You can’t take the bus out of the Nicollet Mall


Another pie-in-the-sky idea for Nicollet Mall (from the 1973 Mpls People Mover Study)

Another pie-in-the-sky idea for Nicollet Mall (from the 1973 Mpls People Mover Study)

Today on I bemoan the lack of transit in the City’s plans for a Nicollet Mall redesign. Instead of a knee-jerk RFP looking for trendy urban design firms to put the same thing back where it is, only with sleek grey slate tiles instead of 90s-ish purple flagstones, they should have had a public process that asked looked realistically at how the Mall is being used (hint: primarily for transit), asked tough questions about its weaknesses (hint: too much surface-traffic interference, problematic passing at stops, rich people don’t like transit), and attempts to build on strengths (hint: it’s in the middle of downtown, there aren’t smelly dangerous cars everywhere).

I believe the outcome of such a process would have recommended a transit tunnel. Not only would that speed up buses by reducing interference (even after a number of stops were removed a few years ago, buses are still scheduled at an abysmally slow 6mph; the Mall’s speed limit, famously, is 10mph) but it would likely require an even further stop consolidation. That, in turn, if we dare to dream could allow enhanced stop facilities such as real-time displays and ticket vending machines, further increasing speeds. Of course, this alternative would allow for the maximum number of street-level pedestrian and public space amenities, maybe even the long-dreamed for high-quality north-south bikeway.

Not even I dare hope that any of this will ever remotely come true. The liberals in this town have had too much success talking about transit without ever doing much for it, and now they have the excuse of a streetcar sometime vaguely in the future to avoid real solutions for our real transit problems: gold-plated transit for some streets, miniature american flags for others. Anyway, dealing with our dysfunctional real world, I hope at the very least the design allows for buses to pass each other at stops. Buses that are ready to go but are forced to sit and wait for the bus in front of them may be the largest source of delays on Nicollet Mall (maybe behind gridlock). This could even be done with a curbless design. Of course it eliminates the possibility of a high-quality bikeway, which is why I prefer the transit tunnel. Seattle and its Pacific Rim geology got it done decades ago; why can’t we?

By the way, if it seems like I’m thumping on transit a lot, it’s because I am. I think transit is our best hope for a comprehensive transportation solution to the imminent existential threat of climate change, though of course increased opportunities to bike and walk will play a role (robot cars, not so much). The amazing thing is that we can get it done very quickly through better bus facilities; think a transformation of Twin Cities transportation in ten years (a 4T program?). What will it take to get people excited about buses? Neon undercarriages? Is there such a thing as a fixie bus?

Access to the Region’s Chinese/Hibachi buffet

I went to the open house last night on the most recent iteration of the project to add ramps to and from 35W on the north side of Lake St – officially and awkwardly titled I-35W Transit/Access Project, but which I’ve dubbed ARCH (Access to the Region’s Chinese/Hibachi buffet).  Since Minnescraper has tragically fallen into a coma, instead of my typical obsessively researched and revised essays (not that you could tell) I’m just going to post my unvarnished thoughts here .

History Lesson

Hibachi Buffet/Trip Generator

In the late 90s, as the internet was evolving from its primary function as a venue for competitive Happy Days trivia to a multipurpose mass media  celebrity gossi pdelivery mechanism, some entrepreneurs realized that bricks-and-mortar video rental would soon become obsolete, so they approached the City about their idea of eventually replacing a Blockbuster near the 35W/Lake St interchange with the Twin Cities’ premier Chinese/Hibachi buffet.  The City realized that demand for new restaurant would soon overwhelm existing infrastructure, so they teamed with the County, MnDot and a partnership of nearby benevolent corporations to brainstorm ways to accommodate the coming onslaught of buffetgoers.

The old Access project had some grandiose touches

They came up with a modest project that would widen Lake St to add a landscaped center median with plenty of room for turn lanes, crate a full diamond interchange at Lake and a ramp from northbound 35W to 28th St, close the ramps at 35th/36th and add a replacement with a big ole roundabout thing at 38th St, demolish the Metrodome and replace it with a retractable-roof stadium, and if there was still money left over, build a transit station at Lake.  Needless to say, they couldn’t find funding, and the project died as planning efforts shifted to meet the new capacity challenges caused by an expanding chain of suburban Hibachi grill buffets.

Then the dreaded day finally came when Blockbuster closed and was replaced by the future, to which the masses thronged.  Officials could no longer put off the needed upgrades to local crumbling infrastructure and planning for ARCH was rekindled.  And then they had an open house yesterday.


No more median on Lake it seems

So I guess the difference now is that the 35/36 exits have been dropped, and I don’t know if the Braid Bridge (where southbound 35W crosses over the northbound 35W exit to Downtown) was part of the old Access project, but it is now.  Also, the idea of widening Lake St seems to have been dropped, which is interesting because I thought that was why they left so much of Lake St unreconstructed a few years ago.  So pretty much all they’re looking at is how many ramps to add to Lake St, whether a ramp should be added to 28th, and what the transit station is going to look like.  At the open house, in addition to free cookies, they had a cool model of the project area, and most portentously an enormous roll-up layout of the option that would include a full Lake St interchange and an exit from northbound 35W to 28th.  I interpreted that as meaning that they will do a full build if they can.

The Transit Station

Perhaps it’s obvious, but I was most interested in the transit station component.  It seems they’ve settled on a side platform configuration, which I was disappointed about because center platforms are much better from a passenger’s standpoint.  It turns out that I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed – the project has an advisory committee composed of a gaggle of local interests, and they came to the conclusion that a center platform was better, too – only to be overruled by MnDot, who decided at some point that they were too afraid of an errant driver entering the station area and smacking head-on into a bus to allow it (nevermind that MnDot has operated a reversible facility on 394 for two decades without a serious incident).  The advisory committee members were understandably irked that they had spent so much time on something that had already been decided.

But after talking with a consultant at the open house, the side platforms make a lot more sense to me.  A lot of buses are going to be using this station – today there are 70-80 buses an hour at peak but it’s being designed for 90-100 buses per peak hour.  That last figure would be a bus about every half-minute on average, and the guy I talked to mentioned that entry gates don’t really work at that frequency, which I believe.  The other advantage to side platforms is they allow for wider lanes in the station (22.5′ each), making it easier for buses to pass each other.  Anyone who’s ridden Nicollet Mall at rush hour knows how important that is.

Transit so frequent your trees turn translucent

So I’ve been won over to side platforms for this station, although I still am opposed to making that the standard.  Certainly there needs to be a lot more study of Freeway BRT networks before we can choose a station design based on a freak accident that may or may not ever happen.  Considering our griddish freeway network, it seems likely that transfers are going to be crucial in a built-out Freeway BRT network, and crucial to transfers are center platform stations.  It may be that dual-side door vehicles will be needed for this reason – someone at MnDot or the Met Council needs to get off their ass and commission the study of the transit technology that they killed heavy rail transit for in the 70s, but haven’t even gotten around to thinking about yet.

The 28th Street Exit

28th Street must have some friends in high places in order to be considered for an exit.  The only point along its length where it sees more than a handful of cars a day is just east of 2nd Ave S, which is basically an extension of the exit from 35W.  If I were in charge, I’d ask for a promise of expanded employment before I built an exit there, since it seems just as easy to handle those cars on Lake St and then any of the major arterials that are spaced every 1/8th of a mile east of 35W.

26th and 28th run through some of the densest neighborhoods in town, and don’t come anywhere close to needing the capacity they’re built to.  They could each be converted to two-lane two-ways with left turn lanes at intersections and center turn lanes in the busiest segments with no loss of parking and using existing curb geometry.  The City has been ignoring the neighborhoods’ request for two-way conversions for years.  I get that in projects like ARCH the large institutions will get their way, but when they build that 28th St exit for Wells Fargo and Allina, they better build it in a way that can accommodate a two-way conversion.

24th St/Braid Bridge

1st google hit for “minneapolis skyline” is taken from the 24th st bridge

Way up on the northern fringe of the project runs 24th Street, which at 35W becomes a narrow pedestrian bridge that is the source of approximately 97% of pictures of the Minneapolis skyline.  This bridge isn’t necessarily involved with the ARCH project except that any funding for ARCH will also likely include funding for the Braid Bridge, which is pretty thoroughly ancient and also is maybe sort of awkward to merge with (source?).  The big roll-up layout of the proposed full bridge moves the Braid Bridge slightly to the north, which frees up some possibilities with 24th St that according to the consultant I spoke with have barely been explored thus far.

One possibility I heard mentioned more than once at the open house, though, was to replace the Franklin overpass with upgraded pedestrian facilities and then not replace the 24th St pedestrian overpass at all.  That would be a terrible idea.  Fair Oaks and West Phillips are two of the densest neighborhoods in the city, and they’ve been separated by a freeway for decades.  They need every bridge they can get.  I’m not aware of any standards on pedestrian bridge spacing (of course, even though we have extremely detailed official standards for slant parking).  I would say that in this kind of setting, 1/4 mile is the minimum spacing for pedestrian crossing.

Will this thing ever end?

I think the ARCH project – like the 35W Access Project that proceeded it – is one of the most interesting projects around.  Balancing the needs of basically every type of mobility in the heart of a neighborhood that’s been ravaged by past government actions, it requires sensitive proceedings of whatever government agency is unlucky enough to take it on.  And for the most part they seem to be delivering.  They say they’ll be at 30% design for the project by the middle of 2013, which means the construction will be complete in approximately 2999.  We’ll see how the project will have changed by then, after many more open houses to come.

Bottineau-no for North, part III

Here is the last of my three-part Bottineau rant, which at this point may be considered a full-fledged tirade.  Somewhat coincidentally, it arrives on the same day the Minneapolis City Council makes its recommendation for a Locally Preferred Alternative, which is more or less required by the FTA for the project to advance.  It looks like the Council has acquiesced to the LRT D1 alternative – Wirth-Olson – but with the clever stipulation that Hennepin County and Metro Transit agree to develop at least one arterial transitway through North Minneapolis along Penn, Emerson/Fremont, or West Broadway.  I’m not aware of any attempt by the city to gather their citizens’ opinions, outside of  the county-led process, but of course you can always provide input to the Bottineau project office.

My last post proposed the consideration of an LRT subway through North Minneapolis, which would do a zillion times better job of serving the heart of the Northside without the impact of a surface route, and based on our history with Hiawatha is unlikely to be as expensive as other recent American below-grade transit projects.  An LRT subway will not be considered in Minnesota – it’s just too “coastal.”  In that case, I think the best alternative for Bottineau would be BRT on West Broadway.  This was actually considered in the AA study, and scored well enough that it just barely missed the arbitrary cutoff to make it to the scoping phase.  Actually it would have probably made the cutoff (unless the cutoff was again raised to exclude it) if the AA study hadn’t penalized all BRT alternatives.  See for yourself- here is the Traveler Time Savings (in regional minutes per day) measure from page 76 of AA study:

Not enough minutes in the day

The study claims that “LRT alternatives outscore BRT alternatives on this measure because they have shorter end-to-end travel times” which is interesting because a) the BRT and LRT alternatives would follow identical alignments, and b) technically buses and trains are capable of the same operating speeds.  Because the chart above is pretty much the most detailed information in the AA study about travel times, I’m not sure how they determined that BRT alternatives would take longer than LRT in the exact same alignment.  The study also projected fewer riders for BRT alternatives, but not nearly enough fewer to explain the missing minutes.  Here is a comparison table I made using data from the AA study:

This chart teases us with a clue:  It may have had something to do with the Interchange, Hennepin County’s platitudinously named train station, which is the only point where some LRT and BRT alternatives diverged.  Specifically, D3 and D4, the former of which does significantly worse on traveler time savings, are assumed to run “on a busway parallel to the I-94 viaduct” then to turn south a block to stop at the Interchange, then proceed eventually a block back north to 4th St.  This is a terrible idea.  If they were actually thinking about how to maximize the benefits of the transportation system, D3 and D4 would have an advantage over the other alternatives because they could use the viaduct itself.

The 4th St Viaduct (should be plural, since there are actually two viaducts) is massively overbuilt.  It is two lanes in each direction, but caters primarily to peak traffic, leaving at least half the roadway underutilized at all times.  If one viaduct were made reversible, the other could be used for a two-way busway, providing a transit advantage into Downtown Minneapolis.  In addition, if the south viaduct were used, it could provide an even better, if more expensive, connection to the Northstar station than LRT would:

Which would you prefer?

The viaduct could connect directly to West Broadway with a little modification of the existing interchanges.  Basically a ramp could just be added from West Broadway to the existing ramp from I-94 to the viaduct, and then another ramp from that ramp over to the other viaduct.  It’s a bit trickier to connect the westbound viaduct to westbound West Broadway.  The Alexandrian way, depicted below, would just build a flyover from the viaduct to the 94 ramp to Washington, at which BRT could have signal priority.  Ideally the BRT viaduct would connect to I-94 so express buses could use it too, which could be done by adding a ramp going straight where the westbound ramp bends to meet Washington.  In addition to a station at the Interchange, there could be one serving the densifying North Loop at 8th or 10th Ave N.

Green is BRT, Yellow is I-94 access, Red is the relocated ramp from I-94 to Lyndale Ave

Another reason the West Broadway BRT (D4 on the chart) scored well in general is that it wasn’t really BRT, at least not east of Penn, where the alternative studied would operate in mixed traffic.  This was done to “eliminat[e] the need to disrupt traffic or remove businesses.”  Of course, disrupting traffic is to some degree the goal of developing transitways; you want to shift traffic from cars to transit vehicles.  But is disrupting traffic or removing businesses necessary to accommodate BRT on West Broadway?

As I mentioned above, West Broadway is 80′ east of Penn, and they cram in four through lanes and parking in many places.  Traffic counts hover around 20,000/day, but drops off steeply west of Emerson/Fremont, so that the counts west of Morgan are around 10k/day.  Assuming west of Girard only two traffic lanes are needed, guideway will fit there without widening even on the 75′ sections – assuming a 28′ guideway and two 11′ through lanes, 25′ are left over for sidewalks or maybe parking in some places.  East of Girard, 28′ will be needed for guideway and at least 40′ for four through lanes (suck it up, Hennepin County and MnDot, 10′ lanes works for much busier streets, even with trucks).  That means the road will need to be widened slightly (mostly 90′, but possibly 100′ at stations.)

Widening this area of West Broadway would not be like widening Penn.  Frankly, there aren’t many buildings left to destroy here.  If the widening was taken from the north side of the street east of Fremont (there should be just enough room on the block west of Fremont for 90′ with tearing down buildings – the bright side of setbacks), then switch to the south side east of Bryant, there should be room for 90-100′ without tearing down anything except the small cluster west of Emerson.

Joe Gladke, Hennepin County’s Manager of Engineering and Transit Planning, mentioned in a presentation to the Minneapolis TPW Committee that LRT and full BRT was dropped from West Broadway because of business owners’ concern over loss of parking.  That’s like being concerned over loss of sand in the Sahara.  I did a quick measurement of parking lots in the West Broadway business district and found that 16 of the 64 acres between Girard and 94, 18th and 21st are parking lots – that’s 25% of the gross area!  (And that’s not counting the 550 space lot that will be built with MPS’ new headquarters.)

Lots of lots (sorry I couldn’t resist)

So it’s possible to build reserved-guideway BRT on West Broadway that won’t disrupt traffic and will remove only a handful of businesses.  This alignment would go through the heart of North Minneapolis, serving thousands more residents, and present ample opportunities for TOD (see vast parking lot fields above).  Based on the cost estimates from the AA – where BRT generally came in at around half the cost of LRT – it would still cost substantially less than the proposed LRT alternatives.  That would allow perks like the conversion of the 4th St Viaduct to a combined reversible roadway and two-way busway, which would serve an additional high-density neighborhood and provide a benefit to the express bus network.

The lower cost of BRT would also allow both Brooklyn Park and Maple Grove to serve as termini for the same price, although the AA study didn’t find benefits commensurate to the costs of serving both branches.  I stubbornly maintain that if we’re going to spend regional money on a development-inducing transitway, it would benefit the region more to serve existing struggling activity centers like Brooklyn Center rather than provide a further incentive to fringe development.  But the other advantage of BRT, apparently unexplored in the Bottineau process, is that multiple routes with vastly different termini can branch out after using the busway, known as Open BRT.  So Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park could both be served, even if the guideway continues to Brooklyn Center, as could Plymouth, New Hope, Crystal or even Rogers.

I hope I’m not focusing on BRT because of the recent flak Hiawatha has taken from anti-transit ideologues, who nonetheless have a valid point about how expensive the line is both to build and to operate.  Central and likely Southwest serve enough high-density areas that they’re likely to better justify their costs, and since Hiawatha serves major regional destinations like the airport and the MOA it will likely benefit significantly from the network effect of three light rail lines.

Bottineau, on the other hand, doesn’t serve a major regional destination outside of Downtown Minneapolis, so it is unlikely to benefit from a network effect outside of the meager one accounted for in the AA study.  The Wirth-Olson alignment serves only one relatively high-density and high-poverty neighborhood – around Van White – and has few potential candidates for redevelopment inside the beltway.  It runs through almost three miles of parkland for chrissakes!  It just doesn’t make sense to spend a billion dollars on a transitway with that little potential.  It’s unlikely my proposal for full BRT on West Broadway will be considered in the DEIS, much less an LRT subway in North Minneapolis, but I hope that BRT stays in the running.  I want to believe in LRT for Bottineau, but it looks like BRT is a better option.

People are already walking to the future Golden Valley Road station

Bottineau-no for North, part I

I’ve always wondered how Central Corridor – running on existing right-of-way and enhancing what has long been an overburdened bus line serving thousands of low-income Minnesotans – can be compared to I-94 – which tore down entire blocks for a dozen miles to serve higher-income motorists.  Still the NAACP has been tenacious in their lawsuit against the project, which may be less of an indication of the staying power of racial issues than the depth of NIMBYism in American culture.

The Penn Alternative

That’s why it’s even more difficult to understand why the Bottineau Transitway project is still considering an alignment that would affect dozens of properties along Penn Ave.  I went to one of the recent open houses and heard the nervous queries of residents whose houses would be taken.  On top of the question of sensitivity towards racial issues in light of the history of racial iniquities perpetrated by the transportation engineering profession, the project mangers should remember that each resident is a prospective plaintiff.

All my streets, Lord, soon be widened

Not that it’s a terrible plan, if you forget that its subject area is a city in the USA with a typically long history of racial injustice.  Certainly the Northside was platted with too narrow streets – the quarter’s central artery, the inaptly name Broadway, is 80′ for only a mile east of Knox, but I believe it’s North’s widest street not counting the frontage road that is Washington Ave.  The Penn Alternative would widen the street to around 90-100′, assuming 20′ for two sidewalk/boulevards, 26′ for guideway, and 44′ for through and parking lanes.  The plan as pdfed includes some superfluous right turn lanes but otherwise is pretty close to what a quality design for an enhanced streetcar line would look like.

The biggest problem is that even the City of Minneapolis acknowledges, in its comments to the Scoping phase, that “it is not known whether [the parcels that would need partial takings for the Penn Alternative] could be redeveloped.”  Of course they could be redeveloped, especially in conjunction with the remainder of their blocks (i.e. the parcels facing Queen), but the question is whether there would be money and will.  The former is self-explanatory, the latter is a cultural issue – after a chunk of the parcels were taken for redevelopment, they wouldn’t meet the city’s “buildable” standard for single family lots.  I would say that only a dysfunctional culture would even want to build single family homes along a light-rail line, but we are still deep in the cult of Nimby, so that is what any community-based plan would likely call for.  Even if by some miracle apartments were proposed, developers would likely find the narrow parcels awkward for building.  Redeveloping the whole block would be expensive, politically difficult, and given the track record of large-scale public redevelopment in this country, potentially ghettoizing.

I guess it’s the Wirth-Olson alignment then

Double beg button on the wrong side of the pole from the walking path

Olson Highway is easily one of the worst roads in the state – an extremely wide ROW littered with beg buttons and broken sidewalks and a median that’s often less a refuge than a corral – so I hope that the city, county and state take this as an opportunity to improve it.  Unfortunately, preliminary concepts for the alignment along Olson put the track in the median.  This despite Olson’s 25k AADT, which easily fits on two lanes in each direction (and does fit on two lanes further west on Olson), especially with Olson’s ample room for turn lanes.

As much as LRT would improve Olson, I’m not sure I can support it on the Wirth-Olson alignment.  It’s a classic Dallas scenario – the line would strategically avoid all of the dense areas that would supply it with riders.  More than a year ago, Yonah Freemark pointed out that Dallas has the longest light rail system in the country, but still manages to skirt its densest neighborhoods.  Unfortunately we are seeing a similar path of least resistance followed in the Twin Cities of the North, where the Olson-Wirth alignment’s densest neighborhood would be Robbinsdale, where the 5.2 households per acre is closer to the standard for intermediate frequency bus service, and a bit more than half of what’s required to support light rail.  Densities are actually lower along Olson in North Minneapolis, where the local Hope VI renewal project replaced the rowhouses of Sumner Field with fewer units than were destroyed.

TLC's awesome employment density map, from their 2008 Transportation Performance Report

Commuter ridership is a dicey proposition as well.  While Downtown Minneapolis has slightly more jobs than Downtown Dallas, the prospects for reverse commuting are much lower on Bottineau than on any LRT line developed or proposed here so far.  Using the job cluster map produced by Reconnecting America, you can see that Hiawatha serves around 45,000 non-CBD jobs, most of which are clustered around the airport and MOA stations (that’s not counting Minneapolis South, which contains 26,000 jobs but stretches far west of Hiawatha).  Central LRT will serve a remarkable 125,000 non-(Minneapolis) CBD jobs, again mostly clustered along the line.  Southwest LRT will hit around 55,000 non-CBD jobs, although they’re less clustered so perhaps less likely to take the train.

Bottineau, in contrast, serves just two non-CBD job clusters:  Osseo, with a respectable 24,235 jobs, but over a sprawling area that stretches up to three miles from the nearest proposed station; and Maple Grove, with a barely noticeable 3,892 jobs but that still manages to be one of the lowest-density clusters on the map.  While both job clusters are likely growing, the growth would have to be spectacular and compact to begin to approach the job density of other transitways.  Target’s Suburban Headquarters, which is sometimes said to “anchor” the B alternative of the northern end of Bottineau, is projected to grow to a mammoth 5,200 jobs by 2014.

So Bottineau will add maybe 30,000 sprawling jobs to the 371,000 already connected by the three other transitways when it comes online.  It will pass through very low density areas.  It will cost almost a billion dollars.  Are we sure we want to do this?  What are some other alternatives?  I’ll explore them in my next couple posts.

Promising Promises

A sight for sore eyes

I was greeted at the top of the stairs by a smiling face.  “Here for the Metro Transit meeting?” the first Greeter asked before directing me down to the basement of the Midtown Exchange building on a journey to a conference room in the deepest bowels of the hulking structure, guided only by my wits, a second Greeter, a week’s supply of pemmican, and a distant signboard, on which through the haze could be made out a map of the Twin Cities Metro marked with bold yellow lines: the candidate corridors for Arterial Transitways.

Upon entry to the conference room, it quickly became evident how Metro Transit could afford two Greeters for their meeting.  There were probably 10 staff members there, and in the hour or so I was at the meeting the ratio of public to staff briefly was as high as 1:1.  The effect was that the meeting was a walking, talking version of the overview pdf on Metro Transit’s website.  It took me an hour to peruse the 20 or so signboards because every 5-10 minutes a staff member would approach me to ask what I thought.

Senior Transit Planner

Which was great.  Transit planners are second only to bicycle planners as the coolest clique of the Transportation Planning & Engineering world, and I gotta say transit planners are more interesting in the hippie-neighbor-who-sleeps-on-his-porch sort of way.  Also there were some staff from SRF, the consultants on the project, who, like most transportation consultants, feature a massive highway project on their home page.  They were nice.

Back to the signboards – in addition to about 10 mostly drawn from the overview pdf, there were 11 that summarized each of the proposed rapid bus services, including proposed frequencies and station locations.  It wasn’t really the right atmosphere for whipping out a camera or even a notebook, so I’m not going to try to dig specifics out of my funhouse mirror of a memory.  However, I’m not afraid to list a few general observations:

  • All corridors are proposed to be overlaid on local bus service (except for American Blvd), but these will not be 50s series routes – they will be frequent and all-day.
  • Stations were a bit more closely spaced than I expected – they averaged 2 stations per mile, but in many neighborhoods they were closer to every 1/4 mile, and Downtown they retained the existing stop pattern I think.
  • On most routes, the stops chosen for inclusion in the rapid bus route represented the vast majority of boardings on the route anyway.  The one example I remember specifically (as long as you don’t quote me) is the Lake St-Marshall route, which mostly had stations closer than every 1/2 mile between Uptown and Minnehaha, but the stops chosen to be upgraded represented all but 3% of boardings.

It seems as though they’re still trying to work out the details of what the stations would consist of.  Based on what the staff said, even off-board ticket machines (wonkily referred to as TVMs) could be chucked and replaced with a 2nd GoTo reader at the rear door.  They had us do a little exercise where we voted for up to five station feature to prioritize – confusingly, even shelters and benches were on the ballot.  Would they really consider not including those at a stop that met their boarding requirement?

Besides maybe the station details, it seems as though the study is basically done.  The summary on SRF’s website is in past tense, and even states that

The outcome of the study was a prioritization plan for the arterial corridors based on the outcomes of concept development, constructability assessment, and stakeholder involvement.

The overview pdf, meanwhile, says that the “Next Steps” are to prioritize routes, bringing up the question of just which stakeholders were or will be involved.  But I don’t really care as long as  the report is published in February 2012 as planned.

Check out what these other cities have done

What happens after that is anyone’s guess.  I’m hoping there will be an implementation section in the study report, but there were no details at the meeting.  My questions about funding were met with hems and haws.  We’re not talking about a stadium or anything here; I thought I heard an estimate of $10-15m per corridor (for reference, the one-mile Riverside Ave reconstruction will cost $12m) and the overview pdf implies $1-3m per mile.  My guess is that only the uniquely American talent for spending way too much on infrastructure projects could inflate that cost, considering it’s for something as simple as enhanced bus service, or, as it’s called in the rest of the world, bus service.  A wag on minnescraper has dubbed this proposal Baby BRT, but if it’s actually implemented, it will be a real coming-of-age for Metro Transit.

This chart is actually from Public Works' Results Mpls report, but it shows why Minneapolis is likely to get one of the first Rapid Bus lines

How to add lanes without really telling anybody

Can you find the number 25,665,000 anywhere in this article?

Lengthy work coming to I-94

Transit advantage?

25,665,000 is the number of dollars MnDot is spending on their “I-94 Capacity Relief” project – anyone who’s paying attention knows that “capacity relief” is engineer-speak for road widening.  Funny that it’s not mentioned anywhere in the article that the project costs $25m, and that it’s adding a lane in each direction to I-94.

Of course, the lanes being added in this project are already there – they were striped as temporary “capacity relief” after the unquenchable thirst for more lanes caused the 35W bridge to plummet into the Mississippi.  If you have a chance, you should check out the MnDot site for this project, where they posted the documents they have to create to rationalize their decision to widen roads they get interstate money for (i.e alternatives analyses, environmental impact statements, environmental alternative statements, etc).

Inside you’ll find gems like the following:

The Preferred Alternative [widening the freeway] will add auxiliary lanes that will allow buses to achieve speeds up to the posted speed limit compared to the speeds allowed on bus-only shoulders (not more than 15 mph greater than the speed of general purpose traffic in the adjacent thru lane with a maximum speed of 35 mph).

So they’re spending $25m to add a lane that buses can then use to travel the posted speed limit instead of the 35mph that they’re limited to in the shoulders?  Then why not spend $0 to change the law to allow buses to drive the posted speed limit in shoulders?

And do they really think that the “auxiliary lanes” they’re “adding” won’t be congested?  How exactly is a transit advantage an advantage if the lane is clogged by a Geo trying to merge left?  I guess $26m will buy us the answer.

Driver, take me to my stadium

All images are conceptual

The largest public works project in Minnesota’s history (as long as you don’t combine the segmented construction of any metro-area freeway) recently kicked into high gear, but it’s possible it won’t hold the crown for long.  The Bullet Factory Vikings stadium proposal has a base cost of $884m, plus around $173m for “on-site infrastructure, parking, [and] environmental needs” – and in addition there are $131-240m in highway improvements needed to handle the traffic that would be drawn to the site.  That’s a grand total of $1.2-1.3b for the Bullet Factory site, although there it’s also possible still that the Metrodome site would be reused instead, which apparently isn’t pricey enough to steal Central LRT’s crown of costliness.

Free marketeers like to pretend that it’s just a coincidence that our era is seeing unprecedented wealth simultaneously with unprecedented suffering (while middle-class Americans pretend that neither exists), but we need to recognize that money is a fuel that feeds a firestorm of inequality that spreads a smoke blanket of starvation.  Government may not be the best tool we have to fight this process, but it certainly is the biggest tool we have.  The USA is a nation where Christians decry the spending of their tax dollars on foreign aid, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if we decide to spend a billion dollars on houses for millionaires in tights while thousands of Minnesotans sleep in their cars or under bridges…

…and so on.  I went on a similar rant when the Twins stadium deal went down, but I have to admit that I’m happy with it now that it’s up and running.  Why?  Besides a fondness for monumental public structures, I like to go to the library on Mondays.  The bonuses involved probably got some politicians on board for that project, support it desperately needed.

So why isn’t Ramsey County sweetening the pot with its Bullet Factory plan?  Certainly the plan is ambitious enough, but it’s also missing support from many Ramsey County politicians.  Maybe they’d get on board if the plan included youth sports, libraries, or…. here it comes…. transit!

Mulad recently had a great post about rail lines to the Bullet Factory that could be upgraded to commuter rail for the stadium.  A dedicated rail line to a suburban sports complex isn’t unprecedented in this country, but is certainly unusual.  Given the “uncertainties” surrounding the Twin Cities’ only commuter rail line, that mode seems unlikely.

I'll take all three

But I was intrigued by Mulad’s idea of “a light-rail-sized diesel multiple-unit (DMU) train could run along the Central Corridor and diverge when it hit the UMN Transitway, then do a flyover to get past the heavy rail operations at Union Yard, and then run on heavy rail tracks.”  I hadn’t really considered that corridor for transit upgrades, but it does after Mulad pointed it out, I noticed that it does run between two major employment clusters (Rosedale and Mid-City), and although there isn’t much residential along it, what’s there is pretty dense.

Here is a chart showing how Mulad’s corridor (which I named Hunting Valley after the old name for 280, shown in green on the map) compares with two other nearby possible corridors (I named the Central Ave NE alignment New Boston after a name for the Central & Lowry area that no one has used for almost a century, because unfortunately the name Central Corridor is already taken – why didn’t they call it the Midway Corridor?).  These are totals from TAZ districts that adjoin the lines depicted on the map, and the numbers are from 2000, and have changed a bit (also I only used those TAZes north of the Central Corridor, or the river in the case of the New Boston line).

TAZ stats for 3 corridors

Obviously the Hunting Valley is hurting for population, but it holds its own in terms of employment (although none of these corridors do very well in that measure – the Central Corridor even excluding Downtown Minneapolis reaches 120,000 jobs).  Plus it has the advantage of being much cheaper than New Boston or Snelling, since it is mostly already built on exclusive right-of-way (there is the small matter of buying out the MNNR, but theoretically the track could be rented back to them for night use).  Even though Hunting Valley wouldn’t need as frequent service as Hiawatha or Central, 5th St probably couldn’t handle the additional trains – my understanding is that it can only handle a slight increase in frequency on Hiawatha and/or Central.

St Paul shows the gaps in the Hi-Frequency Network

Anyway I doubt if anyone could handle the pucker-inducing degree of sweetness that adding a light rail line would bring to this deal – even the relatively cheap Hunting Valley line would probably cost too much for belt-tightening times.  A more affordable sweetener for the stadium pot would be an upgrade of bus service in St Paul, including upgrading the 84 possibly to BRT-ish levels.  The western triangle of St Paul has the density for good bus service, but has only a smattering of routes running across it, and those at low frequencies.  My guess is that comes out of the bus routes’ archaic orientation toward Downtown St Paul, and I’ll deal with that issue in a later post.

Fly in for a game

There are a lot of ways to handle a beefed up Snelling BRT, and I’m not going to weigh in on any particular one, except to advocate that it go south to the airport instead of west to the 46th St Hiawatha station. That adds a few miles to the route, but also thousands more jobs, as well as the obvious connections to air routes.  The northern terminus in this scenario would of course be Zygi’s Sprawl City, and it would also hit the job cluster at Hamline & 694, which is amazingly suburban but still might draw some riders.

Though Minneapolis would look with envy at Snelling’s 100 foot width through most of St Paul, it might be politically difficult to create bus lanes here, especially in the parking-desperate Midway.  I’m not sure it would be necessary though – despite heavy volumes, I haven’t seen a lot of congestion on Snelling in St Paul proper.  It would be interesting to see what effect a higher frequency 84 with prominent stations and off-board payment would do to traffic levels on the street.

Fittingly, since the funding for this BRT sweetener would come from an ongoing tax (presumably added onto the sales tax) most of the money could go to operations in the form of higher frequency on the 84 (and the 21, to fill the hi frequency gap).  I’m not even going to guess how much this would cost, but I would think less than the Cedar BRT where $135m is buying 8 park-and-rides and 9 miles of “dedicated” shoulders.  Here is a list of the capital needs I can think of for a Snelling BRT, in the order they arrive to my head:

  • 2 to 4 park-and-rides Possibilities include at 36 (or Cty Rd B), Cty Rd C, Cty Rd E and 694 (or Cty Rd F); these would all be modest park-and-rides since they wouldn’t draw Downtown crowds.
  • Stop consolidation  With routes spaced at every mile, I can’t in good conscience advocate 1/4 mile spacing, although there would still be opportunity for consolidation in some places.  Eventually, there should be bus routes running north and south every half-mile, at which point stops should be consolidated to every 1/4 mile.
  • Enhanced stations  These would primarily serve branding purposes since there probably wouldn’t be enough of them to ensure quality or comfort at every stop.  But at transfer stops, they could include ticket machines and real-time displays, in addition to higher-quality architecture.  At Como and Energy Park there should be stairs and elevators to the below-grade intersecting streets.
  • Signal Preemption  I haven’t heard the results of the route 10 test with signal preemption, but in theory it make the travel time more competitive with cars.

I in no way advocate building a football stadium with taxpayer money – local TV stations are subsidized enough through their undervalued broadcasting permits.  But if it must be done, throw a little sugar in that bowl by improving Ramsey County’s transit along with its sports facilities.  Don’t forget – there are some citizens of Ramsey County who will pay for that stadium with every purchase they make, but won’t be able to even gaze on it without a car.  Every Minnesotan should be able to enjoy the biggest public works project in Minnesota history.

Back to BRT

I haven’t delivered on my promise to follow up my earlier BRT post with an analysis of the Cedar BRT line, but I have a good excuse.  In the interim I came across Jarrett Walker’s treatment of BRT classification, and I wanted to take some time to read it and think about it.

Walker is a good writer with a real talent for concise explanations that get to the heart of a matter, but in this case he doesn’t really organize well.  Unlike his classic Be on the Way, which presents his concept plainly and sequentially, he takes 4 posts to explain BRT, often repeats himself and frames it as a response towards his perception of antipathy towards BRT by American transit nerds.

But I think I can summarize his points, apply them to my earlier definition, and get you home in time for dinner.

Before getting into Jarrett’s classifications of BRT, I think it is useful to look at his definitions of stopping patterns (from this post, which he puts after the BRT classifications):

  • Local means stopping frequently all along the line.  Locals are designed on the principle that if you’re on the line, you should be very close to a stop.  Local stops are usually no more than 1/4 mile (400m) apart, and often much less…
  • Limited or Rapid means stopping at a regular but widely-spaced pattern.  The spacing is usually at least every 1/2 mile (800m) or sometimes wider, but the point is that the spacing is fairly regular along the line…
  • Express, in these terms, really means “serving a very long nonstop segment.”  The classic express bus may run local or limited-stop for a while, but then it has a long segment, perhaps on a freeway, where it doesn’t stop at all…

Any BRT line can have any of these stop patterns for segments of its route, but it really should run Limited or Rapid for most of its length to be called BRT.  If it runs express or local for most of its duration, then there is not enough there to distinguish it from everyday bus operations.  Certainly local and express buses can take advantage of certain characteristics of BRT, for example high-quality stations or bus priority, but it would be confusing to riders to call it BRT, because there wouldn’t be the coverage of rapid transit (in the former case) or the speed (in the latter).

Jarrett’s classifications (from this post) are him in his shining form – slicing through obfuscations to distill the subject to its essence.  In this case he also gives examples, which I will refrain from truncating:

  • Exclusive and grade separated like Brisbane.  (Harbor Transitway, though the aesthetic standard is far below Brisbane’s)
  • Exclusive but at-grade with signals.  (Orange Line)
  • Non-exclusive, at-grade, in traffic, but with wide stop spacing and signal priority (Metro Rapid)

Ultimately they are not that different from mine:  His first and second categories correspond with my Bus Rapid Transit category, and his third category corresponds with my Arterial BRT category.  He leaves out the Commuter BRT type, which can be just an upgrade of commuter bus facilities, but can be more, for example in Houston where they run in traffic with non-exclusive lanes, but have exclusive, grade separated facilities when they stop at park-and-rides.

The difference, I think, is that I was looking more at the purpose of the facility, whereas he was looking at the physical categories.  And that is something I could have emphasized more:

  • Arterial BRT is meant to upgrade local bus service so it covers an extensive area at higher speeds
  • Commuter BRT is meant to serve a high-density job center at peak periods
  • Bus Rapid Transit is meant to serve a wide variety of trips (i.e. for employment and personal uses) in areas with a high rate of transit usage

Jarrett doesn’t go into the distinction between busways and BRT – he seems to take it as a given that his audience knows that a busway is what BRT runs on.  He implicitly makes this distinction when he restates his classifications in another post:

  • Fully grade-separated busways, with no intersections.
  • At-grade exclusive busways with signalized intersections with cross-streets.
  • Buses in mixed traffic, with signal priority and wide stop spacing.

By creating a third type of BRT that doesn’t utilize a busway, he is differentiating between the type of transit service and the infrastructure it runs on.  He does something similar in this post, which details a great method for determining which type of BRT a particular service is.

Jarrett Walker’s posts also bring up the term “Quickway,” which is a way of describing a “fully grade-separated busways, with no intersections.”  He credits Alan Hoffman for coining the word, but he doesn’t like it because it “feels like a marketing word.”  I concur with Jarrett, because the word merely conjures association and doesn’t really describe what Bus Rapid Transit does.  But my phrase is also bad, because the other types of BRT are still Bus Rapid Transit, as Jarrett explains:

sometimes “rapid transit” is provided by buses, and if we can’t call this “Bus Rapid Transit,” I’m not sure we can talk clearly about it.

Maybe we can’t talk clearly about it regardless; maybe each author, in each essay, will have to define exactly what he or she means by “Bus Rapid Transit.”  I’ve tried to do that here, but I think I’ve failed to coin a term for the fully grade-separated type that is meant to serve a wide variety of trips.  All I can do is keep brainstorming and maybe the right word will come to mind.

BRT or no BRT?

On Wednesday, Jarrett Walker gave a shout-out to Metro Transit for planning an eventual system brand for its rapid transit system regardless of the technology of the line
(i.e. rail or bus).  He referenced a Star Tribune article detailing a presentation that a Met Council transportation plan gave to the Dakota County board.  I was dismayed.

My problem was not with the branding concept – if I’m getting from station to station fast and on time, I don’t care if it’s a bus or a train taking me there.

But the article focuses on the Cedar Ave BRT line that is currently under construction in Dakota County.  This line will connect to the Hiawatha Light Rail line at the Mall of America – but will the rider’s experience on the two lines be comparable?  I don’t think it will, but the difference will have very little to do with rubber vs steel.

BRT means a lot of things to a lot of people, most of which are mentioned at the Wikipedia page for BRT.  However, almost no BRT includes all of the characteristics mentioned there:

  • “Bus only, grade-separated (or at-grade exclusive) right-of-way
  • “Comprehensive coverage [I think that this is trying to distinguish it from intra-urban transit]
  • “Serves a diverse market with high-frequency all day service
  • “Bus priority
  • “Vehicles with tram-like characteristics
  • “A specific image with a brand name
  • “Off-bus fare collection
  • “Level boarding
  • “[High-Quality] Stations”

I’m not aware of a comprehensive, objective effort to define and categorize the types of BRT (except maybe this one, but sorry I don’t have time to read 800 pages right now), so I’m going to attempt to outline it here in an effort to explain why the Cedar Ave BRT will likely differ from the Hiawatha line.  There is going to be a lot of simplification here, and many lines could be classified as different types by looking at different segments.  But I think it will be useful as a framework for understanding how riders will use a line – and useful for deciding which lines to include in a system branding.

So let’s start with a basic distinction: BRT vs. busways.  Sometimes you’ll see politicians or even academics say BRT when they’re referring to a busway.  They are confusing a transit line with a transitway.  One is a means of conveyance, the other is infrastructure.

Put simply, BRT is the transit; it is what people buy a ticket it for and climb on to.  The busway is the infrastructure that BRT lines often, but not always run on.  A busway is a stretch of road that is designated primarily or exclusively for buses. There are too many types of busways to list them all:  they can be bridges, access ramps, tunnels, viaducts, etc.  As long as it’s paved and used mostly by buses, it’s a busway.  Here are examples in Minneapolis:

  • The U of M transitway is a busway because buses have the exclusive use.
  • The Nicollet Mall is a busway because buses have the primary use.
  • The Hennepin Ave bus-bike-right turn lanes are busways, but don’t functions as such due to failure of enforcement.
  • Freeway shoulders that are designated for bus use are marginally busways because buses can use them, but they exist to serve single-occupancy vehicles.

It is important to make this distinction because busways are easy to build and provide a transit advantage.  They can be as extensive as LA’s silver line, but they can be as short as a driveway:

The driveway curving around the parking lot to the Uptown Transit Center is a busway.

So don’t intimidate people by calling it BRT; it’s just transit-supportive infrastructure, like a bus stop.

BRT, on the other hand, is the line itself.  It’s what you ride, and it typically takes a lot of work to come about, but it also provides significant advantages to its riders, and is typically worth the time (and money).  However, not all BRT is created equal.  When a county commission announces a new BRT station at a freeway overpass, it doesn’t mean that you all of the sudden have a rapid transit system.  That’s because there are three types of BRT:

  • Enhanced Bus Service
  • Commuter BRT
  • Bus Rapid Transit

Sometimes called Arterial BRT, Enhanced Bus Service is just that: a city bus that has been improved to run faster, more reliably or more comfortably.   Albuquerque opened an enhanced bus service called Rapid Ride in 2004 that includes high-quality stations (including better shelters, real-time displays and recognizable architecture), wide station spacing, high frequency and high capacity vehicles.

But Enhanced Bus Service doesn’t have to be a branding technique; it can be as simple as upgrading principal stops in your transit system or spacing your stops more widely.  It is an inexpensive means of improving bus service because it doesn’t have to all be done at once.  In a sense, the recent removal of half the stops on Nicollet Mall was an implementation of Enhanced Bus Service; it certainly improved travel time through the corridor.

Commuter BRT is more typically called Freeway BRT, but because it doesn’t have to be on a freeway and because it shares characteristics with the type of bus service called Commuter Buses, I decided on Commuter BRT.  A Commuter BRT line typically has a long segment without stops where it travels on a grade-separated highway or busway through an area that is close to a CBD but served by local buses.  The classic example is Houston’s Transitways, which run on freeways and connect park-and-ride lots with ramps designated for bus and HOV use.  Interestingly, Houston’s system doesn’t have a strong brand, and is illustrated by maps for its HOV users.

The difference between Commuter BRT and commuter bus service is that BRT typically has multiple station stops before running to a CBD, while commuter bus usually runs from a single park-and-ride facility (sometimes more, but rarely more than three).  However, both share the characteristics of running primarily at peak times, and Commuter BRT should always, while commuter bus only sometimes, has high-quality stations and high-occupancy vehicles.  I would add that Commuter BRT should have ticket machines so you don’t have point-of-payment in the vehicle, but I don’t know that that’s always the case.

The most rapid transit-like type of BRT is Bus Rapid Transit.  This is the type that is associated with Curitiba, Brazil (which the Wikipedia article calls the first BRT system).  It is the least distinguishable from traditional rail rapid transit.  It is also the most rare in North America – Los Angeles opened two lines in the last decade (the Orange and the Silver) and Pittsburgh has three lines, but anything else you hear referred to as BRT in North America is one of the first two types (or a hybrid thereof; Ottowa has the most rapid-transit-like hybrid I know of).

So which type is the Cedar Ave BRT?  I’ll leave that for a later post…