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.

Sensible vs Indefensible

The Sensible Stillwater Bridge Partnership probably has the best name of any advocacy group anywhere.  This Pioneer Press graphic shows why:

Which bridge is sensible?

The article from which that image was stolen also contains what may be the most outrageous statement of the year, from someone whom MnDOT pays to lie for them:

MnDOT’s Adam Josephson said the main problem with the plan is its location. Placing the bridge among “so many natural and cultural resources would have a significant environmental impact,” he said.

“It’s got other problems, but its location is the main problem,” he said. “The problem is that it has more environmental impacts (than MnDOT’s proposed location). That’s the reason why we located the bridge where we did. We have to avoid, as much as possible, impacts to protected resources.”

The Sensible Partners for Sensibility have come up with this excellent graphic, showing exactly how massively gigantic MnDOT’s bridge is (it’s worth clicking through for the entire graphic):

Big, bigger, fucking outrageous

The notion that a half-mile long bridge that’s 40 to 110 feet above the waterline would have greater impact than a one-mile bridge that’s 110 to 220 feet above the waterline is so preposterous that it’s insulting.  Let me say it again:  MnDOT expects us to believe that the bridge that’s half as long and half as tall has the greater environment impact.

On top of that whopper, MnDOT is using its own system of overpriced and politicized consultancies to pretend the much smaller bridge won’t save as much money:

If the [Sensible Bridge] plan were adopted, MnDOT would have to go back and do further environmental review, Josephson said.

“That could take four to six years…to get back to the point we are at today,” he said. “That could delay the project to 2019 or later.”

[The Sensible Bridge] plan would cost about $394 million – $300 million less than the one being considered by Congress. The $111 million increase in their cost estimate reflected several changes near the Minnesota approach to the bridge, partnership officials said.

The St. Croix River Crossing proposed by MnDOT and supported by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., is expected to cost $574 million to $690 million.

But Josephson said the partnership proposal would cost about the same as MnDOT’s [Bloated Bridge] plan because of the extra costs due to additional environmental impacts and construction delay.

Three years ago, I gave a few bucks to a certain comedian who’s now a Senator officially if halfheartedly supporting the Bloated Bridge.   That money bought my freedom from six years of spotlight on a weasel who used to run St Paul, but it also made me subject to a barrage of emails from a corrupt gang of incompetent lushes whose only notable accomplishment has been to kill the one successful grassroots political movement that ever existed in this state.*

Anyway, one of their recent emails, besides begging for my cash to use on vague and dubious projects, rightfully decried the condition of local government finances.  Of course, the situation was blamed on their rival political gang, and no mention was made of the two gangs’ collusion on projects like the Bloated Bridge.

One of many things that Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum agree on is that we need to continue to throw money at our ridiculously overbuilt automotive infrastructure.  As Strong Towns has pointed out, Stillwater’s Bloated Bridge is an acceleration of the decades-long process of self-bankruptcy driven by our broken political system.  If only MnDOT could remember that its job is not to just build stuff, but to ensure the safety and functionality of our transportation system.  Maybe the latter will require building a bridge in Stillwater, but no sensible interpretation of MnDOT’s mission would require the bridge to be built big, fast and now.

Untrammeled beauty, or: Just another jam on the St Croix

*I exaggerate slightly here for the sake of cantankerousness

A Three Hour Tour

Don't google "rocket rider" at work

Last week I took the Jefferson 909 from Minneapolis to Duluth.  The trip went fairly smoothly, but I wouldn’t be me without finding a few things to complain about.  It wasn’t a long wait for the first:  the driver must have confused the 8:00 departure time with the route number, since he arrived at the depot at precisely 9 minutes after 8 o’clock.  Not that it’s a problem to spend more time at the Hawthorne Bus Depot, which is clean, spacious, and as comfortable a bus station as I’ve ever experienced.

Our route

The Hawthorne Depot features LED displays at every gate door to inform travelers of the route number departing from that gate and every stop made along that route – a pretty swanky feature for a bus station.  Still, I was afraid I had gotten on the wrong bus when we finally pulled out of the station (only 20 minutes late) and started heading up Hennepin and across the river.  Maybe Jefferson thinks it’s a tour bus company, but it chooses the least direct route to 35W from the Hawthorne Depot, going all the way over to the University-4th St exit over two miles from the depot.  Recall that it was shortly after 8 AM, still the thick of the morning rush, so of course we waited for multiple complete phases at several intersections, the bus chugging away in its frantic effort to flash-freeze its passengers.

A Better Route

Google recommends taking Hennepin south through the Bottleneck to 35W from the Hawthorne Depot, which might not be too sensible at rush hour either.  I don’t see why they don’t take the exit to 94 that’s just six blocks from the Depot, then cut across 694 to 35W.  Are they afraid of the loop in the cloverleaf?  My guess is they take the convoluted route for the reason that should be most embarrassing: sheer inertia.  According to the timetable, some routes stop at “U of MN, University Ave”, so apparently even those routes that don’t make that stop still travel as though they do, even when it causes delay due to traffic congestion.  Anyway, is it really appropriate for an intercity bus route to be making the local trip from the U of M to downtown, duplicating the dozens of local buses making the same trip?  If they are making this stop as a supposed service to their customers, they should really charge more for it, and only make the stop (and take the convoluted route) when reserved in advance.  I couldn’t get their online scheduler to give me the option of the University Ave stop at all, though.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know how to run an intercity bus company.  I imagine it’s very difficult to train and then schedule drivers for these long and often intricate routes.  However, in the interest of greater competitiveness with private automobiles and the profits that presumably follow, I’d think it would be worthwhile to create routes that are a bit more responsive to the congestion frequently found in larger cities.

I see the lakes - where's the forest?

We made it onto 35W at about quarter to 9, and it seemed as though it would be smooth sailing from there on out.  Instead we had barely passed the confluence with 35E when the bus exited the freeway again.  Of course it is reasonable for even an express bus to make some intermediate stops, but the Forest Lake stop really gets my goat.  For one thing, according to Google it adds 15-20 minutes to the trip.  That is particularly annoying when you’re already running 45 minutes late, and when no one actually gets on or off the bus on this lengthy detour, as happened on my trip.

Fine, add 10% to the total travel time, it’s worth it because the Forest Lake stop is at the center of a dense, walkable, transit-rich location and therefore is ideal to serve with intercity mass transit, right?  Nope.  The Forest Lake Transit Center is 2 miles south of Forest Lake in a landscape of hobby farms, low-density tract housing, and scattered speculative retail.  If it were in a city, you could say it was a block off of Highway 61, but it’s a mile from the nearest major intersection, so its utility for a transfer point for future transit routes is highly dubious.  It seems to have been placed there entirely at the whim of the speculators that attempted to develop the area, apparently before the market stalled.  The presence of a Washington County Service Center – in the far northwestern corner of the county and therefore impossible to ever become central to users – is corroborating evidence for the “developer collusion” theory.

The rest of the trip was frustratingly uncomplainworthy, even pleasant.  Jefferson’s Rocket Rider buses have lots of leg room, although I can’t vouch for the functionality of the advertised wi-fi.  We made it to Duluth only 15 minutes late, which was nice.  Although the way we made up that half an hour only managed to irk me:  we skipped Cloquet, presumably because there were no reserved trips starting or ending there.  That means, of course, that Jefferson’s policy and technology allows skipping un-reserved stops, so we could have skipped Forest Lake, and we could have taken a more logical trip out of Downtown Minneapolis.

Well worth the journey

All in all, intercity bus is a pretty good way to get to Duluth.  The train will be faster, more reliable and more comfortable.  Unfortunately my trip ended another two hours from Duluth, in a small city not served by any intercity mass transit, so I had a friend pick me up and drive the rest of the way.  I’m sure I could find something to complain about on that segment of the trip, too, but I’ll hold off in the interest of repeating the trip someday.

Feat of feet of street

The brilliant blog Mapping the Strait posted an infographic yesterday comparing the feet of street per resident of 8 American cities.

The metric is supposed to give an indication of the amount of infrastructure per resident, to augment standard persons per area measures of population density.

According to the Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks, Minneapolis has 1,423 miles of roads and vehicle bridges, not counting freeways.  My rough Google Earth measurement of freeways within city limits is 30.3 miles (that includes the part of 62 on the border but does not include highways 55 & 121 because I think they are in the city’s measurement, although that’s just a guess).  That makes for 7,673,424 feet of streets and highways, or 20.1 feet for each of the 382,578 residents counted in the 2010 census.  We’re closer to Detroit, Phoenix or San Antonio than Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or Chicago on this count.

That doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable result to me, although by measuring residents only you ignore the significant market for infrastructure represented by workers.  In that case cities such as San Antonio or Houston that contain most of their employment catchment area in their city limits are going to be more accurately portrayed by this metric.  One of the commenters at Mapping the Straight asked for this metric by area of paved surface – I think using lane feet would be better than centerline feet, but probably less widely available.  Fun to think about anyway.

Down with the USA Today!

This infographic is sponsored by McDonald's and Immodium A-D

Ever since I was a child, I’ve hated the USA Today.  At first it was because they didn’t have comics, but as I’ve grown older I’ve gotten better at rationalizing my opinions in ways that make sense to adults, and now I just have to say that their stories tend to be extremely superficial.

Take their recent article about increased differentiation between suburban strata as portrayed by the 2010 census, using St Croix county as an example.  The paper gets some credit for at least distinguishing between suburbs, noting that nationwide inner suburbs grew at a greater rate than middle suburbs, though not nearly at the rate of outer suburbs.  This is an obvious statement.  Outer suburbs are starting at smaller populations, so even if a lower number of people move there, it can result in higher percentage growth than larger cities.

Families flock to downtown Hudson

USA Today doesn’t mention the absolute change number for these three types of suburbs, or even really describe how they differentiated between them.  This is problematic for suburbs like Mendota Heights or Maplewood, which are relatively central in the metro area, but had substantial greenfield development through the 1980s.  The paper credits Robert Lang – author of Boomburbs – for the data, but doesn’t link to any more detailed analysis.

But my real beef comes in when they start talking about St Croix county, which in the last decade grew by an astonishing 33.6% (or about 5 times less fast than the North Loop).  This section really betrays their lack of knowledge of the Twin Cities metro.  It claims the county is popular because of its “easy access to the Twin Cities (12 miles), more moderately priced housing, good schools and a quaint downtown in Hudson.”

St Croix county is only 12 miles from the St Paul city limits, but it is much further from the majority of jobs in the Twin Cities.  As Orfield and Luce put it in their study of employment and commute patterns in the book Region, employment clusters in the Twin Cities “are more likely to be in the western and southwestern parts of the region.”  And as the map shows, St Croix doesn’t have a particularly low average commute time, even for collar counties.

Surprisingly, USA Today is also off-base about the housing cost – although ACS 5 year data shows St Croix county’s median housing value of $224k to be a bit lower than the metro area’s median of $240k, it is actually higher than Ramsey County’s median and about the same as Anoka’s.

I’m not even going to look into the schools, because I don’t think there is a quantitative method of ranking schools, so I’ll give USA Today that point.  And they can have one for crediting Hudson’s quaint downtown as a driver of growth, because I agree with them, and because it muddles their point (according to USA Today, Americans prefer to live in fringe suburbs, but only if they’re near a downtown).

Why are people moving to St Croix county?  Because houses are being built there.  But St Croix county isn’t even adding an exceptional number of houses.  In the 13-county metro area, Hennepin County by far added the most housing units, 40,776, four times the 9,709 added in St Croix county.  The foreclosure crisis reduces the increase in occupied housing units to only 2.5 times that of St Croix county.

So why is the USA today writing about St Croix county?  It could be because the county was the only one in the 13 county metro to have a higher rate of growth in 2000-2010 than 1990-2000, and it thereby fits the story’s “stay calm, everything is fine, all growth is still on the fringe” attitude.

On this point, I’m humbled to have to agree with them.  Although locally the suburban fringe grew at a slower rate in the last decade than in the 90s, inner and middle suburbs’ rate of growth decreased even more, meaning the fringe accounted for a greater share of the Twin Cities’ growth in the 00s than it did in the 90s (about 66% in 00s and about 45% in the 90s).  That means that the region needs to work harder to focus growth inward, for example by encouraging more compact development in situations like the Brookdale site.  It also means that this national paper may be more on target than the locals, which both recently posed the possibility of an end to sprawl.  And that means I need to get more creative in rationalizing my hatred of the USA Today.

What have we learned?

Urban Decay

Yet another downside to municipal fragmentation is the loss of institutional memory.  Many are realizing that urban decay is not a process intrinsic only to central cities due to their inability to adapt to the automobile, but rather a byproduct of the American slash-n-burn style of city-building that can strike anywhere, but at a specific time, often about a half-century after greenfield development.  Unfortunately, as urban decay hits the suburbs, these fragments of cities are less able to learn from the experience of their older siblings what will combat and what will hasten the process of decay.

So when I came across the Strib’s article on the impending redevelopment of Brookdale Center I couldn’t help but think of Minneapolis’ earlier efforts to redevelop the commercial district at Lake & Nicollet.  The moribund Brookdale is probably in a more extreme situation than the struggling but alive Lake & Nicollet of the 70s.  The connection in my mind is the use of TIF to subsidize a developer to build a low-intensity, single use development of the sort that, in all likelihood, will be redeveloped in at least the same time frame as the structure it’s replacing, if not sooner.  Here’s a statement from the very study looking at redevelopment options for the mall area, 2003′s Brooklyn Center Opportunity Site:

Modern retail development often becomes obsolescent in the matter of a few decades…

So what do they go and build?  A modern retail development.  You gotta wonder if Brooklyn Center knew who they

Modern retail development

were hiring when they commissioned the study – Calthorpe and Associates is run by one of the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism.  After the completion of the study and a plan a few years later, the city actually included an 8 point refutation of their principles in their comprehensive plan, with the brilliant recommendation of increasing highway-oriented development and reducing open space.

What is likely to be built is the exact opposite of the design principles enumerated in the Opportunity Site Master Plan & Development Guidelines (although the plan actually applied to a site across Bass Lake Road from Brookdale, and I don’t know if there was ever any move to extend it to the Brookdale site).  Not only do we get a big box Wal-Mart, with its auto-dependent acres of parking and low-intensity land use, but accessory retail uses are scattered throughout the site, making future infill much more difficult.  To be fair, it is possible the planned smattering of smaller stores will never come to be, as a local retail real estate consultant notes in the Strib article:

“The challenge for the developers in Brookdale is, what are the stores that would see an opportunity to be at the Brookdale site that don’t already have a location that serves that area?”

In addition, complementary stores would have to stock items that are unavailable at Wal-Mart, or that are appreciably better or cheaper than at the retail giant.

Plans that came to naught

What could Brooklyn Center have done differently?  They already had a policy framework (in the Opportunity Site Master Plan) to encourage mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development, but they followed the old suburban course, waiting for a developer to come along and proposed a PUD along the lines of the Master Plan.  If they had looked at the success of older cities in guiding development with zoning districts or overlays, they could have had zoning in place that would have discouraged the Wal-Mart style of rapidly-obsolete shopping strip.  Maybe Wal-Mart would have just moved up the street to a less restrictive city, but maybe they would have come up with a plan more like their proposal for Washington DC.

Half a page of scribbled plans

I’m writing under the assumption that Brooklyn Center wants to move away from auto-dependent commercial strips.  They have every reason to do so.  From the 2000 census to the 2005-09 ACS data, single-occupancy vehicular travel declined only very slightly and public transportation use increased at a similarly minuscule rate.  But in the same time frame, poverty increased dramatically in the suburb, from 7.4% to 12.9% of individuals.  This suggests that an increasing number of Brooklyn Centrists could benefit from the affordability of transit and improved opportunities for walking.

Brooklyn Center is only one tiny part of the region, and an adjustment of regional priorities would result in better development in inner ring suburbs.  A map from the Calthorpe planning effort shows as a third-tier regional center, while distant Maple Grove ranks as a second-tier center.   Why is our region prioritizing development in distant greenfields over vast acreage closer to the city?  These priorities have consequences, exemplified in the Bottineau Transitway’s decision to bypass existing transit centers, such as Brookdale, in the hopes that new transit centers will spring up on the fringe.

Maple Grove is sitting pretty

Until we agree to focus development in existing areas instead of on the edge of town, the municipal cogs that make up the regional machine will continue to spin freely, leaving minor cogs like Brooklyn Center to make their own mistakes.

More posts about bridges and food

Not pictured: thousands of McMansions

In response to an article in the Star Tribune about Al Franken considering whether or not to support a new bridge to sprawl over the St. Croix, I wrote the letter below.  Of course, politicians no longer let you email them directly, so I had to copy this onto 3 different contact form pages, each time filling out my personal info again.  Not a big deal, as I would just have used that time to write more bilious blog posts, but it kind of messed with the form of the letter, and forces me to individually email my state reps.  Ah consumer democracy.

 

Dear Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Governor Dayton,

I’m writing to urge you not to support a new bridge across the St. Croix River near Stillwater.  A new bridge would hugely encourage sprawl, which damages the environment, requires costly infrastructure such as sewers and roads, and fosters unhealthy automobile-dependent lifestyles.  Furthermore, a new bridge is not necessary, since the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south of Stillwater has a great deal of excess capacity.

I’m sure you all know your American history, and therefore understand that the unprecedented spatial growth of American cities in the post-war era was significantly aided by the construction of automotive infrastructure.

  • Senator Franken, your hometown of St. Louis Park was platted around railways in the late 1900s, but only boomed after the construction in the 30s and 40s of the Lilac Way, which we now know as Highway 100.
  • Senator Klobuchar, you can still see developers such as Lennar Corporation brag about the excellent highway access of your hometown of Plymouth when trying to sell their speculative homes.
  • Governor Dayton, I’m sure you remember the population drain in your hometown of Minneapolis when in the 60s tens of thousands of homes were destroyed to build the interstates, and many of those whose homes were taken resettled along the beltways.

There is no question that the construction of a new bridge across the St Croix will kickstart this process in western Wisconsin; the government will provide developers with a selling point for their sprawling subdivisions, luring residents who would otherwise settle in Minnesota.

Sprawl could be accepted as an unfortunate byproduct if this bridge were otherwise necessary.  There is no reason to construct this bridge, however, except to encourage sprawl.  The 20,000 vehicles a day that use the Lift Bridge could easily be accommodated by the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south, which uses only a tiny fraction of its 6 lanes of capacity.  The simplest way to relieve traffic problems in downtown Stillwater is to close the Lift Bridge.  Washington County politicians know this, but they want the sprawl-inducing effect of the bridge to boost the tax base of the Far East Metro at the expense of older cities like Maplewood, White Bear Lake and St Paul.

Senator Franken, in today’s Star Tribune you are quoted asking, “Are the alternatives that are suggested by [environmental] groups less environmentally damaging?”  As I’ve mentioned, the numbers show that adding 20,000 vehicles a day to the I-94 bridge is entirely feasible.  To answer your question, a mass transit approach to improving mobility in the East Metro would be significantly less environmentally damaging.  The $690m cost of a new bridge across the St Croix would pay for a bus rapid transit system on the Gateway Corridor as well as a light rail transit line between St Paul and White Bear Lake.  Transit-oriented development built around those lines would be denser and more energy-efficient, use primarily existing sewer and local road infrastructure, and encourage healthier transportation than the sprawl built around a new bridge.

Minnesota has historically subsidized automobile use over all other modes, and has received as a result one of the most sprawling cities in the world, one of the least equal cities in the nation, and a rampant obesity problem.  If you’re going to legislate an exception to a long-standing federal law, amend the gas tax to allow  fungibility between transportation modes.

Thanks,

Alex