In the electric tram

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Tram and Rail, 1914

The New York Review of Books has published a new edition of Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, and they’re posting excerpts on their blog to promote it.  Here’s an excerpt of their excerpt of a story called “In the Electric Tram.”

People do, after all, tend to get somewhat bored on such trips, which often require twenty or thirty minutes or even more, and what do you do to provide yourself with some modicum of entertainment? You look straight ahead. To show by one’s gaze and gestures that one is finding things a bit tedious fills a person with a quite peculiar pleasure. Now you return to studying the face of the conductor on duty, and now you content yourself once more with merely, vacantly staring straight ahead. Isn’t that nice? One thing and then another? I must confess: I have achieved a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead.

It is prohibited for the conductor to converse with the esteemed passengers. But what if prohibitions are sidestepped, laws violated, admonitions of so refined and humane a nature disregarded? This happens fairly often. Chatting with the conductor offers prospects of the most charming recreation, and I am particularly adept at seizing opportunities to engage in the most amusing and profitable conversations with this tramway employee. It pays to ignore certain regulations, and summoning one’s powers to render uniforms loquacious helps create a convivial mood.

From time to time you do nonetheless look straight ahead again. After completing this straightforward exercise, you may permit your eyes a modest excursion. Your gaze sweeps through the interior of the car, crossing fat, drooping mustaches, the face of a weary, elderly woman, a pair of youthfully mischievous eyes belonging to a girl, until you’ve had your fill of these studies in the quotidian and gradually begin to observe your own footgear, which could use proper mending. And always new stations are arriving, new streets, and the journey takes you past squares and bridges, past the war ministry and the department store, and all this while it is continuing to rain, and you continue to behave as if you were a tad bored, and you continue to find this conduct the most suitable.

But it might also be that while you were riding along like that, you heard or saw something beautiful, gay, or sad, something you will never forget.

Nicollet: second helping

The city is still shaking down Nicollet peds

A dismal turn has been taken in the design process for Nicollet Ave between Lake and 40th Sts, so I’m going to have to break my habit of never following up on anything to discuss it.  When last I posted, the street was set to be rebuilt at 42′ with bump-outs at about every other corner (i.e. every corner without a bus stop).

I can’t say I was impressed by the original design, which did the minimum to protect pedestrians, ignored the danger spots such as the disjointed intersections at 32nd and 33rd, did nothing to address the speeding problem between 38th and 40th caused by unused parking, and failed to even consider the heavily-used 18 bus.

But things have gotten even worse as it appears that the city has both widened the proposed street and removed the bump-outs.  If these changes are approved, it would be a step back for Minneapolis, which has made important progress in street design with Riverside Ave.  It would also be confirmation of the failure of Complete Streets, which label the city would certainly apply to the new Nicollet despite its utter lack of all but the most basic facilities for non-drivers.

  • STOP!  Look, I write too much.  If you already know why bump-outs are needed here, just write your councilmember and let them know.  If you’re want to read more, maybe bone up on some arguments to convince your neighbor, keep reading or check out Friends for a Better Nicollet.

Bump-outs are a bicycle’s buddy

This bump's for you

What scared me most about the changes is that one reason given by CM Glidden for the removal of bump-outs is “[b]umpouts may discourage bicycle traffic.”  Bump-outs may be unpopular among cyclists, but I really doubt that very many of them are opposed to their installation.  In fact, of 44 comments received about bump-outs, only 3 mentioned bikes.  In comparison, 8 comments opposed bump-outs due to the perception that they would reduce parking, which they absolutely would not do since the bump-outs would be built where parking is currently prohibited.

Bump-outs are only a problem for cyclists when the traffic on a street is too fast and discourteous, so cyclists feel more comfortable riding in the parking lane.  In this case, doing what feels more comfortable is actually more dangerous, because when you ride in the parking lane you have to dodge parked cars, making your movements less predictable (and making you more likely to run into a parked car, which is not as stupid as it sounds).  And the really ironic thing is that if you remove the traffic-calming properties of bump-outs, you get a street with traffic that is too fast and discourteous, making a bad situation for cyclists anyway.

Rules climate change

Don't they know it's impossible?

As I said in my last post, this comment period on the design could have been started last summer.  If it had, the bump-outs would likely have been approved.  I don’t know if you remember last winter, but people who submitted comments on this project did, and 6 of them specifically mentioned that bumpouts make snow removal difficult (of 44 bump-out related comments, 29 were negative and only 8 were positive, the rest interrogative, neutral or nonsensical).  We seem to be seeing the first pushback on the one municipal policy issue that the middle class cares about: parking.

CM Glidden seems to agree with them and insists that “[t]here is an impact on snow plowing with the bumpouts.”  Of course there is an impact on snow plowing with any street design feature, but that impact can easily be mitigated.  But regardless, how wise is it to base the design of infrastructure that will last at least 60 years on an extremely rare eventMinnesota is getting wetter, yes, but it’s also getting warmer, making winters like this even less likely.

Streetcars a certainty?

Intriguingly, CM Glidden mentions on TC Streets for People a third reason for removing bumpouts:

My reference to the hoped for streetcar implementation on Nicollet states that bumpouts would be required as part of the implementation — these would be NEW bumpouts in the locations where buses stop now.  The original proposed bumpouts would have been on opposite corners. The point is that bumpouts are coming anyway with the streetcars.

I’m glad the councilmember is so certain that streetcars are coming to this segment of Nicollet.  Excuse my disbelief that they will be there any time soon.  The long term plan is certainly to extend streetcars to 46th St, but barring a major reversal in state and federal funding priorities, it’s hard to imagine the shovels in the dirt any time soon.  An 18 month Alternatives Analysis is set to kick off in 2012, but on top of that the initial operating segment of a Nicollet streetcar was projected to cost $75m to run from 5th St to Franklin – coincidentally the amount recently granted for the Portland Streetcar’s Eastside Extension and the most the Feds have granted for a streetcar to date.  Even if the earth tilts on its axis, the city gets Fed money for a streetcar and is somehow able to match it, that would only pay for a streetcar to Lake St.  So how long will we have to wait for a streetcar south of Lake and the bump-outs that supposedly will come with it?  Anyway, if bump-outs will be included in a streetcar project, wouldn’t it save money to install them now?  That way the drainage wouldn’t have to be re-engineered and specific curb lines could be moved if necessary at lower cost.

The argument that bump-outs aren’t needed now because they will be installed with a streetcar may be the strangest one yet.  If bump-outs help a streetcar, wouldn’t they help buses too?  Indeed, a study found that bus bays that were converted into bus bulbs in San Francisco not only increased average speeds for buses (because it takes more time to pull out of traffic for pickup or dropoff and then merge back in) but reduced delays for other vehicles on the street – by 7 to 46 percent!  This is in addition to the safety and increased sidewalk space provided by bump-outs at transit stops.  CM Glidden mentions several times that 1/4 of users on this stretch of Nicollet are in a bus – why then doesn’t this design include a singe feature for transit riders?  Why wait for a streetcar to bring the bump-out benefit to Nicollet?

Why I whine about width

Yeah this road is really narrow

For now, the road is still planned to be 44′ wide in most places, which the city seems to be counting on to provide the traffic-calming effect they need to pretend it’s a complete street.  Unfortunately, a street with parking lanes will have vehicles driving at high speeds unless there are high parking rates – which generally doesn’t happen in Minneapolis south of Lake Street.  In fact, only 4 blocks on the segment of Nicollet in question are regularly even half full of parked cars, according to KMA’s parking study.  These are contiguous blocks between 33rd and 37th Sts, meaning from Lake to 33rd and from 37th to 40th, lanes will effectively be 22′ wide most of the time.  Bump-outs would help break up the wideness and make drivers feel like they need to watch where they’re driving at least once a block.

Popular opinion in conservative Southwest Minneapolis seems to be whipped up against a safer Nicollet Ave, probably by the local cabal of business owners, which has released a manifesto against traffic-calming features.  Luckily, some neighbors are fighting for a safer Nicollet Ave – one group, Friends for a Better Nicollet, has set up a website.

Based on her comments, it seems that Councilmember Glidden is opposed to bump-outs, which means it will take sustained pressure from her electorate to effect changes, if changes are even possible at this point.  If you care about streets that are safe for all users, I recommend you contact your councilmember.  If you worked to get Complete Streets legislation passed at the state level last year and don’t want to see the term reduced to meaninglessness, I recommend you contact your councilmember.  If you are tired of the safety of pedestrians and cyclists being compromised for the convenience of motorists, I recommend you contact your councilmember.

Here are the documents mentioned and a couple more interesting ones:

Nicollet Avenue Reconstruction Project_Comments 2011-07-14

NEHBA — Nicollet Ave Road Basic Design Phase 8-01-11

Nicollet-Ave-Traffic-Analysis-Summary_2011-07-08

New Nicollet-Ave_Roadway-Examples_2011-07-30

Streetcar tracks through the fountain

For an amazing example of the ability of streetcars to be the most aesthetically-appealing form of transportation, see this fountain in Oslo, through which streetcar tracks are routed:

Here is a link to a brochure by the company that made the jets for the fountain, which wisely turn off when a train is coming through.  This is what they look like when full:

The moral of the story:  when the public works engineers say it can’t be done, don’t believe them!

Edit:  I’m trying to get the google streetview link to work: