In Minnesota, the test required for a driver’s license only measures whether you can steer a car, not whether you know how to actually drive. As a result, most Minnesotan motorists are total dicks. So today on streets.mn I’m showing an educational filmstrip about how to not be a dick. Enjoy!
Tonight is National Night Out, the one night a year where we block cars from certain streets so they can be used in a way that actually enriches the community. The City has a list of all the “official” NNO events, and it’s fun to look at the column that lists the planned activities to see what people would use their streets for if they didn’t have to fear for their lives every time they set foot on it:
- Grilling/kids games
- sit in street, watch planes
- kids riding bikes in the street
- Johnny Cash tribute band
- Welcom[ing] new neighbors
- hanging out for adults, sidewalk chalk/colors for kids
- Plant/book exchange
- a lot of laughter
- Gospel rap
- Barbecue, pinata, water balloon toss
- kids running around
- discuss cute dogs
- Basketball Tournament
- Share how things are in the n’hood
- Hopefully visit from fire engine !
- Kids “own” the street
- Beers, Brats, Buddies
- self defense demo
- celebrate life of a long-time neighbor who passed away recently
- Chili cook-off
- Chicken Wing Contest
- kids bike decorating
- possibly tours of gardens and/or guitar playing
- the kids like to ride their bikes/play games in the street
As you browse the 33 page list, it becomes almost overwhelming how many of the activities that people have to wait till this one time a year to use their street for are just plain everyday activities. When I was growing up in the suburbs, we played in the street all the time. City kids I guess can only do that once a year, and only if you jump through enough bureaucratic hoops, and only if your street is deemed “inessential for traffic flow.”
By far the most common activity listed is “socializing” or a variation of it. Of course socialization happens on these blocks on other nights, too, but only in people’s yards, or squeezed onto a narrow sidewalk. Since most neighbors drive, random socialization can only happen if no one’s listening to music, or no one is stopped behind your car.
Sure, driving is an easy and comfortable way to get around, but is it worth it?
Yes, I am sitting in my apartment on the computer instead of at NNO event. Leaving now…
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.
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.
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.
For better or for worse, children are the future, and that’s why it’s important to get them started thinking about cities now. Just like many children are unaware that meat comes from animals, many children are unaware that suburbs come from cities, or that many cities were once suburbs, or of numerous other urban paradoxes that seem to perplex even many adults.
My interest in cities was kindled in my youth by a series of books primarily written by a professor at the University of Barcelona, Xavier Hernandez, and primarily illustrated by Jordi Ballonga, “a specialist in the illustration of urban subjects”. Barmi and Lebek tell the story of two cities in southern and northern Europe respectively from their founding to the present (well, the late 20th century anyway). Measuring a good 9″x12″, the books depict every phase in the development of these cities in an amazingly detailed birds-eye perspective splashed over two pages. You will never see Barmi and Lebek on an e-reader.
As a child, I spent hours following the two cities on their journeys through time, with each era illustrated in such incredible detail that I seemed to never run out of new unnoticed details. (Reopening the books many years later, I see that I apparently added my own details in the form of pencil-marked walls or buildings in places.) Perhaps less linger-worthy but no less fascinating were the pages between the birds-eyes, which gave a narrative history of the era depicted and had detailed cut-away drawings of specific buildings or infrastructure, such as cathedrals, skyscrapers, or subways.
Barmi was the first book I got, and today it is the most yellow, worn and pencil-marked. Sometime later I got Lebek, but I never was able to find the third book in the series, San Rafael, which tells the story of a fictional city somewhere “in the region that lies south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and north of Guatemala’s Sierra de las Minas, an area that includes the Mexican state of Chiapas, Guatemala’s central region, southern Belize, and western Honduras.” Finally I got around to digging in the children’s nonfiction stacks at the Minneapolis Central Library, where San Rafael lay waiting for me after all these years.
While the Central American city obviously represents a history far removed from those of the earlier two books, it has the same familiar format, including the gorgeous two-page birds-eyes alternating with narrative history and details of certain buildings. San Rafael’s story begins in 1000 BC, when a small village of corn farmers cut into the jungle on the banks of a large river, and continues through the late 20th century, by which time the small village has been replaced by a sprawling metropolis centered on a Spanish colonial center and a cultural park of preserved Mayan ruins and ringed by factories, housing projects and slums.
The writing in San Rafael is concise and unadorned enough to avoid overwhelming younger readers, but not too dumbed-down or simplistic for adults (at least this adult) to enjoy. Hernandez doesn’t shy away from more complex topics such as class conflict or religious persecution, but perhaps could have spent a bit more time on them. But it’s not surprising that the focus is on the physical characteristics of the city that are so brilliantly depicted by Ballonga (with the assistance of Josep Escofet for this venture).
The depictions of Mayan life are probably the most interesting parts of the book to me as a result of my unfamiliarity with the topic, and so the lack of a bibliography is probably the most obnoxious intrusion of the characteristics of children’s literature. Scenes of villagers in the act of constructing the famous pyramidal temples – “Stonemasons squared blocks with hammers fashioned from stone.” – will excite any adult with even a remnant of imagination. The stimulating scenes continue through the Spanish military colonization and the American corporate colonization – I just can’t emphasize enough what a jewel this book – as well as the previous two – is to anyone with an interest in cities or history or human culture or life itself.
In the course of writing this blog post, I’ve found a fourth book in the series – Umm El Madayan, which apparently depicts a North African city and is not primarily written by Xavier Hernandez or illustrated by Jordi Ballonga. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to the library to check that book out. I promise to read it quickly – I don’t want to interfere with any younger readers who may stumble upon it, kindling their imagination and stoking a lifelong love of cities.
Cross-posted to streets.mn
While looking for dirt on internment camp builder and tract home kingpin Del Webb, I stumbled on an essay called “The Suburban Mind” from the April 1946 issue of Harper’s. It was written by a guy named Carl Von Rhode, who besides apparently being an exiled aristocrat from mitteleuropa, has somehow also “lived in the suburban and satellite cities of two of our leading metropolitan American centers.” Which means he knows what he’s talking about.
Anyway, it amused me to read about the ways surburbia has changed or not in the past 66 years. Von Rhode describes the Exurban Escapism Paradox:
…every suburb passes in time through three more or less standard cycles – rural, urban, and metropolitan. By the time the urban stage is reached, the best homes have been built-and the churches have gone deeply into debt for imposing community houses. Then comes a decline in property values; while the apartment dwellers are creeping in at the front door the “suburbanites” steal out at the back door. A few home owners remain to fight a losing battle against “encroachment;” but the young people, and those who can sell, retreat to the new “Waverly Hills” farther out.
The jargon is strange, but what he’s basically describing is the frustration of the early adopter, who moved to the edge of town to get away from the city, only to have a new subdivision pop up nearby after a few years. Many continue to move outward, feeding and being fed by the real estate speculation machinery that has long fueled the American economy. Those who stay try to control, and that was true then as now:
Building restrictions insure the uniform excellence of the dwellings, generally prohibiting apartments and two-family dwellings, and “undesirables” are often excluded by a common agreement not to sell or lease property to them even if they can afford it. Though the suburbanite is unalterably opposed to governmental control, there is one kind of legislation he approves of thoroughly – zoning. He invokes every kind of building and housing restriction to maintain the social excellence of his section, and to keep it inviolate.
Suburbia having run quite a bit further down its course in our own time, it seems the barbarians have finally stormed the gates. As such, images such as this likely strike the modern viewer as quaint:
Not only have the suburbs picked up a bit more diversity in the past 66 years, the train has long ago left the station. If people use park-and-rides, they’re taking a bus. But this image also reveals the fact that Von Rhode was talking about a breed of suburb that was about to be killed by highways and mass-produced housing:
The new houses of Suburbia, especially the “additions” built in the nineteen-twenties, exhibit a contemporary version of escapism in architecture, what with the English half-timbered cottage types, the Spanish villas, the Cape Cod salt boxes, and other habitations as remote as possible from our everyday American contemporary life.
Interesting to consider that the suburbia he’s talking about is the same neighborhood that we in Minneapolis now call the city: that vast swath of the southern portion of Minneapolis and the western portion of St Paul that lies between lakes and vales and is dotted with the revivalist mini-castles that were the McMansions of the era. Being from “our leading metropolitan American centers” the author was more describing railroad suburbs, whereas our provincial equivalent was spread by streetcar. But both are a bit different from the suburbia of the contemporary mind, which is more the product of mass-production than the escapism that bothers Von Rhode, to the degree that he predicts widespread abandonment of “sense of civic duty”. Nonetheless, he concludes with 40s optimism:
Americans are sprung from a pioneering stock which has always met the challenge of new frontiers. Our hope for the suburb lies here. When the suburbanite becomes fully aware that he is not “out of things,” as he fondly supposed, but at the center of things, he may rouse himself from his lethargy to play his full role in the development of the stimulating, labyrinthian culture of cities.
66 years on, I’m not sure how many suburbanites have been roused to meet the challenge of the new, old, urban frontier.
The New York Review of Books has published a new edition of Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, and they’re posting excerpts on their blog to promote it. Here’s an excerpt of their excerpt of a story called “In the Electric Tram.”
People do, after all, tend to get somewhat bored on such trips, which often require twenty or thirty minutes or even more, and what do you do to provide yourself with some modicum of entertainment? You look straight ahead. To show by one’s gaze and gestures that one is finding things a bit tedious fills a person with a quite peculiar pleasure. Now you return to studying the face of the conductor on duty, and now you content yourself once more with merely, vacantly staring straight ahead. Isn’t that nice? One thing and then another? I must confess: I have achieved a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead.
It is prohibited for the conductor to converse with the esteemed passengers. But what if prohibitions are sidestepped, laws violated, admonitions of so refined and humane a nature disregarded? This happens fairly often. Chatting with the conductor offers prospects of the most charming recreation, and I am particularly adept at seizing opportunities to engage in the most amusing and profitable conversations with this tramway employee. It pays to ignore certain regulations, and summoning one’s powers to render uniforms loquacious helps create a convivial mood.
From time to time you do nonetheless look straight ahead again. After completing this straightforward exercise, you may permit your eyes a modest excursion. Your gaze sweeps through the interior of the car, crossing fat, drooping mustaches, the face of a weary, elderly woman, a pair of youthfully mischievous eyes belonging to a girl, until you’ve had your fill of these studies in the quotidian and gradually begin to observe your own footgear, which could use proper mending. And always new stations are arriving, new streets, and the journey takes you past squares and bridges, past the war ministry and the department store, and all this while it is continuing to rain, and you continue to behave as if you were a tad bored, and you continue to find this conduct the most suitable.
But it might also be that while you were riding along like that, you heard or saw something beautiful, gay, or sad, something you will never forget.
Clement Haupers was the Minnesota director of the Federal Art Project for the WPA, so it’s relatively safe to assume he meant this painting as a sincere celebration of the new roads – Highway 61 was among the earliest – that were being built to link the people of the vast American landscape by motorcar. I gotta say, 72 years later it looks to me like a silly cartoon, bathing a banal piece of infrastructure in golden grandeur, but that may partly be from seven decades of grime, smoke and congestion accumulating on what Haupers depicted as a clean, clear silver strip.
Haupers seems to have ranged around the state quite a bit as Federal Art Project director, and there are few clues in the watercolor above as to what segment of Highway 61 is depicted. Except for the suggestions of an agricultural quilt along the roadside, the hilliness of the gleaming highway in the landscape could be found along the north shore, where Highway 61 was constructed as North Shore Drive in the 1920s.
The current iteration of North Shore Drive (though the name seems to have fallen out of use) as it passes through Grand Marais was justifiably excoriated by Charles Marohn at Strong Towns a few months ago. Though mercifully not a 4-lane divided monstrosity, 61 displays a lot of highway strip tendencies, and features the suicide center lane on the edges of town to accommodate driveways encroaching into pedestrian space. Bafflingly, the center left turn lane extends for long segments where no businesses exist, leading to a wide-feeling, speed-inducing road.
Marohn’s main point as I interpret it is that Highway 61, like most roads built today, does a poor job of differentiating between rural areas, where transportation is usually the primary function of the facility, and town areas, where the function is more multifaceted. Highway 61 in Grand Marais is certainly guilty as charged, with the section running through town barely narrower than the strip at the edge. Yet somehow it works better than any other street I’ve seen in Minnesota. Motorists rarely fail to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalks, which are marked and spaced around 350 feet apart.
I think this is mostly due to the special nature of the place rather than the design of the road. For one thing, you arrive at Grand Marais about 80 miles down Highway 61 from the last real town, Two Harbors. Everything between is more of a crossroads, so when you hit a place with side streets, you notice even before you hit the stop light. But just because motorists know people live in a place doesn’t mean they’re going to slow down for them, much less stop to yield. I think what is unique about Grand Marais is that many or most of the motorists are tourists themselves, and therefore less likely to be in a hurry.
Highway 61 in Grand Marais is rare for Minnesotan roads in that it was sliced through the originally platted grid at an angle some decades after the town was founded. Except for the interstates, I can’t think of another Minnesotan town that experienced this sort of transportation-based renewal. Here is a poorly-scanned bird’s eye view drawn in 1906:
This photo, which lakesnwoods.com dates to the 1910s, shows no oblique intersection where North Shore Drive would slash through a few years later:
The above photo also shows how sparsely built Grand Marais still was at that time. When the diagonal Highway 61 was sliced through a few years later, it’s possible no building even stood in its path. By 1934 there’s a bright white gash through the town, which today is lined with businesses such as Hughie’s Tacos, which occupies a building oriented to the street, and Dairy Queen, which is floating free in a featureless parking plane, so you get the sense the building is oriented to the main grid of the town only coincidentally.
Despite being lined with businesses, it would be a mistake to think of Highway 61 as Grand Marais’ Main Drag. That function is filled by the traitorously-named southernmost parallel in the grid, Wisconsin St, and its perpendicular, Broadway (even the dwellers of this remote northern outpost were sophisticated enough to realize that the street type of the latter is embedded in its name).
Wisconsin St is quite the contrast to Highway 61. Grand Marais certainly fits Nathan Lewis’ bill of hypertrophism, but Wisconsin is surprisingly narrow for its late 19th century vintage. It’s also been done up into a pleasantly calm street, with bike lanes, generous bump-outs and some weird fake stone-looking concrete. While the earliest map of the area showed a shore-running road (that being the only road), maps from the time of platting show the road along the North Shore bypassing the town on the north side about where County Road 7 runs today. However, as old timers will tell you, the real highway to this fishing village is the lake itself, whence trawlers of yore would return laden with whitefish, or come winter sleds towed by teams of dogs would arrive bursting with precious mail from outside. So you can see why Wisconsin St, which connects the town’s two bays, would be important.
Today Wisconsin St is instead busy with tourists bursting with pizza or laden with souvenir tees. The view, the crowd, and the street design combine to create an ideal strolling track, which pedestrians enjoy and vehicles respect. Since most motorists on Wisconsin are looking for parking, the average speed is very low, and considering I can’t remember ever seeing anyone cycling on Wisconsin, the bike lanes could probably be traded for wider sidewalks. Still, it’s nice seeing an outstate commitment to bicycling, and I think this might technically be part of the Gitchi-Gami Trail.
Wisconsin St, Broadway (which is almost as good as Wisconsin but gets demerits for slant parking), and Highway 61 combine to define a rich downtown district, with two groceries, a hardware store, a muni liquor, a Radio Shack, a Ben Franklin, two parks, a rose garden, a library, city hall, and the World’s Best Donuts. Not bad for a town of 1,300 people, in a county of 5,000. Presumably the tourist dollar accounts for the outsized economy, as well as the low-key, bizarrely respectful drivers. On the other hand, maybe the thing that has such a calming effect on the tourists does the same for locals. After all, it’s not so hard to wait for an old lady to cross the street if you get to watch the stunning Lake Superior while you wait. Slow, safe speeds feel natural when you spend your spare time skiing the slopes of Pincushion Mountain.
Or maybe the good people of Grand Marais are just unusually respectful of the art of driving. They do, after all, have a plaque in their town memorializing Charles Babcock, the Father of Minnesota Highways:
Thanks to Sarah and other descendents of Hungry Jack Scott to whose generosity I owe the delightful strips of my life that have been spent in the beautiful town of Grand Marais.
If there was a prize for most American American, Tom Hanks would be a serious contender. He’s not big but not skinny, nice but not too nice, and his accent sounds like it could be from anywhere.
Most American of all, he’s baffled by the foreign practice of asking drivers to be aware that children may be playing on some streets. And as nature takes its course, his confusion turns to mockery of the idea that motorists’ right to drive where they want and as fast as they want be curtailed by children playing in the street.
A few weeks ago Hanks told David Letterman about his visit to the backwards Communist settlement of Eisenhuettenstadt. Hanks was entertained by the poverty of the city – apparently the stupid reds thought they could build an entire city around processing raw materials.
Gleeful about the poverty of the commies, Hanks pointed out that when Eisenhuettenstadt was built in the 1950s, they couldn’t afford to paint all the buildings. Apparently acting in movies like Saving Private Ryan was exceptionally cathartic for Hanks, as he appears to have forgotten about World War II, and how at the end of it most of Germany was a smoldering pile of rubble.
But Tom Hanks saved his payload of scorn for a simple blue sign, showing a car waiting while a family plays in front of their home. Any man who lives free would be confused by the model Soviet city of Eisenhuettenstadt, with its state-guaranteed employment, nonexistent homelessness and buildings more than 35′ tall, but the notion that a motorist should yield to a child playing in the street? Hanks has no idea what to make of it, so he sets his phasers on mock, eventually concluding that in the land of the German Shepherd, dogs were verboten.
Well I can’t be mad at Tom for this – he was just too good in Joe Versus the Volcano. Can someone direct him to wikipedia’s Living Streets page, which lists variants of the sign and the concept of traffic calming in 11 countries? Too bad there isn’t a word for Living Streets in American.
Wikipedia: blame definition: to find fault with. →
King of the Urbanists Steve Berg has written the Mother of Downtown Plans, which was released last week to much copying of press release in the local media. In this plan Berg has given us the answer to why his summer break from MinnPost turned into a forever break – the plan is an intimidating 111 pages that comprise a whopping 329 MB pdf! Most of the pages are a disjointed but pleasant collection of HD images, so the plan ends up being a pretty quick read. David Levinson has snarky comments on all 10 initiatives recommended in the plan, but I’m going to hold it to four.
Double Downtown’s Residential Population
Sounds impressive, but Downtown is already on the way to doubling its population. By my count, Downtown added around 5,000 units in the last decade – the DTC says 15,000 units will need to be constructed in the next 15 years to achieve a doubling of population, which would require doubling the rate of construction. That doubling seems to be in the works, though, since around 2,000 units have been proposed or are currently under construction Downtown.
The 15,000 units needed to double Downtown’s population are “the equivalent of three large residential towers each year”, according to the plan. But it could also take the form of low-rise buildings like the 6-story stick-built ones currently proposed in several places Downtown. At the average unit density of recent low-rise proposals (120 units/acre), 15,000 units could fit on only 125 acres. My long-languishing Potential Population Project found 150 acres with a high potential for development in just half of Downtown, which was as far as I got before I flaked out on the project. So it seems likely that most developers will opt for the cheaper type of development, which is fine as long as they don’t skimp on soundproofing.
The ambitious part of this initiative is to achieve an occupancy per unit of 2.33 persons (a 35,000 person increase in population from adding 15,000 units). That’s a lot higher than the current average household size Downtown and would require a lot more 3 bedroom units than Downtown currently has. The plan calls for a school to be built to attract families, which seems logical, but I’m not sure developers will follow the cue. My guess is that for larger bedroom sizes to be built, there has to be a policy incentive or direct subsidies – not surprising that the plan didn’t call for those.
Curbless Mall and Gateway Park Expansions
The issue of Downtown park development is near and dear to my heart – the Nicollet Hotel Block in particular has been a favorite of mine for years – but it’s a bit too big for this post so I’m gonna hold off for now. I’ll only address the park expansion part of the Plan as it relates to the concept proposed for Nicollet Mall.
Their concept kicks off with a map showing how the Mall will annex territory north and south, becoming the imperial capital of colonies stretching from the Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi. There’s nothing particularly controversial about that – that was basically the idea behind the Loring Greenway – but the Plan doesn’t specify how it will leap the hurdles that prevented a Greater Mall in the past. The first and foremost hurdle is the nightmare that is the Bottleneck – it’s tough to create a unified pedestrian corridor with a giant concrete trench running through it (a similar but lower hurdle is on the north end at Washington Ave).
But on another level, maybe a bigger problem with the concept is the scale – their proposed corridor is almost 2 miles. Considering the differing environments of the various segments of their proposed corridors (I can think of three environments for four segments – 1. Sculpture Garden and Loring Park are Parkland 2. Loring Greenway is Residential Pedestrian Mall 3. Nicollet Mall is Commercial Transit Mall 4. Gateway Park Expansion is Parkland) it makes more sense to think of Nicollet Mall as a centerpiece of a branded pedestrian network. Think of it as a network of Street-level Skyways, or Groundways. The advantage to this strategy is that if anyone ever wants to improve the pedestrian realm of a block that’s not on the Downtown Council’s corridor, there will be policy support for it.
Whatever form it takes, I really like the idea of a curbless mall. Nicollet is really more of a transit or taxi mall as it stands, with prime real estate effectively off-limits to pedestrians due to the curb barrier. As sidewalk cafes get wider and wider, pedestrian space is shrinking, for example at Zelo, where there’s maybe 5 feet between the tables and the light poles. You can imagine how that can get uncomfortable when there’s a convention of biker twins in town. It would be nice to just look back to see if a bus is coming and step over if there isn’t. Alternately, all the buses could play obnoxious chirpy music constantly.
Frequent and Free Downtown Circulator
Maybe I’m misunderstanding the plan, but it seems to me that the Downtown Circulator is the one purely terrible idea here. So you want a vibrant street scene and robust transit options, but you want to provide a vehicle that is faster and easier than walking and sucks funding away from regular transit routes? I guess it makes sense if the circulator goes to more outlying destinations, but even in those cases it seems to be duplicating service. I’m not sure that fares are high enough that they are a deterrent for tourists considering transit.
The Free Ride buses seem like a reasonable compromise. It costs nothing to run them, for one thing, since they’re a part of regular routes. They look like regular buses, so they’re confusing enough that they’re less competitive with the simple act of walking. The plan calls for features on the Downtown Circulator – “wide doors, roll-on features and zero emissions” - that should be extended to all local buses anyway. Adding Free Ride segments on Hennepin (using the 6?) and on 7th & 8th (using the 5?) would a accomplish everything that a Circulator would, without the drain on transit funds.
Seems like the whole world walking pretty
And you can’t find the room to move
Well everybody better move over, that’s all
There’s a road over there on the north end of Downtown, or maybe on the south end of the Northside. Nobody very much goes there, unless they’re looking for some vintage clothes, or maybe some cheap hand-me-downs from Target. Unless your office is on this street, you poor souls walk this road every day.
On one of those walks I saw a machine running towards me. It was a truck like a mountain, piled high with teenagers looking bored. This machine was painting lines on the street, turning it from a dusty speedway into something a little more like home, something you can live on.
Except that at first the bike lanes were more like something you can park on. Then about a month after the painting truck came through, a crew came along to change the signs. It didn’t change much for one stubborn guy though, who still parks in front of his house every morning, even though there’s a place for him not in a bike lane just around the corner.
So now it seems the whole street’s biking pretty. But I still can’t find the room to walk. They even got little pictures of bikes on one section of pavement. Not 10 yards away, a busy crosswalk is just a worn spot on the pavement. No zebra. No stop line. This in the city whose policy is to always mark crosswalks at signalized intersections.
A few steps down, 10th Avenue gets between an office building and its parking lot. Each morning and night you can see people running across, hurrying even if they’d rather take it slow. Some of us like to dream about marked crossings even when there’s no light, but for now the city just says no.
Not long after that, the sidewalk ends. This end doesn’t whimper, it explodes with weeds as tall as trees and sand dunes that sweat you like the sahara.
Money comes up from Washington looking for people who move without motors, but it seems you still need a machine to get it. Out of millions of dollars, all but a few pennies went to bikes. The night is bright, but the sidewalk’s dark, and maybe one of these days the city’s gonna get the picture.