A Typology of Beg Buttons

The mid-august sun is hastening the sweat down your back as you frantically walk-run towards the bus stop where you will catch a bus to your job interview.  Finally the stop comes into sight, and your bus is just pulling into it.  But the stop lies across an intersecting street, and a traffic signal stares back at you with beady demonic eyes.  Finally, a spot of luck – just as you approach the signal turns green, holding the bus at the stop and allowing you passage.  But what’s this?  Instead of the White Man allowing you to cross the street, the Red Hand commands you to halt with the force of law.  You look at the pole and see the hated button that before which you were required to prostrate yourself if you’d wanted to cross with this phase.  Beg button!

Let’s be honest about the purpose of beg buttons.  They don’t exist to make it easier for pedestrians to cross a street.  They don’t exist to accommodate pedestrians with disabilities – even people with impaired vision would be able to cross the street more easily if they didn’t have to push a button first to get an audio signal.  Beg buttons exist so that signals can be timed to pump more cars through.  Here is a field guide to these little monsters:

Double Button

MnDot promotes begging in North Minneapolis

What do you do when a road is too wide for pedestrians to cross in one phase without annoying motorists more than usual?  The Double Button provides a simple answer:  make ‘em cross in two phases.  Whereas a regular beg button guarantees you’ll never make a light, a Double Button smacks you a second time when you get to the median and see the Red Hand still lit up for the second roadway, and so it is the product of a particularly sadistic engineering mind.  Thankfully, they’re mercifully rare in skinny-roaded Minnesota, only popping up in a few spots on Olson Hwy and select other locations.

Snow Buttons

Uphill both ways

These, on the other hand, are cruelly common in Minnesota.  Since “pedestrian amenities” often aren’t high on the priority list, oftentimes a traffic engineer isn’t paying attention to beg button placement, and oftentimes a Snow Button is created.  It’s not uncommon for cities to use sidewalks for snow storage, and sometimes the snow dumps grow until beg buttons are inaccessible.  Hennepin County helpfully added many of these devices, like the one pictured, to Lake Street a few years ago.  In those situations, removing snow from through lanes can also mean removing legal options for crossing the street on foot.

Faux Buttons

Beat up old button

Traffic engineers so love to make pedestrians beg that sometimes they install beg buttons without even connecting them to the signal controller.  You don’t actually have to beg to cross the street in this situation, so they are called Faux Buttons and apparently are just for practice.  Minneapolis doesn’t like idle threats, so unlike Boston, most of our beg buttons are actually functional, although the Faux Button in front of Lee’s at Glenwood and Royalston was only recently connected.

Show Buttons

Just in case you've never seen a walk signal before

So you’ve just finished designing a nice wide four-lane road, with plenty of room to weave in and out of lanes when the car in front of you gets annoying.  You’ve included wide parking lanes on both sides, so the pedestrians will have a buffer from the screeching car traffic.  But parking lanes aren’t the only pedestrian amenity on your road – you’ve also placed beg buttons on every signalized corner.  Unfortunately, due to the generous width of your road, no one can see how ideal for pedestrians the beg buttons make it.  What’s an engineer to do?  Luckily, there are giant reflective signs you can hang above the beg button, that though they’re designed for people who have never seen a walk sign before, are big enough to distract motorists into noticing all your luxurious beg buttons.

No Beg Button

Some pedestrian-actuated signals are meant specifically for visually-impaired people.  For example, the one at Franklin and Lyndale will produce an audio version of whatever the signal cabinet is displaying (either “wait” or “walk sign is on”).  These are not beg buttons, but neither do they seem to be particularly respectful of the people who are visually impaired, in that they represent an extra step that only applies to them.  Also because these features are the exception (there is only the one that I know of), they are of no use to people who haven’t come across this intersection before.  So I would think that if we really want to make our streets less deadly for visually-impaired pedestrians, we would add audio to every signal, as some Japanese cities have done.

Ban Beg Buttons!

Beg buttons don’t criminalize pedestrian activity exactly; they’re more of a fascistic control on it, a permit required for a certain class to travel.    And beg buttons do encourage criminal activity (or rather civil disobedience) by eliminating the possibility of serendipitously approaching a light and being able to cross with the current phase; many people will not wait to cross when the light is in their favor just because of a Red Hand, although many will, giving beg buttons the distinction of simultaneously making it less convenient to walk and also more stressful.  A city that is interested in encouraging pedestrian activity should discourage beg buttons, or ban them if possible.

Cross-posted at streets.mn.

How does your light rail go?

For reasons that will become clear before long, I’ve calculated the average speed on each segment of the Hiawatha line (which apparently for the purpose of marginalizing those with color blindness has been renamed after some color, not sure which).

More precisely, I’ve calculated the average scheduled speeds – I used the posted schedule for the line and Google Earth to measure the track length to get the average speed.  Segments are measured from the apparent midpoint of each platform, and where the two tracks deviate or the tracks disappear under an airport or a megamall I guessed a bit or used the rail layer from GE.

In an interesting twist, the scheduled speeds diverge a bit from the official map.  The map shows 2 minutes between Target Field and Warehouse District stations, but 3 minutes are scheduled, perhaps for padding at this terminal, where I believe trains often reverse.  More mystifying is the reversal where the official map shows 2 minutes between Franklin and Lake and 3 between Lake and 38th, but the schedule switches those.  It makes more sense for the segment between Franklin and Lake to take a bit longer, considering the curve on the viaduct over Hiawatha, so maybe it’s a typo?  Regardless it perhaps shows the folly of relying on the scheduled time to determine average speed instead of observing in the field, but who has time to ride back and forth with a stopwatch?

Oops, forgot to mention that distance is in miles

Hiawatha runs through a fairly diverse set of environments, which I’ve broken down into three categories.  While these are probably imprecisely named, they are fairly consistent.  At-grade and Separated at-grade both have grade crossings, but Separated at-grade has far fewer.  Below grade (which I suppose I should have called grade-separated) has no grade crossings.  The At-grade segments have an overall average speed of 12 mph, while Separated at-grade doubles that to 24 mph.  Below grade is the fastest, with an overall average of 29 mph, but you may have noticed that some of the separated at-grade segments exceed this.

Clearly the segments have characteristics that differentiate them from each other more than my simplified categories suggest.  The fastest segment, between 38th and 46th, is straight and has only one grade crossing [Froggie reminded me that this segment actually has two grade crossings - see comments].  Meanwhile the segments that are largely in tunnels have quite a bit of curvature to them, and since both segments have portals grade may be an issue as well.  And of course some segments have subsegments of more than one category – between the VA and Fort Snelling are sections that are at-grade but largely free of crossings and a long above-grade section.

Central may introduce another category, since the body of it will run at-grade, but with far fewer crossings than Downtown Minneapolis or even Bloomington, yet more than Hiawatha between Franklin and the park.  So who knows if anything valuable will come from this exercise – only the fates can tell…

Traveling in Moderation: Grand Marais

The New Highway #61, Clement Haupers, 1939

Clement Haupers was the Minnesota director of the Federal Art Project for the WPA, so it’s relatively safe to assume he meant this painting as a sincere celebration of the new roads – Highway 61 was among the earliest – that were being built to link the people of the vast American landscape by motorcar.  I gotta say, 72 years later it looks to me like a silly cartoon, bathing a banal piece of infrastructure in golden grandeur, but that may partly be from seven decades of grime, smoke and congestion accumulating on what Haupers depicted as a clean, clear silver strip.

Haupers seems to have ranged around the state quite a bit as Federal Art Project director, and there are few clues in the watercolor above as to what segment of Highway 61 is depicted.  Except for the suggestions of an agricultural quilt along the roadside, the hilliness of the gleaming highway in the landscape could be found along the north shore, where Highway 61 was constructed as North Shore Drive in the 1920s.

Where do you turn? Marohn's shot of Grand Marais' edge

The current iteration of North Shore Drive (though the name seems to have fallen out of use) as it passes through Grand Marais was justifiably excoriated by Charles Marohn at Strong Towns a few months ago.  Though mercifully not a 4-lane divided monstrosity, 61 displays a lot of highway strip tendencies, and features the suicide center lane on the edges of town to accommodate driveways encroaching into pedestrian space.  Bafflingly, the center left turn lane extends for long segments where no businesses exist, leading to a wide-feeling, speed-inducing road.

Highway 61 near the center of Grand Marais (by Charles Marohn again)

Marohn’s main point as I interpret it is that Highway 61, like most roads built today, does a poor job of differentiating between rural areas, where transportation is usually the primary function of the facility, and town areas, where the function is more multifaceted.  Highway 61 in Grand Marais is certainly guilty as charged, with the section running through town barely narrower than the strip at the edge.  Yet somehow it works better than any other street I’ve seen in Minnesota.  Motorists rarely fail to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalks, which are marked and spaced around 350 feet apart.

I think this is mostly due to the special nature of the place rather than the design of the road.  For one thing, you arrive at Grand Marais about 80 miles down Highway 61 from the last real town, Two Harbors.  Everything between is more of a crossroads, so when you hit a place with side streets, you notice even before you hit the stop light.  But just because motorists know people live in a place doesn’t mean they’re going to slow down for them, much less stop to yield.  I think what is unique about Grand Marais is that many or most of the motorists are tourists themselves, and therefore less likely to be in a hurry.

Highway 61 in Grand Marais is rare for Minnesotan roads in that it was sliced through the originally platted grid at an angle some decades after the town was founded.  Except for the interstates, I can’t think of another Minnesotan town that experienced this sort of transportation-based renewal.  Here is a poorly-scanned bird’s eye view drawn in 1906:

A perfect grid

This photo, which lakesnwoods.com dates to the 1910s, shows no oblique intersection where North Shore Drive would slash through a few years later:

Where is the Drive?

The above photo also shows how sparsely built Grand Marais still was at that time.  When the diagonal Highway 61 was sliced through a few years later, it’s possible no building even stood in its path.  By 1934 there’s a bright white gash through the town, which today is lined with businesses such as Hughie’s Tacos, which occupies a building oriented to the street, and Dairy Queen, which is floating free in a featureless parking plane, so you get the sense the building is oriented to the main grid of the town only coincidentally.

Despite being lined with businesses, it would be a mistake to think of Highway 61 as Grand Marais’ Main Drag.  That function is filled by the traitorously-named southernmost parallel in the grid, Wisconsin St, and its perpendicular, Broadway (even the dwellers of this remote northern outpost were sophisticated enough to realize that the street type of the latter is embedded in its name).

Good fishing here

Wisconsin St is quite the contrast to Highway 61.  Grand Marais certainly fits Nathan Lewis’ bill of hypertrophism, but Wisconsin is surprisingly narrow for its late 19th century vintage.  It’s also been done up into a pleasantly calm street, with bike lanes, generous bump-outs and some weird fake stone-looking concrete.  While the earliest map of the area showed a shore-running road (that being the only road), maps from the time of platting show the road along the North Shore bypassing the town on the north side about where County Road 7 runs today.  However, as old timers will tell you, the real highway to this fishing village is the lake itself, whence trawlers of yore would return laden with whitefish, or come winter sleds towed by teams of dogs would arrive bursting with precious mail from outside.  So you can see why Wisconsin St, which connects the town’s two bays, would be important.

Guess they took this the one day no one was out walking

Today Wisconsin St is instead busy with tourists bursting with pizza or laden with souvenir tees.  The view, the crowd, and the street design combine to create an ideal strolling track, which pedestrians enjoy and vehicles respect.  Since most motorists on Wisconsin are looking for parking, the average speed is very low, and considering I can’t remember ever seeing anyone cycling on Wisconsin, the bike lanes could probably be traded for wider sidewalks.  Still, it’s nice seeing an outstate commitment to bicycling, and I think this might technically be part of the Gitchi-Gami Trail.

Wisconsin St, Broadway (which is almost as good as Wisconsin but gets demerits for slant parking), and Highway 61 combine to define a rich downtown district, with two groceries, a hardware store, a muni liquor, a Radio Shack, a Ben Franklin, two parks, a rose garden, a library, city hall, and the World’s Best Donuts.  Not bad for a town of 1,300 people, in a county of 5,000.  Presumably the tourist dollar accounts for the outsized economy, as well as the low-key, bizarrely respectful drivers.  On the other hand, maybe the thing that has such a calming effect on the tourists does the same for locals.  After all, it’s not so hard to wait for an old lady to cross the street if you get to watch the stunning Lake Superior while you wait.  Slow, safe speeds feel natural when you spend your spare time skiing the slopes of Pincushion Mountain.

Or maybe the good people of Grand Marais are just unusually respectful of the art of driving.  They do, after all, have a plaque in their town memorializing Charles Babcock, the Father of Minnesota Highways:

That's Babcock's plaque under the plywood portaging voyageur

Thanks to Sarah and other descendents of Hungry Jack Scott to whose generosity I owe the delightful strips of my life that have been spent in the beautiful town of Grand Marais.

Traveling in Moderation, part II: Multimodal Mad Town

Having posted the first Traveling in Moderation, a thought popped into my head:  traveling 270 miles really isn’t very moderate.  My great-grandfather left Traverse County only once, for a church-group trip to Pennsylvania.  Our modern standards for travel have been explosively expanded by the availability of cheap oil, and will contract as oil gets more expensive.  So I suppose I should be flying now while the flying’s cheap.  Anyway, let’s get back to Madison…

As built, Madison is one of the most walkable cities in the Upper Midwest.  Most streets are narrow, and the wide ones almost all have crossable center medians.  The grid shifts with primary travel patterns, and is often sliced through with diagonals, for more efficient paths.  The destination density seems pretty good (although it is hard for me to tell with small cities) – grocery stores are pretty well spaced, and walkscore is fairly high excepting some Suburban Hells on the Far West and East Sides.

The result is a good mode share for walking.  Of course, university towns tend to be walking towns and Madison may not be exceptional among its peers (it’s topped by Columbia, South Carolina, which is so walking-friendly that it’s responding to an increase in pedestrian fatalities by ticketing more pedestrians).  Despite a natural advantage for pedestrians and a municipality that seems to have more consideration for pedestrians than most, drivers do not necessarily have a lot of respect for pedestrians.  Williamson Street, north of the Capitol, has 20′ tall pedestrian crossing warning signs on just about every block that are routinely ignored by drivers (and, as Jarrett Walker points out, actually distract drivers from any pedestrians that may be trying to cross).

Look sharp

Ah well, Americans will be Americans.  Madison still has much infrastructure of interest for pedestrians.  I’ll take you on a short tour of Pedestrian Madison, with some side trips to Bike Madison.  Any such tour must begin with State Street, which a prominent Twin Cities urbanist recently dubbed “the best street in the Midwest.

State Street is similar in layout to Nicollet Mall – a two-lane roadway reserved for bikes, buses and taxis is flanked by wide, attractive sidewalks with frequent benches and quality bus shelters (and without pointless meandering) – but there are two important differences.  One is that retail is still alive on State Street, with storefronts packed with the sort of shops found in Uptown Minneapolis.  Think American Apparel, Urban Outfitters and Ragstock.  I say packed because the density of retail is such that second-floor stores are not uncommon – and that’s without any skyways.  Related to skyways, and like them possibly a reason for the tenacity of retail here, is the fact that most of State Street is lined with buildings of the classic Storefront vintage of the 1880s-1920s.  That gives it a more “authentic” feel but frankly is also mostly more interesting, since buildings are much smaller you don’t have the monolithic giant empty glass lobbies that line Nicollet.

State Street is a great street


The Mall of East Campus

Moving down State Street to the University, take a left after the library onto the East Campus Mall.  Though this mall has been under construction for the last three years, those segments that are finished display a streetscape that is even higher quality than State Street, in part because East Campus Mall is a full-on pedestrian mall, whereas State Street is merely a bus mall.  However, East Campus Mall is missing something that State Street has in spades: pedestrians.  They may be deterred by the construction, but probably more by the lack of retail on East Campus Mall and the fact that it isn’t really a crucial connection.  I’m probably overstating it – in comparison with State Street, it’s meager, but there is still plenty of pedestrian activity on East Campus Mall.  For the record, I don’t know if there’s a West Campus Mall.

Look both ways

Before you get too far down East Campus Mall, pause a moment at University Ave.  Although its intersection with East Campus Mall uses colored pavement to highlight the pedestrian crossing, University’s streetscape is generally bleak.  But look closer, and what at first appears to be a wide expanse of one-way concrete has some interesting, skinnying features.  On the north side of the street is a bus-right-turn-only lane, conveyed simply with a solid lane marking and a diamond symbol, with occasional signs permitting right turns.  Between the bus lane and the general traffic lanes is a bike lane that appears to be about 8 feet wide.  Then, on the south side of the street is another bike lane, this one contraflow and protected with a low, mountable, concrete divider separating it from the general traffic lanes.  (See this photo for an overview.)

Generally I’m not very excited about contraflow bike lanes.  University – which is the half of a one-way couplet that’s closer to the heart of campus – may be one of the better candidates for it though.  Considering the high demand for cycling in both directions on this street, they may have had an ineradicable salmon problem anyway, and merely made it safer by making it official.  What I really like about University Ave is the simple, functional way they handle the with-flow bike and bus lanes.  Why mess around with experimental markings when drivers already know to stay away from a solid line with a diamond symbol?

In the green

For now we want to avoid the University Ave traffic, so keep going down East Campus Mall and go up the on-ramp to the Southwest Commuter Path.  Once up there, be careful – while this path, which was carved out of one of the abandoned beds of a double-tracked rail line that slimmed down to single track, is signed for pedestrian use, it’s only striped for cyclists and isn’t really wide enough for both modes.  Clamber over the brightly painted crossings at the corner of Regent and Monroe and follow Monroe to the southwest.

crosswalk envy

In a few blocks you’ll get to a nice little 1920s retail strip similar to ones you’ll find in the neighborhoods of the Twin Cities.  This strip has a couple examples of Madison’s revolutionary attitude towards pedestrians, which subscribes to the bizarre theory that walking should be viable even outside of Downtowns or Universities.  The first clue is the refuge median in front of the new – ahem – Trader Joe’s on the first floor of a condo building.  The great thing about Madison’s ubiquitous refuge medians is that apparently police actually enforce the law in them.  As the picture shows, it actually does snow in cities other than Minneapolis.  Go a block up the street for maybe a deeper indication of Madison’s commitment to pedestrians, where a construction site required closing the sidewalk.  Instead of forcing pedestrians across the street, they also closed the parking spaces and built a concrete enclosure temporary sidewalk.

Before we finish our tour we need to hit Willy Street east of the Capitol, so let’s grab a B-cycle at Regent and Monroe and take the bike path along the shore of Monona to the intersection of Wilson, Williamson and John Nolen Dr.  The B-cycle station is before the intersection, but after you dismount, notice the bright red bike boxes at this intersection.  Cars actually stop behind them, and cyclists actually use them – possibly because the paint allows people to actually see that there’s a bike box there.

Stop in for a drink at the Cardinal bar, in that 5 story redbrick building in the background

Begging for change

About a block behind the bucky-red bike boxes is the last innovation of our tour.  The three-leg intersection of Jenifer and Williamson Sts is designed so that only buses, bikes and pedestrians can access Jenifer from Williamson.  This was presumably done to cut down on cars driving through on mostly-residential Jenifer, but the restriction also provides a slight transit advantage.  Or would, except the traffic signal seems to be programmed to give as much time as possible to Williamson St.  When I pressed the beg button to cross Williamson, I counted full minute without any signal change.  (Of course it changed after I’d already crossed about halfway.)  Neither Jenifer nor Williamson seem to have enough traffic to justify giving Williamson so much priority; hopefully they can reprogram to make the signal change a bit quicker and the intersection will be more helpful.  Frankly I don’t know why any pedestrian would use it currently; there is a striped crosswalk about 60 feet southwest that would be much quicker for crossing Williamson.

The last stop on our tour will be Capitol Square.  We’ve walked and biked long enough for now, so I think I’ll save it for next time.  But as we walk towards the square we’ll go up King Street, which is one of my favorite streets in Madison and worth a few more blathers.  King is on the opposite side of the Capitol from State (which was originally also named King), and the two share a basic form – somewhat narrow, lined with 2-4 story buildings.  What I like about King is that it shows how nice an everyday street can be – just make sure it’s not so wide that you can’t see across it and even if you give two-thirds of the street to cars, it’s still not bad for pedestrians.

Hail to the king

10th Avenue Freeze Out

Seems like the whole world walking pretty

And you can’t find the room to move

Well everybody better move over, that’s all

-The Boss

There’s a road over there on the north end of Downtown, or maybe on the south end of the Northside.  Nobody very much goes there, unless they’re looking for some vintage clothes, or maybe some cheap hand-me-downs from Target.  Unless your office is on this street, you poor souls walk this road every day.

Typical 10th Ave N

On one of those walks I saw a machine running towards me.  It was a truck like a mountain, piled high with teenagers looking bored.  This machine was painting lines on the street, turning it from a dusty speedway into something a little more like home, something you can live on.

Another day another dollup

Except that at first the bike lanes were more like something you can park on.  Then about a month after the painting truck came through, a crew came along to change the signs.  It didn’t change much for one stubborn guy though, who still parks in front of his house every morning, even though there’s a place for him not in a bike lane just around the corner.

So now it seems the whole street’s biking pretty.  But I still can’t find the room to walk.  They even got little pictures of bikes on one section of pavement.  Not 10 yards away, a busy crosswalk is just a worn spot on the pavement.  No zebra.  No stop line.  This in the city whose policy is to always mark crosswalks at signalized intersections.

Stop me if you've heard this before

A few steps down, 10th Avenue gets between an office building and its parking lot.  Each morning and night you can see people running across, hurrying even if they’d rather take it slow.  Some of us like to dream about marked crossings even when there’s no light, but for now the city just says no.

Portland would mark it

Not long after that, the sidewalk ends.  This end doesn’t whimper, it explodes with weeds as tall as trees and sand dunes that sweat you like the sahara.

Here's where that crossing would have come in handy

Money comes up from Washington looking for people who move without motors, but it seems you still need a machine to get it.  Out of millions of dollars, all but a few pennies went to bikes.  The night is bright, but the sidewalk’s dark, and maybe one of these days the city’s gonna get the picture.

Tracks of the Past

Links to historic Twin Cities transit maps, listed chronologically with publisher in parentheses.

1885 – Minneapolis only.  Street railway lines shown on plates, except Motor Line.  (???)

1888 – Minneapolis only.  (Mpls City Directory Publishing Co.)

1889 – Minneapolis only.  David Rumsey also has a version of this map that he dates to 1901, but it’s identical as far as I can tell.  The next two maps have features that don’t appear on the supposed 1901 map, so I’m assuming the earlier date is correct.  (George F. Cram)

1891 (MN Transfer Board of Trade)

1892 – Minneapolis only.  (C.M. Foote & Co.)

1897 (Rand, McNally & Co)

1898 (Northwestern Map Publishing Co.)

1900 – Minneapolis only.  (Hudson)

1901 – The U of M’s Borchert map library also has a 1903 map from R.L. Polk & Co but it appears to be identical.  I don’t necessarily trust directory maps, but included this because it dates from the brief period that Lake Calhoun was renamed Lake Mendoza.  (Edit – The Hennepin County Library claims that the Dakota name for Lake Calhoun is Mde Medoza, so it seems likely that Polk & Co just got that name wrong.)  (R.L. Polk & Co.)

1903 – Minneapolis only. (Mpls Real Estate Board)

1906 (TCRT)

1906 (Francis J. Reynolds)

1910 – This is Downtown Minneapolis only, but is cool because it shows the actual tracks.  (Nutter, Frank H.)

1911 (TCRT)

1913 (McGraw Electric Railway Manual)

1914 (McGraw Electric Railway Manual)

1915 (TCRT)

1917 (TCRT)

1920 – Minneapolis only (McGill-Warner Co.)

1946 – Minneapolis only (TCRT)

1948 (TCRT)

1948-1950 – kmz version of the 1946 map above, if you want to view it in Google Earth (TCRT)

Notice anything strange about this list?  What’s up with the 26 year gap after 1920?  Is this a symptom of the beginning of the decline of streetcars?  Did Americans begin to be more obsessed with the newfangled automobiles, and save scarce colored ink for highways?  Am I just a feeble googler?

Please link in the comments to any streetcar maps of the past that I missed.

1895 Paving Map

I came across a paving map of Minneapolis from 1895, and I had to post it here, considering the two posts I’ve done about street paving.

Here’s a detail (although it includes just about all the paved streets in the city at that time); click for the full map:

Yellow = cedar block; Blue = granite block; Brown = sheet asphalt; Red = macadam

I knew that wood was cheap in 19th Century Minneapolis, but I didn’t know how cheap.  My guess is this stuff was imported, however, depending on the type of Cedar used.  I’m not sure if this is the same type of paver you can still see in a few patches on 8th Ave NThis article implies that Minneapolis switched to pine in the decade after this map was made, but apparently Chicago was still laying cedar block pavers in 1909, albeit quite different in appearance from the ones on 8th.  Just another mystery of history…

(Credit:  I’m not sure, exactly.  Someone at the U of M has a huge online library of old maps.  Several are similar maps produced by the City Engineer, but most are of sewers.)

Update:  watch the spread of asphalt and brick in paving maps from 1899 and 1910.

Mooneapolis, A.D. 2030

How to cross the street in February

The council voted yesterday on the items that came out of this cycle’s committee, so it’s probably a bit late to report on what went on in the Transportation & Public Works meeting.  On top of that, the Star Tribune, in their fitful effort to cover Minneapolis, scooped me on a few items.  One was the new civil fines proposed for failing to shovel snow, which I’m excited about.  The idea that we’ll be able to walk a block without sinking to your ankles in snow is one more reason to get excited about winter.  Maybe with the proceeds of this fine the city will be able to afford to finish their plow jobs, instead of leaving icy piles of plow debris blocking every crosswalk.

Speaking of the city affording stuff, I’m obstinately writing this post about the 10/25/11 TPW committee despite having been shown up by professionals because of one item:  the Infrastructure Study presentation.  Basically, Public Works looked at four major transportation infrastructure components and compared their condition to their funding level with the goal of coming up with an eye-popping number to report as a shortfall.

It all begins with the Pavement Condition Index (PCI), or Evidence A that engineers’ confidence in the omnipotence of math is why they shouldn’t be trusted with absolute control over our public spaces.  Here is how the presentation describes it:

The Pavement Condition Index (PCI) is a numerical index between 0 and 100 that is used to indicate the condition of a roadway. It is a statistical measure and is based on a visual survey of the pavement. A numerical value between 0 and 100 defines the condition with 100 representing an excellent pavement.

A 101 point scale would be fine if they were using lasers to measure the pavement surface to discern the level of distortion.  Sending Chuck in his Trail Blazer to glance at the road on the way to McDonald’s is not going to result in a reliable measure, and even a careful visual survey will not reliably tell the difference between a PCI of 71 and a PCI of 72.

Road to Mooneapolis

But the PCI is what we have, and in Minneapolis it’s the low end of the index that is seen more and more.  In fact, the presentation contains an apocalyptic chart showing the descent of many of the cities streets into a gravelly moonscapes within 20 years.  The presentation doesn’t clearly describe, however, what we’re sacrificing back to the elements.  It mentions four networks – 206 miles of Municipal State Aid (MSA) streets, 632 miles of Residential streets, 70 miles of Local streets, and 378 miles of Alleys.  The MSA streets, mostly the heavily traveled arterials such as Hennepin or Nicollet and including many Downtown streets, are fed by the state and projected to remain in roughly the same condition.  It’s Residential streets and Alleys that are going to crumble.  Local streets tend to be a)industrial streets, b)leftover bits of MSA streets or c) the slightly more traveled Residential streets that aren’t vital enough to be MSA routes – circa 2030, they will also be a lo0se arrangement of tar chunks, duct tape and car parts, but there are only 70 miles of them.

Chart Fail

The presentation is interesting, but with one exception it doesn’t really explain how we got into this mess.  (The exception being the Pavement life cycle chart reproduced at left, which terrifyingly predicts “Total Failure” after 16 years if pavement isn’t attended to.)  The problem is less one of underfunding today and more one of overfunding several decades ago.  Around 70% of Minneapolis’ residential streets were built in a 15-year binge from 1967 to 1982.  I don’t know for sure how this indulgence was financed, but a 1966 Citizens’ League report suggests that it was paid for with bonding, which of course is ultimately paid for with property taxes.  So more or less, the city just increased its budget for the massive push to pave Residential streets, and once they were paved the total budget just shrunk, or, more likely, went to other things.

Paved with intentions to pave

So now the city would like to double Public Works’ capital budget to address this crisis of crumbling Residential streets.    Residential streets mostly don’t provide corridors for transportation, except as the very beginning and end of trips.   Instead, both in terms of use and area, their primary function is to provide parking for the residences along them.  It’s difficult to justify expending community resources on such a local benefit, and according to the Citizens’ League report, Residential streets used to be financed mostly locally – at the same time the council decided to jack up property taxes to pay for smooth parking on side streets, it reduced assessments on abutting property owners from 2/3rds to 1/4.   (The local share seems to have been reduced to about 5%, if you can trust my math and this document.)

Smooth paving on side streets, like some rural roads, is probably not necessary for our society to function.  But like subsidies for corporate relocation or sports stadiums, localities feel like they need to shell out in order to be competitive.  I’d say it’s reasonable for people to pay for their own parking spaces, but any proposal to use local money to fund local streets is sure to be met with fury, and it certainly wasn’t mentioned in the presentation.  But if we ever start having a grown-up conversation about how to adjust our life-style to our declining economic situation, I hope that free parking is on the table.

Push me to blink

A quick word about another TPW committee item:  authorization for Public Works to spend $4,000 to convert a pedestrian crossing light “from constantly blinking to user activated.”  Apparently neighbors “observed that many drivers, having become accustomed to a continuously flashing pedestrian light, no longer stop for bicyclists and pedestrians at this location.”  They noticed that drivers yield more often a nearby user-actuated crossing light (no numbers were offered in the RCA, so apparently they took neighbors at their word).  Just another example of the expense we go to in order to avoid enforcing motorists’ legal obligation to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Bonus Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee item

Bicycle Regulations

Minneapolis will amend its traffic code to explicitly define bicycles as vehicles, and therefore include them in the definition of Traffic.  Vague statements in favor of clarity were included in the Request for Council Action rather than an explicit rationale for the revision.  My first thought was that this will now guarantee that cyclists can be charged with violations of the traffic code, although Gary Schiff says the goal is to “make it easier to issue a ticket to someone parked in a bike lane.”  I just hope it won’t settle the Great Crosswalk Debate in favor of requiring cyclists to stop and yield in a crosswalk.

Bonus Community Development Committee item

Minnesota Statewide Historical and Cultural Grants Program (a/k/a Legacy Grants Program)

Warehouse District atmosphere

Staff is recommending that the City apply for a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to help implement the Warehouse District Heritage Street Plan, which recommends rebuilding several crumbling patchwork streets mostly in the North Loop with brick pavers in an effort to restore their appearance as existed at a certain point in history.  The summary from the Request for Council Action is worth quoting in full:

Funded with a 2010 Legacy Grant, The Warehouse District Heritage Street Plan set out a detailed street-by-street plan for preserving historic infrastructure in the Warehouse Historic District. The Plan provides a practical, forward looking, and historically-sensitive approach preserving and rehabilitating historic streets and loading docks while improving pedestrian accessibility, and enhancing stormwater run-off by increasing sustainable practices within the Warehouse Historic District. The completed document was approved by the HPC in August of 2011. The document is a detailed street-by-street plan with specific trouble-shooting for how to preserve the remaining historic materials and industrial infrastructure, while accommodating the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and addressing the need for street and sewer repairs. The plan will be used to inform the individual site decisions that property owners, design professionals, and the City will need to make when properties in the District are rehabilitated. It is also being used as the guiding document for the design and development of City capital improvement projects for the reconstruction and repair of specific streets and alleys.

Now that the plan is completed, CPED and Public Works are beginning work toward implementation with a focus on reconstruction of 6th Avenue North. One of the challenges identified in the plan is that original brick material will be deficient to reuse throughout the district due to breakage or removal from past utility cuts. In order to reconstruct 6th Avenue North with full brick replacement, Public Works will need to find similar brick from other city streets under reconstruction. This grant will be used to salvage, palletize, transfer, and store subsurface brick from other City projects where the brick is similar to that in the Warehouse District. One possible removal project will occur in 2012 with the first phase of Nicollet Avenue South reconstruction.

The Plan is worth looking through, especially Chapter 5, or the design concepts for specific streets.  In one sense this is good news, because the sooner Minneapolis has more experience with textured pavement surfaces, the more people will realize their traffic calming effect.  The bad news is, if the first removal project won’t happen till 2012, it could be awhile before these plans are realized – and the North Lo0p badly needs new infrastructure.  I’m looking out my window at a big pile of brick pavers torn up as part of the new Lunds construction at 12th and Hennepin – Public Works, would it help if I gave you the number to Zeman Construction?

One gate open, another closed

The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck was invented by Thomas Lowry to prevent people from walking between the densest and the second-densest neighborhoods in the city, forcing them to ride his streetcars between Downtown and Uptown.

This charming billboard was located approximately where the gaping maw of I-94 is today.

Ok that’s not true.  The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck sorta just happened, either as a planning mistake, or a product of topography or geography, or maybe due to ideas of transportation efficiencies that were revised as newer, deadlier means of transport were popularized.

Our ancestors seemed to view the Bottleneck as something as a town square, lining it with elegant apartments, important churches, art museums and monuments.  But nothing is so important to Americans as automobility, so the freeway builders didn’t spare the area (although the Lowry Hill Tunnel may be the only gesture they made to the cities they were cutting through, or maybe it was just cheaper than an aerial alignment), more than doubling the paved area and making it nearly nontraversable without a vehicle.

So today the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck is a giant unwieldy mess, which of course means that I have a giant unwieldy plan to fix it.  Unfortunately the giant- and unwieldiness of the plan means it is literally half-baked at this point, so I’m just going to comment on the City’s recent efforts to clean up the mess a bit.

Loring Park Gateway open

'proposed' is now existing, sorry for the confusion

This corner wasn’t bad before, by Bottleneck standards anyway.  But it was awkward, routing cyclists on a sharp turn around a bus bench,  and apparently didn’t accommodate some movements, as indicated by the desire path from this corner over to where the sidewalk continues north up Hennepin.

The addition of bike lanes to 15th St (or whatever it’s called there) was an excuse to spruce up the corner and rationalize the placement of the various elements (it seems that the pesky bus bench has been rationalized out of existence, although there is still a shelter at the stop).  That’s because the city wanted to use this intersection to test out what they call the European Left Turn, which sounds a bit like Wisconsin Yoga but is more like a New Jersey Jughandle for bikes.  It’s good to see more separated bike facilities, but this seems to be another case of the City encouraging sidewalk riding.  I like the connection to the Poem bridge, but that also reminds me of the Loring Bikeway bridge, where the City spends a bunch of money creating a circuitous bypass that everyone ignores in favor of the old, direct route.  Why couldn’t they just have striped a bike lane in place of the left turn/through lane?  Is it really important to retain that queuing space for four or five cars?

The other problem with the European Left Turn is that it presumably will add bikes to an already-crowded corner.  The queue at the corner is often five-deep, and while the realignment of the various paths has better separated bikes from peds, the new curb cut placement has led to a new issue:

A few more creeps*

Luckily the city is well aware that the average American motorist is a creep; that is, she has a tendency to creep past the stop line and into the crosswalk.  So the plan is to not only widen the crosswalk to incorporate the new curb cut position, but to install green colored pavement to delineate it.  The project page implies that the colored pavement has been demoted to paint.  Considering the snow will start to fly in a month or two, that means the demotion may have been extended to the crosswalk itself (like most crosswalks in town).  As the photo above shows, something needs to happen here or the new curb cut will be unusable.

All this realigning, paving and striping did not manage to fix the biggest problem with this intersection: signal programming.  Bikes and peds get the hand when the southbound traffic is stopped for the left turn phase for northbound traffic.  So they have to waste time waiting for the man to let them cross again, even though they don’t conflict with left turning northbound traffic.  This situation is all too common in Minneapolis (see almost every stoplight on Hennepin Ave) but because some lights do keep the man lit up when not conflicting with left turns (see the lights at 5th and 7th on Hennepin), I can only blame it on ineptitude or apathy (some would suggest disdain) for pedestrians on the part of traffic engineers.  In the spirit of Organization before Electronics before Concrete, this change in signal programming should probably have been made before planting the pretty flowers, and should be made before installing the new green pavement or plastic or whatever.

The Wedge Gateway closed

Another change a bit further south down the Bottleneck has somehow made the area even less usable for cyclists.  The sidepath abruptly ends at the ramp to I-94 from Lyndale Ave, and apparently the City was concerned that cyclists would continue on to where ever they are going despite the fact that the City had not made provisions for them to do so.  The solution was to make it more obvious what cyclists are not supposed to do:

Poof! And it's gone

See for yourself how well it’s working:

2 cyclists ignore the new stripes

So here’s an idea.  If people want to bike here, maybe a facility should be built that allows them to do so.  The sidepath could be continued down to Lyndale at the expense of no more than 10 often-unused parking spaces. As part of the same project, raised crossings could be built at all of the intersections, magically transforming the sidepath into a two-way cycle track.

Alternately, the City could continue building overpasses and restriping to prevent people from taking the paths they want.  Bloomington took this route on Lindau Lane, where pedestrians ignored their pointless, capricious, impeding crossing bans.  Bloomington responded by spending $50m to grade-separate the roadway (they blew Orwell right out of his syphilitic grave by calling the project the Lindau Lane Complete Streets and Safety Enhancement project), because everyone knows the best pedestrian environments are created by driving a wide, roaring freeway through the heart of a neighborhood.  Here’s an idea of what the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck may look like, if a Lindau Lane-style complete street strategy is pursued:

The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck will feature easy auto access to the Riverfront

*I actually fudged this photo- the supposed creeps have the green light.  But I’ve encountered the crosswalk blocked by creeps several times so far, I just haven’t gotten a picture.

Sidewalk Re-opening Brings Closure

One year ago (give or take a week or four), on a sleepless summer night, a little boy logged onto the internet and innocently created a WordPress account.  All he wanted was to organize his thoughts, vent his spleen, and maybe change the world a little bit, or at least change a little bit of the world a little bit.  Now that little boy is all grown up, his spleen has only grown, and the world… pretty much the same.

Ah but she was yar.

Coincidentally, one of the issues that motivated me to start this blog recently wrapped up.  I’d been featuring it in my masthead for months, which since around August 1st or so has been inaccurate.  That’s when the sidewalk on the west side of Hennepin Ave re-opened only 17 months after closing to be used as staging ground for the Shubert Theater renovation.  Frankly, I couldn’t believe it when it closed.  This stretch of sidewalk is directly between the major bus stop on 6th St at Hennepin and the Warehouse District Hiawatha station – anyone with an understanding of how pedestrian traffic operates would know that closing that sidewalk would push people to walk in the street.

And that’s exactly what they did, possibly between 600,000 and 900,000 of them in the time it was closed.  That’s my estimate based on observing the pedestrians using each sidewalk on Hennepin in two separate one-hour periods about a month after the westerly sidewalk closed.  I conducted these counts five days apart, but because it was late March in our continental climate, the temperature varied by about 50 degrees.  That may have accounted for the more than twice as many pedestrians observed in the second (warmer) count, although I’ll confess to a methodological wiggliness in counting at two different times of day: the first was between 9 and 10 am, and the second between 5:30 and 6:30 pm.  Hey, it’s not my job to count pedestrians, so sue me.  Here are pie charts showing the results of the counts:

Pedestrians counted on the 500 block of Hennepin Ave between 9 and 10 am on March 26th, 2010

Pedestrians counted on the 500 block of Hennepin Ave between 5:30 and 6:30 pm on March 31st, 2010

After counting, I extrapolated the daily pedestrian traffic using the method described in the City of Minneapolis’ 2008 Bicyclist Pedestrian Count Report.  Basically, they have estimates of the percent of daily traffic divided into half-hour increments, from which I can calculate what the daily traffic would be from each half-hour I counted.  Using that method I estimated between 1588 and 2306 people per day are walking in the bus-bike-right turn lane, an average of 1933 people per day.  Over the approximately 518 days the sidewalk was closed (I’m not sure of the exact dates; this is from the first time I saw it closed to the last time I saw it closed), that makes for 617,000 to 895,000 trips pushed into the street.

If it's not one fence, it's the other

But how much does a one-hour count prove, right?  More than the zero-hour count that Public Works did.  Apparently they didn’t feel they needed to do a count, because when I asked them about it, they acknowledged that “…this is a heavily used sidewalk.”  Not heavy enough to prevent its closure.  Even though this block of Hennepin sees around 15,000 vehicles a day, it seems unlikely that there is a great deal of turning traffic here – especially onto one-lane 5th St.  If they were weighing equally the importance of the facility for each mode, it would have been fair to close the turn lane and move the southbound through and bus-bike-right turn lane over to make room for a temporary pedestrian space.

It couldn’t have been cheap to close this sidewalk.  Even though Minneapolis charges for sidewalk closures at a quarter of the rate that they charge for through lane closures, it’s still charged by the linear foot and by the day.  My guess is about 250 linear feet of sidewalk were closed for 518 days, adding up to a $32,375 tab.  Except for about a month at the beginning of the project when they were doing utility work, they were just using the sidewalk for construction staging; that is, mostly to store equipment.  Certainly they did some work on the facade, but that could have been done either with a part of the 17-20′ sidewalk still open or with a scaffolding enclosure (is it really called hoarding, or just in Canada?).

Actually, it turns out the Shubert builders got a bargain – if they had used the parking lot that surrounds the building for staging instead of the sidewalk, they would have paid $437,657.  That actually doesn’t count the one month the sidewalk needed to be closed for the utility work, and it assumes they closed 5,550 sq ft of sidewalk, which is equivalent to 158.5 of the 35 sq ft parking spaces in the adjacent lot.  Of course, they probably would have found a way to avoid using all that space for staging if they had to pay that kind of money for it, which is an excellent reason for Minneapolis to jack up its sidewalk closure fee.

And it seems that Minneapolis is revisiting its sidewalk closure policy, in response to the passage of the Pedestrian Master Plan and its objective to re-examine the City’s existing policy and rate structure for sidewalk closures.  The proposals they sent me upon request are unfortunately tepid.  The language of one policy is encouraging:

Direct contractor to construct project while accommodating competing users (i.e., construction efficiencies are not the sole determining factor)

But ultimately toothless:

The Contractor is required to provide to the City a Traffic Control Plan for motor vehicles, transit, bicyclists and pedestrians for projects with closures or detours

And the city’s fee structure actually discourages pedestrian accommodation.  The sidewalks, as their name implies, are on the side of the right-of-way and are therefore the most likely target of obstruction by construction projects.  So a contractor decides he needs a bit more space to park his bulldozers.  The sidewalk is a cheap parking space, but he has to submit a pesky traffic control plan.  One option for accommodating pedestrians would be to close a through lane for a temporary pedestrian space.  The directive to accommodate competing users may prompt the contractor to consider that, but at some point he’s going to notice that that option will cause his obstruction bill to increase four-fold, so the most likely plan will be to close the sidewalk and detour pedestrians to the sidewalk across the street.

The Case of the Disappearing Sidewalk is closed, albeit unsatisfactorily.  A dark case like that required a dark masthead, and a dark visual theme to go with it.  Now that I’ve moved on to other cases, I’ve moved on to a brighter masthead (blue sky!), and a brighter, more 21st-century theme, which will hopefully require less squinting to read.  My new masthead is a bit reminiscent of my first masthead, in that it features an idyllic transportation scene in a bustling city.  I’m really glad I finally got some mass transit in there too.  Hopefully I can change up the look every once in a while, and I have a feeling that eventually I’ll give in to the temptation to steal the best masthead I’ve ever seen on any website:

From Eric Austin's really great, really snarky Outstate Politics

WARNING: Navel-gazing ahead!

So after a year, I have to ask myself:  What have I done?  Was there any point to all this blathering and bloggering?  Looking back to that first entry, it seems I had two main goals:  first, to organize my advocacy efforts; and second, to elucidate and develop my ideas for transportation improvements.  Some secondary goals included developing my writing skills (read that first entry and tell me if I’ve been successful – wait, on second thought, don’t read that first entry) and keeping track of and responding to interesting city- or transportation-related items I come across.

I have to admit I’m floundering on the first primary goal.  My advocacy efforts have mostly petered out, although I’d like to think I played a role in raising awareness of the pedestrian facilities stripped from Nicollet reconstruction.  I used to volunteer regularly, pester elected officials, and perhaps most effective, wear my Cars-R-Coffins shirt.  Lately I’ve been… I don’t know… unmotivated?  Dulled by the summer sun?  Whatever the reason, I just haven’t been a very active activist.

But besides the lack of advocacy and its resulting blog content, I also don’t think I ended up organizing what content there was very well.  I’m trying to streamline and simplify my categories, and remove the categories that should really be tags, for example most of the places (although Hennepin County appears here as an entity more than a place, and so should probably stay in the categories).

The second primary goal for the blog also hasn’t measured up well.  Only 5 of my 106 posts are in the “my ideas” category, although measured by quality rather than quantity I may be more successful, since a couple of my favorite posts are in that category.  (It looks like density is the most common category, followed by history – so much for this being a transportation blog).

So is Getting Around Minneapolis a failure?  Naw.  It’s been fun, it’s provoked some great conversations, and most important, it’s provided a venue for all the belly-aching that’s been building up inside me.

Grampa rode a tricycle

This blog may not make it another year, though.  Frankly, I’m tired of advocating for multimodal transportation systems; I want to live in a place where I don’t need to advocate for multimodal transportation systems.  Maybe a place like that doesn’t exist, but I want to find that out for myself, or at least get distracted by the novelty of other desolate, highway-like streets, crumbling transit systems and missing sidewalks.

I love Minnesota.  I was born and raised here.  I can visit the farmhouse near Red Wing where an ancestor lived in the 1860s.  At least two townships are named for various family members.  I love the clean, crisp air of winter, the lush gardens of South Minneapolis, the scenic beauty of the North Shore.

But Minnesota does not love me.  It screams at me or assaults me when I’m in the way of its fast, brainless commute.  It idles my buses the second the budget is pinched.  But maybe more disturbing than antagonistic behavior is the apathy everywhere.  Uptown is walkable, veined with fairly frequent bus routes, and choked with cars.  Minneapolis won’t even consider closing Downtown streets to cars, which is the only part of the city with a tangible goal of decreasing automobile mode share.  If this is the attitude in Minnesota’s most multimodal city, how multimodal is Minnesota?  And why would someone who lives multimodally want to live there?