Holy numbers, holy grail

One of my holy grails lately has been to figure out how many housing units were built in Minneapolis in each decade of the postwar era.  This grew out of my long-languishing Potential Population Project and the need to find a basis for assuming the average density of new multifamily construction.  For over a year now I’ve been compiling a spreadsheet of buildings and their build year and unit density, adding them manually as I come across them in my job (which is so boring that no more need be said of it).  I now have on my list 39,392 units in 580 buildings built since 1947, which is 60% of the 65,912 units in structures of 5 or more units in the city.

You may be thinking, “what kind of idiot wastes his time on something like that, especially since someone else has already compiled that information and he would have found that by now if he’d only spent some time looking for it.”  Well, I agree with you now, since I’ve figured out an easy and effective way of estimating number of units built per decade using that all-powerful database, the US Decennial Census.

It all started a few weeks ago, when in a post about apartment construction that rambled into Minneapolis population change, I mentioned that the massive drop in population in the 70s was probably due to an after-dinner hiccup of freeway construction and renewal.  I was thinking of 35W through Northeast, which was built in the early 70s, but Froggie pointed out that most of the clearance for that project had been completed by the end of the 60s.

Freeway to be

This leads us to an interesting digression surprisingly early in this post.  Froggie’s correction led me to actually fact-check one of my assertions for once, and after spending some time looking at old aerials, I realized that even more freeway clearance was done in the 60s than I’d thought.  Besides the Northeast portion of 35W, which was built in the 70s but cleared in the 60s, much of 94 on the Northside had been cleared by 60s as well, although it would not be built until the early 80s.

So it turns out that the only freeway clearance that may have extended into the 70s was for Hwy 55, which ended up not being a freeway of course.  Borchert library has an image (5 MB) from 1969 that shows partial clearance:

Only 35 years before LRT

And Historic Aerials has one from 1979 which shows a bit more gone, although obviously I don’t know how much if any of that clearance happened in the 70s:

25 years to LRT

(The above two photos show the intersection of Hiawatha and Lake, with the majority of both images showing the Corcoran neighborhood)

So freeway clearance doesn’t seem to have been a major contributor to population loss in Minneapolis in the 70s.  A 1971 map indicates renewal was probably more of a contributor, with activity in the 70s happening in Seward, Holmes, and perennial HRA punching bags Cedar-Riverside, Hay, and Near North.  It seems likely that some of Plymouth Ave was cleared in the 70s in the distant wake of the riots, and also that a portion of the enclave of suburbs in North and Northeast were built in the 70s, at half the density of the urban fabric they replaced.

For some reason, all these units being destroyed and built up again led to a wall in my brain finally crashing down, allowing understanding to spring through:  The Census tracks building age every 10 years.  If I want to have a good idea how many units were built in any given decade, just look at the Census for the last year of that decade and look at what it reports for units built in the decade prior.   This isn’t the exact number for two reasons, but it should be “close enough” as we say here at horseshoes&handgrenades.com.  Reason #1 is that some of the units built in the prior decade could also have been destroyed that decade.  My guess is that rarely happens but you never know.  Reason #2 is that censuses are never consistent in the time periods they report.  Here is my compilation of year built data from the 1950 to the 2010 censuses:

Units by structure age in Minneapolis as reported in 1950-2010 decennial censusesese

The table above gives you a sense of the varying time periods reported by the different censuses.  Actually I’ve cheated a bit by cramming decade categories that are off by a year or less into one category, which you can see in the 1970 column, where I added the 1960 to 1964, 1965 to 1968, and 1969 to 1970 categories into the 1960 to 1969 category.   That explains why the number of units built between 1970 and 1979 grew by 1,706 between 1980 and 2000, but not why the number of units built between 1980 and 1990 grew by 1,233 between 2000 and 2010.  That last anomaly is more likely due to another cheat: the structure age data was actually from the ACS rather than the decennial census, as I’ll complain more about later.

So census data suggests that more units were built in the 60s than in any other postwar decade (the 1970 census reports 20,184 units that had been built between 1960 and March 1970), but the city’s total number of units dropped by almost 6,000.  But not enough was done, apparently, to make a significant impact on total population.  You smart people probably figured this out long ago, but in a city as big as Minneapolis, it’s really hard to add or remove a significant percentage of units.

Again using building age data from the Census, I’ve estimated the number of units built each decade, and extrapolated from that and the change in total units to get the number of units destroyed.  In the postwar era, the net change in dwelling units reached a maximum of 7% increase between 1950 and 1960, when some greenfields were still being developed in the far north and south of the city.  Interestingly, the next greatest change in units was the 6% increase between 2000 and 2010 – I’ll get to that in a moment.  In the intervening decades, the change in units has fluctuated between 1% and 3% plus or minus, so that by 2000 the total number of units was only 1500 more than 1970.

The more things change...

As you can see, the change in units in any particular period is relatively small and apparently unrelated to the change in population.  Two notes about the chart above – first, the units destroyed isn’t calculated for 1950 because I didn’t bother to find the total units for 1940 (a brief digression, though – the 1950 census suggests 12,425 units were built in the 40s, which is about 2,500 units more than were built in the 00s).  Second, my method calculated only 298 units destroyed in the 00s, which is almost certainly too low.  I think that is due to the switch to ACS for housing data such as structure age – because the total units recorded in the 2010 census is lower than the total units estimated in the 2005-2009 ACS, I probably should compare it to the ACS report of the units built in the 00s.  Hmm, should I choose consistency or results?

Another factor in play in the interface between population and dwelling units is the vacancy rate.  However, the vacancy rate in Minneapolis has been remarkably steady through the postwar period (at least in the 7 years in which a census was conducted), staying at 4% every year except for 1950 when it was 2%.  Well, there are two more exceptions, and they’re doozies.

The 2010 census found an 8% vacancy rate, which I believe is mostly explained by the foreclosure crisis, although overbuilding or overconverting of condos likely played a part.  As I mentioned, the Northside was the only sector of the city with significant population loss between 2000 and 2010, losing 7,704 residents during that period.  Assuming the average household size of 2.23 persons/unit, that’s the equivalent of 3,455 units, which is about 2% of the total units in 2010.  That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it means that this one sector that represents 15% of population was the locus of half of the increase in vacancy from the typical level of 4%.  (Or it would be, if I hadn’t conjured the number of vacant units there out of other figures.  Still, glancing over maps of foreclosures makes it feel real.)

The other census that found a high vacancy rate was 1990, when it reached 7% – my knowledge of this period doesn’t go much beyond the Bartman, but it might have something to do with the building crime wave that gave us the nickname Murderapolis.  Another explanation may be the Savings & Loan Crisis that peaked just before this census (and eventually led to our current housing crisis due to inept and/or corrupt legislation).  Anyway it seems to have had a similar effect as the 2010 vacancy rate – the population dropped slightly despite an  increase in dwelling units.

Pretty vacant

The above chart shows a flat vacancy rate during the biggest population drops in Minneapolis history, in the 60s and 70s.  And the next chart up shows that change in total units likely played only a small role in the 60s and none at all in the 70s.  So what caused those drops?

As Jon pointed out in his comments on Apartments go boom!, the answer is “in the details of who moves in and out.”  Families moved out and singles moved in, causing the average household size to plummet and the population to plummet with it.  This is borne out by charting average household size against the change in population, which tracks remarkably close:


Of course you can make charts prove anything, but it is just as convincing when you compare the rates of change of the two metrics:


I have to admit that I dropped out of statistics and ended up with a math credit from Maps and Geographical Reasoning, but those numbers are pretty convincing to me.  The only problem is that average household size, more than most metrics, invites more questions than it answers.  It’s more of an indicator of other trends.  What caused the massive drop from 1950 to 1980?  Whatever it was, it wasn’t unique to Minneapolis.  Here are charts of Richfield and St Louis Park:

Might as well be the same town

A bit more suburban

Starting with 1960, these towns follow a similar trajectory in average household size as Minneapolis did.  (1950 was probably a peak in average household size, not to mention total population, for Minneapolis due to the postwar housing shortage.)  In fact, the four other Hennepin County cities for which I have data showed similar or greater decline in average household size in the 60s and 70s.  These suburbs kept growing through the 60s with greenfield development, but as soon as they ran out of land, they mostly ran out of growth.

Population and Avg Household Size for select cities and Hennepin County, 1950-2010

Kind of interesting to see that the county as a whole lost population in the 70s.  Anyway, the best my feeble brain can do to explain this widespread drop is to blame the boomers.  That swollen generation would have come of age in the 60s and 70s, presumably creating smaller households than they came from.  I would add that the boomers and their smaller households likely created demand for smaller units, which fed the construction of housing units in the 60s and 70s seen in an above chart.  This construction trend was metro-wide, and identified at an early stage in some maps that I included in an earlier post.

So while it may seem that size is, in fact, everything, data grail seekers must choose carefully.  The notion that there is one holy grail may be illusory, and the truth may be that the grail can be found in many seemingly disparate measures.  But that doesn’t mean the quest is not worth pursuing, as seekers will encounter many intriguing charts, graphs and maps along the way.

Abandon hope ye who read to here, boredom shall find ye

Apartments go boom!

With all the chatter about apartment construction in the last couple months, I wanted to see whether the current level of activity is really an aberration or just a way to sell newspapers.  There certainly are a lot of proposals floating about, but after the severe downturn of the last few years, it’s hard to know what’s normal.  Besides, is it a coincidence that the paper that says the most about the new construction just happens to have a subscribers only online map of it?

But what exactly is the current level of activity?  If 8500 units were under construction or proposed as of September, what does that mean in terms of eventual places to live?  Presumably almost all of what is under construction will be finished, but much of what is proposed will never see the light of day.  I thought it safe to compare the number proposed to building permit data, although probably a bit more is proposed than actually gets permitted.  From F&C’s 8500, I thought it safe to subtract 2000 considering my count of 1,732 units that were under construction in 2011 just in Minneapolis (most of which would have been permitted in 2010).

So how rare is it for 6500 multifamily units to be permitted in the metro area?  Met Council data going back to 1970 gives us a hint:

Permit rainbow!

Well, not very rare.  10 of the last 40 years saw 6500 units permitted.*  In fact, in the 70s the average year saw 6100 multifamily units permitted, helped out by the massive years 1970-1972 that permitted over 10,000 multifamily units each.

I think the story here is more likely that not nearly enough rental units were constructed in the last 20 years.  As I’ve noted before, the 90s were a disastrous decade for dense development.  When multifamily heated up again, it was the condo craze, leaving little room for renters.  But while the ownership housing stock was increased, sometimes at the expense of rental housing, the number of renter households was increasing faster than the number of owner households.

In other words, it’s true that there is more multifamily rental units being proposed and built than in recent years, but don’t think of it like a speculator-driven bubble.  Instead it is more likely to be a “new normal,” where the market is providing a supply in reaction to demand.  That’s good news for people who want an energy-efficient, walkable, low-maintenance place to live.

Zooming In

There’s more news buried in this building permit data, and I’m going to finish up with a long digression on it.  Check out this table of the top 10 metro area cities for total residential building permits issued between 1970 and 2010:

Minneapolis 98 854 21507 6543 4238 2807 36047
Plymouth 44 118 9172 240 13925 3273 26772
St. Paul 146 652 16033 3234 4537 1172 25774
Eden Prairie 32 1112 6498 95 12132 4430 24299
Eagan 75 704 6886 68 12430 3710 23873
Woodbury 107 442 4836 1127 12490 4123 23125
Maple Grove 157 565 3646 692 14496 3473 23029
Brooklyn Park 16 834 2750 475 12820 3504 20399
Burnsville 0 366 8431 394 7472 3305 19968
Coon Rapids 2 736 4760 48 9106 3462 18114

DTQ=Duplex, Triplex, Fourplex


MF3=Multifamily (3 units or more)

MF5=Multifamily (5 units or more)

SFD=Single-Family Detached


Minneapolis has a comfortable lead, appearing to have added more housing units in the 40-year period than any other municipality (assuming the same rate of actual construction resulting from permits across all the municipalities and years).  This lead seems to have primarily resulted from the 70s and 00s, in the latter of which Minneapolis added significantly more housing units than anywhere else in the Twin Cities.

Seas of purple and green

So how could Minneapolis add tens of thousands of housing units in the last 40 years, while simultaneously losing more than 50,000 residents?  Some of the reasons for a similar effect in the 60s are also valid for later decades; the entirety of the drop occurred in the 70s, when a great deal of (edit: Froggie points out in the comments that most of the clearance for freeway construction had been wrapped up by the 70s) freeway construction and some slum clearance was still underway.

Later decades fared better.  The 90s saw a population increase; looking at population by sector makes it clear that the mediocre performance of the 00s was almost entirely a product of the foreclosure crisis:

Sector 1980 1990 2000 2010
Downtown 19155 21824 24977 31034
North 61278 64001 67674 59970
Northeast 37507 36515 36913 36255
South 137551 136333 142150 139854
Southwest 83728 79912 78292 77989
University 29615 29798 32612 37476
Citywide 368834 368383 382618 382578

The two sectors with the most foreclosure activities were also the only two with significant population decline.  In the case of North, two decades of steady growth were wiped out.

The 80s are the mystery for me.  Seven or eight thousand units were constructed in Minneapolis, which should have resulted in some population growth.  Instead the most population growth occurred in North, not in the Downtown and University neighborhoods that saw the most units added.  I don’t have demolition permit data, so I don’t know if an unusually high number of units were demolished.  Household size may also have been a factor, since many of the units added were likely smaller than any units lost.

Regardless of what happened in the 80s, the census data seems to suggest that, barring any new freeway construction or popular predatory lending practices, Minneapolis should see steady population growth in this decade.  Wandering back to the main topic of this post, the return to historic levels of multifamily rental construction, a greater proportion of which tends to occur in central cities, is another indicator that the chatter may soon be about how Minneapolis and St Paul are leading the metro in population growth.

*Until 2004, semi-detached units with more than two units were counted in the multifamily category.  In 2004, they were moved into the Duplex category.

Traveling in Moderation, part I: U of W/M

City and Lakes

For the last three years I’ve traveled to Madison over the Thanksgiving weekend to accompany my girlfriend on a visit to her grandmother.  Grandma Dee was born and raised in Madison, and has proven to be an excellent source for the history and culture of the city (beer and football, mostly).  In the course of these travels, I’ve accumulated some observations about Madison that I’d like to share.

This may be the inaugural post of an occasional series documenting my various Upper Midwestern excursions.  I travel fairly often but thanks to a combination of full-time employment and neurotic antipathy toward air transportation, my travel is mostly limited to Minnesota and neighboring states.  Madison is a particularly suitable city to kick off this series since it has implemented a number of experimental streetscaping techniques.  I’m going to start off with something more basic, though:

Why does UW feel so much more urban than the U of M?

Don't fence me out

The Twin Cities metro is around six times larger than the Madison metro, but somehow the UW campus feels urban in a way that the U of M doesn’t.  Madison’s main shopping street is State Street, which gradually accumulates more and more academic function until it terminates at the University’s Bascom Mall.  This side-by-side, close-knit nature is in contrast to the U of M, which literally fences itself off from Dinkytown.  Only a handful of University uses penetrate the half-mile perimeter trench that is University Ave between 11th and 17th Aves, and while everyone thinks of Dinkytown as the University Neighborhood, it doesn’t look terribly different from any other Minneapolis neighborhood if the streets happen to be deserted of the maroon-clad denizens.  The West Bank and St Paul campuses are a bit more integrated with their surrounding neighborhoods, in that they’re only separated by a broad lawn or parking lot rather than an actual fence.  Probably the area that is most integrated with its surroundings is Stadium Village, which is gradually being annexed by the University.  There you’ll find a few commercial buildings sharing a block with the University’s IT department, for example, in a coziness that wouldn’t be out of place in Madison but which the U of M apparently finds uncomfortable, as evidenced by their decades-long effort to demolish the neighborhood.

College kids getting high

But it’s not just proximity to the city that makes UW feel urban – even when you can’t see any building without a UW logo on it, you often still feel like you’re in a city.  The reason is right above you – buildings on the UW campus are tall.  UW has a cool interactive campus map tool where you can click on any University building and there will be a tiny little sketch of it, which gives you a sense of the heights of campus buildings (bing works too).  I encourage you to look around on those mapping sites, because the best confirmation I could find for my perception was Emporis, which lists 71% of UW buildings as being more than 6 stories as opposed to only 16% of U of M buildings (including St Paul).  The caveat?  Emporis only lists 34 UW buildings, but they list 102 U of M buildings.  So it may give a truer picture of the U of M campus than the UW campus.

Too close for comfort

Besides height, it seems like UW’s buildings have narrower setbacks, which reinforces the street wall and gives a more urban feel.  This first came to my attention with the Pres House apartments, only 10 feet from their namesake church, but neither of those are official campus buildings.  Still, there are plenty of buildings on the UW campus that are 30′ apart – too many to list here.  They would likely no longer be standing if they were on their western counterpart campus; the U of M tore down Wesbrook this summer for the crime of standing 35′ from Northrup.  And many of the close-standing UW buildings aren’t as ancient as Wesbrook, suggesting the UW administration doesn’t think an urban campus is a bad thing.

Or were they just drunk when they signed off on the site plan?  What accounts for the differences between the campuses?  Why does the U of M seek out a simple, park-like atmosphere while UW is content with the complex geometry of an urban campus?  I have no idea, but  wild guess is that geography was a prime contributor – UW’s location very near to Madison’s downtown and smack in the line of a primary growth axis for that city both restrained campus expansion (UW is now about a third of the area of the U of M, though they were likely originally about the same size) and allowed denser buildings to fit in with the surroundings.  The U of M’s more suburban location allowed for easier campus expansion and required more suburban building styles to match its streetcar suburb neighbors.

But I’d like to throw out a wilder guess:  I’ve noticed development throughout SE Wisconsin that seems denser that comparable developments around the Twin Cities.  Buildings seem taller, closer together and more fancifully adorned – while most of this is within a suburban context; by which I mean what in the Twin Cities would be a football field-sized parking lot is a soccer field-sized parking lot in SE Wisconsin.  (A small distinction, maybe, but I’ll take what I can get.)  Could this be the influence of that nearby modern megalith, Chicago?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just reading too much into the sheen that often accompanies new sights.  Maybe a Madisonian visiting the U of M would make similar observations.  Maybe I was just thrown off-balance by the presence of hills.  In that case, expect a couple more posts of unreliable observations, including one touching on a bike facility that makes a cameo in one of the above pictures.

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.