The last 16 years of Minneapolis bikeways in one seizure-inducing gif

I posted the following map on streets.mn today, which I’d made from a powerpoint presentation to the Transportation & Public Works committee a few weeks ago:

MplsBikeways1997-2003

It’s amazing to look back at 2001, when I started riding, and see how few lanes there were. We got by somehow, but it wasn’t easy or much fun at all. I made extensive use of all the contraflow lanes that used to be downtown, on Marquette & 2nd and on Hennepin. The former worked pretty nice actually, and in a lot of ways were better than the current Marq-2 configuration (in that there was actually accommodation for bikes). But the Hennepin lanes, which I guess you could call an “on-street, unprotected cycletrack”, were among the more terrifying facilities I’ve ridden. If you were heading towards the river you would nearly always overtake a car waiting to turn left, proceeding on a wing and a prayer that the driver was paying attention to what was behind them as well as what was in front of them. Even the pathetic green lanes are better than that, and the 1st Ave protected lanes are mostly much better.

Today’s network is much more impressive, especially on the Northside and around the U. But still much of the city has merely nominal facilities, like Linden Hills and Far Southwest or Northeast, and Nokomis and Longfellow have none at all. Additionally, most of the lanes are unprotected and the MPD shows little or no interest in enforcing them, so riding in a lane means frequent detours into general traffic lanes. On a recent Monday afternoon (not yet rush hour) ride on the 1st & Blaisdell facilities, I encountered six obstructions in about two miles. At that point you fail to have useful facilities.

Minneapolis has devoted a lot of wind energy (i.e. words) to making Minneapolis a great biking city, and these maps could be used as evidence that the plan is succeeding. But the conditions on the street don’t show significant improvement from 2001, and unless either the protected bikeways goal is vastly exceeded (30 miles represents only about 15% of the current, inadequate total bikeway mileage) or Minneapolitans get a lot nicer about respecting bike lanes, biking in Minneapolis will remain a much better talking point than a lifestyle.

 

 

Why isn’t anyone talking about an Olson Memorial Bikeway?

Some people think that Minneapolis has more than enough off-street bikeways. I’m not one of those people. Though I’ve been cycling the mean, car-choked streets of this city for over ten years, I’m never more comfortable on two wheels than when I’m on one of our off-street trails. Streets are intrinsically pervasive, so there are only so many opportunities for off-street infrastructure, and I’m not holding out for the day when the entirety of all my trips are in the comfort of an off-street bikeway.

But where there is potential for development of an off-street bikeway, it should be snatched up. That’s why I’m puzzled that no one has mentioned the idea of building a bikeway along Olson Memorial Hwy. It should be a no-brainer – long segments of this road have wide open space buffers along them that are currently used for absolutely nothing (with the exception of one pigeon perch). Where the open space buffer (obviously intended as future interchange space) is missing, there’s a 30′ wide frontage road, which can easily give up 10′ for a two-way lane separated with candlestick bollards (the aerial google had up as of this writing shows exactly 8 parked cars on the 4500′ of frontage road on the south side of the highway west of I-94). So substantial segments of this bikeway (around half) would be separated enough to have the feel of an off-street bikeway.

morgan-knox olson bikeway

The I-94 overpass is a trouble spot, as MnDot built it with 105′ of roadway and only 15′ for sidewalks (7.5′ on each side). There is a significant amount of right-turning traffic onto the frontage roads on either side, though, so it seems like one of the through lanes could be converted into a second right turn lane, allowing the through lane on the overpass itself to become a two-way lane. The eastbound outside lane appears to be 14′ wide, which would allow a nice buffer.

i-94 overpass olson bikeway

East of I-94 it gets a bit tighter. The open space buffers are ample for the first block, but after that it’s hampered by a bank drive thru on the north and another road on the south. Still, there are options here. In the short term, one of the lanes from the horrible frontage road stump of Royalston can be used for a two-way cycle track. If some engineer demands two lanes at the intersection, the center line can be moved and one eastbound lane reallocated to westbound (or whatever direction you want to call it). Royalston, after all, gets by with one lane in each direction for the rest of its short length, so it should be fine here. In the long term, however, this area should be reconfigured so that the frontage road stump of Royalston no longer exists. Here’s my idea for how to do that, or here’s what the Southwest Transitway Station Area Planning process came up with.

olson royalston bikeway

A curb cut will need to be built to connect to and across 7th St, probably using the huge porkchop island to cross into the HERC block. At that point it’s within the boundaries of the Interchange project, another long stretch of government-owned land that seems to have been planned with no consideration of locating bike facilities there. It’s been hard to find a detailed or consistent site plan for this project, but this one is the latest I know of. There appears to be a good chunk of open space, probably underneath a future Bottineau viaduct, on which to site a 12′ trail approaching from the west. Depending on how the grades end up working, the trail could then share space with one of the redundant motor vehicle access points, leaving only a short gap of what is presumably open space to connect to another motor vehicle access point. There may be a few tight squeezes here, but brain power is cheaper and usually even easier than buying power, so overall this is an excellent opportunity.

Moving across 5th St, it would have been nice to reserve some space on the Shapco block for bikeway, but it seems that they needed to maximize the amount of grey and beige they could fit on that site. There should be enough space on 5th Ave N, though, as the existing roadway is about 50′ wide. That leaves room for 18-19′ thru + parking lanes (the existing parking lanes are 8-9′ wide) with 12′ for a two-way bikeway with a bollarded buffer. The tricky part here is the rough paving surface – it looks like it’s just asphalt that’s been laid on top of brick haphazardly throughout the years. Hopefully they could do another layer on top for a temporary fix, but if not, it’ll be a long wait before the street is reconstructed since it’s not on the CLIC report at all.

5th-ave-n

The next segment is most iffy part of the whole proposal. The bikeway would need to cross the huge chasm created by the I-394 stump and the Cut. There is, of course, an existing pedestrian bridge, but it’s only 6 or 7′ wide, so would either need to be a dismount zone (yeah right) or extensively modified. It may be possible to cantilever the existing ped bridge – I don’t have a solid grip on this process, but I believe it has been done on this type of bridge (concrete girder) before. If 5′ could be added, it would still be a bit narrow, but doable. Unfortunately no amount of cantilevering will fix the squeeze point at 2nd Ave N, where the ped space is shoehorned into 6′ between a building and a concrete wall. I’m hopeful that eventually the road space allocated to the viaduct here can be reduced, especially since much of it seems to be going to a merging lane that ends before long anyway, but that is certainly a long-term prospect.

After that we’re in the home stretch. 3rd & 4th Sts already comprise a bikeway known as the Hiawatha Trail extension. I can’t leave well enough alone, or rather, I think we deserve better, so I would advocate for protected facilities here to replace the existing paint stripe. Any type of protection will do, but I have a thing for the type of curb-separated two-way bikeway popularized in Montreal (and since spread to Seattle). These are generally better than protected one-way lanes because of their size (i.e. 14′ or so rather than 8′ or so). This makes them more visible, which makes them more legible to users, easier to understand and avoid for other roadway users, and it also makes it possible to plow with standard equipment.  When the alternative would be a one-way protected lane on each roadway of a one-way couplet, it also is more legible in that you can just assume the facility is on one street rather than have to keep track of which direction is on which street.

I’m not aware of any near-term plans to rebuild 3rd St, so it would have to be retrofitted to handle this facility. This can be done by reducing it to two traffic lanes, which should be done throughout Downtown to maximize the comparative advantage of transit, biking and walking (Minneapolis has an extremely high private car mode share for its job density). Then lanes can be slimmed to provide about 15′ for a two-way bikeway with a candlestick bollard buffer.

3rd-st-retrofit

When the street is reconstructed, the sidewalks should be widened to at least 15′ to accommodate the streetlife that hopefully will someday exist here. Then a parking lane should be dropped, since terminal facility availability and cost are a big part of that crazy huge private car mode share. We still have room for an ample bikeway, with two through lanes and a parking lane to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. 3rd-st-rebuiltIf all the elements I’ve discussed here are carried out, Minneapolis could have a high-quality, low-stress, legible bikeway bisecting the city. Cyclists would have a comfortable, no-turn ride from Wirth Park to Minnehaha Park. Even if the connection over I-394 and the Cut are found to be unfeasible, a bikeway along Olson would still connect to the wide bike lanes on 7th St, providing an excellent route through Near North. But none of that will happen until the conversation starts, and maybe I’ve done that with this post.

Minnehaha and the sad state of Twin Cities streets

Today on streets.mn I write about Hennepin County’s half-assed new design for Minnhaha Ave, and their pathological use therein of one of the dopiest beasts in my menagerie of pet peeves: bus pull-outs. On probably one out of every four bus trips I take, I witness some schlub motoring recklessly around a bus and into some crosswalk, careless about the pedestrians that might be there that he or she has no way of seeing. That’s every other day I witness this personally, and spend most of my time on the bus staring at a piece of paper covered in ink markings.

There are other horrors of the roadways that I experience on a daily basis in Minneapolis. Related to the Crosswalk Plunge described above is the Half-cocked Hook, where a motorist completes most of a turn but slams on the brakes right before entering the crosswalk that’s occupied by a pedestrian that the motorist didn’t care to look for. This happens to me daily. Literally every day. Of course I already described in probably my greatest ever piece of writing that slimy piece of human garbage known as the Crosswalk Creep. I encounter this scum I would say once or twice per mile of walking.

All of this adds up to some truly terrifying (in the literal sense) and constantly frustrating walking conditions in Minneapolis. So why not just ride a bike? Well, because I encounter at least one bike lane blockage per ride. At least one driver buzzes me per ride. And on top of that, bikes also have to deal with Half-cocked Hookers who have no idea how to judge the speed of a cyclist so they delay their turn until just when the cyclist is entering the intersection. On a bike I probably get that every second or third ride.

This is not an inherent quality of city life. I’ve walked in countless cities that are more congested but don’t make me fear for my life with every step. This is an inherent quality of living in one of the most sprawling cities on earth, where there are entire municipalities of people who think it’s their god-given right for the government to provide them with an unclogged road to anywhere they want to go with a free, easy to find parking space at the end of it, and without having to pay a dime in taxes for it. That’s why a bike lane here and a bump-out there isn’t good enough. No, when the walking is deadly and the biking is deadly and the buses are only good for homeless shelters, but the streets are kinda bumpy, you don’t take new revenue and put it into filling potholes. At least you don’t if you’re a leader with integrity. You put it into the modes that have been marginalized and underfunded for decades. At least you do if you’re a leader with integrity.

That’s why it’s frustrating when there’s an opportunity to entirely rebuild a street, because that’s exactly when they should be optimizing streets for these historically marginalized modes. But instead we see stuff like the design for Minnehaha, which is much better for pedestrians, about the same for bikes, and much worse for buses. There has been some progress in the last 10 years, but we’re coming from way behind, so we can’t afford to let any opportunity pass us by.

Giveth and Taketh Away

A pleasant surprise awaits weary crossers of the Plymouth Bridge, after many months of narrow laned, jersey barriered tribulations, as they drift down the gentle sand plain bluff:

DSCN2651[1]

What’s that in the distance? Through the hazy heat lines of a brutal Minnesota summer I think I glimpse an oasis on that bridge:

DSCN2653[1]

These are easily some of the most badass bike lanes in the city. They took one of the four previously-existing 12′ lanes on this bridge, made 1-2′ of it into a big ole candlestick bollard buffer, cut off a good 4′ of that heinous gutter pan, and left a solid 6′ of riding space.

DSCN2656[1]

Such a quality facility should not exist in a void, so it’s too bad that the City didn’t put in sharrows or advisory lanes on 8th Ave NE when they resurfaced it last year. At the very least they should extend the lanes to the lanes at Marshall. The roadway appears to be 44′ there, which makes it a bit tight, but surprise surprise the parking on the north side of the street is rarely used, fronting as it does two blocks’ worth of parking lots. Would it really be a big deal to cut the parking on the north side of the street and extend these awesome lanes to Marshall?

…Taketh away

Just because I can’t be entirely complimentary, here are also photos of a cop cam taking up the entirety of the bike lane on University on Frat Row:

DSCN2635[1]

I’m all for spying on frat houses (although this cam was strangely aimed at the U’s new pseudo-frat dorm), but maybe they could have used one of those three through lanes? Or how about that sod farm to the right? To be fair, the bike lane symbols have long since warn away here, so maybe officer Bulleigh from Andover just assumed this was a shoulder, not a bike lane.

If Washington Ave doesn’t deserve bus lanes, what does?

According to Hennepin County, around 7,500 bus riders will travel on Washington Ave at peak hour (4:30-5:30 PM) between Hennepin and 35W on an average weekday in the year 2035. For some perspective, that’s about the same amount of cyclists estimated to ride the Washington Ave Bridge on a typical day, which is the busiest location for cyclists in Minneapolis. To be honest, I’m not really sure where Hennepin County got that number, but they mention something about Metro Transit estimating 30 passengers on an average peak hour bus, and if that’s true, that means around 5,000 riders are commuting by bus on this segment of Washington at peak hour today, which would seem to rival the number of cars.

These numbers are fuzzy, obviously, but it seems clear that a large number of people are riding transit on Washington Ave. So why isn’t Hennepin County proposing a layout that would benefit that mode? In fact the four proposed layouts actually make things worse for transit by moving most bus stops to right-turn lanes, where they face the delay of having to pull in and out of general traffic, and where riders face the safety threat of vehicles turning right around the bus.  Besides the sheer number of existing transit trips, there are other reasons that a responsible analysis of options for Washington Ave would include dedicated bus lanes, which I’ll detail below.

Preparing for battle

Preparing for battle

The Gateway Ramp is a major bus layover facility. Part of the fuzziness of the bus rider numbers above, I think, is that they assume average occupancy for the buses running on Washington, about half of which actually pick up and drop off most of their passengers on Marquette or 2nd, so run mostly empty on Washington as they access the Gateway Ramp to lay over. Even if they’re not carrying passengers on Washington, though, it is important to the passengers they pick up later that they not encounter congestion, so their eventual passengers will benefit from dedicated facilities that allow them to be picked up reliably. In addition, the Gateway Ramp has been apparently been designated as a layover facility for an unspecifiedly enormous number more buses so that the City can do what it wants with the Nicollet Hotel block. That likely means that 30-60 additional buses will be soon be traveling on Washington between the Gateway Ramp and Hennepin Ave, relying on a congestion-free route to deliver timely service. (The Gateway Ramp is also a convenient place for the up to 6,000 employees in Ryan’s recently proposed development to catch an express bus.)

Clustering transit and providing dedicated lanes on Washington will maximize the impact of transit investment, create a more legible system, and improve route spacing. Hennepin County’s analysis provides a depiction of the bird’s nest of transit routes on Washington:

Page 13 from DRAFT Traffic Operation Analysis - Apr2013This diagram should set off alarms at Metro Transit. If transportation engineers need to create a diagram like this to understand the network structure, what chance does a lifelong suburbanite retiree who just bought a condo on Washington have? Bus lanes would offer reassurance to confused riders that yes, they can catch a bus on this street. If Metro Transit were to use the bus lanes for its various archaically routed local services that use Washington for a portion of their trip already, it would be able to focus shelter improvement money on this one street instead of spreading it between several (not that there is any apparent shelter improvement on the downtown segments of these routes currently). This would also have the effect of maximizing frequency (a rider traveling between 7 Corners and Hennepin could catch any of 3 routes), adding legibility (riders would not have to memorize where the 7 & 22 turn off of Washington), and spacing (the thousands of new housing units being added to the Mill District face a long walk to convenient transit service).

These advantages are recognized and supported by the City of Minneapolis, which recommends reorganizing downtown transit to cluster along three corridors they call spines (a biological metaphor that becomes less apt the more spines you have). The buses running closest to the riverine edge of downtown are left as they lay, probably out of inertia. Yet these services would benefit from “spining” too, and perhaps more, since lower-frequency services will gain more from higher effective frequencies due to clustering. I have made a table of the number of buses at the peak hour on Washington Ave by segment and direction, based on data from Hennepin County, but adding a spine scenario, which assumes the 3 and the 7 proceed along the length of the corridor and the 22 travels on Washington east of Hennepin (it also adds the 14 west of Hennepin as it travels today but was not included in the Hennepin County data for some reason; I’d add that it may make sense to add the 14 to this spine west of Chicago or 11th Ave S).

pm peak bus load avg headway washingtonIn the segment where reconstruction is imminent (outlined on the table), average headways are expected to be three minutes or less at peak hour in 2035, and are currently under one minute for all but one block in the westbound direction. The spine scenario brings average headways in each direction to under 3 minutes, and by 2035 both directions of Washington will carry a bus  less than every 2 minutes. These are really substantial bus volumes, unlikely to be exceeded by any Nicollet Mall, Hennepin, or the main E-W bus spine. So why are those streets candidates for bus facilities (even if they’re half-assed ones), but not Washington?

Of course, most of this service could cluster on 3rd or 4th Sts instead of Washington, but those seem to have fewer advantages and more disadvantages. Briefly, Washington connects better to the remainder of the routes on the east and west ends, which means less delay caused by turning. 4th St is an awkward distance from the LRT stations on 5th St, too far for first-time users to see the transfer stop from the station, and also too far to really work as combined effective frequency, yet not spread enough for the larger portion of downtown to benefit. Washington is convenient to the two fastest-growing neighborhoods in the state, and with this effective frequency could provide easy access for the residents of these new dense buildings to regional transit (LRT or Highway BRT). Finally, in order to fit (ideally two) bus lanes on 3rd or 4th, you need a curb-t0-curb width that leaves too little space for sidewalks. Currently the sidewalks are reduced to 10-12′ on these streets, whereas the wider right-of-way on Washington would allow for ample sidewalks in addition to the bus facilities.

But assuming we continue our practice of ignoring the huge current use and future potential of bus transit, why should we prioritize transit rather than bikes or cars? Well, Washington is actually not as connective for cars & bikes. OK, there are a pair of big freeways on the each side of Downtown that make it a convenient route for cars, but even those are duplicated by other exits a few blocks away (or will be soon). In terms of surface connections, it’s also not very useful for cars. As I’ve argued before, and as residents tend to agree, Cedar is inappropriate as an auto commuting route. North Washington has some destinations, but is superseded by 2nd St by the time it gets to Plymouth Ave (certainly North Loop destinations don’t generate enough car trips to justify 3 lanes).

For bikes, too, Washington is not ideal as a through route. Of course the U of M is a big destination, but to reach it from Washington you need to turn at least twice and/or carry your bike up the stairs behind Willey Hall. A better U of M connection to Downtown is CPED’s (possibly abandoned) proposal for a path in the trench that would connect to the LRT trail at Curry Park, which would maximize connectivity and have the greatest separation. Even if you could somehow create a surface route between Washington and the U of M, it would likely be slower than a trench route and the LRT trail because of the left turn and all the stoplights. Anyway, the LRT trail is likely to be at least as important a source of bike trips into downtown as the U of M (or at least that’s the goal), and Washington both connects poorly to it and is out of the way for people trying to access the core (requiring two left turns).

3rd St would work best for a regional bike facility that goes through downtown (unlike West River Parkway, which bypasses it), especially because 3rd St offers connections to the Northside that Washington doesn’t. As noted above, Washington itself kind of peters out as a frontage road to I-94 north of Plymouth Ave, but even the parts that are there will be difficult to retrofit for bike facilities – certainly it wouldn’t be able to do any better than duplicate the lanes that exist on 2nd St N. 3rd St, on the other hand, connects directly to the LRT trail on the east, and with some additional cantilevering of the sidewalk along the 4th St Viaduct could connect directly to the Cedar Lake Trail and be extended across the Cut and through the Interchange to the bike lanes on 7th St N, basically the main bike route between Downtown and the Northside (it could also connect to the off-street trail that could logically be placed along Olson Hwy, but doesn’t seem to be in anyone’s plan for some reason).

washington or 3rd bike routes

Of course people will still want to use bikes and cars to access destinations on Washington Ave. Bus lanes actually work really well for this since they are used heavily primarily at the peak hours, and at other times they can be flexed for other uses, including parking. A bus lane works much better for bikes than a general traffic lane because there are typically far more gaps between buses than cars. At rush hour on Washington you wouldn’t want to bike the length of the street, but the minute gap between buses will allow you to bike on one of the ample adjacent facilities on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th, then up one of the north-south bike routes (for example 1st, Hennepin, Nicollet, 4th, 5th, Portland, Park, or 11th), and then the one or two blocks remaining to your destination. I would suggest 16′ shared bus-bike lanes, separated by a solid white line except for the 150′ or so before right turn intersections, and symbolized by a diamond. 5-6” advisory bike lanes could be striped to guide cyclists toward the left side of the lane to minimize the amount of leap frog, and a 1-2′ mountable curb could be placed between the Shared Bus-Bike Lanes (SBBLs) and general traffic lanes to provide a buffer for cyclists and to discourage the spread of congestion by stupid or greedy motorists.

Would all this fit? For the most part, yes:

Washington_Ave_existing

Existing

SBBL configuration

SBBL configuration

You can add SBBLs and fit within the right-of-way and have sidewalk space at least as wide or wider than most of Hennepin County’s proposed layouts and what is there now. SBBLs are an ideal compromise solution that provide for the existing and future demand of cars and transit, but also provide a more comfortable space for bikes and opportunities for parking. It is a shame that Hennepin County only does planning for transportation by car instead of transportation for all, or there may have been a possibility for a holistic solution that would be appealing to a larger group rather than their special-interest focused layouts.

If a street that carries 15,000 transit passengers in a typical day – as many as some light rail lines in the US – doesn’t deserve dedicated bus lanes, what street does? Is it realistic to expect that the maybe 50 miles of light rail being developed in the Twin Cities will be able to shift the millions of daily trips here to a lower-emission mode? Buses are crucial to our current transit system and will continue to be crucial to our future transit system, which represents our best hope for achieving environmental and equity goals through transportation policy. If one of the cycle track options is built, I will certainly enjoy riding it to Grumpy’s every once in a while. But if the Washington Ave process means that the Twin Cities is just shifting from focusing all transportation planning on making it nice to drive to focusing all transportation planning on making it nice to bike, I’m taking the first bus out of here to someplace that plans transportation comprehensively, without mode bias, and with an eye towards societal goals.

 

 

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

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