Why I hate the suburbs

The suburbs appear to be furtively resuming their six-decade binge of eating up productive farmland and scenic woodlands and prairies on the now vast fringe of the Twin Cities metro.  That’s a real bummer, because the predatory weasels who build this crap with very few exceptions don’t give a fig about walking, biking or transit.

They should, because for the most part they end up building places that are dense enough to be walkable & bikeable (if not transitable usually).  Following the pattern of the most recent wave of suburban development set at the close of WWII, these developers throw down houses with little regard (sometimes disdain) for how they fit into the context of the surroundings, leaving municipalities to deal with the expensive, patchy mess they leave.  Most municipalities are unable or unwilling to rise to that challenge, so the suburbs of today are vast, leafy green, packed with jobs and tempting shops, and impossible to access without a car.  Many of us carless hoped that the recent recession was a cleansing fire, but I don’t think we have proof of that yet and apparently people who work at Harvard agree with me.

So the blast from the past Toll Brothers is about to shoot into Eden Prairie is unwelcome, familiarly stunning in its brazen capitalism and lack of interest in how its marks are going to actually live in the $600k paper fantasy being sold to them.  The plan is for 52 single family homes on 30-40 acres wedged into what is being sold as a conservation area.  Enormous, nearly artless houses will surround streets that follow the typical winding, stunted, disjointed suburban pattern.  There will probably be sidewalks, but people are as likely to walk on them as they are likely to drive on a freeway that doubles back on itself.  Luckily, the Toll Brothers development, called Eden Prairie Woods, isn’t such a twisted wretch that you can’t connect much of it into effective city blocks with multi-use paths, as I did using red lines in Paint:

The developers are kind enough to promise “hiking/biking trails” but as they are not depicted in the site plan, I’m assuming those are being planned only for the “conservation area.”  If trails do end up in the neighborhood itself, my guess is they’ll look something like this:

In other words, completely useless for transportation.  But is it even possible to bike and walk anywhere around here?  The site plan makes it look like these houses will be in the middle of a vast unpopulated jungle, far from the cares and worries of having neighbors or sometimes seeing homeless people.  Actually, Eden Prairie Woods is about a quarter-mile from this:

Though it’s a small island in a sea of sprawl, it’s probably big enough to warrant some neighborhood retail to which Eden Prairie Woods residents could (theoretically) also walk to.  Also potentially walkable for potential Eden Prairie Woodsians?  The Lions Tap, legendary burger joint of the Minnesota River suburbs (about a half mile away).  Woodsians could also potentially walk to an enormous church and an enormous park, which both affix to the southeast corner of the intersection of Pioneer Trail and Eden Prairie Road about a mile away.  At the upper range of walking distance are the jobs clustered around Flying Cloud Airport (1.5 mi), but if the future Woodsians are willing to climb on a bike, they could easily ride there or a bit further to classes at Hennepin Tech (2.5 mi) or a gazillion jobs and shops around Eden Prairie Center (~4 mi).

The point is not that if only they’d lay down a few strips of asphalt, the residents of Eden Prairie Woods would all sell their cars, or even their second cars.  The point is that no one is even going to try to occasionally walk or bike for transportation if there is no reasonable way to do it.  If their only options are a few curly-cue paths in the woods that don’t connect to anything, the whole family’s going to pile into their own individual cars for a trip to the Lions Tap.  But if there is a reasonably direct route, and maybe nothing good on TV that night, maybe they’ll try to walk for their burgers on occasion instead.

There is the further tragedy that at a density of around 2 units per acre, this development is weighting the area away from ever having regular route bus service.  But what really gets my goat is that even developments like these that advertise opportunities for recreational walking and biking by design dissuade residents from doing the same for transportation.  Whether out of apathy, greed, or malice, the suburbs demand that you drive, and that’s really why I hate them.

Timing is everything

Chamberpot Days on Lyndale Ave

Many thanks to the Mpls Bike Coalition for last weekend’s Lyndale Open Streets.  It was wonderful to experience a neighborhood commercial street in Minneapolis without having to dodge cars, choke on exhaust and expose eardrums to honking, revving and screeching.  And it was surprising also to experience how wide Lyndale feels north of 31st.  Nowadays when we want to cram landscaped medians, buffered bike lanes, bump-outs, light rail and 6 left turn lanes on every street, Lyndale’s ~60′ seems confiningly narrow.  But in the days when the only thing you put in the street came out of your chamberpot, it must have felt grandiosely wide.  Maybe the reasoning was that if your street was wide enough that no shade reached the middle, the shit would dry out quicker.  Now that our streets are relatively free of shit, I’d like to propose a rule that no street be any wider than can be shaded by, say, a 20 year old boulevard tree.

But I didn’t bring up Open Streets as a launching point for a discussion of the effects of excretory matters on urban physiognomy.  I bring it up because after walking 9/10s of the round trip length of the event it brought me to Common Roots at the precise moment that I was thirsty for a beer and ready to sit down, and Common Roots had free copies of The Wedge, the tiny little newspaper for the confusingly-named Lowry Hill East neighborhood.  And inside that tiny newspaper was a tiny column called Pedestrian Improvements on Hennepin Avenue by CM Tuthill about how the people have spoken and she has listened to “the difficulty pedestrians have crossing streets in Uptown.”  And that column inspired this post, titled with a pun but really a collection of some stuff I’ve wanted to say about traffic signal timing/programming for a while.

Leading pedestrian interval

If you think the salon’s in rough shape, you should see the two pedestrians

CM Tuthill’s column highlights the concrete action Public Works is taking to address the aforementioned pedestrian difficulties – leading pedestrian intervals at the intersections of Hennepin Ave with Lake and Lagoon Sts.  CM Tuthill describes it thusly:

The Leading Pedestrian Interval gives pedestrians the walk signal 3-5 seconds before the green signal for [vehicular] traffic.  Pedestrians get a head start on crossing the street and become established in the crosswalk before vehicles begin moving.

I couldn’t tell from the article whether this pattern is in operation yet, but I’m looking forward to trying them out. These intersections are both terrifying, with the one at Lake infamous for the frequency with which cars crash into the salon at the northeast corner.  My guess is that the biggest improvement will be at Lagoon, where cars turning right from Hennepin to Lagoon were somehow able to see a red light as a green arrow.  Email 311 to tell them how great leading pedestrian intervals are and how they should be used at every intersection with a right turn lane.

Loser pedestrian interval

Push this and hurry

On the other hand, there are still lots of intersections with loser pedestrian intervals.  These give pedestrians a don’t walk hand way before the light turns red.  There is actually a somewhat legitimate reason to do this on a very wide road in order to halt pedestrians when their continued crossing after the signal changes would cut too deep into the next phase.  Almost no streets in Minneapolis and St Paul are wide enough for this and more common are examples like Glenwood & Royalston, at the heart of Minneapolis’ Homeless District. At this fairly narrow street – with a refuge median –  a beg button must be pushed before you even get to suffer the indignity of the signal timing, which gives twice as much time to the don’t walk time as it gives to the walk and flashing don’t walk combined (40 seconds vs 10 and 10).

This leads me to speculate about the causes of this sort of affront to pedestrians.  The beg buttons at Glenwood & Royalston were actually faux buttons until recently.  This means one of two things:

  1. The signal technology is so crude that it only allows certain heinous types of programming (think about the enormous signal cabinets you see at the side of the road to house the computers that control traffic lights and then think about an iPod Nano); or
  2. Someone actually designed it to be this way.

I shudder about equally at each of these possibilities.

Non-conflicting pedestrian walk signal

Last year I reported that only two of the 8-10 protected left turn enabled traffic signals on Hennepin – installed during the two-way conversion just a few years ago – gave walk signs to non-conflicting pedestrian traffic.  There is a good amount of foot traffic downtown, and holding them unnecessarily wasted time and encouraged non-compliance (already a good strategy for pedestrians in a auto-oriented one-way grid system).  The City’s zillion-dollar traffic signal programming initiative has fixed at least a few of those – the signals at 11th & 12th work now, although 9th & 10th still don’t.

Pedestrians crossing the north leg of the intersection conflict with the protected left turn, so they get a don’t walk sign. But thanks to lazy traffic engineers or inept software programmers, so do the pedestrians crossing the the south leg, who don’t conflict with a protected phase.

Same traffic pattern as above, but this time the traffic engineer actually gave some thought to pedestrians and managed to avoid wantonly wasting their time.

Imbecilic pedestrian walk signal

The intersection of 12th & Hennepin is alright now, but for the last few months it did something very unusual.  It managed to give a walk signal to non-conflicting pedestrian traffic, but the walk was active for the same amount of time as the walk for the conflicting pedestrian signal, effectively giving them a loser pedestrian interval.  In other words, the pedestrian traffic that doesn’t conflict with the protected left turn traffic gets the don’t walk signal earlier than the pedestrian traffic that does conflict with protected left turns.

This situation, and the fact that it’s subsequently been fixed, indicates to me that the source of pedestrian signal timing troubles – or “difficulty pedestrians have crossing streets” as CM Tuthill put it – is due primarily to lack of attention by traffic engineers.   It may be that the software used to program signals isn’t what you’d call user-friendly, but clearly it’s possible to program a phasing pattern that’s beneficial to pedestrians.  Let’s hope more policymakers follow CM Tuthill’s lead and put policies in place that would force traffic engineers to learn how to use their software for everyone’s benefit, not just for cars.

A less filthy version of this post appears on streets.mn.

Every street is special

If you want to ride a bike in Downtown, there’s a map for that.  If you want to catch a bus in Downtown, there’s a map for that too.  But what if you’re not sure yet if you want to bus or bike?  Wouldn’t it be useful to compare the streets where specialized facilities are dedicated to these modes (or pretendicated, in the case of Hennepin’s Green Lanes)?

Actually, if that was your goal, you might as well use Hedberg‘s amazingly comprehensive yet readable official Minneapolis Bike Map, which shows transit (although it doesn’t differentiate between Hiawatha, which is mostly separated from traffic, and a bus that runs in mixed traffic).  My goal was more theoretical – I just wanted to see at a glance which streets had been specialized for which modes.  I used Visio to alter a base map created by Public Works that was the most detailed map I could find in black & white.  Color was used to differentiate between the different modes in which the streets specialized, and line thickness was used to show degree of separation from other modes, which in Downtown conveniently corresponds to directionality (i.e. all of the separated facilities are also two-way; the old two-way bike lane on Hennepin would have been more complicated to symbolize).  I also included pedestrian specialization, which I considered to include bikes unless specifically banned (as on the typically deserted Fed plaza) or physically prevented from using the space (mostly because of stairs, like on Chicago’s connection to West River Pkwy).  Because Public Works’ attention is defaulted to car traffic, the base map included freeways in light green – luckily they are another form of specialization, but they don’t conform to my symbology.

Now that I’ve made this map of street specialization in Downtown Minneapolis, here’s some thoughts on the transportation network:

  • Downtown’s defining feature is a grid of around 20 blocks long by 10-15 blocks deep wedged into a triangular area.  Ok, that’s obvious, but you gotta start somewhere.  Also noteworthy is that the grid bends in the center-west and on the south, creating irregularities there, and is frequently interrupted along its periphery.
  • The heaviest activity is in the center of the grid, but there is intense activity throughout, with the only exceptions in an eastern area bounded by 5th & 11th Avenues and 3rd and 6th or 7th Sts, and a western area bounded by I-94, the 4th St viaduct, and I-394.
  • On average, there are ten blocks to a mile, but entry to Downtown is limited to about 12 gateways, mostly evenly distributed (about 3 to a cardinal direction) but not evenly spaced.  These gateways are created by the barrier function of the freeway ring  directly limiting access but also dividing the surrounding city into separate communities defined by freeway boundaries.  The river does something similar.
  • There is more real specialization for bikes than any other mode.  This makes sense, since people seem to like to get their bikes as close to their destination as possible rather than leave them at a central terminal and walk to their destination (people also don’t like to do that with cars, and maybe not with transit either).
  • Transit actually has more specialization than bikes if you count nominal specialization, in the form of bus stops and shelters.  There are a dizzying array of downtown streets with bus lines on them, but they aren’t really specialized because there is no advantage for transit to run there as opposed to anywhere else (a dedicated lane would be an example of an advantage).  The spread of nominally specialized transit streets is a weakness for the network, since transit benefits from clustering onto spines in order to compound frequency and increase system legibility.
  • Another caveat – looking at the map and assuming 6 lanes per freeway, there appears to be more specialized facilities for cars than for bikes.  The majority of the streets on this map also have specialized facilities for pedestrians lining them.
  • There is a huge network gap on the south end of downtown, basically from Hawthorne to Portland between 12th and 15th.  (Technically you could bike on the Loring Greenway but I rarely see that happen, maybe because you have to ride on the sidewalk to get to it.)  Do the conditions that require specialization further north not exist here, or have they just not gotten around to specializing?  The south end of Nicollet is not congested, but the high levels of transit service and use here would likely benefit from a modified transit mall, for example one that would prohibit cars from going through but allow access for parking and drop-off.  The south end of Hennepin, on the other hand, is similar to the Green Lanes segment, and the only rationale for not extending them is to allow unfettered gratification of suburbanites’ desire to drive Downtown.  In other words, Hennepin Ave south of 12th St is duplicated by 394 so there’s no good reason to continue its present prioritization of cars.  Extend the Green Lanes and enforce them.
  • Another gap basically cuts off the North Loop.  Local transit operates well there, with wide stop spacing and few stoplights, but the heavily-used transit service to the northern suburbs would benefit from exclusive lanes – I’ve mentioned before converting one of the viaducts to a two-way transitway and making the other a reversible two-lane highway.  As for bikes, the gap in the 2nd St bike lane can only be attributed to disinterest on the part of Public Works – the two blocks lacking lanes shares the same width as its neighbors with lanes.  The North Loop has actually lost bike lanes lately, as the lanes on one side of 5th Ave were converted to parking.  This neighborhood has obvious problems with street connectivity in this direction, so this lane should be restored and connected to 7th St N, maybe as part of the Interchange project.
  • The third gap is in Elliot Park, where the city is reluctant as usual to remove parking to add bike lanes.  It seems reasonable, though, to add a lane each to 7th and 8th on the stretch east of Portland where demand for turning is low.  I have also called for a transit mall on 8th St – 9th or 10th might work too.

I’d like to pin a tangential coda onto this already long-winded post.  From the above it can be gathered that there is already a great deal of specialization on Downtown streets but I’d like to add even more.  To understand why, I offer the chart below, showing that the population of Downtown as measured by the 2010 census is greater than all but 25 of the Metro’s 90-some municipalities:

Ok, so # 26 wouldn’t seem to be a big deal, except for the fact that at 2.6 sq mi Downtown is a third the size of the next smallest city on the list, Richfield.  In addition, only 5 cities on the list had a similar or higher growth rate to Downtown, which is poised to overtake Brooklyn Center, Andover, Roseville, and Richfield assuming the same growth rate in this decade.  Of course, that won’t happen, but if the first two years of this decade are any indication, it’s certain that Downtown’s growth rate will outpace all but a few of the Metro’s large municipalities.

High population in a small area means density, something that isn’t very common in the Twin Cities.  That means we should expect the transportation system to look different Downtown as well, and a reasonable response is to specialize street space so the different modes can perform their best.  Unsurprisingly I have an idea of what the ideal specialization would look like, and I’ll get around to posting that map sooner or later.

Better red than yellow

Zweifeldig Ampel

I’ve written a lot of stupid, crazy things on this blog (I flatter myself by thinking they’re crazy, too, instead of just stupid).  But I think this entry may contain the craziest, if not the stupidest thing I’ve thought of.

It all began with a recent post on Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic about the an FHWA study that found that marked crosswalks are less safe than unmarked crosswalks on higher speed, multi lane roads.  I don’t doubt their findings, but it’s always seemed fishy to me that in the instance of a pedestrian feature being ignored by drivers, the response is to not install them (to be fair, the report actually recommends traffic calming such as bump-outs to increase pedestrian safety). The comments to Tom’s post even mention that in countries where there is enforcement of crosswalk law, drivers yield at marked crossings, which in some cases seems to have led to routine compliance, that is, drivers actually yield to pedestrians in crosswalks without the “incentive” of getting a ticket and a big fine.

It seems like if this were a driver safety feature that was routinely ignored, it would either be regularly enforced (speed limits) or improved through engineering (left turn lanes).  Maybe I have a chip on my shoulder, but it seems like if there’s a question about a pedestrian or bicycle road feature, the response is to get rid of it (a transit road feature would not even be there in the first place), but if it’s an automobile feature, the response it to improve or mitigate it.

As I brainstormed examples, the all-red traffic signal phase – an engineering response to a safety problem caused by a road design element – floated to the top of my brain.  In this case, the road design element is the yellow light, which causes some drivers to speed up in order to not have to wait at the light.  When they judge incorrectly, and someone waiting for a green jumps the gun, the result could be described as a safety problem.

The design element that ultimately provoked this safety problem is the yellow phase of the traffic signal.  Which brings us to my crazy idea - the yellow phase may be at best unnecessary and at worst dangerous.

Presumably the yellow phase is supposed to improve safety by warning drivers that a light is about to turn red and thereby give them more time to stop before the intersection, rather than proceeding through it and risking conflict with the intersecting traffic.  This problem has been mitigated in many places by extending the length of the all-red phase, giving traffic time to clear the intersection before the intersecting traffic is allowed to proceed.  Which means that essentially the all-red phase has replaced the function of the yellow phase.

In the real world, though, the yellow phase may have another function.  We are taught that yellow means caution, so maybe the presence of a yellow light encourages drivers to stop more gradually and thereby decrease the likelihood of a rear-end crash.  On the other hand, if drivers get used to seeing an abrupt change from green to red, my guess is that they would learn to stop just as gradually as if the yellow light were still there.

It’s hard to say for sure, since they yellow phase seems to be a standard part of traffic lights worldwide.  Germany has two-phase traffic signals, but apparently they cut the green – indicating that the signal isn’t needed at all at certain times (from what I can tell, these are found at low-traffic railroad crossings).  I couldn’t find any studies of the safety benefits of yellow lights, but maybe researchers were shamed away from the topic.

Honestly, if I’m proven wrong here, I’d be relieved.  Personally I enjoy caution, and am happy that motorists get a reminder of the concept fairly regularly.  But in the interest of thinking outside the box, zero-based reasoning, and violent revolution, I thought I’d throw the idea out there.  Obviously a lunatic is not the best judge of his or her own mental state, which is why I depend on others to tell me if this idea is crazy.

Lively up this bridge

If you’re like me, you often find yourself throwing back tallboys under a bridge somewhere.  The most recent bridge, for me, was the 3rd/Central Ave Bridge, which Grazyna Auguscik transformed to a beautiful kind of Eastern Bloc Rio for the Twin Cities Polish Festival a couple weeks ago.

the light was pretty bad under there

St Anthony Main is such a superlative public space in Minneapolis, and the butt end of the 3rd Ave Bridge creates a kind of accidental ballroom for the big public events held there.  Unfortunately, it is currently an ugly, dank ballroom.  The face of the bridge appears to be painted in Soviet Gray and is crumbling in a number of places.  There is a giant duct, presumably used to funnel the detritus of the bridge deck, which lends an industrial feel.  Then there are three mysterious caverns, which sort of adds to the industrial vibe, but only to add the sense you are likely to be suddenly and violently killed.

My guess is that a popular movement to refurbish this under-bridge space would have to run the jurisdictional maze that’s so common in our otherwise simple state.  MnDOT owns the bridge, I believe, but the Park Board maintains the green space that surrounds it.  After a rather infamous debacle with a bridge a few years back, I can’t imagine MnDOT would be eager for people to hang out under its bridge.  But people already are hanging out under it (i.e. Polish fest) so why not spruce it up a bit?

The other problem is that the space sounds terrible.  This may be less fixable, but it just means that the space shouldn’t be used for acts where the subtleties of the music are necessary for full enjoyment (Grazyna Auguscik is heavy on those subtleties).  There are plenty of popular genres where all you really need to hear to have a good time is the bass drum (and a lot of people seem to ignore even that).  Here’s hoping someone fixes up the 3rd Ave Bridge’s accidental ballroom for many polkas/raves to come.

it was the light I swear

Who does Public Works work for?

I got my Transportation & Public Works committee agenda notice in my email today, as usual a whole four days before the meeting.  In other words, too late to change anyone’s mind.

As expected, the committee will vote on the new layout for Nicollet Ave.  This is the new new new layout, the third presented to the public.  The agenda was the first I’ve seen of it, although I checked the project page and sure enough it’s there, dated 8-16.  For the record, August 16th is at least 15 days after the decision was made to remove curb extensions from the design.

Just to recap, the city decided to remove any physical design element for pedestrians, then waited 15 days to notify the public of or even acknowledge the change, conveniently after it was too late to do anything about it.  I’m not in favor of Greek or even California-style democracy, where the general public gets to vote on every little detail.  But when a decision is made to remove a feature that changes the entire character of the street, I think it’s irresponsible to even let the public know about it.

It appears that the city has pounded another nail into the idea of complete streets, another nail into the validity of their own design guidelines, and another nail into the idea that pedestrians are anything more than a bush or bench, allowed at the side of the road to make it look pretty.

For the record, here is the layout:

Easy driving

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

Bridge to Pedestrian Paradise

I was sucked in by the first sentence of a recent Travel & Leisure article:

Stroll the 1.3-mile Hudson River Walkway in Poughkeepsie, NY—taking in the exhilarating view of water, treetops, and sky—and you could almost forget that we live in a world designed for the automobile. Here, the environment belongs not to those who roar by at 70 mph, but to pedestrians like you.

Making a spectacle of himself again

The article is called The World’s Most Spectacular Pedestrian Bridges, and features a lot of bridges in remote mountaintop locations most likely to be crossed by Indiana Jones.  But there are a lot of urban bridges as well, including many of the new breed of postmodern pedestrian bridge like those designed by Calatrava (whose Puente de la Mujer in Buenos Aires made the list).

Minneapolis has some great pedestrian bridges, but I’m not sure any deserve to be called the Most Spectacular in the World.  The Stone Arch Bridge has a spectacular location and a unique one, overlooking the only waterfall on the Mississippi – it coulda been a contender.  The Sabo Bridge is nice, but its design is unexceptional and location more smogtacular than spectacular.  The latter also applies to the Ashbery Bridge, which has an interesting if not exactly beautiful design, but is hampered by its location atop a freeway.  (I’ll take this opportunity to opine that if Minneapolis ever wants to be considered a world-class city, it’s going to have to build a deck over the roadway there and connect Loring Park to the sculpture garden.)  Any spectacular Minneapolis pedestrian bridges I’m forgetting?

Don’t mention those ped bridges over Washington Avenue Mall SE between Coffman and the (other) Mall.  The article mentions the BP bridge, which is similar in appearance to those bridges and also similarly un-spectacular.  I love Millennium Park in Chicago, and the Pritzker Pavilion is great, so if anything the BP bridge has a location advantage.  But what’s so brilliant about curving a bridge and covering it with shiny material?  The only purpose served is to reference nearby Frank Gehry works.   The curving form actually inhibits mobility – very slightly in the case of the U bridges, but pretty significantly on the BP bridge.  And again, the BP bridge’s spectacularity is smoked out by the freeway it passes over.  Maybe this is just Midwestern rivalry talking, but I think including the BP bridge made an otherwise spectacular article less spectacular.

Bridges of a feather

Eat this street too

And it's only gotten bigger.

Monday night I walked the road to Zion (Pillsbury Ave), where the City was holding a meeting on the impending reconstruction of Nicollet Ave between Lake and 40th.  The hosts happened to be my old friends Kimley Horn & Ass. and the facilitating was no less than head honcho Horn, who handled pretty well the sharp twists of opinions from residents of a relatively progressive and pedestrian-oriented neighborhood in an otherwise conservative city.  Unfurled at this meeting was the new layout for Nicollet, so fresh it isn’t even online yet.  [Edit - Thanks to Reuben for the news that this layout is now online - see the project page for the big ol' pdf.]

Legend has it that this stretch of Nicollet can fold a steel bike rim over like a taco shell.  Probably the only place in the Twin Cities where I am unable to read on the bus is on Nicollet between Lake and 38th – the constant tremor makes me more queasy than the tilt-a-whirl after too many funnel cakes.  More quantitatively, this segment of a fairly important arterial has a Pavement Condition Index lower than 99% of Minneapolis’ street miles (as of 2009 and not counting CSA streets).  The mess of a street running through the Lyndale neighborhood could be used to indict the politics-driven CLIC process.

But I’ll instead use it to indict the wide-road policies of the Automobile Age, which in 1954 built a Nicollet Ave with a 50′ wide roadbed, creating 50 years of confusion about how many lanes there are and encouraging drivers to speed around the spacious corners.  As a result, Nicollet Ave between Lake and 38th has a much higher accident rate than nearby comparable streets.

Anyone want to check my math?

The layout presented last night remedies the safety problem in the most direct way possible – by narrowing the street.  As presented, Nicollet will go from 50′ width to 44′ in typical mid-block segments and 46-48′ at intersections depending on left turn lanes, major cross streets, etc.  The layout shown last night also included solid stripes between the parking and the through lanes, which should help to reduce confusion.

The design as presented also included bump-outs, although they made pains to emphasize that they would only be built if the community wanted them.  Not sure why such a crucial safety feature would be contingent on the support of such an unrepresentative group as people who show up to community meetings, but I also got the sense that it would take a pretty determined resistance to drastically change the design at this point.  The timeline for the project is shooting for the city council to approve the layout by August, allowing the public a generous 55 days to collect its thoughts and make well-reasoned suggestions.  We’ll see when the layout gets published online for those members of the public who didn’t have a chance to memorize it.

The new layout will lead to more neighbors in conversation about who gets to go first.

The condensed timeline also makes it clear that Public Works won’t consider a variance to MSA guidelines, which take at least three months to go through.  That means that the community’s input is really limited to widening the street at this point, since the design already allows for the narrowest street possible under MSA (the traffic count they’re designing for assumes Nicollet is connected north of Lake St, for which they forecast more than 10,000 cars along the whole stretch).  If they had asked their intern to come up with this formulaic design shortly after the last public meeting for this project (almost a full year ago), there would have been time to apply for an MSA variance.

That is a problem because the proposed layout actually reduces sidewalk width in a lot of areas.  Mr. Horn said that can be mitigated by reducing boulevard width – an idea that will certainly have widespread appeal, since everyone hates boulevards.  If there was time for a variance, the parking lanes could be reduced to 8′ and 2′ reallocated to each sidewalk, making the everyday occurrence of two strollers passing on a Nicollet sidewalk a little bit easier.

I have simmering in the boozy cauldron of my brain a hot batch of ideas to proactively address the unsafe conditions on Nicollet and I hope to flesh out and submit soon (there is a tight deadline, after all).  I’ll list them quickly so readers can call out the craziest:

  • Parking bays south of 38th
  • Textured driving surface in the business node at 38th
  • Roundabouts at 35th and 36th (they’d probably need signals for the traffic on 35th & 36th heading for 35W
  • HAWK signal at 34th
  • One-way, right-turn only entrances and exits for the eastern segments of 33rd and 32nd

There will be another public meeting in July to discuss aesthetic details (sidewalks were specifically mentioned as an example of these).  We’ll see how much the proposed layout has changed in response to community input.

A Bridge Too Many

Once again this week’s TPW committee was packed with items that fascinate me and bore my girlfriend.  I’m going to comment on a couple:

Cedar Ave S Bridge

Blobs to be?

If you want a sample of the byzantine nature of transportation funding in the state of Minnesota, check out the RCA for this project.  Hennepin County is going to widen sidewalks on the bridge that carries Cedar Ave over CR-122 (referred to as Washington Ave SE in the committee agenda; someday I’ll post my rant on Minneapolis’ street naming “system” if I can cut it down to a length that doesn’t crash WordPress), also they’re replacing some streetlights and adding some nice railings.  If I’m reading it right, the only reason the issue is coming before the council is that Hennepin County awarded the city a TOD grant for this project, even though the county will be doing the work (“The project scope has limited implications to the City” according to the RCA).  The county seems to have awarded itself a grant.  Interesting the contortions that need to be made in order to improve the pedestrian environment.

If the project looks familiar, that’s because it first came up as a sweetener for the highway expansion project that Hennepin County submitted to the TIGER program.  It’s heartening that the County took this sweetener seriously enough to pursue it even without “free” money.  The RCA doesn’t mention widening the bridge, but mentions the same sidewalk widths as the TIGER application, implying the plan hasn’t changed.  Also not mentioned is the bridgehead “flaring” depicted in the sketch above; my guess is it won’t be included – the document I took the sketch from lists the flaring as a $750k expense over and above the $1m for widened sidewalks; the RCA lists the project cost as $1m total.

Van White Boulevard

A new place to slither

Pretty much everyone who’s been on Lyndale north of the Bottleneck has wished for another way between Uptown and the Northside.  Our wish will be granted by the Fall of 2012, when a half-mile segment of Van White Boulevard is scheduled to be completed at the cost of $42m per mile.  (Drivers, of course, will still have to contend with the Bottleneck itself, but the more mobile modes will be able to walk or bike through the park and avoid the mess – hopefully long-term plans include some paths through the mansions and up Lowry Hill, but I won’t count on it).

In order to just get this damn road built, they’re probably going to phase the project:  where the long-term plan calls for two bridges over the railroad tracks, each carrying one direction of travel, instead at first only one bridge will be built carrying both directions of travel.  I can’t help but ask the question why, then, they are planning to build two bridges at all.  The Bassett Creek Valley Plan answers that question – the city is planning for a lot of redevelopment in this area (although Hennepin County may throw a monkey wrench in the works).

The plan includes a bike path on the east side in place of the sidewalk.  North of Glenwood, it is a multi-use trail, with 6′ for pedestrians in addition to 10′ of bidirectional bike path; south of Glenwood the ped space disappears.  While I’m not much of a separatist in terms of non-motorized traffic, it seems like they could have designed it to include walking space along the entire segment.  It even looks like they bought enough right-of-way for it; isn’t it just the same old story that a bridge would be designed for twice the projected amount of cars but half the projected amount of pedestrians?