More charts about poverty and cities

Here comes more laz-e-boy social science from Alex.  Following up on my response to Steve Berg’s Strib op-ed from a couple weeks ago, I dug up the poverty rate for the 50 metro areas with 1 million population or more.  From that I was able to calculate the spread between central city poverty and metro poverty, which seems like a better measure for concentration of poverty than central city poverty alone.  I then plotted them differentiating by region, to see if any regions bucked national trends.  Actually, I added the regions mostly for a dose of color, as the four regions defined by the census are so broad that they’re almost meaningless.

First up is a chart that also appeared in my last post, but this time it’s spritzed up by some regional color.  It certainly seems to show a trend of central cities with higher poverty rates having lower rates of population growth, although the West may be exempt from this pattern.  Although the trend lines in all of these charts are for all the cities grouped together, it also looks like the trend may be more pronounced in the South.

Central city poverty also appears to correspond with metro area growth, although seemingly more weakly than central city growth, except maybe in the Midwest.  In fact, there are several Western cities on the left end of the chart that had quite low central city poverty rates but also didn’t grow much at all – San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and, interestingly for Berg’s thesis, Seattle.  This last town, Berg’s role model for the Twin Cities, had a poverty rate eight points below the national average (which is 21%, Seattle’s rate is 13%) but saw growth exactly at the national average of 13% (beating MSP by only 2.5 points despite our ten point higher central city poverty rate).

If central city poverty correlates with population growth to some degree, is that because of concentration of poverty or just because of poverty in general?  To answer that question I plotted total metro population in poverty against central city population growth.  Lo and behold, the correlation seems to have gotten much weaker.  This is a good time to point out that this is about as lazy a statistical analysis as you can get – technically you’re supposed to do a regression in order to make the variables comparable, but I’m not real clear on how to do that and didn’t want to bother to find out.  Plus I think it’s useful to have the actual numbers on the chart rather than their statistical translations.

The last raspy bark of this fruitless tree of data finds a puffy cloud instead of a relationship between total metro growth and the metro poverty rate.  Or does it?  Does the slight incline of that trendline prove that the capitalist machine thrives on an army of the poor to feed its satanic mills?*

Let’s get back to a more useful line of inquiry.  What does it matter how high the poverty rate is in the central city if it’s also high in the whole metro?  To get at concentration of poverty, we have to look at the difference between central city and metrowide poverty rates.  The above chart seems to show that cities where poverty is concentrated in central cities tend to have a lower growth rate overall, which means that metros should be concerned about their ghettos.  Once again, though, the trend seems to be strongest in the Midwest and South, the latter of which is a bit surprising because so many Southern cities annex their suburbs.  And the West and the Northeast appear to not follow the trend, so I’m not sure I’m convinced.

Comparing concentration of poverty with central city population growth is a bit more convincing.  The trend line is a bit steeper, and the West appears to fall in line, leaving only the stubborn Northeast to buck the trend.  In case you’re wondering, Memphis is where the central city has a lower poverty rate than the metro as a whole – perhaps because Memphis city continues to annex its suburbs and therefore reflects an urbanized population, whereas the metro area includes rural areas as well.  Also, Detroit is the city with a central city poverty rate 20 points higher than the metro rate, which with its -25% population change rate would seem to be Exhibit A for Berg’s thesis.  Hartford may be a prime example for the opposing viewpoint, since it beats Detroit for concentration of poverty, yet managed to grow its central city 3% (amounting to a bit more than 3,000 people).

In Summation

Regardless of whether concentration of poverty has any effect on population growth, I agree with Berg we have a more prerogative to fight poverty, or as he put it, “stabilize poor neighborhoods” for “ethical” reasons.  Unfortunately doing so will require a change in attitudes to the city and citybuilding to basically a polar opposite of what currently exists.  Like Berg I think that expanding transit is a small but important step in that direction – auto-dependence furthers the cycle of poverty because poor people tend to buy less expensive cars which tend to have higher maintenance costs and need to be replaced sooner – and I’d add that it’s more achievable than most of the other options because the only area in which our political system is capable of finding consensus is in the construction of large public works projects.  That’s one of the reasons I started this blog – “working” towards a fairer society by complaining about the auto-orientation of our transportation system – and I was hoping that this series of graphs would have been more help towards this goal, but I don’t seem to have the time or knowledge to really pull it off.  If anyone reading this does, here’s the data I gathered – give it a go.

*No.  No it doesn’t.

Those were the days

Invisible Cities

There was a fun surprise in the May 1st agenda of the Community Development committee of the Minneapolis City Council, which is considering a gazillion dollars’ worth of subsidy (edit: that is, subsidy and bonding, see James’ comment below) for a rehab of the Pillsbury A Mill into affordable apartments for elderly diabetic artists or something.

I don’t know if it was a mistake or what, but the Data Worksheet for the project actually featured a rendering of an earlier incarnation called East Bank Mills, conceived of and consumed by the condo craze, which in addition to the rehab would have constructed at least six mid-to-high rise buildings.  Instead, the site was split between two owners, one of which is rehabbing the mill complex and the other of which is building this:


I’m not a skyscraper fetishist, but I do have a fervent belief that Density Will Save Us.  Low rise buildings like the ones proposed for the A Mill site are some of the most efficient, if not always attractive, ways to add density, but only if they can be dispersed throughout the city.  They don’t need to obliterate the traditional housing stock, but if sprinkled liberally along bus routes they can provide riders for those buses and justification for transit upgrades, as well as a base of customers for local businesses.

Unfortunately, NIMBY forces have thus far prevented the diffusion of this building type.  Even those corridors that the city identifies as appropriate for low-rise, high-density infill languish under low density zoning.  So growth needs to be maximized in areas that already have high-rises, like this one.  On the upside, these areas also tend to be close to major job centers and the last dying vestiges of urban retail, maximizing walkability.

So while the 300-400 units to be added in the current A Mill proposals should be welcomed, Minneapolis sure could have used the 1,000 units East Bank Mills would have brought.  That project may have been the product of a greed-fueled credit bubble, but it may have delivered something more in the public interest than the timid footsteps of a wheezy recovery.  (Of course, that same credit bubble produced a massive expansion of low-density fringe development, so it’s all random.)

Again, I’m not saying Tall = Good.  I’m saying Tall = Good IF Density = Good AND Density is not allowed in 95% of the city.

You’ve come a long way, baby

Berg is back

“We scratch our heads when we see a Democratic governor and two senators pushing to build a big new bridge over the St. Croix River to encourage more sprawl into Wisconsin,” said [Ethan] Seltzer of Portland State. “That wouldn’t happen here.”

My favorite quote from Steve Berg’s commentary in the Sunday Strib.  I was delighted to see the piece prominently placed on the front page of the Opinion section, having suffered from Berg withdrawal since his hiatus from MinnPost turned into a permanent absence (although Steven Dornfield has been a capable replacement).  Of course I agreed with most of his points and enjoyed the comparative perspectives with Portland, Seattle and Denver, as good role model cities as any in the USA.

(My agreement has two caveats:  in his six-point plan for growing the center cities, he recommends “adopt[ing] form-based zoning codes” and “simplify[ing] bureaucracy.”  Form-based codes would certainly give developers “clear options on height and mass” as he asserts, but the NIMBY problem that he refers to repeatedly makes it uncertain that a form-based code that allows the necessary density to grow the city would be adopted in first place.  And while it’s easy to say that everything would be better if the dang gummint would just get out of the way, I’ve never seen any convincing evidence that it’s any harder to get approvals for development in Minneapolis than anywhere else.  My understanding is that the Mayor that I’m always ripping on has pushed through some reforms at CPED – one of which may be the single-point contact that seems to me about as simple as you can get – and Gary Schiff just got rid of the pointless CUP requirement for buildings with 5 or more units.  I freely admit to having no experience developing real estate in Minneapolis or any other city, however.)

My reproduction of the table that accompanied Berg's commentary

But as much as I enjoyed reading about those three urban success stories, I still think they’re the wrong cities to compare with MSP.  You might be able to make a historical case for comparison with our sibling cities of the Great Northwest, Seattle and Portland, but we took different paths starting in World War II at the latest.  In the post-war era, the Twin Cities have been more in line with other low-industry Midwestern cities, such as Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Columbus.   So on Berg’s metrics, MSP fares much better in the Midwestern conference (at least we have a lot of company in the Zero Club):

Big 10

I certainly don’t blame Steve Berg for aiming high, although there’s something to be said for setting realistic goals.  For example, the Ford plant is probably the biggest single opportunity for development in the Twin Cities, but it’s only 2.5% of the size of the Stapleton Airport site that provided the bulk of Denver’s growth in the last decade.  The city of Portland has over 25 square miles more land area than Minneapolis and St Paul combined (with around 80,000 fewer people living there than MSP) and can still annex land to the northwest and the southeast.

Seattle’s model would seem to be more attainable, since it grew more than any city that didn’t annex or build on greenfields except New York.  But is it really?  I hadn’t looked at poverty data much until Berg included it as a metric along with his commentary and advocated working on reducing concentration of poverty as a means of growing cities (or guarding against shrinking cities).  Seattle really is exceptional here, ranking third-lowest for percent of central city population in poverty, just behind famously gentrified San Francisco and its suburb that for some reason gets its own metro area, San Jose.  And looking at maps, it appears that poverty* really is dispersed throughout the Seattle metro:

From the NY Times 2009 5 year ACS map

And maps also seem to show poverty clustering in the central cities in MSP:


Suggesting that the Twin Cities do have the concentration of poverty problem alleged by Berg, a fact that is corroborated by national average central city poverty rate for metro areas of 1m or more, which at 21% is two points below the Minneapolis & St Paul combined rate of 23%.  We’re supposed to all be above-average here, goldarn it, which is reason in and of itself to work on this problem.  But what effect does poverty have on urban growth?  I made some quick graphs on Excel to try to answer that, using the data I collected on metro areas of 1m or more for my post on downtown population growth (or lack thereof).

First, thinking back to the Twin Cities’ underwhelming downtown growth, even compared to other Midwestern towns, I wondered about poverty’s effect on downtown population growth.  My amateur analysis found none:

Comparing poverty rates to central city population growth, however, shows a relationship:

The cities with higher poverty rates tended to grow less or shrink in the decade between 2000 and 2010.  This may be less about developers avoiding cities with high concentrations of poverty and more about the foreclosure crisis hitting cities with high concentrations of poverty harder.  So it’s more about resilience, which I think Berg is after when he recommends “Stabiliz[ing] poor neighborhoods not only for ethical and economic reasons but to stem population loss.”

One more chart, just for fun:

I looked at the relationship between poverty and density expressed as the percent of housing stock in multi-unit dwellings (defined by the Census as any structure with more than one unit within it, so not counting single-family attached units).  This would seem to suggest that denser cities tend to have more people in poverty, but may merely reflect the fact that center cities that are still annexing land are closer to their metropolitan average for both density and poverty than center cities that stopped annexing before World War II.

None of which really explains whether Seattle is a model that can be repeated (although I still suspect that they’ve exported their poverty to Tacoma).  And it doesn’t address other issues, such as retail health, that may affect the ability of central cities to draw developers.  But I had fun looking a bit deeper into the issues that Berg brought up, and I’m glad he started the conversation.

Every post should have a picture, even if you have to steal it

*Actually these maps show households earning less than $30k/year, which is different obviously but I haven’t been able to find maps of metropolitan poverty.

How to be good, if you’re the mayor

A little while ago I accused RT Rybak of being a not-good mayor.  This was done mainly as a way to show how the hundreds of millions Rybak wants to give to the Vikings Corp as locational subsidies could be better spent, but it also stems from noticing that there has basically been no improvement in urban quality-of-life in Minneapolis that did not have a national origin (i.e. crime, biking).

But having recently realized that my blog is exclusively negative, I decided to throw out a few ideas about what Rybak could do if he wanted to be a good mayor.  For the most part, they are not easy.  Rybak would have to show the dogged persistence and willingness to sail against public opinion that has been so evident in his fight to subsidize the Vikings Corp.  Here’s how the Mayor can earn the label of “good,” in order of likelihood that he’ll actually do it:

1.  Support cycling.  Minneapolis brags a lot (at least once a month, it seems) about what a great biking town it is.  But faced with a choice between parking and biking it almost always goes for parking.  Out of the 23 most recent bike projects, only five of them involved significant parking removal, and one of those five was cancelled because of that fact.  This may be due to the fact that it’s relatively easy to add cycle facilities without removing parking, and that explanation is supported by the fact that 10 of the 23 projects involved removing a through lane; for example in a road diet.  But it also suggests that only the low-hanging fruit is being picked at this point, and where the fruit turns out to be higher than expected, like on the stalled* Glenwood project, the City backs off.  A mayor as charismatic and persuasive as Rybak has the potential to change that.

Bill is a talented dioramist

He wouldn’t have to threaten to fire the Director of Public Works or pull veto shenanigans.  If he were to just show up to neighborhood meetings such as those held recently for the Penn Ave S reconstruction in the Mayor’s neighborhood, he could use his political talents to convince neighbors of the advantages of providing basic bike accommodations.  Since as Mayor he has repeatedly stressed that he wants Minneapolis to be a “world-class bicycle city”, I don’t see any conflict of interest in going to neighborhood meetings to work towards that goal.  The fact that he so far has never done so is the only thing that makes me think this item is unlikely; with all the talking Rybak has done about bicycling, you’d think that some day he’ll eventually work towards it.

2.  Green Downtown.  Sure, another small park or two would be nice in what is from 9 to 5 on weekdays by far the densest neighborhood in the city.  But an easier way to green Downtown that would have an even bigger effect would be to simply remove a through lane from all the overbuilt streets.  One lane provides enough room for a row of trees on each side of the street, and you’d be surprised at how many unnecessary lanes are scattered throughout Downtown.  I made a map based on the city’s 2005 Downtown Traffic Flow map, coding in green all 3-lane one-ways with a traffic count of 12,000 or less.  I cut out blocks that according to my experience have high turning volumes, but I may have missed a few due to not knowing by heart the average conditions on every street.  In addition I depicted on the map in yellow the handful of 2-lane two-ways that could be narrowed.  To some degree that’s my subjective judgement, but the narrowing of Chicago Ave in its recent reconstruction indicates it could be done in other places.  Finally, red indicates 4-lane two-ways that could be reduced to three lanes (all are less than 15k AADT and some are far less).

Let me explain what I meant when I said it would be easy to replace lanes with trees.  I know all too well that any reduction in car capacity is controversial, but I also believe that a tree has a bigger constituency than a traffic lane, especially if you can get a traffic engineer to say that the lane isn’t needed.  I feel like even the literally auto-driven Downtown Council would be in favor of a lane-tree swap outside of the Core, because they’re going to have to find some place to fit those 35,000 residents they want to add.  But replacing a lane with trees requires the curbs to be moved, which costs a lot of money.  So step one would just be identifying where the roads are overbuilt enough to lose a lane without disrupting sacred traffic.  I would think that Rybak would be eager to champion a Downtown Green Streets plan, since that would make it look like he’s doing something without actually changing anything and risking angering someone.  Once complete, it would be both backup and a time saver whenever a downtown street came due for reconstruction.

3.  Legalize space utilization.  I was surprised and pleased to read that Rybak in his state of the city speech fessed up to the population stagnancy uncovered by the decennial census.  Hopefully that means he’ll be receptive to the easiest and least disruptive way to add residents to the city: accessory dwelling units (ADUs).  The average household in Minneapolis is just over 2 persons, yet around 22,000 housing units have four or more bedrooms.  There has to be a substantial number of single-family homes that have an extra couple rooms that could be converted into a small separate unit, or garages that could fit a half-story apartment on top.

Minneapolis already allows accessory dwelling units, but confines them to Ventura Village.  I don’t know the history on this, but presumably it was an idea that came out of the neighborhood rather than this area being chosen as a test case, because I would think 10 years would be a long enough test.  I haven’t heard of any ADUs actually being built, and if that means there hasn’t been any, it may be because of the restrictions, such as that the principal structure must be homesteaded and that the ADU be built outside the principal structure.  While the former no doubt makes ADUs more politically palatable for neighbors, the latter actually may be counterproductive.  After all, if you allow the ADU to be built within the principal structure, it’s likely the neighbor won’t even notice a difference, whereas most people notice a half-story being added to a garage.  Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not neighbors notice them, they are likely to be opposed, or at least that seems to have been the case in Vancouver.  Because of the political force of knee-jerk NIMBYism, my guess is Rybak is unlikely to push this one, even though it’s a no-brainer if you look at it dispassionately.  In addition, Rybak doesn’t really have any way to implement it besides cheerleading at the council, so I’d say ADUs are a long shot.

Listen to the people, R.T.

4.  Respect pedestrians.  In 2006, a miracle happened in South Minneapolis.  I don’t know if it was an accident or an experiment, but Hennepin County added zebra crosswalks to the streets crossed by the easternmost phase of the Midtown Greenway.  Then, something even more miraculous happened: many motorists observed Minnesota crosswalk laws at these crossings (tragically, many didn’t at the 28th St crossing).

So respect for pedestrians may be one of the easiest things to accomplish thanks to Minnesotans’ already sheep-like driving.  A study in Miami Beach found that all it takes is enforcement to get drivers to obey crosswalk laws.  Traditionally in Minneapolis the Mayor has had the most control over the police department, so why shouldn’t Rybak lean on Dolan to do some crosswalk enforcement, including ticketing for stopping past the stop line and blocking intersections?  Well, because no one really cares about pedestrians.  The mayor seems to feel that promoting (but not really supporting, see above) biking satisfies his transportation alternatives cred.  Meanwhile, we already get ped-friendly awards by just not being as terrible as the rest of the cities in the sprawling country.  So this easy step is not likely to be taken and Minneapolis will continue to be relatively walkable in terms of density but rather unwalkable in terms of conditions on the street.

You might be able to tell that this list is just a bunch of stuff that’s been floating around in my head, hammered into a frame about what R.T. Rybak could do to meet my standards of goodness.  Franky, I have no idea how likely he is to do any of these things; after 10 years of semi-activism and obsessive attention to local government, I can’t really tell how much of his rhetoric is just politics in a pervasively but vaguely left wing city and how much he really cares about causes like cycling, sustainability and Trampled by Turtles.

I do know that if he actually showed up to meetings to advocate bike lanes, more lanes would get striped.  If he pushed a study of which streets could trade a lane for trees, Public Works would find the dough for it and the first step would be taken towards a greener downtown.  If he browbeat some councilor into introducing an accessory dwelling unit ordinance, currently wasted space could be used to grow the city.  And if he got the cops to enforce crosswalk laws, people mind find it less stressful and more convenient to walk, and do more of it.  So hopefully this post comes across less as a wish list, and more as a to-do list for a progressive city.



*It may not be stalled – the project page claims it will be built in 2012 – but if not, it is eviscerated, downgraded to sharrows for about a quarter of its length.

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.

Is Central so Essential?

Is the downtown revival real, or is it just Disney?

I suppose by now the 2010 Census is passe, or even denounced.  But I’m bit behind the times, so I’m still thinking about it, and it’s taken me this long to parse some of the results.  By which I mean I’ve made a list of the downtown populations of MSAs of 1 million or more as reported in the 2000 and 2010 censuses, along with the metro and central city populations.

Specifically, I was a bit skeptical of some claims that downtowns have been resurgent in the last decade.  The condo craze was an undisputed fact, mostly a result of cheap and easy credit, that mostly affected the central areas of cities.  But was it big enough to really have an effect on population?  And was it nationwide or limited to major cities like San Francisco or trendy cities like Portland?

The first two problems with answering those questions are both of definition.  First, the definition of the word downtown has shifted subtly over time, so that now it seems to have different meanings depending on the type of place it is in.  The word originally referred to the older section of the city, which was located down hill from the newer suburbs.  This was quickly supplanted with a meaning of referring to the main business district of the city, which is the definition commonly found in dictionaries.  Now, however, it is often used to refer to a relatively dense or mixed-use area, or an area with a New Urbanist form, which could be pretty much the same as any strip mall, only with parking in back.

Downtown or not?

So what counts as downtown?  In St Paul, the Upper Landing area was developed with a high-density urban form in an area close enough to the traditional downtown that it could be considered a new urban appendage.  But traditionally this area would not have been considered downtown, at least not since Little Italy was cleared.  So should its growth be credited to downtown or to the rest of the city?

I took the coward’s route – I tried to use local definitions of downtown.  First, if I could find a media report – blog or newspaper – that defined a city’s downtown, I let them do the work for me.  If I couldn’t find a media report, I used the municipality’s definition – most cities have an area within boundaries that they’ve called Downtown, even if just for economic development.  There were a handful of cities where I just trusted Wikipedia, because I couldn’t find a municipal definition.  Also some of the bigger cities I made up definitions of Greater Downtown Areas because the official definition was too small an area.  For example Chicago’s Loop is defined as south and east of the Chicago River, west of the lake and north of Roosevelt, making a bit more than half the land area of Minneapolis’ official inside-the-freeways, west of the river Downtown (1.49 sq mi for the former and 2.71 sq mi for the latter).

Once I had a definition of a downtown, I used the New York Times 2010 Census map to get the 2010 population and rate of growth, from which I extrapolated the 2000 population.  Because official downtown definitions don’t always follow the boundaries of census tracts, I just tried to approximate as best I could.  Feel free to download my data for definitions of particular cities and the actual census tracts I used.

Now that I’ve provided a convoluted introduction, let’s get to the results.  The answer is yes, downtowns nationwide grew in the last decade.  Only 6 of the metros with a million-plus population (hereafter referred to as MPMs, for Million-Plus Metros) had downtowns that didn’t grow in the last decade, out of 51 total.  Just when you thought we were going to get to some graphs, that brings up another peculiarity.  As Twin Citians know, some regions have more than one regionally important downtown.  In those cases I combined the populations of both downtowns to gauge the regional downtown population.  That of course involved calculating them separately, whereupon I found that in Riverside-San Bernardino, one of the downtowns grew while the other shrank (albeit by an insignificant 30 people).  So the combined downtown population grew by 5%, but San Bernardino grew by 9% while Riverside shrank by -.27%.  Both of them appear to actually be suburbs of LA anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s something to keep in mind when the graphs start flying.

Let’s kick it off with a straight up graph of population change, absolute and percent, in the 51 MPMs:

This graph is pretty hard to read because of some mega outliers, specifically Manhattan, which grew by 49,174 (the next greatest growth was LA 15,445), and Dallas-Fort Worth, which grew by 306% (the next greatest percent growth was Charlotte with 134%).

The average growth for all MPMs was 41%, which sounds impressive until you hear the average absolute growth, which was only 4,493 people.  That’s chicken scratch next to the average growth for the entire metro area across the 51 MPMs, which was 315,214.  So let’s look at that.  Here’s a graph of how downtown growth rates compared with metro area growth rates and central city growth rates:

I cut off the Dallas-Fort Worth downtown growth rate for this one so the other rates would show up better.  As you can see, downtowns had much stronger growth rates overall than metro areas and especially central cities.  However, that pattern isn’t across the board – around 10 metros on the left side of the chart had greater metro area and central city growth rates than downtown growth rates.  I classified the metros by census bureau region, and if you look at the average across regions, you start to see some different patterns:

This table doubles as an eyesight test

On this one, the weird result is the Northeast’s Central City, which shows a percent decrease but an absolute increase.  It’s all New York’s fault – because it increased by 166,855 people (the largest central city increase), it drives the average way up.  But for a city the size of New York, that’s only a 2% increase in population, not enough to offset the large percent declines of Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Rochester (-11%, -9%, and -4% respectively).  I guess that’s my warning not to read the percent columns as an expression of the numerical columns.

Anyway, the regional differences become clear.  The South had about twice the average rate of downtown population change of any other region, but it also had a much lower numerical change.  This likely accounts for the impressive-sounding rate of change for all cities, of which the South makes up close to half.  Still, it’s impressive that a region that had almost nothing that could be considered urban now has its first taste of city life. Conversely, the Northeast had the lowest average downtown population rate of change and the highest average numerical change, reflecting the higher existing populations in the downtowns of that region.

Looking at the average downtown population across regions seems to bear this theory out, as the South has the lowest average population in 2000:

And again the South comes out poorly when looking at the cities with the 10 largest downtown populations, with only Raleigh representing the vast region:

But Raleigh also exposes the methodological weakness of this whole venture, as does the top 10 table in general.  The only definition I could find of Raleigh’s downtown runs east to Raleigh Blvd, so it includes a couple square miles of streetcar suburb.  If I were to define Downtown Raleigh, the eastern border wouldn’t run past East St, so the definition I used is about twice the actual size even in my own estimation.

On the other side, you may have noticed that I used the entire borough of Manhattan for downtown New Y0rk.  You may disagree with that decision, and if so you’re not alone – I do, too.  The problem is that the part of Manhattan sometimes called “Downtown” actually has fewer jobs and office space than Midtown Manhattan, so each area would conflict with some definition.  Since even the northern tip of the island has characteristics that could be considered a downtown in any other American city, I decided to look at the borough as a whole.  That approach is probably unfair to other New York business districts, such as Downtown Brooklyn, that probably could have qualified for this study.  It also makes for a freaking huge outlier, although Lower and Midtown Manhattan are also outliers, with six times the 2010 population of the next biggest city, and 7,000-15,000 greater increase in population than the next largest increase (download my data if you’re curious about specifics).

Manhattan was the only city where I included a greater downtown area for comparison’s sake, although as mentioned above I did create them for Chicago, Miami and San Francisco – that’s the kind of inconsistency that comes from dealing with this much data in your spare time.  My policy of generously allowing cities to define their own downtowns created its own problems, especially when looking at the percent of metro area population that lives downtown, where four Southern cities appear in the top ten:

Note that New York has been omitted from the two above charts, and that while in general downtowns’ share of metro area population went up, it didn’t go up as much as the two charts seem to show due to my neglect to maintain the same scale for the right axis.

So after a decade that was widely hyped for downtown growth, only seven cities have downtowns that contain 1% or more of their metro’s populations.  While the ubiquity of downtown growth may have been exceptional, the growth itself may not have been significant, or significant enough to make a difference regionally.  Downtown growth mostly beat regional growth in the relatively sluggish decade (see the chart Downtown, Central City, and Metro Area Growth Rates above), and downtowns as generally small portions of metro areas maybe shouldn’t be expected to ever contain a significant portion of the metro population.  But central cities grew much less consistently (as we know here in the Twin Cities), with 21 central cities shrinking, and of the 30 that grew, only maybe a dozen did so without annexation or greenfield development.  Moreover, as I attempt to show on the most confusing chart I’ve ever made, the vast majority of central cities lost share of metro area population, that is, the suburbs grew faster than they did:

So while downtown growth was a national trend, we’re not talking about an overthrow of the suburban realm quite yet.  Still, even a small shoot of urban growth is encouraging in the vast mire of suburbanism that has festered for the past few decades.  Things change slowly in our litigation-fueled, Nimbyful society, and there are indications that demand for urban places exceed the supply.  The fringe still seems to be freckled with vacancy while apartments rise in the central city, which indicates a lot taller bars in the charts of downtown growth after the 2020 census.

If you care to dig through my data, here is the xlsx.  Feel free to dispute the downtown definitions – more likely than not I’ll agree with you.