Walk this (High)way (Dept)

Henn Cty's plan does not address beg buttons, not even inaccessible ones like this that the County installed on Lake St

Henn Cty’s draft Pedestrian Plan does not address beg buttons, not even inaccessible ones like this one that the County installed on Lake St

I recently took a fairly long vacation, which gave me time to review and comment in detail on Hennepin County’s draft Pedestrian Plan. It’s a small but welcome first step for the County, but has some significant shortcomings, most of all the failure to address land use and urban design impediments to walking in Hennepin County. My comments are below, in a format that the County’s online feedback form did not take kindly to. General comments are first, then specific. Comment period closes at 5pm Monday, so while I certainly don’t recommend wasting 4 hours on it like I did, you should at least put in a quick word against beg buttons (which are not addressed in the plan).

 
I’ve spent the majority of my life as a pedestrian in Hennepin County, so I welcome the creation of the first Hennepin County Pedestrian Plan. This is particularly welcome from an arm of the County that not too long ago was called the Highway Department, and only within the last decade or so showed any consideration of non-motorized transportation (we’re still waiting for it to pay attention to transit). Still, pedestrians in Hennepin County are used to having to push inaccessible beg buttons, cross superfluous motor vehicle lanes, and walk in ditches, shoulders or even travel lanes along County roadways. Hopefully this plan is an indication that the County intends to value pedestrian travel as highly as it currently values travel by personal car.

Unfortunately, the plan is probably too timid and high-level to make a practical difference in the short term. The goals are all rather basic (Why is it necessary to have a goal of improving pedestrian safety? Surely there is an existing requirement that County activities take safety into consideration?) and the strategies for implementation mostly call for further study (e.g. 2.2B. Identify and prioritize pedestrian improvements to enhance the pedestrian environment at Transit stops and along common routes to LRT and BRT stations – why doesn’t this plan serve as a foundation for identifying and prioritizing these improvements so that every new context for consideration of pedestrian facilities doesn’t have to start from scratch?) and only rarely call for concrete improvements (e.g. 1.2A. Install leading pedestrian intervals (LPI), Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacons (RRFB), and High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk Beacons (HAWK) where appropriate and feasible).

The plan has a second fatal defect in its singular focus on infrastructural solutions to degraded pedestrian environments in Hennepin County. In fact, land use has a huge impact on the decision of County residents whether or not to walk, which despite having a major bearing on Goals #2 and 3 is not considered in this plan at all (presumably an effect of the compartmentalization of County departments, as well as the intention of this plan to be folded into the Transportation System Plan that similarly fails to consider land use). In other words, this plan is solely focused on mobility, and entirely ignores accessibility, which is probably a bigger factor in encouraging pedestrian activity. Without a land use component, this is not a pedestrian plan, it is a sidewalks plan. While the County has a less direct impact on land use than on infrastructure, surely the pulpit of the state’s second largest unit of government by budget reaches enough ears that it could be an effective advocate for land use solutions. So the power of persuasion could be used, as could the County’s substantial granting programs (e.g. TOD, NSP, Brownfields, etc). While land use strategies could be incorporated into the plan’s draft goals, I suggest a fourth goal as well that Hennepin County affirmatively advocate pro-pedestrian policies when interacting with other jurisdictions.

Pedestrian activity in Hennepin County is too complex to be planned for in 54 pages. I suggest the finalization of the plan be delayed to accommodate a significant new chapter that attempts to define the universe of facilities related to pedestrians and prioritize them, as well as the incorporation of a fourth goal that commits the County to the advocacy of pedestrian activity to all interacting jurisdictions, and additionally considers land use (and ideally urban design, i.e. what happens to the pedestrian after he or she leaves public right-of-way) strategies to implementing the goals in addition to the infrastructural strategies identified in the draft. While this will certainly add some delay and likely cost more, it will result in a more effective plan. As noted on pages 5 & 6, there are significant costs to avoiding pedestrian activity, so every dollar the County invests in promoting it will be well spent.

2 Goals (p 7)

In addition the three existing goals, I propose Goal #4: Hennepin County should affirmatively encourage policies and activities that promote pedestrian behavior when  interacting with other jurisdictions. Hennepin County is a patchwork of overlapping jurisdictions, and the County government has only so much direct responsibility with which to further the goals of the plan. Therefore the plan should explicitly state that its principles should be extended to every fingertip of the County, in order to reach those other jurisdictions and maximally impact the pedestrian environment. There are many opportunities to do so, starting with County granting programs, which could have pro-pedestrian criteria embedded in them; moving through County review of other jurisdictions’ plans, on which pedestrian impacts the County could comment; and extending even towards directly inviting municipalities to formulate their own pedestrian plans or adopt the goals of the County’s plan. The plan already agrees with this goal in such Strategies to Implement as 3.2A. Advocate in the Hennepin County legislative platform for statewide policy to mandate pedestrian safety education in school curriculum and the Practice to Continue outlined on page 32, Support the Development, Implementation, and Coordination of Municipal Pedestrian Plans. It would be further strengthened and made central to more of the County’s activities, however, if it were explicitly included as a goal.

4 Existing Conditions (pp 12-13)

This section contains valuable information about County residents who currently choose to walk to work or other destinations. It would be improved with information about the number of County residents who, based strictly on land use and intensity of use, potentially could walk to destinations but choose not to. This is feasible through GIS. For example, on page 68 of the Appendix, it states that the Met Council TBI found that the average walk journey was 10 minutes in duration. It is possible using GIS to calculate how many county residents live within a 10-minute walk of retail, office or industrial land uses to get a general idea of how many County residents could potentially walk to destinations but do not. This would be particularly useful to get a sense of the feasibility of the performance measures in Section 7.

6.1.1 Practices to Continue: Stripe Zebra-Style Crosswalks (p 23)

The plan states that “are currently the standard style of crosswalks installed on Hennepin County roads outside of Minneapolis.” The plan then continues to describe the rationale for this choice as that they’re “more visible to drivers”, presumably leading to a safety benefit for pedestrians. Why, then, are they not striped in Minneapolis? The plan should include as a Strategy to Implement that the County standard style of crosswalk should be extended to Minneapolis, as the site of 76% of the County’s pedestrian-vehicle crashes (p. 17). If the County standard is not practiced within Minneapolis city limits due to resistance from local officials, the plan should include as a Strategy to Implement a coordination of city-county roadway standards.

6.1.2 Signals (pp 24-25)

This section should include as a Strategy to Implement “Lagging Left Turns as Signal Timing Standard”, as was included for example in the City of Chicago’s Pedestrian Plan (chicagopedestrianplan.org). This practice has the benefit of increasing pedestrian safety and convenience, thus contributing towards all 3 goals outlined in the Hennepin County Plan. By allowing pedestrians to go first, goal 2 is obviously furthered. The contribution towards goal 1 is perhaps deductive, but it is observable that when the protected left turn is at the beginning of a phase, pedestrians tend to not notice and thereby enter the intersection at the same time as a driver has the right-of-way. This situation is absent when the protected left turn is at the end of the phase, and in addition in most cases the pedestrian traffic will have cleared by the time the left-turning vehicular traffic enters, effectively removing this conflict point. Lagging left turns should be the default signal programming, with engineers required to submit documentation of exceptional purpose for programming protected left turns at the beginning of a phase.

Additionally, this section should include as a Strategy to Implement “Require Documentation of Exceptional Purpose for Installation of Pedestrian-Actuated Signals.” These signals, less jargonistically known as beg buttons, reduce pedestrian safety both by requiring the pedestrian to touch a non-sanitized surface and by making the default signal timing unaccommodating to pedestrian travel. While the latter is mitigated by requiring the pedestrian to stop and wait until the next phase, this works against Goal #2 by significantly reducing the speed and convenience of pedestrian travel (depending on the season, comfort can also be significantly reduced). Further, it is unrealistic to expect pedestrians to always obey the signal, especially when they arrive at a signal while vehicular traffic moving in the same direction has a green light, so in a very real sense beg buttons criminalize pedestrian travel. It is difficult to evaluate any pedestrian plan’s outcome as pro-pedestrian if the plan does not call for default accommodation of pedestrians in signal phases.

6.1.2 Practices to Continue: Install Countdown Timers on all County-Owned Signals (p 25)

Page 25 of the draft plan states that countdown timers are a “proven safety strategy.” Yet research on the safety benefits is mixed at best. Most studies seem to show that countdown timers do not discourage pedestrians from beginning to cross even after the Don’t Walk sign begins to flash, although usually it encourages pedestrians to cross more quickly (see for example Countdown Pedestrian Signals: A Comparison of Alternative Pedestrian Change Interval Displays by Jeremiah Singer & Neil Lerner). The latter effect is not a safety benefit, of course, given state law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians who remain in the intersection even after their phase is up, and considering that rushing pedestrians may encourage them to stumble or make some other dangerous error. Even if there is some safety benefit to countdown timers, it is much less than other benefits, such as the basic provision of sidewalks and crosswalks. Therefore countdown timers should be installed when logical as part of other processes, but not necessarily as part of its own initiative.

6.1.3

Strategy to Implement 1.3A. Formalize an Internal Procedure for Evaluating Pedestrian Safety Needs at Specific  Locations in Response to Pedestrian-Vehicle Crashes and Community Concerns.
(p 27)

This strategy is laudable, but should be modified to include as a priority the inclusion of a method of public transparency of the evaluation process. That is, not only should residents be able to “report pedestrian connectivity and safety concerns”, they should also be able at least to monitor the evaluation process and outcome in as close to real time as is reasonable, and further there should be a mechanism for public input into the evaluation outcome.

6.1.3

Practices to Continue: Seek Opportunities for 4-to-3 Lane Conversions on County Roadways. (p 28)

This is an excellent strategy for more efficiently and safely accommodating multimodal transportation. Based on the brief description included in the plan, it seems that opportunities for 4-to-3 land conversions are sought on a piecemeal basis, as restriping of individual roadway segments is undertaken. The county should consider coming up with a master plan of 4-to-3 conversion opportunities. This would not only allow perhaps for a more logical and consistent rollout of this practice, but also for early notice of candidates, which otherwise  occasionally can take neighbors by surprise and introduce controversy to the process.

6.5 Partnerships (pp 40-41)

It is unclear if the strategies outlined in this section are of equivalent priority to the strategies in sections 6.1-6.5. The plan states that these “goals” (are they goals or strategies? Where is the difference elucidated in the plan?) are “are outside of the county’s role and will be led by others” but some are clearly within the County’s purview, for example 6.5.3 mentions county participation in providing pedestrian wayfinding, which is explicitly mentioned as a part of StI 2.2A (and possibly is allowed in the REPP program mentioned on p 33). In addition, while the County Sheriff’s Office is a quasi-separate organization, it obviously has many natural synergies with the rest of the County’s operations, and frankly if it wasn’t a participant in this planning process, it certainly should have been. Further, if the County isn’t willing to play a lead role in the accomplishment of these goals, why should other jurisdictions? Why couldn’t the County develop a wayfinding plan, for example? Why couldn’t the County develop a crosswalk law enforcement strategy, or an awareness strategy (as MnDot recently did, for example)?

7 Performance Measures (pp 42-44)

It’s not clear how the performance measures correspond to the Strategies to Implement or Strategies to Continue. Without explicit relation, the plan risks having a performance measure that has no strategy to measure, or a strategy the effect of which remains unmeasured.

7.2 PERCENT OF HENNEPIN COUNTY RESIDENTS WHO WALK TO A DESTINATION AT LEAST ONCE PER WEEK (p 44)

As I commented above regarding Section 4, it is difficult to gauge the feasibility and/or aggressiveness of many of these performance measures in the absence of more detailed date on existing conditions. However, this goal strikes me as particularly weak. If the County achieves its goals, walking should be seen as an attractive option for a wide variety of trips for the vast majority of the County’s population. In that case, if almost half of county residents still chose to effectively never walk, even to the neighborhood retail or park, than what would the point of this plan be?

Pedestrians prohibited on streets.mn

Today on streets.mn I examine Bloomington’s latest bungle. Bloomington is the suburb I lived in the longest, it has some really nice topography for the Twin Cities that great parks like Hyland, Moir, and the Minnesota River recreational area takes full advantage of, and it has some decent bones in terms of the integrity of their street grid. But man do they fuck up a lot for pedestrians. See for yourself on my post (or I suppose you could go to Bloomington and walk around, but then you might die and I’d feel bad).

Oh yeah and I tacked on this graphic for some reason:

Because all of these signs are bad for pedestrians except the No Turn on Red

Traffic Control Device for Non-Vehicular Traffic Vehicles

Encountered by a traveler to the Champs de Targets

How exactly does a pedestrian comply with a stop sign?  Do both feet need to be firmly planted, approximately parallel so as not to suggest movement, in order to come to a complete stop?  Is a pedestrian at a stop sign required to turn his or her head in each direction, or does a nonchalant scan of the field of vision suffice?

Pedestrian activity has been compared to such graceful movement as ballet, clouds, and animal migration.  Why wasn’t a simple LOOK OUT FOR THE TRAIN YOU IDIOT sign good enough?  Why do we need to be subject to the same confining rules as our twitchy vehicular brethren?

A Comprehensive List of Transit-Accessible Campgrounds in Minnesota, Part 1

Minnesota is the 12th largest state in a nation of really big states, so it’s not surprising that there are a lot of outdoorsy things to do here.  But this nation of really big states is also well known for its lack of mass transit options, so again I wasn’t surprised when I started looking for camping facilities that were accessible by bus or train, and didn’t find too many.

To begin with I looked at camp sites managed by the DNR, basically because their website is pretty good and is the single biggest source of info on camping that I’m aware of.  Also, I’ve camped in a lot of State Parks and generally been impressed with their facilities.  If you’re aware of any other good campgrounds/sites that aren’t managed by the DNR, please let me know in the comments. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an editable map of their parks (wikipedia has all their Geo coordinates, which would have made this task super easy if I’d found it beforehand) so I made my own map on google earth.

I don’t have Jefferson Lines’ network structure memorized, but luckily the esteemed Mike Hicks has already mapped it.  He also has a map of the Rochester City Bus commuter network, probably the network with the largest coverage area next to Jefferson (Rochester appears to serve a larger area than Metro Transit & the opt-outs, although obviously with many fewer routes and stops).  I then filled in a few spots, for example the Mankato Land-to-Air Express stop and the Amtrak stops.

The resulting map looks promising at the state level – lots of campgrounds look like they’re close to bus stops.  But at the full scale of the 12th largest state, distances are misleading.  I’m willing to walk up to 8 miles to the camp site, but the park office can be pretty far from the camp site, so in most cases the bus stop needs to be within 5 miles of the park.  Basically, the camp symbol needs to be right on top of the bus stop symbol to work. Here is the list of the walkable ones, with remote campsites first and car campgrounds second (because if you have to walk 5 miles to the park, you deserve a better quality camp site).

Remote Camp Sites

  1. Charles A. Lindbergh State Park, Little Falls – bus stop: McDonald’s east of town – distance from stop to park office: 3.3 micamping: 2 cart-in, 38 “wooded and private” drive-in.  The hike to the park involves walking down Little Falls’ Main Street – a bonus in my book – but a good half of it is on the sidewalkless, possibly stroady Lindbergh Drive.  The park itself covers the southwestern flank of the town and, despite appealingly rolling terrain, is a bit small and doesn’t appear to connect to other natural areas.  The bus times are pretty good on this one, the mid-afternoon arrival allowing time to get to the park and set up camp, and the mid-afternoon departure means the hike back doesn’t have to be a scramble.
  2. Moose Lake State Park, eponymous – bus stop: Little Store south of town? – distance from stop to park office: less than a mile, probablycamping: 2 walk-in, 33 “partially shaded” drive-in.  Part of the fun of bus travel is that you never know exactly where you’re going (passionately fought in the Battles of Permanence and Legibility in the Great Rail/Bus War).   Jefferson itself places the stop west of town, Mike put it a bit south of town, but using Streetview and assuming they’d put the bus stop as close to the freeway as possible, I think it’s probably this gas station just off I-35.  That’s a bummer if you’re going to Moose Lake, but it’s great if you’re going to Moose Lake State Park, which has some nice North Woods landscapes and appears to be near some other natural areas, although the camping doesn’t look that great.  Nice mid-afternoon arrival and departure times give plenty of time for hiking to and fro, although the stop looks close enough that the timing isn’t all that important for once.
  3. Blue Mounds State Park, Luverne – bus stop: Expressway gas station south of town – distance from stop to park office: 6-7 micamping: 14 cart-in, 73 drive-in.  This is on the cusp of what I’d consider too far, but since the camp sites are close to the park office, I think it’s doable.  The walk looks pretty nice – much of it is through town with sidewalks or else on a trail through the park, and the third of the trip along a county road has the rare Southern Minnesota trail paralleling it.  Blue Mounds looks like a cool park – a bison herd and prickly pear cactus – although I’m not too excited about prairie camping.  Jefferson helps out as best it can, with a noontime arrival and a choice of two departures, one of which is at a leisurely 3:30 pm.
  4. Jay Cooke State Park, Carlton – bus stop: New Duluth or Fond du Lac – distance from stop to park office: 5-8 micamping: 4 backpack, 3 walk-in, 79 drive-in.  This one’s a stretch.  The park is actually closest to the bus station in Duluth, from which you take a city bus 7 miles southwest to New Duluth, then hike 8 miles down windy MN-210 to the park office.  If you’re a fast hiker or have more faith in the punctuality of Jefferson than I, you can catch one of the two runs per afternoon that go three miles beyond New Duluth to Fond du Lac, but they arrive at 4:38 or 5:58.  But Jay Cooke appears to be worth it – beautiful terrain, dense forest, and real backpacking sites!  Jefferson’s three runs a day give you plenty of options, although the park’s distance means you should probably leave early.
  5. Myre – Big Island State Park, Albert Lea – bus stop: Ole’s East Side Shell – distance from stop to park office: 3 micamping: 4 backpack, 93 drive-in.  Despite the drop-off at the side of an awful highway strip, most of the short hike to the park follows the brilliantly-named Blazing Star State Trail.  This small, freeway-scarred park doesn’t look too promising, but the backpack campsites look nice, especially for fishing.  Albert Lea – the gateway to Iowa – offers an astonishing four or five bus trips a day in each direction.
  6. Upper Sioux Agency State Park, Granite Falls – bus stop: Cenex on the south edge of town – distance from stop to park office: 8 micamping: 3 walk-in, 34 drive-in.  The 8 mile hike down a bleak 2-lane country road is potentially lethal, but there looks to be a treasure trove of hiking here at the confluence of two prairie-draining rivers with the Minnesota.  And if not, there’s a casino.  Granite Falls has a nice little downtown, besides, but it’s probably not worth the 1:30 am bus you have to catch out of Minneapolis.
  7. Sand Dunes State Forest, Big Lake – train stop: Big Lake Northstar – distance from stop to park office: 7 micamping: 6 walk-in, 30 drive-in.  Probably the easiest – and certainly the cheapest – camping to access from Minneapolis, this one probably works for an overnight.  I’m not exactly enamored with the landscape, though, and the hike to the park is through 7 miles of beige exurb.

Car camping only

  1. Minneopa State Park, Mankato – bus stop: Land-to-Air Depot – distance from stop to park office: 4.5 mi.  Mankato is surprisingly rich in multiuse trails, but unfortunately the one to Minneopa is basically in the ditch of 4-lane 169.  This gorgeous park is worth it though, and Land-to-Air Express offers a convenient range of daily runs.
  2. Crow Wing State Park, Brainerd – bus stop: some motel south of town – distance from stop to park office: 8 mi.  Another lengthy highway ditch walk to this one, but the park looks nice.
  3. Carley State Park, Plainview – bus stop: Wedgewood/Southwest Park – distance from stop to park office: 4 mi.  I’m a little dubious about using Rochester City Lines, especially because it requires a lengthy layover in Rochester and only runs on weekends.  I’m not sure tiny little Carley State Park is worth it, but technically it can be done…
  4. Lake Bemidji State Park, Bemidji – bus stop: Paul Bunyan Transit or BSU – distance from stop to park office: ~7 mi.  Jefferson has two stops in Bemidji, the one from Paul Bunyan Transit looks to be around a half-mile longer but follows the Blue Ox trail the whole way.  If you get off at the college, you’re stuck on a sprawlsy 2-lane.  I know which one I’d choose, if I ever feel it’s worth it to take the 1:30 am red-eye out of Minneapolis.
  5. Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, Wilton – bus stop: Wilton – distance from stop to park office: 6 mi.  Mike had this one mapped but Jefferson doesn’t list it anymore – maybe it’s a flag stop?  I hope so because the wilderness area here is enormous.
  6. Red River State Recreation Area, East Grand Forks – bus stop: Grand Forks Transit Center – distance from stop to park office: .7 mi.  The campground is so close to the bus stop that it’s more a stroll than a hike, but the downside is that the campground is right in the middle of town.  Personally I prefer noisy, bright camping to come with a side of music festival or not at all.  I would like to see the Red River SRA – created to manage the regular savage flooding of the titular stream – but maybe I’ll just get a motel room.

13 transit-accessible campgrounds isn’t too bad for our too-big-for-transit state, although that probably drops to 7 or 8 when you subtract the ones that probably don’t work or are clearly unpleasant.  On top of that, intercity bus travel, which is often viewed as an economy option,  is actually really expensive – round trip tickets seem to range between $40 (Albert Lea) and $100 (Luverne).  But I remain dedicated to the pointless cause, and will report back here as I learn which parks are amazing and which aren’t worth the walk.  In the meantime, please let me know in the comments if I missed any campgrounds and feel free to report any bus- or train-to-camping experiences you’ve had (in North America, that is – I already know it’s easy to do in Europe).

How to be good, if you’re the mayor

A little while ago I accused RT Rybak of being a not-good mayor.  This was done mainly as a way to show how the hundreds of millions Rybak wants to give to the Vikings Corp as locational subsidies could be better spent, but it also stems from noticing that there has basically been no improvement in urban quality-of-life in Minneapolis that did not have a national origin (i.e. crime, biking).

But having recently realized that my blog is exclusively negative, I decided to throw out a few ideas about what Rybak could do if he wanted to be a good mayor.  For the most part, they are not easy.  Rybak would have to show the dogged persistence and willingness to sail against public opinion that has been so evident in his fight to subsidize the Vikings Corp.  Here’s how the Mayor can earn the label of “good,” in order of likelihood that he’ll actually do it:

1.  Support cycling.  Minneapolis brags a lot (at least once a month, it seems) about what a great biking town it is.  But faced with a choice between parking and biking it almost always goes for parking.  Out of the 23 most recent bike projects, only five of them involved significant parking removal, and one of those five was cancelled because of that fact.  This may be due to the fact that it’s relatively easy to add cycle facilities without removing parking, and that explanation is supported by the fact that 10 of the 23 projects involved removing a through lane; for example in a road diet.  But it also suggests that only the low-hanging fruit is being picked at this point, and where the fruit turns out to be higher than expected, like on the stalled* Glenwood project, the City backs off.  A mayor as charismatic and persuasive as Rybak has the potential to change that.

Bill is a talented dioramist

He wouldn’t have to threaten to fire the Director of Public Works or pull veto shenanigans.  If he were to just show up to neighborhood meetings such as those held recently for the Penn Ave S reconstruction in the Mayor’s neighborhood, he could use his political talents to convince neighbors of the advantages of providing basic bike accommodations.  Since as Mayor he has repeatedly stressed that he wants Minneapolis to be a “world-class bicycle city”, I don’t see any conflict of interest in going to neighborhood meetings to work towards that goal.  The fact that he so far has never done so is the only thing that makes me think this item is unlikely; with all the talking Rybak has done about bicycling, you’d think that some day he’ll eventually work towards it.

2.  Green Downtown.  Sure, another small park or two would be nice in what is from 9 to 5 on weekdays by far the densest neighborhood in the city.  But an easier way to green Downtown that would have an even bigger effect would be to simply remove a through lane from all the overbuilt streets.  One lane provides enough room for a row of trees on each side of the street, and you’d be surprised at how many unnecessary lanes are scattered throughout Downtown.  I made a map based on the city’s 2005 Downtown Traffic Flow map, coding in green all 3-lane one-ways with a traffic count of 12,000 or less.  I cut out blocks that according to my experience have high turning volumes, but I may have missed a few due to not knowing by heart the average conditions on every street.  In addition I depicted on the map in yellow the handful of 2-lane two-ways that could be narrowed.  To some degree that’s my subjective judgement, but the narrowing of Chicago Ave in its recent reconstruction indicates it could be done in other places.  Finally, red indicates 4-lane two-ways that could be reduced to three lanes (all are less than 15k AADT and some are far less).

Let me explain what I meant when I said it would be easy to replace lanes with trees.  I know all too well that any reduction in car capacity is controversial, but I also believe that a tree has a bigger constituency than a traffic lane, especially if you can get a traffic engineer to say that the lane isn’t needed.  I feel like even the literally auto-driven Downtown Council would be in favor of a lane-tree swap outside of the Core, because they’re going to have to find some place to fit those 35,000 residents they want to add.  But replacing a lane with trees requires the curbs to be moved, which costs a lot of money.  So step one would just be identifying where the roads are overbuilt enough to lose a lane without disrupting sacred traffic.  I would think that Rybak would be eager to champion a Downtown Green Streets plan, since that would make it look like he’s doing something without actually changing anything and risking angering someone.  Once complete, it would be both backup and a time saver whenever a downtown street came due for reconstruction.

3.  Legalize space utilization.  I was surprised and pleased to read that Rybak in his state of the city speech fessed up to the population stagnancy uncovered by the decennial census.  Hopefully that means he’ll be receptive to the easiest and least disruptive way to add residents to the city: accessory dwelling units (ADUs).  The average household in Minneapolis is just over 2 persons, yet around 22,000 housing units have four or more bedrooms.  There has to be a substantial number of single-family homes that have an extra couple rooms that could be converted into a small separate unit, or garages that could fit a half-story apartment on top.

Minneapolis already allows accessory dwelling units, but confines them to Ventura Village.  I don’t know the history on this, but presumably it was an idea that came out of the neighborhood rather than this area being chosen as a test case, because I would think 10 years would be a long enough test.  I haven’t heard of any ADUs actually being built, and if that means there hasn’t been any, it may be because of the restrictions, such as that the principal structure must be homesteaded and that the ADU be built outside the principal structure.  While the former no doubt makes ADUs more politically palatable for neighbors, the latter actually may be counterproductive.  After all, if you allow the ADU to be built within the principal structure, it’s likely the neighbor won’t even notice a difference, whereas most people notice a half-story being added to a garage.  Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not neighbors notice them, they are likely to be opposed, or at least that seems to have been the case in Vancouver.  Because of the political force of knee-jerk NIMBYism, my guess is Rybak is unlikely to push this one, even though it’s a no-brainer if you look at it dispassionately.  In addition, Rybak doesn’t really have any way to implement it besides cheerleading at the council, so I’d say ADUs are a long shot.

Listen to the people, R.T.

4.  Respect pedestrians.  In 2006, a miracle happened in South Minneapolis.  I don’t know if it was an accident or an experiment, but Hennepin County added zebra crosswalks to the streets crossed by the easternmost phase of the Midtown Greenway.  Then, something even more miraculous happened: many motorists observed Minnesota crosswalk laws at these crossings (tragically, many didn’t at the 28th St crossing).

So respect for pedestrians may be one of the easiest things to accomplish thanks to Minnesotans’ already sheep-like driving.  A study in Miami Beach found that all it takes is enforcement to get drivers to obey crosswalk laws.  Traditionally in Minneapolis the Mayor has had the most control over the police department, so why shouldn’t Rybak lean on Dolan to do some crosswalk enforcement, including ticketing for stopping past the stop line and blocking intersections?  Well, because no one really cares about pedestrians.  The mayor seems to feel that promoting (but not really supporting, see above) biking satisfies his transportation alternatives cred.  Meanwhile, we already get ped-friendly awards by just not being as terrible as the rest of the cities in the sprawling country.  So this easy step is not likely to be taken and Minneapolis will continue to be relatively walkable in terms of density but rather unwalkable in terms of conditions on the street.

You might be able to tell that this list is just a bunch of stuff that’s been floating around in my head, hammered into a frame about what R.T. Rybak could do to meet my standards of goodness.  Franky, I have no idea how likely he is to do any of these things; after 10 years of semi-activism and obsessive attention to local government, I can’t really tell how much of his rhetoric is just politics in a pervasively but vaguely left wing city and how much he really cares about causes like cycling, sustainability and Trampled by Turtles.

I do know that if he actually showed up to meetings to advocate bike lanes, more lanes would get striped.  If he pushed a study of which streets could trade a lane for trees, Public Works would find the dough for it and the first step would be taken towards a greener downtown.  If he browbeat some councilor into introducing an accessory dwelling unit ordinance, currently wasted space could be used to grow the city.  And if he got the cops to enforce crosswalk laws, people mind find it less stressful and more convenient to walk, and do more of it.  So hopefully this post comes across less as a wish list, and more as a to-do list for a progressive city.

 

 

*It may not be stalled – the project page claims it will be built in 2012 – but if not, it is eviscerated, downgraded to sharrows for about a quarter of its length.

Do Bloomington, don’t mind the Pedestrian Barriers

Bloomington is feeding Boehner ped-bashing fodder

John Boehner’s recent transportation reauthorization bill was quickly shrouded in a toxic vapor of controversy around elements such as eliminating dedicated transit funding, killing experiments in merit-based funding, and (not) paying for all of it with expanded oil drilling.  One of the first explosions of hate against this bill, though, came from its proposed elimination of Transportation Enhancements funding, which united bike/ped advocates with archaeologists and preservationists in a sort of hurricane of people with cool majors.

Transportation Enhancements (TE) has all sorts of cool effects, from bike lanes and crosswalks to billboard removal and railroad museums.  But like any good drug, it can be abused.  So it is with sadness that I must report on the use and abuse of TE funding in Bloomington, where the the funds meant for “Provision of facilities for bicycles and pedestrians” are being used for features labeled as Pedestrian Barriers.

Forced march

The Barriers are part of a project to build an enclosed pedestrian bridge across Killebrew Dr on the southern perimeter of the Mall of America.  $1m of the $3.6m project cost is being funded by federal Transportation Enhancements funds.  The renderings show a classy-looking skyway-like bridge that connects on one side to the new Radisson being constructed on a former mall parking ramp.  Regardless of how you feel about skyways downtown, this mall-oriented neighborhood cut through by massive six-lane divided roads seems like a pretty good spot to spend a big chunk of dough to allow pedestrians to cross over all the at-grade traffic.  Ok, but what if I don’t wanna?

The secret evil hidden in the skyway project is around 1000 feet of concrete walls referred to as Pedestrian Barriers that will close the two existing at-grade crossings of Killebrew and force pedestrians to go out of their way to use the skyway.  This means that the net effect of the project is to decrease mobility – instead of two options for crossing, pedestrians will only have one.  Applying the simple mathematical principle that one is less than two, we find that this project will require most pedestrians to walk further.

It'll never work - where are the pedestrian barriers?

Aw who cares?  No one walks in the suburbs anyway right?  I won’t disagree with you, but I would think that Bloomington would care, considering it’s trying to develop an area around the mall as a neighborhood they call South Loop.  Plans call for the neighborhood to “transform… from suburban to urban” with “mixed land use that supports additional streets to enhance circulation; higher densities of jobs and homes close to four light rail stations; and sustainable development practices that save money and support growth.”  Mostly missing from the copious planning documents for the area are walkability goals or attention to pedestrian travel, although the South Loop’s primary residential development, Bloomington Central Station, places some emphasis on walking.  Still, considering the plan’s frequent use of the word sustainability and desire to become urban or even a “third downtown,” the implication is that people will walk there.

Even Bloomington’s official definition of sustainability avoids mentioning sustainable transportation, but the city is engaged in encouraging “active living choices” for its residents through a Blue Cross Blue Shield-sponsored program called do.town, featured prominently on the municipal website.  Ironically, the do.town page features a quote from Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who notes that “barriers to healthy living are everywhere.”  I fumbled my way through an attempt to ask do.town staff whether the Public Works dept consults them before erecting Pedestrian Barriers or making other plans that would have an impact on the ability of Bloomingtonians to live actively, but I did get a nice thorough description of the benefits to pedestrians of the skyway project from engineer Julie Long:

Benefits of pedestrian bridge include a reduction in pedestrian exposure to vehicles while providing for uninterrupted flow of pedestrians across the roadway.  Currently about 110 pedestrians cross the six to eight lanes of Killebrew Drive during the Saturday p.m. peak hour.  On numerous weekends, during the holiday shopping season and during special events the Bloomington Police Department staffs the intersection of 20th and 22nd Avenues with Killebrew Drive to ensure that vehicles and pedestrians can move through the area safely.  The Bloomington Comprehensive Plan shows growth in the South Loop District which will correspond to an increase in both motorist and pedestrian traffic.  It is expected that as the traffic grows in the area this would need to be a more frequent occurrence to facilitate safe passage in the area.

Concern also exists with illegal mid block crossings observed because they violate what the motorist is expecting and increase the risk to the pedestrian.  This is especially a concern given many drivers in the area are not as familiar with the road system since they may be from out of town and can be focused on trying to see where to go instead of watching for pedestrians.  Also, motorists using the exit ramps have just left the freeway environment where they were traveling faster and may not have fully adjusted to driving slower and looking for pedestrians.  The pedestrian bridge provides for separation of these conflicting movements.

The project also includes the installation of a pedestrian barricade to help reduce the number of illegal mid block crossings and encourage use of legal crossings at 24th Avenue and the pedestrian bridge.  The pedestrian bridge will be a covered walk way that protects people from the elements.  The bridge will also moderate the temperature outside by approximately 10-20 degrees so that it will be a little warmer in the winter to cross and a little cooler in the summer to cross, but it will not be a fully heated/cooled space like a skyway would be.  The City has also heard from a handicapped user that he believes this facility will help him more safely cross Killebrew since it is fully ADA compliant.  In his wheelchair he is lower than a pedestrian that is standing so sometimes motorists do not see him as he is crossing.  Another component of the project includes additional signage to not only direct pedestrians to the new pedestrian bridge, but also to facilities like the Mall of America Transit Center which is located in the east parking ramp of the mall.

Sure, all of those things are benefits, but the only one contingent on closing the grade crossings is the savings of staff time for traffic control.  I don’t disagree that there are benefits to a skyway for pedestrians in wheelchairs, but most pedestrians will see little or no benefit to crossing above the street, and if instead of building a skyway they had used the $3.6m to make Killebrew more pleasant to cross, many more users would have seen a benefit.  Killebrew Dr is an enormous road with three lanes in each direction and several turn lanes at each intersection, so this project is basically turning a quasi-freeway into a de facto freeway.  But there are also intersections around every 500 feet – comparable to a long block in Minneapolis – so it’s never going to be a “easy” drive.  Despite the extreme congestion described in Julie’s comments, Killebrew only handles around 20k cars a day, but less than half of that continues past the mall.  It seems like $3.6m would have bought a lot of medians to distinguish turn lanes and to refuge pedestrians, as well as contextualizing features (i.e. colored pavement at crosswalks or possibly street parking with bump outs) that would help drivers adjust to the fact that they’re no longer on a freeway.

The pedestrian-removal Transportation Enhancement skyway project is actually Bloomington’s second strike in the area.  Last year the state gave them $15m for Phase 1 of the Lindau Lane Complete Street project.  Sounds nice except Phase 1 is actually the construction of a quasi-freeway of Lindau Lane on the north side of the Mall of America, which means that Phase 2, the version of Lindau Lane to the northeast of the mall, will never work.  Think about it – if a car is going 50 mph west of 24th Ave, how included will bicyclists and pedestrians feel sharing the portion of Lindau east of 24th with that car?  If the eastern portion of Lindau is ever funded it will be a perversion of the concept of complete streets and evidence A for the case that complete streets are greenwashing.

If these megaprojects come through, Bloomington is going to have to build a lot more pedestrian barriers

But Bloomington will have to figure it out sooner or later.  Right now the Mall of America is the only land use intensive enough to generate enough pedestrian traffic to justify spending big bucks to remove them from the roadway.  But Bloomington has big plans to become the third downtown mentioned above, so their pedestrian problem is only going to get worse.  The Senate just passed a transportation bill with Transportation Enhancements intact, giving the program a good chance of survival, but there is only so much money in the pot for pedestrian barriers.  The South Loop is a great candidate for a third downtown – it’s relatively central and has a spectacular location on the bluffs of the Minnesota – but so far Bloomington is headed more for Downtown Disney than any real downtown.

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.