to demand.  That’s good news for people who want an energy-efficient, walkable, low-maintenance place to live.

Zooming In

There’s more news buried in this building permit data, and I’m going to finish up with a long digression on it.  Check out this table of the top 10 metro area cities for total residential building permits issued between 1970 and 2010:

City DTQ DUP MF3 MF5 SFD TH Total
Minneapolis 98 854 21507 6543 4238 2807 36047
Plymouth 44 118 9172 240 13925 3273 26772
St. Paul 146 652 16033 3234 4537 1172 25774
Eden Prairie 32 1112 6498 95 12132 4430 24299
Eagan 75 704 6886 68 12430 3710 23873
Woodbury 107 442 4836 1127 12490 4123 23125
Maple Grove 157 565 3646 692 14496 3473 23029
Brooklyn Park 16 834 2750 475 12820 3504 20399
Burnsville 0 366 8431 394 7472 3305 19968
Coon Rapids 2 736 4760 48 9106 3462 18114

DTQ=Duplex, Triplex, Fourplex

DUP=Duplex

MF3=Multifamily (3 units or more)

MF5=Multifamily (5 units or more)

SFD=Single-Family Detached

TH=Townhome

Minneapolis has a comfortable lead, appearing to have added more housing units in the 40-year period than any other municipality (assuming the same rate of actual construction resulting from permits across all the municipalities and years).  This lead seems to have primarily resulted from the 70s and 00s, in the latter of which Minneapolis added significantly more housing units than anywhere else in the Twin Cities.

Seas of purple and green

So how could Minneapolis add tens of thousands of housing units in the last 40 years, while simultaneously losing more than 50,000 residents?  Some of the reasons for a similar effect in the 60s are also valid for later decades; the entirety of the drop occurred in the 70s, when a great deal of (edit: Froggie points out in the comments that most of the clearance for freeway construction had been wrapped up by the 70s) freeway construction and some slum clearance was still underway.

Later decades fared better.  The 90s saw a population increase; looking at population by sector makes it clear that the mediocre performance of the 00s was almost entirely a product of the foreclosure crisis:

Sector 1980 1990 2000 2010
Downtown 19155 21824 24977 31034
North 61278 64001 67674 59970
Northeast 37507 36515 36913 36255
South 137551 136333 142150 139854
Southwest 83728 79912 78292 77989
University 29615 29798 32612 37476
Citywide 368834 368383 382618 382578

The two sectors with the most foreclosure activities were also the only two with significant population decline.  In the case of North, two decades of steady growth were wiped out.

The 80s are the mystery for me.  Seven or eight thousand units were constructed in Minneapolis, which should have resulted in some population growth.  Instead the most population growth occurred in North, not in the Downtown and University neighborhoods that saw the most units added.  I don’t have demolition permit data, so I don’t know if an unusually high number of units were demolished.  Household size may also have been a factor, since many of the units added were likely smaller than any units lost.

Regardless of what happened in the 80s, the census data seems to suggest that, barring any new freeway construction or popular predatory lending practices, Minneapolis should see steady population growth in this decade.  Wandering back to the main topic of this post, the return to historic levels of multifamily rental construction, a greater proportion of which tends to occur in central cities, is another indicator that the chatter may soon be about how Minneapolis and St Paul are leading the metro in population growth.

*Until 2004, semi-detached units with more than two units were counted in the multifamily category.  In 2004, they were moved into the Duplex category.

Sensible vs Indefensible

The Sensible Stillwater Bridge Partnership probably has the best name of any advocacy group anywhere.  This Pioneer Press graphic shows why:

Which bridge is sensible?

The article from which that image was stolen also contains what may be the most outrageous statement of the year, from someone whom MnDOT pays to lie for them:

MnDOT’s Adam Josephson said the main problem with the plan is its location. Placing the bridge among “so many natural and cultural resources would have a significant environmental impact,” he said.

“It’s got other problems, but its location is the main problem,” he said. “The problem is that it has more environmental impacts (than MnDOT’s proposed location). That’s the reason why we located the bridge where we did. We have to avoid, as much as possible, impacts to protected resources.”

The Sensible Partners for Sensibility have come up with this excellent graphic, showing exactly how massively gigantic MnDOT’s bridge is (it’s worth clicking through for the entire graphic):

Big, bigger, fucking outrageous

The notion that a half-mile long bridge that’s 40 to 110 feet above the waterline would have greater impact than a one-mile bridge that’s 110 to 220 feet above the waterline is so preposterous that it’s insulting.  Let me say it again:  MnDOT expects us to believe that the bridge that’s half as long and half as tall has the greater environment impact.

On top of that whopper, MnDOT is using its own system of overpriced and politicized consultancies to pretend the much smaller bridge won’t save as much money:

If the [Sensible Bridge] plan were adopted, MnDOT would have to go back and do further environmental review, Josephson said.

“That could take four to six years…to get back to the point we are at today,” he said. “That could delay the project to 2019 or later.”

[The Sensible Bridge] plan would cost about $394 million – $300 million less than the one being considered by Congress. The $111 million increase in their cost estimate reflected several changes near the Minnesota approach to the bridge, partnership officials said.

The St. Croix River Crossing proposed by MnDOT and supported by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., is expected to cost $574 million to $690 million.

But Josephson said the partnership proposal would cost about the same as MnDOT’s [Bloated Bridge] plan because of the extra costs due to additional environmental impacts and construction delay.

Three years ago, I gave a few bucks to a certain comedian who’s now a Senator officially if halfheartedly supporting the Bloated Bridge.   That money bought my freedom from six years of spotlight on a weasel who used to run St Paul, but it also made me subject to a barrage of emails from a corrupt gang of incompetent lushes whose only notable accomplishment has been to kill the one successful grassroots political movement that ever existed in this state.*

Anyway, one of their recent emails, besides begging for my cash to use on vague and dubious projects, rightfully decried the condition of local government finances.  Of course, the situation was blamed on their rival political gang, and no mention was made of the two gangs’ collusion on projects like the Bloated Bridge.

One of many things that Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum agree on is that we need to continue to throw money at our ridiculously overbuilt automotive infrastructure.  As Strong Towns has pointed out, Stillwater’s Bloated Bridge is an acceleration of the decades-long process of self-bankruptcy driven by our broken political system.  If only MnDOT could remember that its job is not to just build stuff, but to ensure the safety and functionality of our transportation system.  Maybe the latter will require building a bridge in Stillwater, but no sensible interpretation of MnDOT’s mission would require the bridge to be built big, fast and now.

Untrammeled beauty, or: Just another jam on the St Croix

*I exaggerate slightly here for the sake of cantankerousness

Traveling in Moderation, part I: U of W/M

City and Lakes

For the last three years I’ve traveled to Madison over the Thanksgiving weekend to accompany my girlfriend on a visit to her grandmother.  Grandma Dee was born and raised in Madison, and has proven to be an excellent source for the history and culture of the city (beer and football, mostly).  In the course of these travels, I’ve accumulated some observations about Madison that I’d like to share.

This may be the inaugural post of an occasional series documenting my various Upper Midwestern excursions.  I travel fairly often but thanks to a combination of full-time employment and neurotic antipathy toward air transportation, my travel is mostly limited to Minnesota and neighboring states.  Madison is a particularly suitable city to kick off this series since it has implemented a number of experimental streetscaping techniques.  I’m going to start off with something more basic, though:

Why does UW feel so much more urban than the U of M?

Don't fence me out

The Twin Cities metro is around six times larger than the Madison metro, but somehow the UW campus feels urban in a way that the U of M doesn’t.  Madison’s main shopping street is State Street, which gradually accumulates more and more academic function until it terminates at the University’s Bascom Mall.  This side-by-side, close-knit nature is in contrast to the U of M, which literally fences itself off from Dinkytown.  Only a handful of University uses penetrate the half-mile perimeter trench that is University Ave between 11th and 17th Aves, and while everyone thinks of Dinkytown as the University Neighborhood, it doesn’t look terribly different from any other Minneapolis neighborhood if the streets happen to be deserted of the maroon-clad denizens.  The West Bank and St Paul campuses are a bit more integrated with their surrounding neighborhoods, in that they’re only separated by a broad lawn or parking lot rather than an actual fence.  Probably the area that is most integrated with its surroundings is Stadium Village, which is gradually being annexed by the University.  There you’ll find a few commercial buildings sharing a block with the University’s IT department, for example, in a coziness that wouldn’t be out of place in Madison but which the U of M apparently finds uncomfortable, as evidenced by their decades-long effort to demolish the neighborhood.

College kids getting high

But it’s not just proximity to the city that makes UW feel urban – even when you can’t see any building without a UW logo on it, you often still feel like you’re in a city.  The reason is right above you – buildings on the UW campus are tall.  UW has a cool interactive campus map tool where you can click on any University building and there will be a tiny little sketch of it, which gives you a sense of the heights of campus buildings (bing works too).  I encourage you to look around on those mapping sites, because the best confirmation I could find for my perception was Emporis, which lists 71% of UW buildings as being more than 6 stories as opposed to only 16% of U of M buildings (including St Paul).  The caveat?  Emporis only lists 34 UW buildings, but they list 102 U of M buildings.  So it may give a truer picture of the U of M campus than the UW campus.

Too close for comfort

Besides height, it seems like UW’s buildings have narrower setbacks, which reinforces the street wall and gives a more urban feel.  This first came to my attention with the Pres House apartments, only 10 feet from their namesake church, but neither of those are official campus buildings.  Still, there are plenty of buildings on the UW campus that are 30′ apart – too many to list here.  They would likely no longer be standing if they were on their western counterpart campus; the U of M tore down Wesbrook this summer for the crime of standing 35′ from Northrup.  And many of the close-standing UW buildings aren’t as ancient as Wesbrook, suggesting the UW administration doesn’t think an urban campus is a bad thing.

Or were they just drunk when they signed off on the site plan?  What accounts for the differences between the campuses?  Why does the U of M seek out a simple, park-like atmosphere while UW is content with the complex geometry of an urban campus?  I have no idea, but  wild guess is that geography was a prime contributor – UW’s location very near to Madison’s downtown and smack in the line of a primary growth axis for that city both restrained campus expansion (UW is now about a third of the area of the U of M, though they were likely originally about the same size) and allowed denser buildings to fit in with the surroundings.  The U of M’s more suburban location allowed for easier campus expansion and required more suburban building styles to match its streetcar suburb neighbors.

But I’d like to throw out a wilder guess:  I’ve noticed development throughout SE Wisconsin that seems denser that comparable developments around the Twin Cities.  Buildings seem taller, closer together and more fancifully adorned – while most of this is within a suburban context; by which I mean what in the Twin Cities would be a football field-sized parking lot is a soccer field-sized parking lot in SE Wisconsin.  (A small distinction, maybe, but I’ll take what I can get.)  Could this be the influence of that nearby modern megalith, Chicago?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just reading too much into the sheen that often accompanies new sights.  Maybe a Madisonian visiting the U of M would make similar observations.  Maybe I was just thrown off-balance by the presence of hills.  In that case, expect a couple more posts of unreliable observations, including one touching on a bike facility that makes a cameo in one of the above pictures.

10th Avenue Freeze Out

Seems like the whole world walking pretty

And you can’t find the room to move

Well everybody better move over, that’s all

-The Boss

There’s a road over there on the north end of Downtown, or maybe on the south end of the Northside.  Nobody very much goes there, unless they’re looking for some vintage clothes, or maybe some cheap hand-me-downs from Target.  Unless your office is on this street, you poor souls walk this road every day.

Typical 10th Ave N

On one of those walks I saw a machine running towards me.  It was a truck like a mountain, piled high with teenagers looking bored.  This machine was painting lines on the street, turning it from a dusty speedway into something a little more like home, something you can live on.

Another day another dollup

Except that at first the bike lanes were more like something you can park on.  Then about a month after the painting truck came through, a crew came along to change the signs.  It didn’t change much for one stubborn guy though, who still parks in front of his house every morning, even though there’s a place for him not in a bike lane just around the corner.

So now it seems the whole street’s biking pretty.  But I still can’t find the room to walk.  They even got little pictures of bikes on one section of pavement.  Not 10 yards away, a busy crosswalk is just a worn spot on the pavement.  No zebra.  No stop line.  This in the city whose policy is to always mark crosswalks at signalized intersections.

Stop me if you've heard this before

A few steps down, 10th Avenue gets between an office building and its parking lot.  Each morning and night you can see people running across, hurrying even if they’d rather take it slow.  Some of us like to dream about marked crossings even when there’s no light, but for now the city just says no.

Portland would mark it

Not long after that, the sidewalk ends.  This end doesn’t whimper, it explodes with weeds as tall as trees and sand dunes that sweat you like the sahara.

Here's where that crossing would have come in handy

Money comes up from Washington looking for people who move without motors, but it seems you still need a machine to get it.  Out of millions of dollars, all but a few pennies went to bikes.  The night is bright, but the sidewalk’s dark, and maybe one of these days the city’s gonna get the picture.