Babylon by Bike/Ped Coordinator

A portrait of the author

The Strib’s August 30th Letters page was even more cranky than usual:


More reasons why such a position is needed

When you rarely travel without a car, it’s hard to see the need to improve the safety of cyclists and pedestrians (“More grist for the no-taxes crowd,” editorial, Aug. 28).

When Hennepin County rebuilt 26th Avenue in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis last year, it forgot to included bike lanes, even though the city’s bike plan had called for lanes there for 10 years. After an outcry by residents, lanes were striped this year.

A similar situation is occurring with the new Lowry Avenue bridge that’s under construction. So it is correct to say, as the editorial did, that the creation of the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator position is “untimely” — it should have been created years ago.


Of course I wrote at least twice as much as they published, including a preamble that accused the Strib editorial board of rarely traveling without a car.  And if I’d known that they’d print it, I would have plagiarized one of several better responses to Strib cycle hatin.

Correction:  26th Ave in Seward was repaved, not rebuilt.  The letter was written in a caffeinated blaze of fury, so I’m certain the error is mine.  Just goes to show you how much fact-checking those letters receive.  Actually, I have a feeling the confuseditude of the letter was what got it printed.

Although I’ve actually had several cranky letters to the Strib printed – one of them was a plea to legalize it, which I assumed wouldn’t be printed until an enthusiastic coworker congratulated me on it.  Not sure if my mom cut that one out and put it on her fridge.



Better red than yellow

Zweifeldig Ampel

I’ve written a lot of stupid, crazy things on this blog (I flatter myself by thinking they’re crazy, too, instead of just stupid).  But I think this entry may contain the craziest, if not the stupidest thing I’ve thought of.

It all began with a recent post on Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic about the an FHWA study that found that marked crosswalks are less safe than unmarked crosswalks on higher speed, multi lane roads.  I don’t doubt their findings, but it’s always seemed fishy to me that in the instance of a pedestrian feature being ignored by drivers, the response is to not install them (to be fair, the report actually recommends traffic calming such as bump-outs to increase pedestrian safety). The comments to Tom’s post even mention that in countries where there is enforcement of crosswalk law, drivers yield at marked crossings, which in some cases seems to have led to routine compliance, that is, drivers actually yield to pedestrians in crosswalks without the “incentive” of getting a ticket and a big fine.

It seems like if this were a driver safety feature that was routinely ignored, it would either be regularly enforced (speed limits) or improved through engineering (left turn lanes).  Maybe I have a chip on my shoulder, but it seems like if there’s a question about a pedestrian or bicycle road feature, the response is to get rid of it (a transit road feature would not even be there in the first place), but if it’s an automobile feature, the response it to improve or mitigate it.

As I brainstormed examples, the all-red traffic signal phase – an engineering response to a safety problem caused by a road design element – floated to the top of my brain.  In this case, the road design element is the yellow light, which causes some drivers to speed up in order to not have to wait at the light.  When they judge incorrectly, and someone waiting for a green jumps the gun, the result could be described as a safety problem.

The design element that ultimately provoked this safety problem is the yellow phase of the traffic signal.  Which brings us to my crazy idea – the yellow phase may be at best unnecessary and at worst dangerous.

Presumably the yellow phase is supposed to improve safety by warning drivers that a light is about to turn red and thereby give them more time to stop before the intersection, rather than proceeding through it and risking conflict with the intersecting traffic.  This problem has been mitigated in many places by extending the length of the all-red phase, giving traffic time to clear the intersection before the intersecting traffic is allowed to proceed.  Which means that essentially the all-red phase has replaced the function of the yellow phase.

In the real world, though, the yellow phase may have another function.  We are taught that yellow means caution, so maybe the presence of a yellow light encourages drivers to stop more gradually and thereby decrease the likelihood of a rear-end crash.  On the other hand, if drivers get used to seeing an abrupt change from green to red, my guess is that they would learn to stop just as gradually as if the yellow light were still there.

It’s hard to say for sure, since they yellow phase seems to be a standard part of traffic lights worldwide.  Germany has two-phase traffic signals, but apparently they cut the green – indicating that the signal isn’t needed at all at certain times (from what I can tell, these are found at low-traffic railroad crossings).  I couldn’t find any studies of the safety benefits of yellow lights, but maybe researchers were shamed away from the topic.

Honestly, if I’m proven wrong here, I’d be relieved.  Personally I enjoy caution, and am happy that motorists get a reminder of the concept fairly regularly.  But in the interest of thinking outside the box, zero-based reasoning, and violent revolution, I thought I’d throw the idea out there.  Obviously a lunatic is not the best judge of his or her own mental state, which is why I depend on others to tell me if this idea is crazy.

Where do you park a train?

A TC&W train in St Louis Park, from a web page about hobos

Hennepin County has posted on its B- website the latest salvo in the Great Saint Louis Park Rail Wars.  They’ve created a page called Freight Rail whose sole reason for existence is to compile the cancerous accumulation of studies revolving around the relocation of the former TC&W track that is now known as the Midtown Greenway.

I’m pretty sure the page didn’t exist until the county released their Freight Rail Draft Staff Report on August 16.  That document contains an excellent summary of the controversy/debacle:

The origin of the current freight rail issue in St. Louis Park and Minneapolis was the severing of the freight rail line in the 29th Street/Midtown Corridor in the 1990’s. This action was part of the TH55/Hiawatha Avenue project funded by MnDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).  MnDOT and FHWA made the decision to sever the freight rail line rather than to construct a grade separated crossing. This decision was made due to geometrics, topography, and costs. After the decision was made to sever the rail line, an analysis was conducted to determine the preferred alignment for relocation of the freight rail service. The location preferred by the government agencies and the private freight rail companies was the active Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern (MN&S) line through St Louis Park. Shortly before the TH55/Hiawatha Avenue project was let and the freight rail was to be severed, it was determined that the National Lead/Golden Auto site in St Louis Park where the rail connection would be made was contaminated (and listed as a federal superfund site). MnDOT had approximately two to three months to find an alternate route for the freight rail relocation or the state was at risk of losing the TH55/Hiawatha Avenue federal funds.  The Cedar Lake/Kenilworth Corridor was chosen by MnDOT as the “temporary” (4 to 6 years) reroute for freight rail until such time that the National Lead/Golden Auto site was delisted or another alternative was found. To facilitate the TH 55/Hiawatha Avenue roadway project, the HCRRA agreed to the temporary rerouting of freight rail through the Kenilworth Corridor and entered into a three party agreement with the Canadian Pacific (formerly Soo Line) and Twin Cities and Western (TCW) Railroads.

MnDOT had two to three months to find an alternate route!  That’s gotta be a record.

Anyway, in keeping with Hennepin County’s policy of web profusion, there is also a separate site set up by the county for this whole issue,  That page has more cool stuff, including some maps, but not the maps that were included in a presentation made to the Southwest Transitway Community Advisory Committe, and that I’ll reproduce here.

Alternatives from 2009 study

This map shows the alternatives for relocation that were explored in a 2009 study – the alternatives were estimated to cost between $60 and 136 million, compared to the $48m cost of the MN&S routing.

A lot to consider

This map shows the various factors in considering an alignment – the CP yards in Camden, congestion in the Target Field area, something called the Iron Triangle.  I think this map (and this process) shows what a questionable idea it was in the first place to sever the rail line.  Much as I enjoy the Midtown Greenway, we are left with a significant population center in South Minneapolis that is very poorly served by rail lines.  This is to some degree a historical situation – I’ve always been amazed at the huge swath of South/Southwest from Cedar to France to Minnehaha Creek to Lake Street that was basically homogeneously suburban residential – but has been made worse by the various severings of Hiawatha and the retrenchment of the Pleasant Ave track segment (not sure of the name).    My point (if I have one) is that after the Era of Cheap Energy is over, it might help to be able to take advantage of very high efficiency transportation modes.   Maybe the area is small enough that it could be effectively served by smaller trucks or freight light rail, but maybe it instead would have been prudent to not scrap the rail infrastructure.

Anyway, St Louis Park has its own side of the story of course, and it sounds like the alignment question may be answered in part by a judge.  If SLP’s appeal is successful, it could cause a significant delay in the Southwest Transitway project, currently hoping for revenue service in 2017 or 18.  So a highway project in Minneapolis caused a rail project in St Louis Park, which may prevent a transit project in Eden Prairie.  How much of this mess could have been prevented by consolidating agencies and municipalities?

Lively up this bridge

If you’re like me, you often find yourself throwing back tallboys under a bridge somewhere.  The most recent bridge, for me, was the 3rd/Central Ave Bridge, which Grazyna Auguscik transformed to a beautiful kind of Eastern Bloc Rio for the Twin Cities Polish Festival a couple weeks ago.

the light was pretty bad under there

St Anthony Main is such a superlative public space in Minneapolis, and the butt end of the 3rd Ave Bridge creates a kind of accidental ballroom for the big public events held there.  Unfortunately, it is currently an ugly, dank ballroom.  The face of the bridge appears to be painted in Soviet Gray and is crumbling in a number of places.  There is a giant duct, presumably used to funnel the detritus of the bridge deck, which lends an industrial feel.  Then there are three mysterious caverns, which sort of adds to the industrial vibe, but only to add the sense you are likely to be suddenly and violently killed.

My guess is that a popular movement to refurbish this under-bridge space would have to run the jurisdictional maze that’s so common in our otherwise simple state.  MnDOT owns the bridge, I believe, but the Park Board maintains the green space that surrounds it.  After a rather infamous debacle with a bridge a few years back, I can’t imagine MnDOT would be eager for people to hang out under its bridge.  But people already are hanging out under it (i.e. Polish fest) so why not spruce it up a bit?

The other problem is that the space sounds terrible.  This may be less fixable, but it just means that the space shouldn’t be used for acts where the subtleties of the music are necessary for full enjoyment (Grazyna Auguscik is heavy on those subtleties).  There are plenty of popular genres where all you really need to hear to have a good time is the bass drum (and a lot of people seem to ignore even that).  Here’s hoping someone fixes up the 3rd Ave Bridge’s accidental ballroom for many polkas/raves to come.

it was the light I swear

Who does Public Works work for?

I got my Transportation & Public Works committee agenda notice in my email today, as usual a whole four days before the meeting.  In other words, too late to change anyone’s mind.

As expected, the committee will vote on the new layout for Nicollet Ave.  This is the new new new layout, the third presented to the public.  The agenda was the first I’ve seen of it, although I checked the project page and sure enough it’s there, dated 8-16.  For the record, August 16th is at least 15 days after the decision was made to remove curb extensions from the design.

Just to recap, the city decided to remove any physical design element for pedestrians, then waited 15 days to notify the public of or even acknowledge the change, conveniently after it was too late to do anything about it.  I’m not in favor of Greek or even California-style democracy, where the general public gets to vote on every little detail.  But when a decision is made to remove a feature that changes the entire character of the street, I think it’s irresponsible to even let the public know about it.

It appears that the city has pounded another nail into the idea of complete streets, another nail into the validity of their own design guidelines, and another nail into the idea that pedestrians are anything more than a bush or bench, allowed at the side of the road to make it look pretty.

For the record, here is the layout:

Easy driving

St Louis, Stop Spacing, and the Future of the 50s

Stop spacing in NW Minneapolis

Riding the bus is slow.  It is sometimes vein-bulgingly, pencil-snappingly slow.

Since I prefer riding transit, I choose where to live based on the quality of the transit service, and so a few years ago I moved to Kingfield because of the 18 line, one of the most frequent in town.  It didn’t take long for me to move away because despite the 18’s frequency, it takes forever to get anywhere – specifically it takes 27 minutes at rush hour to travel the 3.2 miles between 7th St and 38th St.  At about 7 mph, that’s not much faster than walking (well, it’s twice as fast as walking, but counting wait times and assuming typical delays, it’s usually only 10-15 minutes faster and it’s not uncommon that it’s slower).

In an effort to speed things up, St Louis is eliminating bus stops.  They predict their effort “will help keep buses on time, while saving fuel and maintenance expenses.”  Based on the blog entry, it appears their spacing standards didn’t change, they’re just enforcing them for the first time.  Here are the standards:

Local Service
Stops located at major intersections, major traffic generators, and where bus routes or rail lines cross
Stops located in high populated areas every 1/8 to 1/4 mile apart
Stops located in lower populated areas every 1/4 to 1/2 miles apart
Express Service – Limited Stop
Express routes over local service in high density areas should be located approximately 1/3 to 1/2 mile apart

It’s interesting that their policy recommends closer spacing in denser areas.  While it’s logical to include more stops to serve more people, when actual stops are on demand you risk less by allowing people to stop more often in low density areas.  In addition, there is a limit to how far people will actually walk, and as Jarrett Walker mentions in that link suburban areas tend to have less connected street networks that require even more walking.

St Louis block size map

That reminds me – this blog isn’t called Getting Around St Louis.  How does St Louis’ policy compare to Metro Transit in Minneapolis?  Well, for one, it’s hard to find any of Metro Transit’s policy documents.  You can find some information on their website, but only through the magic of google – you can’t seem to navigate to any policy information on their website and it isn’t on their site map.  I’m not sure that using a blog is the best way to publish policy, and St Louis doesn’t seem to have any more policy information on their site, but a blog is a good way to solicit comments (and they’ve flooded in on this issue) and update on the progress of a project as it happens.

A little googling reveals that Metro Transit’s stop spacing policy recommends a stop every eighth of a mile.  (Edit: Commenter Charles linked to the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan, which has this to say about stop spacing:

Recommended Bus Stop Spacing
Bus stops that are close together reduce walking distance and access to transit, but tend to increase bus travel time. This recommended spacing seeks to achieve a balance.

• 6-8 stops per mile for local service
• 1-2 stops per mile for limited stop service

An allowable exception to standards may be central business districts and major traffic generators. These guidelines are goals, not a minimum nor a maximum.

While I admire a policy that defers to real-world conditions, I have a hard time believing there is a situation that would justify a stop less than an eighth of a mile from another stop.  The only possible exception is the disaster that is Lake & Nicollet, but that situation could and should be mitigated by reconfiguring the bus routing and street designs.)

As the map linked at the top shows, many of the east-west streets are spaced every sixteenth of a mile.  Considering most routes in Minneapolis lie no further than a half-mile from the nearest parallel route, I think it’s reasonable to recommend spacing every quarter mile on most routes.  For example, if stop spacing on the 4 and the 18 were reduced to every quarter mile, the maximum someone would have to walk to a stop north of Lake St would be .37 miles.

St Louis actually seems to have larger blocks than Minneapolis, which I’m assuming is mostly a result of more urban renewal.  Larger blocks actually require closer stop spacing as the street network requires more walking.  Minneapolis, on the other hand, has a relatively intact grid network.  This will allow wider stop spacing since the grid network and small blocks shortens walks.  (Note:  I basically added this paragraph because I wanted the maps in this post.  I just screen captured them from the H+T Affordability index, which has the most user-friendly and in-depth demographic mapping I’ve seen.)

Minneapolis block size map

Stop spacing is something I’ve griped about before, and wider stop spacing shouldn’t exactly be considered state of the art.  The Citizens’ League already called for quarter-mile stop spacing on north-south streets and eighth-mile stop spacing on east-west streets… in 1956.  They exempted Downtown (then called the Loop) from their proposal, but that’s actually where Metro Transit has done the most work with stop spacing.  Metro Transit has also looked at stop spacing in their sector restructuring studies, which began around 1998 and I think has been completed in 4 of the 8 sectors.  However, their recommendation of a stop every eighth of a mile is half that of the rest of the world.  It’s time for Metro Transit to join St Louis, the 50s, and the rest of the world and start spacing bus stops every quarter mile.

8/9/11 Transportation & Public Works Committee

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

  1. 22nd St E (re)construction.

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

A connection is made

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

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

Ghost ramp

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

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

2.  Lowry Bridge Bike Lanes

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