Why I hate the suburbs

The suburbs appear to be furtively resuming their six-decade binge of eating up productive farmland and scenic woodlands and prairies on the now vast fringe of the Twin Cities metro.  That’s a real bummer, because the predatory weasels who build this crap with very few exceptions don’t give a fig about walking, biking or transit.

They should, because for the most part they end up building places that are dense enough to be walkable & bikeable (if not transitable usually).  Following the pattern of the most recent wave of suburban development set at the close of WWII, these developers throw down houses with little regard (sometimes disdain) for how they fit into the context of the surroundings, leaving municipalities to deal with the expensive, patchy mess they leave.  Most municipalities are unable or unwilling to rise to that challenge, so the suburbs of today are vast, leafy green, packed with jobs and tempting shops, and impossible to access without a car.  Many of us carless hoped that the recent recession was a cleansing fire, but I don’t think we have proof of that yet and apparently people who work at Harvard agree with me.

So the blast from the past Toll Brothers is about to shoot into Eden Prairie is unwelcome, familiarly stunning in its brazen capitalism and lack of interest in how its marks are going to actually live in the $600k paper fantasy being sold to them.  The plan is for 52 single family homes on 30-40 acres wedged into what is being sold as a conservation area.  Enormous, nearly artless houses will surround streets that follow the typical winding, stunted, disjointed suburban pattern.  There will probably be sidewalks, but people are as likely to walk on them as they are likely to drive on a freeway that doubles back on itself.  Luckily, the Toll Brothers development, called Eden Prairie Woods, isn’t such a twisted wretch that you can’t connect much of it into effective city blocks with multi-use paths, as I did using red lines in Paint:

The developers are kind enough to promise “hiking/biking trails” but as they are not depicted in the site plan, I’m assuming those are being planned only for the “conservation area.”  If trails do end up in the neighborhood itself, my guess is they’ll look something like this:

In other words, completely useless for transportation.  But is it even possible to bike and walk anywhere around here?  The site plan makes it look like these houses will be in the middle of a vast unpopulated jungle, far from the cares and worries of having neighbors or sometimes seeing homeless people.  Actually, Eden Prairie Woods is about a quarter-mile from this:

Though it’s a small island in a sea of sprawl, it’s probably big enough to warrant some neighborhood retail to which Eden Prairie Woods residents could (theoretically) also walk to.  Also potentially walkable for potential Eden Prairie Woodsians?  The Lions Tap, legendary burger joint of the Minnesota River suburbs (about a half mile away).  Woodsians could also potentially walk to an enormous church and an enormous park, which both affix to the southeast corner of the intersection of Pioneer Trail and Eden Prairie Road about a mile away.  At the upper range of walking distance are the jobs clustered around Flying Cloud Airport (1.5 mi), but if the future Woodsians are willing to climb on a bike, they could easily ride there or a bit further to classes at Hennepin Tech (2.5 mi) or a gazillion jobs and shops around Eden Prairie Center (~4 mi).

The point is not that if only they’d lay down a few strips of asphalt, the residents of Eden Prairie Woods would all sell their cars, or even their second cars.  The point is that no one is even going to try to occasionally walk or bike for transportation if there is no reasonable way to do it.  If their only options are a few curly-cue paths in the woods that don’t connect to anything, the whole family’s going to pile into their own individual cars for a trip to the Lions Tap.  But if there is a reasonably direct route, and maybe nothing good on TV that night, maybe they’ll try to walk for their burgers on occasion instead.

There is the further tragedy that at a density of around 2 units per acre, this development is weighting the area away from ever having regular route bus service.  But what really gets my goat is that even developments like these that advertise opportunities for recreational walking and biking by design dissuade residents from doing the same for transportation.  Whether out of apathy, greed, or malice, the suburbs demand that you drive, and that’s really why I hate them.

Timing is everything

Chamberpot Days on Lyndale Ave

Many thanks to the Mpls Bike Coalition for last weekend’s Lyndale Open Streets.  It was wonderful to experience a neighborhood commercial street in Minneapolis without having to dodge cars, choke on exhaust and expose eardrums to honking, revving and screeching.  And it was surprising also to experience how wide Lyndale feels north of 31st.  Nowadays when we want to cram landscaped medians, buffered bike lanes, bump-outs, light rail and 6 left turn lanes on every street, Lyndale’s ~60′ seems confiningly narrow.  But in the days when the only thing you put in the street came out of your chamberpot, it must have felt grandiosely wide.  Maybe the reasoning was that if your street was wide enough that no shade reached the middle, the shit would dry out quicker.  Now that our streets are relatively free of shit, I’d like to propose a rule that no street be any wider than can be shaded by, say, a 20 year old boulevard tree.

But I didn’t bring up Open Streets as a launching point for a discussion of the effects of excretory matters on urban physiognomy.  I bring it up because after walking 9/10s of the round trip length of the event it brought me to Common Roots at the precise moment that I was thirsty for a beer and ready to sit down, and Common Roots had free copies of The Wedge, the tiny little newspaper for the confusingly-named Lowry Hill East neighborhood.  And inside that tiny newspaper was a tiny column called Pedestrian Improvements on Hennepin Avenue by CM Tuthill about how the people have spoken and she has listened to “the difficulty pedestrians have crossing streets in Uptown.”  And that column inspired this post, titled with a pun but really a collection of some stuff I’ve wanted to say about traffic signal timing/programming for a while.

Leading pedestrian interval

If you think the salon’s in rough shape, you should see the two pedestrians

CM Tuthill’s column highlights the concrete action Public Works is taking to address the aforementioned pedestrian difficulties – leading pedestrian intervals at the intersections of Hennepin Ave with Lake and Lagoon Sts.  CM Tuthill describes it thusly:

The Leading Pedestrian Interval gives pedestrians the walk signal 3-5 seconds before the green signal for [vehicular] traffic.  Pedestrians get a head start on crossing the street and become established in the crosswalk before vehicles begin moving.

I couldn’t tell from the article whether this pattern is in operation yet, but I’m looking forward to trying them out. These intersections are both terrifying, with the one at Lake infamous for the frequency with which cars crash into the salon at the northeast corner.  My guess is that the biggest improvement will be at Lagoon, where cars turning right from Hennepin to Lagoon were somehow able to see a red light as a green arrow.  Email 311 to tell them how great leading pedestrian intervals are and how they should be used at every intersection with a right turn lane.

Loser pedestrian interval

Push this and hurry

On the other hand, there are still lots of intersections with loser pedestrian intervals.  These give pedestrians a don’t walk hand way before the light turns red.  There is actually a somewhat legitimate reason to do this on a very wide road in order to halt pedestrians when their continued crossing after the signal changes would cut too deep into the next phase.  Almost no streets in Minneapolis and St Paul are wide enough for this and more common are examples like Glenwood & Royalston, at the heart of Minneapolis’ Homeless District. At this fairly narrow street – with a refuge median –  a beg button must be pushed before you even get to suffer the indignity of the signal timing, which gives twice as much time to the don’t walk time as it gives to the walk and flashing don’t walk combined (40 seconds vs 10 and 10).

This leads me to speculate about the causes of this sort of affront to pedestrians.  The beg buttons at Glenwood & Royalston were actually faux buttons until recently.  This means one of two things:

  1. The signal technology is so crude that it only allows certain heinous types of programming (think about the enormous signal cabinets you see at the side of the road to house the computers that control traffic lights and then think about an iPod Nano); or
  2. Someone actually designed it to be this way.

I shudder about equally at each of these possibilities.

Non-conflicting pedestrian walk signal

Last year I reported that only two of the 8-10 protected left turn enabled traffic signals on Hennepin – installed during the two-way conversion just a few years ago – gave walk signs to non-conflicting pedestrian traffic.  There is a good amount of foot traffic downtown, and holding them unnecessarily wasted time and encouraged non-compliance (already a good strategy for pedestrians in a auto-oriented one-way grid system).  The City’s zillion-dollar traffic signal programming initiative has fixed at least a few of those – the signals at 11th & 12th work now, although 9th & 10th still don’t.

Pedestrians crossing the north leg of the intersection conflict with the protected left turn, so they get a don’t walk sign. But thanks to lazy traffic engineers or inept software programmers, so do the pedestrians crossing the the south leg, who don’t conflict with a protected phase.

Same traffic pattern as above, but this time the traffic engineer actually gave some thought to pedestrians and managed to avoid wantonly wasting their time.

Imbecilic pedestrian walk signal

The intersection of 12th & Hennepin is alright now, but for the last few months it did something very unusual.  It managed to give a walk signal to non-conflicting pedestrian traffic, but the walk was active for the same amount of time as the walk for the conflicting pedestrian signal, effectively giving them a loser pedestrian interval.  In other words, the pedestrian traffic that doesn’t conflict with the protected left turn traffic gets the don’t walk signal earlier than the pedestrian traffic that does conflict with protected left turns.

This situation, and the fact that it’s subsequently been fixed, indicates to me that the source of pedestrian signal timing troubles – or “difficulty pedestrians have crossing streets” as CM Tuthill put it – is due primarily to lack of attention by traffic engineers.   It may be that the software used to program signals isn’t what you’d call user-friendly, but clearly it’s possible to program a phasing pattern that’s beneficial to pedestrians.  Let’s hope more policymakers follow CM Tuthill’s lead and put policies in place that would force traffic engineers to learn how to use their software for everyone’s benefit, not just for cars.

A less filthy version of this post appears on streets.mn.

Every street is special

If you want to ride a bike in Downtown, there’s a map for that.  If you want to catch a bus in Downtown, there’s a map for that too.  But what if you’re not sure yet if you want to bus or bike?  Wouldn’t it be useful to compare the streets where specialized facilities are dedicated to these modes (or pretendicated, in the case of Hennepin’s Green Lanes)?

Actually, if that was your goal, you might as well use Hedberg‘s amazingly comprehensive yet readable official Minneapolis Bike Map, which shows transit (although it doesn’t differentiate between Hiawatha, which is mostly separated from traffic, and a bus that runs in mixed traffic).  My goal was more theoretical – I just wanted to see at a glance which streets had been specialized for which modes.  I used Visio to alter a base map created by Public Works that was the most detailed map I could find in black & white.  Color was used to differentiate between the different modes in which the streets specialized, and line thickness was used to show degree of separation from other modes, which in Downtown conveniently corresponds to directionality (i.e. all of the separated facilities are also two-way; the old two-way bike lane on Hennepin would have been more complicated to symbolize).  I also included pedestrian specialization, which I considered to include bikes unless specifically banned (as on the typically deserted Fed plaza) or physically prevented from using the space (mostly because of stairs, like on Chicago’s connection to West River Pkwy).  Because Public Works’ attention is defaulted to car traffic, the base map included freeways in light green – luckily they are another form of specialization, but they don’t conform to my symbology.

Now that I’ve made this map of street specialization in Downtown Minneapolis, here’s some thoughts on the transportation network:

  • Downtown’s defining feature is a grid of around 20 blocks long by 10-15 blocks deep wedged into a triangular area.  Ok, that’s obvious, but you gotta start somewhere.  Also noteworthy is that the grid bends in the center-west and on the south, creating irregularities there, and is frequently interrupted along its periphery.
  • The heaviest activity is in the center of the grid, but there is intense activity throughout, with the only exceptions in an eastern area bounded by 5th & 11th Avenues and 3rd and 6th or 7th Sts, and a western area bounded by I-94, the 4th St viaduct, and I-394.
  • On average, there are ten blocks to a mile, but entry to Downtown is limited to about 12 gateways, mostly evenly distributed (about 3 to a cardinal direction) but not evenly spaced.  These gateways are created by the barrier function of the freeway ring  directly limiting access but also dividing the surrounding city into separate communities defined by freeway boundaries.  The river does something similar.
  • There is more real specialization for bikes than any other mode.  This makes sense, since people seem to like to get their bikes as close to their destination as possible rather than leave them at a central terminal and walk to their destination (people also don’t like to do that with cars, and maybe not with transit either).
  • Transit actually has more specialization than bikes if you count nominal specialization, in the form of bus stops and shelters.  There are a dizzying array of downtown streets with bus lines on them, but they aren’t really specialized because there is no advantage for transit to run there as opposed to anywhere else (a dedicated lane would be an example of an advantage).  The spread of nominally specialized transit streets is a weakness for the network, since transit benefits from clustering onto spines in order to compound frequency and increase system legibility.
  • Another caveat – looking at the map and assuming 6 lanes per freeway, there appears to be more specialized facilities for cars than for bikes.  The majority of the streets on this map also have specialized facilities for pedestrians lining them.
  • There is a huge network gap on the south end of downtown, basically from Hawthorne to Portland between 12th and 15th.  (Technically you could bike on the Loring Greenway but I rarely see that happen, maybe because you have to ride on the sidewalk to get to it.)  Do the conditions that require specialization further north not exist here, or have they just not gotten around to specializing?  The south end of Nicollet is not congested, but the high levels of transit service and use here would likely benefit from a modified transit mall, for example one that would prohibit cars from going through but allow access for parking and drop-off.  The south end of Hennepin, on the other hand, is similar to the Green Lanes segment, and the only rationale for not extending them is to allow unfettered gratification of suburbanites’ desire to drive Downtown.  In other words, Hennepin Ave south of 12th St is duplicated by 394 so there’s no good reason to continue its present prioritization of cars.  Extend the Green Lanes and enforce them.
  • Another gap basically cuts off the North Loop.  Local transit operates well there, with wide stop spacing and few stoplights, but the heavily-used transit service to the northern suburbs would benefit from exclusive lanes – I’ve mentioned before converting one of the viaducts to a two-way transitway and making the other a reversible two-lane highway.  As for bikes, the gap in the 2nd St bike lane can only be attributed to disinterest on the part of Public Works – the two blocks lacking lanes shares the same width as its neighbors with lanes.  The North Loop has actually lost bike lanes lately, as the lanes on one side of 5th Ave were converted to parking.  This neighborhood has obvious problems with street connectivity in this direction, so this lane should be restored and connected to 7th St N, maybe as part of the Interchange project.
  • The third gap is in Elliot Park, where the city is reluctant as usual to remove parking to add bike lanes.  It seems reasonable, though, to add a lane each to 7th and 8th on the stretch east of Portland where demand for turning is low.  I have also called for a transit mall on 8th St – 9th or 10th might work too.

I’d like to pin a tangential coda onto this already long-winded post.  From the above it can be gathered that there is already a great deal of specialization on Downtown streets but I’d like to add even more.  To understand why, I offer the chart below, showing that the population of Downtown as measured by the 2010 census is greater than all but 25 of the Metro’s 90-some municipalities:

Ok, so # 26 wouldn’t seem to be a big deal, except for the fact that at 2.6 sq mi Downtown is a third the size of the next smallest city on the list, Richfield.  In addition, only 5 cities on the list had a similar or higher growth rate to Downtown, which is poised to overtake Brooklyn Center, Andover, Roseville, and Richfield assuming the same growth rate in this decade.  Of course, that won’t happen, but if the first two years of this decade are any indication, it’s certain that Downtown’s growth rate will outpace all but a few of the Metro’s large municipalities.

High population in a small area means density, something that isn’t very common in the Twin Cities.  That means we should expect the transportation system to look different Downtown as well, and a reasonable response is to specialize street space so the different modes can perform their best.  Unsurprisingly I have an idea of what the ideal specialization would look like, and I’ll get around to posting that map sooner or later.