8/9/11 Transportation & Public Works Committee

A couple interesting items from this week’s TPW committee:

  1. 22nd St E (re)construction.

This is not a typical reconstruction as the street was never “built” – it is still an “oiled dirt” street (a bit of a misnomer; I believe these are original dirt streets that used to be covered with oil in the old style but now are patched with asphalt).  Also, in a fun twist on the typical street “reconstruction,” 22nd will follow a new alignment that will reconnect it to Cedar Ave, only 61 years after it was severed in the ill-advised freewayfication of the Cedar-Franklin-Hiawatha intersection.  Here is the layout:

A connection is made

The plan is a vast improvement over the existing street – the narrowed intersection with Snelling banishes the menace of speeding trucks that make the city’s industrial districts so unpleasant.  Right now 22nd St is connected to Cedar Ave with a crumbly staircase; presumably the roadway and sidewalk connections will be a much better option for the many potential users on wheels.

The Project Map included in the committee report omitted two things:  First, a left turn lane on Cedar, which Seward Neighborhood Group and Redesign want here in order to close Minnehaha Ave between Franklin and Cedar.  The city believes that there will be too much traffic in the future to close that road, however, and as far as I know they are planning to reconstruct the intersection with a very similar layout to what is there today.

Ghost ramp

Second, the map is missing a connection from the new 22nd St to the Light Rail Trail.  The existing connection runs on public right-of-way that is being used as parking for some anonymous industry, and consists of a steep curb that is softened by a wood plank.  Sometimes the excitement of the connection is enhanced by repositioning the wood plank in lots of dangerous ways.  Apparently the long-term plan is for the main neighborhood connection to the trail to be at 24th St, but it seems like now may be a good time to add a cheap asphalt ramp or something at 22nd St.

As you can see, the project map is not very detailed.  It’s possible those two omitted items are actually a part of this project.  I couldn’t find any more details on the project page, though, so we’ll have to wait and see.

2.  Lowry Bridge Bike Lanes

There’s a ton of confusion about whether or not there will be bike facilities included on the new Lowry Bridge, despite their inclusion on the Minneapolis Bike Master Plan of 2001.  Apparently 10 years wasn’t enough time for Hennepin County to find time to look at that plan, so they designed the Lowry Bridge without bike facilities (or narrowed the bridge to save money and thereby chucked the bike lanes?  Thanks guys).  Now they say they can find room for lanes or a separated trail somewhere, but the layout dated 8/30/10 included in the TPW committee agenda doesn’t show them.  Maybe the county just hasn’t gotten the new layout to the city, or maybe they didn’t find room yet, or maybe they just told bicycle advocates they’d try to find room and then went upstairs and had a smoke and somebody spoke and they went into a dream.  We’ll know in “Summer 2012″ at the latest.

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

Lessons from the snow

We are getting close to record snowfall in 2011, and it’s taking its toll on us, physically and mentally.  But we’d better get used to it; heavier snowfall is believed to be an effect of global warming.

This winter is taking a toll on our streets, too, and not just in the traditional pothole way.  This winter a lot of streets are on a temporary, involuntary road diet.

27th Ave S, just south of Franklin Ave, has been bestowed by the snow with the traffic calming technique with maybe the most risque name, the choker.  Normally a two-lane street with parking lanes on either side, there is no longer room for two cars to pass each other in between the parked cars.  Instead motorists wait for their turn to pass these straights, presumably deferring to the first arrival.

To those who spend their time advocating for traffic-calming measures of this sort, it’s a strange feeling of victory to see them fall from the sky at random.  It would be absurd to call for ice-chicanes to be frozen in place, but there may be something to learn from them, like the test median on Jefferson, less expensive but with just as much rancor.

So here are some questions I have about the effects of this winter:

  1. How many streets have effectively lost one or more lanes?
  2. How many streets are down to one lane due to the snow?
  3. How many streets have lost parking due to the snow?
  4. Have accidents increased or decreased in the identified locations?
  5. Have average speeds increased or decreased in the identified locations?
  6. Have top speeds increased or decreased in the identified locations?
  7. For those streets that lost parking, how has parking on neighboring streets been affected.

I understand that it is all very well for me to ask these questions in February; to really study them systematically these questions should have been asked in December when the first flakes fell (or November, who can remember now exactly?).

But then I’m not a scientist, or a traffic engineer, I’m just a guy who loves walking down the street and often has a hard time doing it in his hometown.  What disappoints me is that Minneapolis Public Works seems to be similarly uninterested in these questions.  At a meeting last summer about the upcoming reconstruction of Nicollet Ave between 31st and 40th (now possibly moribund), I asked whether they would look at accident data before deciding on a design.  Their reply is that every quarter or so they have a meeting and talk about problem areas, and they couldn’t recall that this stretch of Nicollet had come up.

If Public Works doesn’t have time to learn about how people use their streets, I’m not sure who will.  I’m not even sure if I’ll remember these questions come next winter; people are like potholes: with each freeze-thaw cycle, the hole gets deeper and deeper.

 

 

The Times are a-changin?

The New York Times published a profile of the new Broadway yesterday that was simultaneously beautiful and horrible.  For those who missed, the new configuration of Broadway in Midtown Manhattan is the most progressive treatment of an American street since the wave of pedestrianizations that tapered off in the late 70s.  But the New York Times article was strangely reactionary for a paper known for its liberal bent.

The new design is a restriping, not a reconstruction, so the width of the roadway hasn’t changed, but rather the apportionment of the lanes.  Yet the Times reporter describes the new road as “a narrow passageway,” implying that the space for bikes and pedestrians aren’t a real part of the road.  While the article notes that diagonal Broadway disrupts the grid system of Midtown, and gives a few quick quotes to some transportation planners who cop to the Socialist idea that it may not be a bad idea to provide some space for pedestrians, the bulk of the article provides venting space to drivers who fume about their lost lanes and dwells on the sheer strangeness of taking space from cars and giving it to bikes and pedestrians.

But the beautiful part is the graphic.  Using a parcel map, a grid-based schematic of the lanes, and cross-sections of the layout in addition to photos, this graphic is a clear and appealing view of the street after restriping.  The one complaint I have is that there should have been more cross-sections, to really show the amount of the street devoted to each mode.  Judge for yourself: