Traveling in Moderation: Grand Marais

The New Highway #61, Clement Haupers, 1939

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.

Where do you turn? Marohn's shot of Grand Marais' edge

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.

Highway 61 near the center of Grand Marais (by Charles Marohn again)

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:

A perfect grid

This photo, which lakesnwoods.com dates to the 1910s, shows no oblique intersection where North Shore Drive would slash through a few years later:

Where is the Drive?

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).

Good fishing here

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.

Guess they took this the one day no one was out walking

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:

That's Babcock's plaque under the plywood portaging voyageur

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.

Traveling in Moderation, part II: Multimodal Mad Town

Having posted the first Traveling in Moderation, a thought popped into my head:  traveling 270 miles really isn’t very moderate.  My great-grandfather left Traverse County only once, for a church-group trip to Pennsylvania.  Our modern standards for travel have been explosively expanded by the availability of cheap oil, and will contract as oil gets more expensive.  So I suppose I should be flying now while the flying’s cheap.  Anyway, let’s get back to Madison…

As built, Madison is one of the most walkable cities in the Upper Midwest.  Most streets are narrow, and the wide ones almost all have crossable center medians.  The grid shifts with primary travel patterns, and is often sliced through with diagonals, for more efficient paths.  The destination density seems pretty good (although it is hard for me to tell with small cities) – grocery stores are pretty well spaced, and walkscore is fairly high excepting some Suburban Hells on the Far West and East Sides.

The result is a good mode share for walking.  Of course, university towns tend to be walking towns and Madison may not be exceptional among its peers (it’s topped by Columbia, South Carolina, which is so walking-friendly that it’s responding to an increase in pedestrian fatalities by ticketing more pedestrians).  Despite a natural advantage for pedestrians and a municipality that seems to have more consideration for pedestrians than most, drivers do not necessarily have a lot of respect for pedestrians.  Williamson Street, north of the Capitol, has 20′ tall pedestrian crossing warning signs on just about every block that are routinely ignored by drivers (and, as Jarrett Walker points out, actually distract drivers from any pedestrians that may be trying to cross).

Look sharp

Ah well, Americans will be Americans.  Madison still has much infrastructure of interest for pedestrians.  I’ll take you on a short tour of Pedestrian Madison, with some side trips to Bike Madison.  Any such tour must begin with State Street, which a prominent Twin Cities urbanist recently dubbed “the best street in the Midwest.

State Street is similar in layout to Nicollet Mall – a two-lane roadway reserved for bikes, buses and taxis is flanked by wide, attractive sidewalks with frequent benches and quality bus shelters (and without pointless meandering) – but there are two important differences.  One is that retail is still alive on State Street, with storefronts packed with the sort of shops found in Uptown Minneapolis.  Think American Apparel, Urban Outfitters and Ragstock.  I say packed because the density of retail is such that second-floor stores are not uncommon – and that’s without any skyways.  Related to skyways, and like them possibly a reason for the tenacity of retail here, is the fact that most of State Street is lined with buildings of the classic Storefront vintage of the 1880s-1920s.  That gives it a more “authentic” feel but frankly is also mostly more interesting, since buildings are much smaller you don’t have the monolithic giant empty glass lobbies that line Nicollet.

State Street is a great street


The Mall of East Campus

Moving down State Street to the University, take a left after the library onto the East Campus Mall.  Though this mall has been under construction for the last three years, those segments that are finished display a streetscape that is even higher quality than State Street, in part because East Campus Mall is a full-on pedestrian mall, whereas State Street is merely a bus mall.  However, East Campus Mall is missing something that State Street has in spades: pedestrians.  They may be deterred by the construction, but probably more by the lack of retail on East Campus Mall and the fact that it isn’t really a crucial connection.  I’m probably overstating it – in comparison with State Street, it’s meager, but there is still plenty of pedestrian activity on East Campus Mall.  For the record, I don’t know if there’s a West Campus Mall.

Look both ways

Before you get too far down East Campus Mall, pause a moment at University Ave.  Although its intersection with East Campus Mall uses colored pavement to highlight the pedestrian crossing, University’s streetscape is generally bleak.  But look closer, and what at first appears to be a wide expanse of one-way concrete has some interesting, skinnying features.  On the north side of the street is a bus-right-turn-only lane, conveyed simply with a solid lane marking and a diamond symbol, with occasional signs permitting right turns.  Between the bus lane and the general traffic lanes is a bike lane that appears to be about 8 feet wide.  Then, on the south side of the street is another bike lane, this one contraflow and protected with a low, mountable, concrete divider separating it from the general traffic lanes.  (See this photo for an overview.)

Generally I’m not very excited about contraflow bike lanes.  University – which is the half of a one-way couplet that’s closer to the heart of campus – may be one of the better candidates for it though.  Considering the high demand for cycling in both directions on this street, they may have had an ineradicable salmon problem anyway, and merely made it safer by making it official.  What I really like about University Ave is the simple, functional way they handle the with-flow bike and bus lanes.  Why mess around with experimental markings when drivers already know to stay away from a solid line with a diamond symbol?

In the green

For now we want to avoid the University Ave traffic, so keep going down East Campus Mall and go up the on-ramp to the Southwest Commuter Path.  Once up there, be careful – while this path, which was carved out of one of the abandoned beds of a double-tracked rail line that slimmed down to single track, is signed for pedestrian use, it’s only striped for cyclists and isn’t really wide enough for both modes.  Clamber over the brightly painted crossings at the corner of Regent and Monroe and follow Monroe to the southwest.

crosswalk envy

In a few blocks you’ll get to a nice little 1920s retail strip similar to ones you’ll find in the neighborhoods of the Twin Cities.  This strip has a couple examples of Madison’s revolutionary attitude towards pedestrians, which subscribes to the bizarre theory that walking should be viable even outside of Downtowns or Universities.  The first clue is the refuge median in front of the new – ahem – Trader Joe’s on the first floor of a condo building.  The great thing about Madison’s ubiquitous refuge medians is that apparently police actually enforce the law in them.  As the picture shows, it actually does snow in cities other than Minneapolis.  Go a block up the street for maybe a deeper indication of Madison’s commitment to pedestrians, where a construction site required closing the sidewalk.  Instead of forcing pedestrians across the street, they also closed the parking spaces and built a concrete enclosure temporary sidewalk.

Before we finish our tour we need to hit Willy Street east of the Capitol, so let’s grab a B-cycle at Regent and Monroe and take the bike path along the shore of Monona to the intersection of Wilson, Williamson and John Nolen Dr.  The B-cycle station is before the intersection, but after you dismount, notice the bright red bike boxes at this intersection.  Cars actually stop behind them, and cyclists actually use them – possibly because the paint allows people to actually see that there’s a bike box there.

Stop in for a drink at the Cardinal bar, in that 5 story redbrick building in the background

Begging for change

About a block behind the bucky-red bike boxes is the last innovation of our tour.  The three-leg intersection of Jenifer and Williamson Sts is designed so that only buses, bikes and pedestrians can access Jenifer from Williamson.  This was presumably done to cut down on cars driving through on mostly-residential Jenifer, but the restriction also provides a slight transit advantage.  Or would, except the traffic signal seems to be programmed to give as much time as possible to Williamson St.  When I pressed the beg button to cross Williamson, I counted full minute without any signal change.  (Of course it changed after I’d already crossed about halfway.)  Neither Jenifer nor Williamson seem to have enough traffic to justify giving Williamson so much priority; hopefully they can reprogram to make the signal change a bit quicker and the intersection will be more helpful.  Frankly I don’t know why any pedestrian would use it currently; there is a striped crosswalk about 60 feet southwest that would be much quicker for crossing Williamson.

The last stop on our tour will be Capitol Square.  We’ve walked and biked long enough for now, so I think I’ll save it for next time.  But as we walk towards the square we’ll go up King Street, which is one of my favorite streets in Madison and worth a few more blathers.  King is on the opposite side of the Capitol from State (which was originally also named King), and the two share a basic form – somewhat narrow, lined with 2-4 story buildings.  What I like about King is that it shows how nice an everyday street can be – just make sure it’s not so wide that you can’t see across it and even if you give two-thirds of the street to cars, it’s still not bad for pedestrians.

Hail to the king

Traveling in Moderation, part I: U of W/M

City and Lakes

For the last three years I’ve traveled to Madison over the Thanksgiving weekend to accompany my girlfriend on a visit to her grandmother.  Grandma Dee was born and raised in Madison, and has proven to be an excellent source for the history and culture of the city (beer and football, mostly).  In the course of these travels, I’ve accumulated some observations about Madison that I’d like to share.

This may be the inaugural post of an occasional series documenting my various Upper Midwestern excursions.  I travel fairly often but thanks to a combination of full-time employment and neurotic antipathy toward air transportation, my travel is mostly limited to Minnesota and neighboring states.  Madison is a particularly suitable city to kick off this series since it has implemented a number of experimental streetscaping techniques.  I’m going to start off with something more basic, though:

Why does UW feel so much more urban than the U of M?

Don't fence me out

The Twin Cities metro is around six times larger than the Madison metro, but somehow the UW campus feels urban in a way that the U of M doesn’t.  Madison’s main shopping street is State Street, which gradually accumulates more and more academic function until it terminates at the University’s Bascom Mall.  This side-by-side, close-knit nature is in contrast to the U of M, which literally fences itself off from Dinkytown.  Only a handful of University uses penetrate the half-mile perimeter trench that is University Ave between 11th and 17th Aves, and while everyone thinks of Dinkytown as the University Neighborhood, it doesn’t look terribly different from any other Minneapolis neighborhood if the streets happen to be deserted of the maroon-clad denizens.  The West Bank and St Paul campuses are a bit more integrated with their surrounding neighborhoods, in that they’re only separated by a broad lawn or parking lot rather than an actual fence.  Probably the area that is most integrated with its surroundings is Stadium Village, which is gradually being annexed by the University.  There you’ll find a few commercial buildings sharing a block with the University’s IT department, for example, in a coziness that wouldn’t be out of place in Madison but which the U of M apparently finds uncomfortable, as evidenced by their decades-long effort to demolish the neighborhood.

College kids getting high

But it’s not just proximity to the city that makes UW feel urban – even when you can’t see any building without a UW logo on it, you often still feel like you’re in a city.  The reason is right above you – buildings on the UW campus are tall.  UW has a cool interactive campus map tool where you can click on any University building and there will be a tiny little sketch of it, which gives you a sense of the heights of campus buildings (bing works too).  I encourage you to look around on those mapping sites, because the best confirmation I could find for my perception was Emporis, which lists 71% of UW buildings as being more than 6 stories as opposed to only 16% of U of M buildings (including St Paul).  The caveat?  Emporis only lists 34 UW buildings, but they list 102 U of M buildings.  So it may give a truer picture of the U of M campus than the UW campus.

Too close for comfort

Besides height, it seems like UW’s buildings have narrower setbacks, which reinforces the street wall and gives a more urban feel.  This first came to my attention with the Pres House apartments, only 10 feet from their namesake church, but neither of those are official campus buildings.  Still, there are plenty of buildings on the UW campus that are 30′ apart – too many to list here.  They would likely no longer be standing if they were on their western counterpart campus; the U of M tore down Wesbrook this summer for the crime of standing 35′ from Northrup.  And many of the close-standing UW buildings aren’t as ancient as Wesbrook, suggesting the UW administration doesn’t think an urban campus is a bad thing.

Or were they just drunk when they signed off on the site plan?  What accounts for the differences between the campuses?  Why does the U of M seek out a simple, park-like atmosphere while UW is content with the complex geometry of an urban campus?  I have no idea, but  wild guess is that geography was a prime contributor – UW’s location very near to Madison’s downtown and smack in the line of a primary growth axis for that city both restrained campus expansion (UW is now about a third of the area of the U of M, though they were likely originally about the same size) and allowed denser buildings to fit in with the surroundings.  The U of M’s more suburban location allowed for easier campus expansion and required more suburban building styles to match its streetcar suburb neighbors.

But I’d like to throw out a wilder guess:  I’ve noticed development throughout SE Wisconsin that seems denser that comparable developments around the Twin Cities.  Buildings seem taller, closer together and more fancifully adorned – while most of this is within a suburban context; by which I mean what in the Twin Cities would be a football field-sized parking lot is a soccer field-sized parking lot in SE Wisconsin.  (A small distinction, maybe, but I’ll take what I can get.)  Could this be the influence of that nearby modern megalith, Chicago?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just reading too much into the sheen that often accompanies new sights.  Maybe a Madisonian visiting the U of M would make similar observations.  Maybe I was just thrown off-balance by the presence of hills.  In that case, expect a couple more posts of unreliable observations, including one touching on a bike facility that makes a cameo in one of the above pictures.