Rapid Stats

New transit landscape

I guess I’m not delivering them very rapidly, but I thought it would be useful to enter the data from Metro Transit’s Rapid Bus Corridor concepts into one spreadsheet.  The individual corridor sheets are beautiful and packed with facts, but the advantage to a spreadsheet is easy comparison of one corridor to another.

The reason we must compare corridors is that Metro Transit isn’t necessarily planning to build all of the corridors they developed concepts for, and some will be built before others.  Part of the purpose of the study is to develop “a prioritization plan for the arterial corridors”.  That language comes from SRF’s summary, but apparently we will have to wait until the study is published in February to know exactly what the prioritization will be based on.

In the meantime, we have the stats from the corridor concepts, which we can assume will be used to prioritize (as opposed to political prioritization, i.e. regional balance – we already know that Scott County is not in the running).


One place to start is to just look at the number of people who live or work along each corridor.  Metro Transit gives us these numbers both in a 1/4 mile circle and a 1/2 mile circle around the proposed stations for each rapid route.  The raw numbers are of course weighted toward lines with more stations (the number of stations runs from 15 on Hennepin to 28 each on Nicollet and Chicago), so I created a “density” measure, which just divides the total by the number of stations for a more fair comparison.

On the above chart, like the next three, the scale is distorted by the high number of jobs in Downtown Minneapolis.  To offset this, Metro Transit included a metric for jobs outside the downtowns, although in reality the downtowns are the largest trip generators and should be considered.  As you can see, Chicago really places well in this chart, coming in first in jobs (thanks to an added boost from the Mall of America) and also in population.  Nicollet and Lake are close seconds in population, and Central, Nicollet, Broadway and Hennepin also get job boosts from Downtown, although each follows its predecessor by 10k jobs or so until Hennepin finishes with 60k jobs fewer than Chicago.  Presumably this distance mostly stems from proximity to the core, as the different routes vary much more slightly in jobs outside Downtown.

The Mickey's station on West 7th has the highest grease density of any corridor

The above chart shows a slightly different picture, with the same five Downtown Minneapolis-serving lines appearing at the top of the heap again, but in a different order.  In this measure American and West 7th rank close to the Downtown Minneapolis lines.  These lines still have fairly high job numbers (though less than half of Chicago’s), but are helped by their much lower number of stations per mile – American has the least of any corridor, with 1.33 stations/mile, and West 7th is just behind it, with 1.42 stations/mile (see table below).  That means they don’t waste time serving low-density stations, like most of the other corridors do generally as they get further from the downtowns.

Making the circle a bit wider makes some sense – though the typical walking distance to transit is 1/4 mile, people are usually willing to walk further to faster service, and 37% of Hiawatha riders walk more than 1/4 mile.  But the chart above doesn’t show a drastically different picture.  The y axis is larger, but the corridors mostly seem to rank in the same order, as is more evident when you apply a color scale to the data in a table:

The table above is a good way to finish the series on demographics, because it clearly shows which routes have the advantages in the various demographic categories.  Nicollet and Chicago have the advantage both in jobs and population, and although they have some competitors in individual categories, no other routes are competitive across the board.

But for consistency I’ll present this last chart above, which shows that the most bang for the buck will probably come from the Hennepin line.  That’s the one where every station built is likely to reach a high amount of riders.

Station Spacing

An interlude about station spacing – the corridors all deviate from the half-mile station spacing ideal.  In many cases this is due to traversing either of the downtowns on a N-S axis, where the stations are often placed two blocks apart (where they currently stop in Downtown Minneapolis).  However there are a number of factors, for example Central has 3 stops in the half-mile from 18th to Lowry to serve the higher-density neighborhood; similarly, the routes that run between Franklin and Lake have 4 or 5 stops in that mile.  The opposite is the case with East 7th, which generally keeps to half-mile spacing, but leaves more than a mile without a station between Arcade and Clarence.

The stations depicted on the concept corridors are not final, of course.  But it seems as though Metro Transit prefers to keep the much closer spacing downtown, which makes sense because most of the lines terminate there anyway, so it’s fair to trade travel time for coverage (plus they’re apparently sinking some money into bus stations on 5th and 6th in St Paul anyway, a factor that may help the 7th St corridors).

Speed, Frequency and Reliability

Demographics are not the only factor to consider when prioritizing implementation.  Instead it’s important to consider the degree to which the routes will be improved by the enhancements.  Pretty stations are nice and all, but what I care about is how fast I can get to Mickey’s.  To that degree, Metro Transit included measures of speed, frequency and reliability in its rapid bus concepts.

A number of the proposed rapid bus enhancements should improve on-time performance, but maybe Metro Transit found it hard to quantify or predict, because they only included the on-time performance for current locals in the concepts (shown in the above chart).  From this, we can glean the lines that are most in need of improvements; Central rises to the top by virtue of its placement at the bottom.

The only clue Metro Transit gave us as to the increase in on-time performance was a series of pie charts showing the factors of travel time for each route.  I’ll admit that I’m not sure how to process this information, although generally it seems right to look for an increase in “In Motion” time and a decrease in “Dwell Time”.  (Since these are percentages, an increase in “In Motion” doesn’t mean the trip will actually take longer.)  Part of my confusion stems from the two factors that aren’t listed for all routes – especially that those factors disappear from the projections for after improvements are made.  It makes sense that “Hold/Other” would disappear, since holds are mostly scheduled to make up for delays.  But how can they expect that traffic delays will disappear?  Maybe if they were including dedicated bus lanes in the scope of this project, but my understanding is that’s off the table.

Assuming Rapid Bus routes are pretty reliable, they should be quite a bit faster – between 5 and 30% faster.  That 5% is for the already limited-stop West 7th line and is a much smaller improvement than most lines, implying that much of the speed increase comes from wider stop spacing.  Chicago, Central and East 7th are also outliers in this measure, all improving by around 10% (the rest of the routes improve by between 20 and 30%).   Presumably Central’s improvement is small because the 10 already uses signal preemption; East 7th and Chicago are a mystery to me.

Disclaimer about the above chart:  the % change in travel should actually be negative, but I changed it to positive to get it show on the chart.  Technically I shouldn’t use a line graph to show a nonlinear measure, but this is the best way I’ve found to get different y axis measures to show up in Excel – if you have a better idea, please let me know.

That last disclaimer should probably also apply to the above chart, too, but I’ve always wanted to use a radar chart and it seemed to fit pretty well for comparing frequency.  I was able to calculate effective frequency for the proposed corridor by simply adding the proposed rapid and local frequencies.  Assuming they will not be scheduled to bunch (i.e. to make the local bus show up as close to the rapid bus as possible), these routes will have really impressive frequency – 6 corridors will have 6 minute headways or less.  Hennepin will end up with an effective headway of 4.3 minutes, with a rapid bus every 7.5 minutes on top of locals still running a respectable every 10 minutes.  The radar chart shows the biggest improvements in the American and Broadway lines, where current 30 minute headways are halved to every 15 minutes.  In the case of Broadway it’s a bit misleading, though, since the densest part of West Broadway – the mile between Knox and Washington – will retain local bus service, although at what frequency they don’t say.

Busing for Dollars

Another factor presumably will be the cost of construction.  This will be relatively low, but how low seems to be unknown – the presentation on Metro Transit’s site suggests $1-3m per mile, but a subsequent Star Tribune story says it could be as much as $6m per mile, and today’s MinnPost article quotes a Met Council rep as estimating $2-5m per mile.  Probably inertia is causing them to estimate the cost per mile – since there are no guideway improvements under consideration, a per station estimate would be more useful.  Apparently Metro Transit is considering large and small station concepts, and presumably there would be a hierarchy of stations, with high-boardings stations getting large stations.  If that’s the case, you couldn’t just assume that routes with more stations will be more expensive, since for example the Lake St route, with a high number of transfers, will have a higher per station cost.  On the other hand, because the highest boardings tend to be downtown, maybe routes that serve the downtowns will have the highest per station cost.


With uncertainty still surrounding nearly every detail about the Rapid Bus concept and corridors, maybe the only thing I’ve proven with this exercise is my obsession with transit.  However, the evidence strongly suggests that each corridor has unique factors that necessarily be boiled down to a set of numbers.  After all, with one exception these lines all currently serve tremendous numbers of riders, so where ever improvements are made it will improve a large number of rides.

Personally, I tend to favor improving network connectivity, which could boost routes like American or Snelling that (will someday) connect light rail lines.  Other considerations, such as improving underserved areas, would boost the Broadway or East 7th lines.  As long as we’re speculating, we may as well hope, and I for one hope they just build them all at once.

Numerical Afterword

As I mentioned, all the charts in this post were made with Excel, which was the ideal tool for me only because its crudeness so well matched my own ineptitude.  I’ve always enjoyed visual presentations of information, but never really had the training or talent for it.  So if anyone reading this has any constructive criticism, please don’t let your Minnesotanism hold you back from commenting.  Also, if anyone has any suggestions for better chart-creating software than Excel, please share.  Finally, I want to spread the fruit of my data entry – apologies for the mess.


Greenfields and trenches

A couple doozies in the agenda for the 9/27 Transportation & Public Works committee:

1. is the first waft of a new greenfield housing development in Bryn Mawr.  It seems that someone long ago went through a great deal of trouble to plat a few blocks south of Chestnut Ave and west of Upton, but then only built houses on maybe half the land.  Now someone else has decided that now (or relatively soon) is the time to finish building the blocks and to line them with single-family homes.  Here are the blocks in question:

This map produced by Mpls Public Works shows the parcels owned by the developer in grey

This map produced by Mpls Public Works shows the parcels owned by the developer in grey

I shouldn’t sensationalize:  this project has a long way to go before any ramblers or McMansions pop up.  The developer – Frank Stucky is the name in case you know him – asked the city to “open” the unbuilt portions of Vincent and Xerxes.  I’m unclear on whether that means the developer asked the city to build the streets and attendant infrastructure for him or whether he merely asked permission from the city to build them himself.  The tone of the report implies that the city is not interested in building these streets, but would allow the developer to do so.  Most intriguingly, it requires a report on the following:

identification of all applicable permits, processes, ordinances, and standards related to Public Works and Planning & Zoning for single family home development; the estimated cost of maintaining the improved roadways and related utilities; the estimated cost to construct the roadways and related utilities; documentation that confirms that the Owner/Developer is willing to bear the costs of such improvements; the proposed prospect for developing the currently vacant lots; estimated tax revenues to be derived from the developed lots vs. vacant lots; the ability of the roads to bear emergency vehicle access; the wishes of the neighboring landowners with respect to the opening of the roads and the development of the lots [who wants to bet on what the wishes of the neighbors will be? -alex]; identification of relative hardships, if any, caused by not opening the roads vs. relative hardships, if any, caused by opening the roads.

In other words, a micro-scale version of the recent report by Edmonton (thanks Brendon) on the “extent to which new residential neighbourhoods pay for themselves.”  (note- this quote is in Canadian)

I’ve done some rough measurements of the area and length of block face of the parcels in question, and based on the minimum lot area of 6000 sq ft and minimum lot width of 50′ in an R1 district, it looks like the developer could put up no more than 12 houses.  Interestingly, the lots appear to be platted at 5400 sq ft and about 40′ wide (presumably these blocks were platted decades before the zoning code was enacted), meaning they need to be either replatted or rezoned.  If that happens and they only require the more typical lot area of 5000 sq ft and width of 40′, 16 houses could fit.  If this were a more progressive part of a more progressive city (like, say, Chaska), some 22 houses could be placed on these blocks.

We can dream

All that speculation assumes the developer would like to build more houses on the lots, instead of just using them for a few houses on large lots.  It’s hard to tell exactly at this point, but it is likely in the city’s interest that more houses be built.  Because of the required approvals, the city actually has some leverage here – let’s hope they use it.  The committee postponed action for two cycles to wait until the report was ready – at least that sounds like what CM Colvin Roy was saying.

2. is my old nemesis, the proposed 4th St S ramp to Northbound 35W (now with its own project page).  The goal is to make it easier to commute back to your hobby farm in the northern suburbs from your boring job in Downtown Minneapolis by building a new ramp to 35W from CR-122 (aka the Washington Ave Trench), a mere 700 feet south of the existing ramp to 35W from Washington Ave S (the non-trench Washington).  Here is what the new time-saving on-ramp will look like:

Blaine is now two minutes closer

Apparently the news about a little construction project called the Central Corridor hasn’t made it out to Medina, because Hennepin County’s engineers forgot to put the new on-ramp configuration on this layout.  It shouldn’t make a big difference; the new ramp to Cedar is 300 feet from the stoplight proposed as part of this project.  But if we’re reconfiguring the Washington Trench to have a stoplight spacing similar to Lake St, maybe they could have thrown in a sidewalk or two?  Or at least made the new ramp to 35W a bit more perpendicular so as to not encourage as lethal speeding.

To understand why this ramp is superfluous, it helps to consider the history of this trench.  Sometime around the middle of the last century, someone decided that it took too darn long to drive from Downtown to the U of M.  There was just too much dense neighborhood in the way.  The Washington Ave Bridge was due for a replacement anyway, so they just tore down a bunch of the dense neighborhood and built a little mini-freeway to connect to the new bridge.

So while it may look like this project concerns the intersection of three roadways, Washington Avenue and its trenched doppelganger perform essentially the same function, that is to move traffic from west to east and vice versa.  With that understanding, the 8 existing ramps forming the interchange seem sufficient, and adding one seems superfluous.

Ramp map - ramps are numbered (including the proposed ramp in red), directions represent the destinations linked by the interchange

Why get worked up about a $13m project?  For one thing, it likely won’t be long before the whole thing needs to be redone again.  Right now, thanks to Central Corridor, the interchange is a pile of dirt except for a forked viaduct carrying vehicles from nb 35W to 3rd St S and Washington Ave (marked 6 and 4 respectively on the ramp map).  This viaduct will soon turn 50 years old, but is a sibling to a nearby bridge that will not be there to celebrate.  That means that chances are the viaduct will also need to be rebuilt soon, at which point it will be much more logical to make this interchange more diamond-like.  Rather than spend $15m for another flyover ramp, at that point it will make sense to instead build one ramp from nb 35W to the Trench, where a signalized intersection could accommodate all the movements that are currently made using the viaduct, including a connection north to Washington Ave, from which vehicles could access (or re-access, as the case may be) nb 35W.  Alternately, you could fit in a 400′ diameter roundabout, as I mentioned a few months back.

Circle gets the square

I admit that my radical side, considering the extreme disparity between transportation spending on cars and all other forms of transportation, is opposed to any new auto-oriented spending.  But I do have a timid, quiet, practical side that realizes that we live in an auto-dominated society (because of that modal disparity in spending) and realizes that there are some auto-oriented projects worthy of construction.  An example is the 35W access project, which proposes to increase the usefulness of a freeway to a neighborhood that it currently cuts through.  That is to say, it adds accessibility.  The 4th St ramp to 35W does not increase accessibility.  It does not increase safety.  It is a small reduction in trip time for some commuters.  The existing exit has working imperfectly for 50 years, so why choose this particularly cash-strapped moment to move forward with this project?

Of course the TPW committee voted in the consent agenda to spend $2m in city money on this nice gift for commuters from Anoka and northern Ramsey counties.

One more item, not from the TPW committee, but rather from the Planning Commission meeting of 9/13, but I haven’t seen anyone else discuss it so I’ll mention it briefly (or as briefly as I am capable of mentioning anything).

Gary Schiff has proposed amending the zoning code to blow the top off of the CUP ceiling for multi-family developments.  As it stands, you need a CUP for any building of more than five units.  Where that rule came from, I have no idea – while fourplexes and duplexes are more common, sixplexes aren’t unheard of and I knew a guy who used to refer to his building as a nineplex.  Anyway, if this passes, no hockey player will again need a CUP for his new sixplex.

The staff report contains some nice quotes:

  • The average fee for a conditional use permit is $750.00.  Between 2005 and 2010 there were 113 conditional use permit applications for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units submitted. At an average fee of $750.00 per application this amounts to $84,750 dollars that was collected.
  • Between 2006 and 2010, 92 percent of all conditional use permit applications for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units that were reviewed by the City Planning Commission were approved. Of the eight percent that were denied, other applications (i.e., rezoning) were typically required that were not supportable, so therefore the conditional use permits were also denied.
  • In both the City of St. Paul and the City of Bloomington, multiple-family dwellings are a permitted rather than conditional use in the zoning districts where they are allowed. In the City of Richfield, multiple-family dwellings over nine dwelling units in the MR-2 Multi-Family Residential District require a conditional use permit and multiple-family dwellings over 20 dwelling units in the MR-3 High Density Multi-Family Residential District require a conditional use permit.
  • The conditional use permit application for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units often adds relatively little value to the review process.

Good news as we move into an apartment “boom.”  Don’t get too excited, though – the proposal also would “require City Planning Commission action on site plan review applications for any development of ten or more units…” with an associated application fee.

Feat of feet of street

The brilliant blog Mapping the Strait posted an infographic yesterday comparing the feet of street per resident of 8 American cities.

The metric is supposed to give an indication of the amount of infrastructure per resident, to augment standard persons per area measures of population density.

According to the Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks, Minneapolis has 1,423 miles of roads and vehicle bridges, not counting freeways.  My rough Google Earth measurement of freeways within city limits is 30.3 miles (that includes the part of 62 on the border but does not include highways 55 & 121 because I think they are in the city’s measurement, although that’s just a guess).  That makes for 7,673,424 feet of streets and highways, or 20.1 feet for each of the 382,578 residents counted in the 2010 census.  We’re closer to Detroit, Phoenix or San Antonio than Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or Chicago on this count.

That doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable result to me, although by measuring residents only you ignore the significant market for infrastructure represented by workers.  In that case cities such as San Antonio or Houston that contain most of their employment catchment area in their city limits are going to be more accurately portrayed by this metric.  One of the commenters at Mapping the Straight asked for this metric by area of paved surface – I think using lane feet would be better than centerline feet, but probably less widely available.  Fun to think about anyway.

Down with the USA Today!

This infographic is sponsored by McDonald's and Immodium A-D

Ever since I was a child, I’ve hated the USA Today.  At first it was because they didn’t have comics, but as I’ve grown older I’ve gotten better at rationalizing my opinions in ways that make sense to adults, and now I just have to say that their stories tend to be extremely superficial.

Take their recent article about increased differentiation between suburban strata as portrayed by the 2010 census, using St Croix county as an example.  The paper gets some credit for at least distinguishing between suburbs, noting that nationwide inner suburbs grew at a greater rate than middle suburbs, though not nearly at the rate of outer suburbs.  This is an obvious statement.  Outer suburbs are starting at smaller populations, so even if a lower number of people move there, it can result in higher percentage growth than larger cities.

Families flock to downtown Hudson

USA Today doesn’t mention the absolute change number for these three types of suburbs, or even really describe how they differentiated between them.  This is problematic for suburbs like Mendota Heights or Maplewood, which are relatively central in the metro area, but had substantial greenfield development through the 1980s.  The paper credits Robert Lang – author of Boomburbs – for the data, but doesn’t link to any more detailed analysis.

But my real beef comes in when they start talking about St Croix county, which in the last decade grew by an astonishing 33.6% (or about 5 times less fast than the North Loop).  This section really betrays their lack of knowledge of the Twin Cities metro.  It claims the county is popular because of its “easy access to the Twin Cities (12 miles), more moderately priced housing, good schools and a quaint downtown in Hudson.”

St Croix county is only 12 miles from the St Paul city limits, but it is much further from the majority of jobs in the Twin Cities.  As Orfield and Luce put it in their study of employment and commute patterns in the book Region, employment clusters in the Twin Cities “are more likely to be in the western and southwestern parts of the region.”  And as the map shows, St Croix doesn’t have a particularly low average commute time, even for collar counties.

Surprisingly, USA Today is also off-base about the housing cost – although ACS 5 year data shows St Croix county’s median housing value of $224k to be a bit lower than the metro area’s median of $240k, it is actually higher than Ramsey County’s median and about the same as Anoka’s.

I’m not even going to look into the schools, because I don’t think there is a quantitative method of ranking schools, so I’ll give USA Today that point.  And they can have one for crediting Hudson’s quaint downtown as a driver of growth, because I agree with them, and because it muddles their point (according to USA Today, Americans prefer to live in fringe suburbs, but only if they’re near a downtown).

Why are people moving to St Croix county?  Because houses are being built there.  But St Croix county isn’t even adding an exceptional number of houses.  In the 13-county metro area, Hennepin County by far added the most housing units, 40,776, four times the 9,709 added in St Croix county.  The foreclosure crisis reduces the increase in occupied housing units to only 2.5 times that of St Croix county.

So why is the USA today writing about St Croix county?  It could be because the county was the only one in the 13 county metro to have a higher rate of growth in 2000-2010 than 1990-2000, and it thereby fits the story’s “stay calm, everything is fine, all growth is still on the fringe” attitude.

On this point, I’m humbled to have to agree with them.  Although locally the suburban fringe grew at a slower rate in the last decade than in the 90s, inner and middle suburbs’ rate of growth decreased even more, meaning the fringe accounted for a greater share of the Twin Cities’ growth in the 00s than it did in the 90s (about 66% in 00s and about 45% in the 90s).  That means that the region needs to work harder to focus growth inward, for example by encouraging more compact development in situations like the Brookdale site.  It also means that this national paper may be more on target than the locals, which both recently posed the possibility of an end to sprawl.  And that means I need to get more creative in rationalizing my hatred of the USA Today.

Hit by nice Berg, census reeling

Portland Model City?

Steve Berg gets my nomination for King of Urbanists in the Twin Cities.  A talented writer, I consider him the most eloquent Minnesotan activist for safer, more inclusive streets, smart density, and mixing uses.

He’s been writing lately about the 2010 census results (2 more census articles than either of the local newspapers, by the way), and while I agree with his conclusion – municipalities in the Twin Cities need to do a better job of encouraging dense, transit-oriented growth as well as transit for the growth to orient to – I’ve been a bit irked about his decision to compare us to the same three cities of Denver, Seattle and Portland.

Portland annexation map

Portland does a great job encouraging growth along transit lines in developed areas, but it also has a dirty secret:  The greenfield area around Powell Butte was a significant contributor to the city’s growth.  As Portland’s annexation map makes clear, it has annexed land as recently as the early 90s, and plans to eventually annex the entirety of its urban growth boundary.  That means that Portland has as much in common with Forest Lake as it does with Minneapolis.

The population growth in the Powell Butte area accounted for a greater share of the city’s growth than the downtown area – although downtown had a higher growth rate and is a smaller area.  Still, it’s not really fair to ask a city that has been built out for decades to grow as fast as a city that still has a greenfield advantage.

Denver is an even worse comparison, since its population was boosted by massive redevelopments of Air Force bases.  The Lowry and Stapleton developments added a cumulative 16,664 residents to the Mile High City, way more than Downtown Denver’s 9,815 added residents.  Those three areas account for more than half of the 45,000 residents that moved into Denver in the oughts – other areas of the city grew as well, but there were also substantial sections that declined, specifically the Highland area across the river from Downtown.  It doesn’t seem to me that Denver’s census change pattern deviates all that much from MSP, except that it grew a lot more:

Denver Population Change 2000-2010

Mpls-StP Population Change 2000-2010

These maps are from Data Pointed and I’m pretty sure they’re not to scale.

Edit:  Data Pointed apparently doesn’t like hosting images for my blog so for now you’ll have to find the maps yourself on that site.  I’ll maybe screen print the NY Times maps or grab them from Transport Politic this weekend – I live to serve.

Seattle, however, is a more fair comparison to Minneapolis-St Paul.  I wrote a few months ago about how it contains more recently-built suburban areas than Minneapolis, but not necessarily more than St Paul.  Still, it hasn’t annexed any land since the 50s, so there isn’t any greenfield development in the city proper.

There is no question Seattle has done a better job encouraging growth in the center city than Minneapolis.  If you look at their growth map, you see strong growth in the downtown and around the university, like the Twin Cities and most cities nationwide.  But you also see people moving into areas outside of downtown, such as Ballard, Northgate, and NewHolly – these growth areas were codified in their most recent comprehensive plan as Urban Villages, areas where a dense mix of uses will be encouraged.  It’s a similar concept to Minneapolis’ Activity Centers, but Seattle sets aggressive targets for job and residential growth in these clusters.

Seattle Population Change 2000-2010

So if only one of Berg’s three comparison cities is actually comparable, are there other cities that are more like the Twin Cities, if just so that we’re not adrift in a sea of relativism?  Let’s look to our neighbors, who are of a similar vintage, and who were similar choked off by the upper classes seeking their own municipalities safe from the votes of the teeming, ethnic masses.

Milwaukee, St Louis and Cleveland are of similar size, age and metropolitan structure, and at first glance Minneapolis and St Paul look good in comparison.  St Louis and Cleveland each lost tens of thousands of residents in the last decade, and Milwaukee lost about two thousand – eerily similar to the Twin Cities’ combined losses.  But the three rust belt cities also had population booms in their downtowns – all three had growth rates that surpassed Minneapolis and St Paul, and St Louis beat Minneapolis in absolute increase as well.

Downtown population change

Just for kicks, I’ll throw in this info for the cities Steve Berg likes to compare to the Twin Cities:

Downtown Population Change

You can, of course, find similarities and differences between most cities.  And certainly all of these cities are auto-dependent, Euclidian-zoned (although I think Denver is experimenting with a form-based code) and in the Anglo-American tradition.  And, honestly, Berg’s points hold up in all of them – the USA has a racial ghetto problem, and while it’s less pronounced in cities with smaller minority populations, the Twin Cities is one of several metro areas that have failed to handle this problem.  Denver seems to have the same problem, and I don’t think we should follow Seattle’s lead by exporting the ghetto to a different city (Tacoma, in Seattle’s case; we’ve already gotten a start on sending minorities to the Brooklyns).  Instead we should continue the Met Council’s work on increasing affordable housing opportunities in the suburbs.  Here is some data to back up these assertions:

Census race 2010

Because of the racist nature of American settlement patterns, it’s predictable that cities with greenfield development (Portland, Denver) would have a smaller percentage of minority populations.  Conversely, it may be that the Twin Cities, with relatively small central cities relative to suburbs, have actually done a better job than these “peer” cities of reducing minority concentration, although a large ghetto remains on the Northside and Minneapolis sure suffered for it in the 2010 census.

Steve Berg’s other point, that successful cities develop their transit systems and encourage dense growth around stations, is more supported by census data.  Looking at the percent of metro area growth that occurred downtown, it roughly corresponds with the level of transit investment, although Milwaukee is a major outlier.  Also the metric doesn’t work with metros like Cleveland that lost population, although the fact that the downtown nevertheless grew is a major triumph.

Downtown vs Metro population change 2000-2010

I’m going to put my spreadsheet out there for people to look at and build on.  This rambling entry is not meant to be the final word on anything, so feel free to engage in the discussion by tearing my points to shreds in the comments.  I’m going to add more and more stats to this spreadsheet and maybe eventually I’ll do a another post when I have a more complete picture.

downtown census pop

A note about the data here:  it is always debatable how to define unofficial geographic areas such as downtowns.  As you might expect, I have my own opinion about what constitutes  Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown St Paul, but amazingly I don’t consider myself an expert on the neighborhood geography of other cities.  Therefore I’ve relied on others’ definitions, which I’ve referenced in the spreadsheet.  When I pulled the census data myself, I’ve referenced the census tracts I used, which usually didn’t correspond exactly with the downtown boundaries.  But then life itself is inexact.  As always, feel free to disagree, but if you do I ask you to specify your disagreement in the comments.

Office Drones on Transit

A slice of life, for some

From the Atlantic (some kind of blog on paper I guess) a reminder that the decision to ride transit can be cultural.  This article focuses on an office park 37 miles from San Francisco that has a (presumably exceptional) 33% transit commute rate.  While the article is missing some key details, for example how this commute rate compares to other exurban office parks in the Bay Area, it contains some choice quotes:

…once riders begin leaving their cars at home they go through a stressful period of two weeks or so where they feel that they’ve lost the control they had in the car. But within three weeks they notice their overall stress levels are lower. “Transit requires that you go at a different pace. You have to wait. If there were roses, we’d smell them,” she says, “There’s not much of that in our lives.” She says HR people have called her saying some of their meaner workers have become pleasant people after switching to transit.

If we were playing a word association game, the first word I would think of after reading the first sentence is “addiction.”

The transit-oriented office park, Bishop Ranch, is huge, with 30,000 employees on hundreds of acres.  It is big enough that it basically has its own TMO, named Marci.  Marci does things like guilt tripping people about how dangerous and bad for the environment driving is.  Bishop Ranch has the same number of employees as an employment cluster that covers the Opus area of Minnetonka and the Golden Triangle area of Eden Prairie known as the Eden Prairie/Hwy 169 employment cluster.  “Cluster” is a relative term – Eden Prairie/Hwy 169 is about twice the area of Bishop Ranch.  It is covered by a TMO, but shares it with 5 cities in the southwest metro.  There are only 3 other TMOs in the metro area.  If it’s the Marcis that make the difference, the Twin Cities need to get some more Marcis.

While urban planners tend to see bus ridership as a design issue, Marci sees it as a cultural endeavor.

Hey dude

But it’s a design issue, too, of course.  I already mentioned the relative density of Bishop Ranch, but it also has a surprisingly rigid grid form.  This is presumably a legacy of its master plan, while in contrast most office parks are built pretty piecemeal.  Opus was also master planned, but is much more curvilinear.  I can only speculate about how walkable each area is, but I’ve found that one of the worst things about walking in the suburbs is that all the inconsistencies of the curved streets make every turn a risk, since you never know if you’ll turn down a dead end.  Grid patterns also tend to be easier to serve with transit, although Bishop Ranch doesn’t seem to have taken advantage.

Golden fleece

Transit, however, seems to be the key to understanding the high transit mode share in Bishop Ranch, but it is the level of investment rather than the design.  The Bay Area has the advantage of being served by a regional transit system, making it possible to generally get from anywhere to anywhere within the metro area.  The Twin Cities, on the other hand, has only the rudiments of a regional system, comprised of commuter buses with a radial focus on Downtown Minneapolis.  Opus is served by the 12 bus, making it accessible by transit to those who live in a corridor of the southwest metro.  Everyone else will have to catch a commuter bus downtown and then wait to transfer to 12 and endure the 45-minute local ride to Minnetonka.  On top of that, the 12 only goes to Opus as a rush hour extension, and actually has fewer runs than the 96X bus, one of several that serve Bishop Ranch.

Until the Twin Cities gets serious about a regional transit system, whether rail or freeway BRT, it is unlikely that any suburban office parks will have transit mode share anywhere near that of Bishop Ranch.  No offense to the Atlantic or Marci, but the success of transit in Bishop Ranch seems to have less to do with culture and more to do with, as always, money.

Near North or Nearly Gone?

Where in the suburban world?

Can you guess where the aerial above was taken?  The form of the streets, curvy and cul-de-sac-ridden, suggests a post-war suburb.  The buildings, single-family homes with attached garages, make me think of Bloomington.  But this actually a picture of Lyndale and 14th Aves N, just a mile north of downtown Minneapolis.

It is also where a cyclist was struck Wednesday night by a hit-and-run driver, inflicting life-threatening injuries.

A vehicle doesn’t have to be going fast to inflict lethal damage on a pedestrian or cyclist – but the faster they go, the more likely death will be.  On this stretch of Lyndale, most drivers vastly exceed the 30 mph limit – partly due to the suburban form mentioned earlier.  There are no buildings along Lyndale, and berms separate the road from the neighborhood in places, lending a freeway-like atmosphere.

The other half of the deadly equation on Lyndale Ave N is street type – the City of Minneapolis classifies this stretch as a Commuter Street.  According to the Design Guidelines for Streets & Sidewalks, that makes it “a high capacity roadway that carries primarily through traffic, serves longer trips and provides limited access to land uses.”  The only designated Commuter Street in the city that runs through a residential neighborhood is Lyndale Ave N, and this stretch makes up about a third of the approximately 1.5 miles of designated Commuter Street that doesn’t directly line a freeway or highway.

Look familiar?

It isn’t an accident – this area of the Near-North was torn up by the Minneapolis HRA in 1968.  The image to the left, taken two years before the clearance project began, shows the familiar post-automobile Minneapolis cityscape: a healthy mix of apartments and detached houses, a few too many parking lots, a park here or there, and commercial buildings lining the major streets.  Minnesotans of the 60s saw no future in that sort of city, and took advantage of the low prices on land to try to import the suburban neighborhoods then in fashion.

A typical pre-renewal block* had 18 houses, implying that at its peak of development, the 25 blocks between Bryant and 4th and Plymouth and 18th had about 450 residential structures.  Today there are about 130 houses in the neighborhood, and a smattering of townhomes (Lyndale Manor’s 290 public housing units, though north of 18th, probably supply most of the neighborhood’s streetlife).

The park running through the neighborhood is actually very pleasant, if unnervingly empty.  It’s hard to see how it could be anything but, considering the forced depopulation of the area.  At one end of the green space stands the ghost footing of a bridge over I-94 that never came to be – despite a billion dollars a year of capital spending on roads at the state level, no one has yet been able to find the money for this Northside pedestrian bridge.  (Certainly it would be an expensive bridge – the freeway here manages to be wider than a long block.)

I hope that this type of redevelopment is now unanimously considered a failure.  It isn’t clear that a negative opinion is widely held, though – an example being Public Works’ designation of Lyndale as a Commuter Street, when it could easily be called a Community Connector – a distinction that has real differences in design characteristics.  Another example is the continued construction of single-family homes in Minneapolis, often replacing multi-unit buildings.

To build a safer, more inclusive community, the last vestiges of auto-oriented street design should be removed from the city and single-family home construction should be banned.  Minneapolis is never going to out-suburb the suburbs – instead it needs to focus on being the best city it can be.






*I’m looking at the block between Lyndale and Aldrich and 15th and 16th using the 1912 Sanborn.

A Glorious Abstraction

bye bye baby bear

I recently lost my tiny little 15-year-old dog, and for the past week or so instead of her there has been a dark cloud following me around.  I have a tendency towards the embittered rant anyway, but I’ve found that any attempt to write lately has resulted in writing that would at least earn me a place on a no-fly list, if not suck the entire internet into a black hole of despair.  Transportation issues can be thought of as logic puzzles, but at the same time they often have a very personal impact that tends to draw emotions into the argument.

So I’m grateful to the ever-lovin’ government this week for bestowing on me the gift of a relatively abstract issue: Minnesota’s census results.  My excitement for these results has built over the past month or so as results for central cities in other metro areas have shown population gains in many cases, and in others gains in the central neighborhoods despite overall central city loss.

And the results show that Minneapolis may be more St. Louis than Seattle, unfortunately, although the population only declined by 40 people (an aside: that number is one of those that is eerily precise, like the old maybe Steven Wright joke that 42.7% of statistics are made up on the spot, suggesting that if they hadn’t forgotten some apartment building Minneapolis would have gained population).  Net Density has already shown that Downtown Minneapolis gained population, and from some skimming it appears to me that Uptown has lost population, suggesting that there wasn’t enough new construction to overcome shrinking household sizes:

CT Pop 2010 HU 2010 Pop 2000 HU 2000
77 2618 1632 2048 1050
1055 3733 2390 3967 2388
1066 2332 1319 2368 1328
1067 4913 3169 5224 3194
1069 2724 1561 3121 1452
1070 4063 2088 4490 2085
1080 3294 2034 3517 2018
81 3394 1972 3503 1976
82 4534 2251 4597 2169
1092 3414 2151 3916 2172
1093 3992 1977 4218 1994
78.01 1693 671 1813 679
Total 40704 23215 42782 22505

(This is roughly the greater Uptown area, from the lakes to 35W, and from 38th to Franklin, including Lowry Hill but not Stevens Square.)

I may post more on the finer-grain info later, but the rest of this post is going to focus on the regional data.  I want to start here because this year, like every decade, articles about the census results imply or outright blame the crumbling of central cities as the reason for population loss, implying that the suburbs are what really matter and no one wants to live in central cities anymore.

But many inner suburbs have not grown in decades, and even outer suburbs are declining in population.  In fact, half of the 10 metro cities that lost the most absolute population were outer or fringe suburbs:

Place Pop 2010 Pop 2000 Pop # Change Pop % Change Ring
New Hope 20339 20873 -534 -3% Inner
Crystal 22151 22698 -547 -2% Inner
Mounds View 12155 12738 -583 -5% Outer
New Brighton 21456 22206 -750 -3% Inner
Vadnais Heights 12302 13069 -767 -6% Outer
Shoreview 25043 25924 -881 -3% Inner
Anoka 17142 18076 -934 -5% Fringe
Minnetonka 49734 51301 -1567 -3% Outer
St. Paul 285068 287151 -2083 -1% Central
Bloomington 82893 85172 -2279 -3% Outer

And measured by % population change, the all but one of the top ten losers were outer or fringe suburbs:

Place Pop 2010 Pop 2000 Pop # Change Pop % Change Ring
Newport 3435 3715 -280 -8% Inner
Willernie 507 549 -42 -8% Outer
Lake St. Croix Beach 1051 1140 -89 -8% Fringe
Excelsior 2188 2393 -205 -9% Fringe
Woodland 437 480 -43 -9% Fringe
Birchwood Village 870 968 -98 -10% Fringe
Wayzata 3688 4113 -425 -10% Fringe
Minnetonka Beach 539 614 -75 -12% Fringe
Lakeland Shores 311 355 -44 -12% Fringe
Maple Plain 1768 2088 -320 -15% Fringe

What all these cities have in common, whether St. Paul or Lake St. Croix Beach, is that they’ve reached territorial limits to their expansion.  (For the same reason Minneapolis and St. Paul stopped growing in the 1950s and 1960s respectively, although decline was delayed in those cases due to housing shortages.)

So we need to stop thinking of growth in terms of number of heads.  Take a look at the top ten cities in terms of housing units added in the last 10 years:

Place HU 2010 HU 2000 HU # Change HU % Change Ring
Minneapolis 178287 168606 9681 6% Central
Woodbury 23568 17541 6027 34% Inner
Maple Grove 23626 17745 5881 33% Outer
Blaine 21921 16169 5752 36% Outer
Lakeville 19456 13799 5657 41% Fringe
Shakopee 13339 7805 5534 71% Fringe
St. Paul 120795 115713 5082 4% Central
Plymouth 29982 25258 4724 19% Outer
Forest Lake 7508 2897 4611 159% Fringe
Eden Prairie 25075 21026 4049 19% Outer

Two central cities are included because they’ve finally made a few selected areas available for dense residential development after many years of restrictions.  Minneapolis, for example, has reached a new high in total number of housing units:

Census Housing Units Change from previous decade
1940 147547
1950 155215 7668
1960 173155 17940
1970 167196 -5959
1990 172666
2000 168606 -4060
2010 178287 9681

I believe the population decline between 1950 and 1960 was due mostly to the replacement of dense residential units downtown with parking lots, and I posted a couple months ago about how the 1960s likely saw the most residential units constructed in the postwar era, but it was more than offset by the destruction caused by interstate construction.

Even “outer” suburbs are barely growing, according to a classification by several authors of a study on voting patterns:


Suburb Type Sum of Pop 2010 Sum of Pop # Change Average of Pop % Change
Fringe 746383 148764 33%
Central 667646 -2123 0%
Inner 666547 27538 2%
Outer 698274 40273 4%
Grand Total 2778850 214452 19%

Large “outer” suburbs like Bloomington and Minnetonka lost population (and have been for several decades).  The point is, population growth seems to have little to do with American preferences for suburban lifestyles over urban lifestyles.  Instead it is just difficult to add density to existing urban fabric anywhere.  There is an epidemic of NIMBYism in the USA, and only in certain cities, or “tabula rasa” neighborhoods -usually downtown- that have no residents to object, can enough density be added to overcome shrinking household sizes.

I’m going to post the spreadsheet I made from the census data below because I haven’t seen it elsewhere (the state demography office has some good tables though) and American Fact Finder may be the most annoying website in existence.  Feel free to come to your own conclusions – just don’t tell me that no one wants to live in central cities.

metro cities analysis

(PS sorry about the crappy-looking tables – apparently wordpress doesn’t really support tables unless you throw down big bucks or learn html)

Census Housing Units Change from previous decade
1940 147547
1950 155215 7668
1960 173155 17940
1970 167196 -5959
1990 172666
2000 168606 -4060
2010 178287 9681

Towards a dense, multipolar metro

TC beltway with Paris Metro & RER overlaid approx to scale


The Transport Politic recently had a piece on Downtown Washington, D.C., which has a unique problem among cities in parking-obsessed USA:  it is running out of room for new office buildings.  Responding to proposals to lift D.C.’s (similarly unique) 10-story height limit, Yonah Freemark makes a point that “there is a direct relationship between a downtown’s growth and the transportation provided to it.”  Basically, in order for a CBD to continue to grow, more transportation facilities must be provided.  If a city chooses an auto-focuses transportation strategy, a parking lot studded downtown will result.  If a city chooses transit, it will get a denser downtown with fewer gaps between buildings.

This relates directly to my Potential Population Series.  One of the reasons I think it’s worth my time to think about how much residential development could occur in Downtown Minneapolis is because I think it has already overdeveloped office space.  Obviously the extreme concentration of employment has had many positive effects, but it has also created a nearly unmanageable traffic situation.  As MnDOT recently reported, highway congestion in the metro area increased last year despite VMT remaining generally flat.

American cities are notable for their extremely low densities, but also famous for the skylines created by their extremely dense CBDs, a density which globally is only matched by Asian cities.  Unfortunately American cities also match the traffic congestion often found in Asian cities.  While in Asia the congestion is caused by uniformly high density, in the USA it is caused by extremely unequal density.  To see why, watch the 4th St Viaduct at rush hour sometime.  Half the road will be clogged with cars, the other half will be virtually empty.

Unipolar cities are required to build twice the transportation capacity: one road for morning and another for the afternoon.

That’s what is so great about the Central Corridor and the re-zoning that is being written to greet it:  it’ll allow for very-high density office space to be concentrated in two areas.  The West Midway and the East Midway have the potential to become supplementary downtowns.  There are several other areas even in the central cities that, with some zoning finesse, could accommodate high-density office space also – off the top of my head, I’d say Hi-Lake, NE Broadway, Broadway-Washington, and South Windom easily could handle a cluster of office buildings.

But what would be the downside to continuing to focus new office development in Downtown?  Anyone who has caught a bus on Hennepin at 5pm on a weekday has experienced the problem:  buses sit at the stop for minutes, ingesting passengers who are forced to stand nose-in-armpit crammed in together.  Would trains help?  Sure, to some degree, but it would be expensive, for the same reason highways are expensive:  the crushload trains going in the peak direction pass nearly empty trains, wasting the drivers’ time and the transit agency’s dime.

Besides, once your downtown has grown enough, you can’t run enough trains to meet the demand.  We will end up with an expensive system that is a nightmare to ride, like our highway system has become.  The problem would only be exacerbated by the decision to sever most of the rail lines that once led to downtown, limiting the ways to mitigate congestion with commuter rail.  There are only two options for commuter rail that I can see, one being the existing line on the western edge of Downtown, which can only accommodate so many more trains.  The other alternative would be to rebuild a line along Hiawatha, but considering the frequent grade crossing that might be just as expensive as tunneling, and anyway terminates far from the core.

So it’s time to start planning for a multipolar city.  In some ways it’s an advantage that it already exists, in the form of the scattered suburban strips.  The Met Council should officially designate the strips that exist in or on the beltway as office clusters, directing cities to designate them as such in their next comp plans so they can start rezoning these areas for high-density, multi-use districts.  Minneapolis’ comprehensive plan has already laid the foundation for multi-polar development with four Growth Centers, and the Transit Station Area designation.  More of these types should be added, included Transit Station Areas for the “BRT” stations (including Lake St) on 35W.

By working to spread out the downtown love, and by working towards a multimodal transportation system, the Twin Cities might be able to share DC’s problem of running out of places to build Downtown.

Twin Cities with DC Metro overlaid approx to scale

Back to the 90s


The 90s weren’t bad, as far as decades go; there were colorful sweaters, Steve Urkel, and bracelets that you put on by violently attacking your wrist with them.

And now

The decade was a mixed blessing for Minneapolis, however; our state’s ample supply of refugee-services non-profits fueled an influx of immigrants, who proceeded to revitalize many commercial areas; but in the meantime almost no residential buildings of consequence were built in the city.  Recently I attempted to document all multifamily and row/townhomes built here in the postwar era; in the 90s I found a total of 2,346 units built, less than any other decade.  Instead, tacky single-family homes were built, for example this one:

In today’s Community Development Committee meeting, the city will decide whether to sell a parcel to Habitat for Humanity for development of a single-family home.  Normally I’m okay with Habitat operating in the city.  Even though we have already have more than enough single-family homes in Minneapolis, Habitat is at least addressing the affordable housing crisis.

This parcel, however, is primed for multifamily development.  It lies a wide but walkable distance from Hiawatha LRT (a half-mile), but it is a block or two from three bus routes, meaning it is ideal for transit-oriented development.

But Alex, in Minneapolis we pretend that you need a 40′ wide lot just to build a single-family home.  So if this lot is only 40′ wide, how will you cram a whole multifamily building in there?

Well, to the north of this parcel is not one but two city-owned, vacant parcels.  And to the south is an additional vacant parcel, in private hands.  These parcels would be ideal for the type of development that occurred at the north end of the block – basically a typical English urban model of attached single-family.  Unfortunately even those had to be up-zoned to R4 in order to get built, because Minneapolis is so eager to become Richfield that it categorizes small-scale traditional urban housing with dense low-rise apartment buildings.

One of two things need to happen if Minneapolis is going to achieve its sustainability goals – either the R2B district needs to be amended to allow attached housing on smaller lots or wide swaths of the city need to be up-zoned to R4.  Housing is a 100-year investment; we need to stop wasting the limited space of our central neighborhoods on inefficient types of housing.  Others have argued effectively that “location efficiency is more important than home efficiency,” but there are only so many efficient locations to go around.  Habitat for Humanity is welcome to provide its affordable but wasteful single-family homes in relatively less-efficient locations, but let’s save our prime central neighborhood locations for buildings that will allow more than one family to enjoy them.