Do Bloomington, don’t mind the Pedestrian Barriers

Bloomington is feeding Boehner ped-bashing fodder

John Boehner’s recent transportation reauthorization bill was quickly shrouded in a toxic vapor of controversy around elements such as eliminating dedicated transit funding, killing experiments in merit-based funding, and (not) paying for all of it with expanded oil drilling.  One of the first explosions of hate against this bill, though, came from its proposed elimination of Transportation Enhancements funding, which united bike/ped advocates with archaeologists and preservationists in a sort of hurricane of people with cool majors.

Transportation Enhancements (TE) has all sorts of cool effects, from bike lanes and crosswalks to billboard removal and railroad museums.  But like any good drug, it can be abused.  So it is with sadness that I must report on the use and abuse of TE funding in Bloomington, where the the funds meant for “Provision of facilities for bicycles and pedestrians” are being used for features labeled as Pedestrian Barriers.

Forced march

The Barriers are part of a project to build an enclosed pedestrian bridge across Killebrew Dr on the southern perimeter of the Mall of America.  $1m of the $3.6m project cost is being funded by federal Transportation Enhancements funds.  The renderings show a classy-looking skyway-like bridge that connects on one side to the new Radisson being constructed on a former mall parking ramp.  Regardless of how you feel about skyways downtown, this mall-oriented neighborhood cut through by massive six-lane divided roads seems like a pretty good spot to spend a big chunk of dough to allow pedestrians to cross over all the at-grade traffic.  Ok, but what if I don’t wanna?

The secret evil hidden in the skyway project is around 1000 feet of concrete walls referred to as Pedestrian Barriers that will close the two existing at-grade crossings of Killebrew and force pedestrians to go out of their way to use the skyway.  This means that the net effect of the project is to decrease mobility – instead of two options for crossing, pedestrians will only have one.  Applying the simple mathematical principle that one is less than two, we find that this project will require most pedestrians to walk further.

It'll never work - where are the pedestrian barriers?

Aw who cares?  No one walks in the suburbs anyway right?  I won’t disagree with you, but I would think that Bloomington would care, considering it’s trying to develop an area around the mall as a neighborhood they call South Loop.  Plans call for the neighborhood to “transform… from suburban to urban” with “mixed land use that supports additional streets to enhance circulation; higher densities of jobs and homes close to four light rail stations; and sustainable development practices that save money and support growth.”  Mostly missing from the copious planning documents for the area are walkability goals or attention to pedestrian travel, although the South Loop’s primary residential development, Bloomington Central Station, places some emphasis on walking.  Still, considering the plan’s frequent use of the word sustainability and desire to become urban or even a “third downtown,” the implication is that people will walk there.

Even Bloomington’s official definition of sustainability avoids mentioning sustainable transportation, but the city is engaged in encouraging “active living choices” for its residents through a Blue Cross Blue Shield-sponsored program called do.town, featured prominently on the municipal website.  Ironically, the do.town page features a quote from Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who notes that “barriers to healthy living are everywhere.”  I fumbled my way through an attempt to ask do.town staff whether the Public Works dept consults them before erecting Pedestrian Barriers or making other plans that would have an impact on the ability of Bloomingtonians to live actively, but I did get a nice thorough description of the benefits to pedestrians of the skyway project from engineer Julie Long:

Benefits of pedestrian bridge include a reduction in pedestrian exposure to vehicles while providing for uninterrupted flow of pedestrians across the roadway.  Currently about 110 pedestrians cross the six to eight lanes of Killebrew Drive during the Saturday p.m. peak hour.  On numerous weekends, during the holiday shopping season and during special events the Bloomington Police Department staffs the intersection of 20th and 22nd Avenues with Killebrew Drive to ensure that vehicles and pedestrians can move through the area safely.  The Bloomington Comprehensive Plan shows growth in the South Loop District which will correspond to an increase in both motorist and pedestrian traffic.  It is expected that as the traffic grows in the area this would need to be a more frequent occurrence to facilitate safe passage in the area.

Concern also exists with illegal mid block crossings observed because they violate what the motorist is expecting and increase the risk to the pedestrian.  This is especially a concern given many drivers in the area are not as familiar with the road system since they may be from out of town and can be focused on trying to see where to go instead of watching for pedestrians.  Also, motorists using the exit ramps have just left the freeway environment where they were traveling faster and may not have fully adjusted to driving slower and looking for pedestrians.  The pedestrian bridge provides for separation of these conflicting movements.

The project also includes the installation of a pedestrian barricade to help reduce the number of illegal mid block crossings and encourage use of legal crossings at 24th Avenue and the pedestrian bridge.  The pedestrian bridge will be a covered walk way that protects people from the elements.  The bridge will also moderate the temperature outside by approximately 10-20 degrees so that it will be a little warmer in the winter to cross and a little cooler in the summer to cross, but it will not be a fully heated/cooled space like a skyway would be.  The City has also heard from a handicapped user that he believes this facility will help him more safely cross Killebrew since it is fully ADA compliant.  In his wheelchair he is lower than a pedestrian that is standing so sometimes motorists do not see him as he is crossing.  Another component of the project includes additional signage to not only direct pedestrians to the new pedestrian bridge, but also to facilities like the Mall of America Transit Center which is located in the east parking ramp of the mall.

Sure, all of those things are benefits, but the only one contingent on closing the grade crossings is the savings of staff time for traffic control.  I don’t disagree that there are benefits to a skyway for pedestrians in wheelchairs, but most pedestrians will see little or no benefit to crossing above the street, and if instead of building a skyway they had used the $3.6m to make Killebrew more pleasant to cross, many more users would have seen a benefit.  Killebrew Dr is an enormous road with three lanes in each direction and several turn lanes at each intersection, so this project is basically turning a quasi-freeway into a de facto freeway.  But there are also intersections around every 500 feet – comparable to a long block in Minneapolis – so it’s never going to be a “easy” drive.  Despite the extreme congestion described in Julie’s comments, Killebrew only handles around 20k cars a day, but less than half of that continues past the mall.  It seems like $3.6m would have bought a lot of medians to distinguish turn lanes and to refuge pedestrians, as well as contextualizing features (i.e. colored pavement at crosswalks or possibly street parking with bump outs) that would help drivers adjust to the fact that they’re no longer on a freeway.

The pedestrian-removal Transportation Enhancement skyway project is actually Bloomington’s second strike in the area.  Last year the state gave them $15m for Phase 1 of the Lindau Lane Complete Street project.  Sounds nice except Phase 1 is actually the construction of a quasi-freeway of Lindau Lane on the north side of the Mall of America, which means that Phase 2, the version of Lindau Lane to the northeast of the mall, will never work.  Think about it – if a car is going 50 mph west of 24th Ave, how included will bicyclists and pedestrians feel sharing the portion of Lindau east of 24th with that car?  If the eastern portion of Lindau is ever funded it will be a perversion of the concept of complete streets and evidence A for the case that complete streets are greenwashing.

If these megaprojects come through, Bloomington is going to have to build a lot more pedestrian barriers

But Bloomington will have to figure it out sooner or later.  Right now the Mall of America is the only land use intensive enough to generate enough pedestrian traffic to justify spending big bucks to remove them from the roadway.  But Bloomington has big plans to become the third downtown mentioned above, so their pedestrian problem is only going to get worse.  The Senate just passed a transportation bill with Transportation Enhancements intact, giving the program a good chance of survival, but there is only so much money in the pot for pedestrian barriers.  The South Loop is a great candidate for a third downtown – it’s relatively central and has a spectacular location on the bluffs of the Minnesota – but so far Bloomington is headed more for Downtown Disney than any real downtown.

PRT or PBT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the world through blue-and-yellow glasses

Google StreetView is probably the best thing that ever happened to any urban-planning nerd.  For example, take my recent discovery of the Ikea in Melbourne, Australia:

Part of a mall called Victoria Gardens, the street frontage is dominated by a parking structure, but is nonetheless pedestrian-friendly (even including a sheltered walkway!) and a bike lane rolls right in front.  Contrast this with the Ikea in Minneapolis:

Located in the crotch of two freeways, this Ikea has a wide moat of parking and then a double-deck of parking.  But pedestrians would be lucky to get that far, because first they have to deal with six lanes of traffic (most of which think they are already on the freeway) and intermittent sidewalks.

It was surprising to me to discover an urban Ikea, as the other Ikeas I’ve known have all been auto-oriented big boxes – and that includes the Ikea in Oslo, Norway, which we frequented for its affordable food (a hot dog for less than $5!).  My knowledge of Ikea history is not extensive enough to know whether Ikea Melbourne was an experiment in urbanism that Ikea hasn’t pursued further or whether Ikea Melbourne represents the future of Ikea – I hope it’s the latter, as I’ve always taken with a grain of salt my girlfriend’s insistence that Ikea is a mega-corporation with a conscience.