Greenfields and trenches

A couple doozies in the agenda for the 9/27 Transportation & Public Works committee:

1. is the first waft of a new greenfield housing development in Bryn Mawr.  It seems that someone long ago went through a great deal of trouble to plat a few blocks south of Chestnut Ave and west of Upton, but then only built houses on maybe half the land.  Now someone else has decided that now (or relatively soon) is the time to finish building the blocks and to line them with single-family homes.  Here are the blocks in question:

This map produced by Mpls Public Works shows the parcels owned by the developer in grey

This map produced by Mpls Public Works shows the parcels owned by the developer in grey

I shouldn’t sensationalize:  this project has a long way to go before any ramblers or McMansions pop up.  The developer – Frank Stucky is the name in case you know him – asked the city to “open” the unbuilt portions of Vincent and Xerxes.  I’m unclear on whether that means the developer asked the city to build the streets and attendant infrastructure for him or whether he merely asked permission from the city to build them himself.  The tone of the report implies that the city is not interested in building these streets, but would allow the developer to do so.  Most intriguingly, it requires a report on the following:

identification of all applicable permits, processes, ordinances, and standards related to Public Works and Planning & Zoning for single family home development; the estimated cost of maintaining the improved roadways and related utilities; the estimated cost to construct the roadways and related utilities; documentation that confirms that the Owner/Developer is willing to bear the costs of such improvements; the proposed prospect for developing the currently vacant lots; estimated tax revenues to be derived from the developed lots vs. vacant lots; the ability of the roads to bear emergency vehicle access; the wishes of the neighboring landowners with respect to the opening of the roads and the development of the lots [who wants to bet on what the wishes of the neighbors will be? -alex]; identification of relative hardships, if any, caused by not opening the roads vs. relative hardships, if any, caused by opening the roads.

In other words, a micro-scale version of the recent report by Edmonton (thanks Brendon) on the “extent to which new residential neighbourhoods pay for themselves.”  (note- this quote is in Canadian)

I’ve done some rough measurements of the area and length of block face of the parcels in question, and based on the minimum lot area of 6000 sq ft and minimum lot width of 50′ in an R1 district, it looks like the developer could put up no more than 12 houses.  Interestingly, the lots appear to be platted at 5400 sq ft and about 40′ wide (presumably these blocks were platted decades before the zoning code was enacted), meaning they need to be either replatted or rezoned.  If that happens and they only require the more typical lot area of 5000 sq ft and width of 40′, 16 houses could fit.  If this were a more progressive part of a more progressive city (like, say, Chaska), some 22 houses could be placed on these blocks.

We can dream

All that speculation assumes the developer would like to build more houses on the lots, instead of just using them for a few houses on large lots.  It’s hard to tell exactly at this point, but it is likely in the city’s interest that more houses be built.  Because of the required approvals, the city actually has some leverage here – let’s hope they use it.  The committee postponed action for two cycles to wait until the report was ready – at least that sounds like what CM Colvin Roy was saying.

2. is my old nemesis, the proposed 4th St S ramp to Northbound 35W (now with its own project page).  The goal is to make it easier to commute back to your hobby farm in the northern suburbs from your boring job in Downtown Minneapolis by building a new ramp to 35W from CR-122 (aka the Washington Ave Trench), a mere 700 feet south of the existing ramp to 35W from Washington Ave S (the non-trench Washington).  Here is what the new time-saving on-ramp will look like:

Blaine is now two minutes closer

Apparently the news about a little construction project called the Central Corridor hasn’t made it out to Medina, because Hennepin County’s engineers forgot to put the new on-ramp configuration on this layout.  It shouldn’t make a big difference; the new ramp to Cedar is 300 feet from the stoplight proposed as part of this project.  But if we’re reconfiguring the Washington Trench to have a stoplight spacing similar to Lake St, maybe they could have thrown in a sidewalk or two?  Or at least made the new ramp to 35W a bit more perpendicular so as to not encourage as lethal speeding.

To understand why this ramp is superfluous, it helps to consider the history of this trench.  Sometime around the middle of the last century, someone decided that it took too darn long to drive from Downtown to the U of M.  There was just too much dense neighborhood in the way.  The Washington Ave Bridge was due for a replacement anyway, so they just tore down a bunch of the dense neighborhood and built a little mini-freeway to connect to the new bridge.

So while it may look like this project concerns the intersection of three roadways, Washington Avenue and its trenched doppelganger perform essentially the same function, that is to move traffic from west to east and vice versa.  With that understanding, the 8 existing ramps forming the interchange seem sufficient, and adding one seems superfluous.

Ramp map - ramps are numbered (including the proposed ramp in red), directions represent the destinations linked by the interchange

Why get worked up about a $13m project?  For one thing, it likely won’t be long before the whole thing needs to be redone again.  Right now, thanks to Central Corridor, the interchange is a pile of dirt except for a forked viaduct carrying vehicles from nb 35W to 3rd St S and Washington Ave (marked 6 and 4 respectively on the ramp map).  This viaduct will soon turn 50 years old, but is a sibling to a nearby bridge that will not be there to celebrate.  That means that chances are the viaduct will also need to be rebuilt soon, at which point it will be much more logical to make this interchange more diamond-like.  Rather than spend $15m for another flyover ramp, at that point it will make sense to instead build one ramp from nb 35W to the Trench, where a signalized intersection could accommodate all the movements that are currently made using the viaduct, including a connection north to Washington Ave, from which vehicles could access (or re-access, as the case may be) nb 35W.  Alternately, you could fit in a 400′ diameter roundabout, as I mentioned a few months back.

Circle gets the square

I admit that my radical side, considering the extreme disparity between transportation spending on cars and all other forms of transportation, is opposed to any new auto-oriented spending.  But I do have a timid, quiet, practical side that realizes that we live in an auto-dominated society (because of that modal disparity in spending) and realizes that there are some auto-oriented projects worthy of construction.  An example is the 35W access project, which proposes to increase the usefulness of a freeway to a neighborhood that it currently cuts through.  That is to say, it adds accessibility.  The 4th St ramp to 35W does not increase accessibility.  It does not increase safety.  It is a small reduction in trip time for some commuters.  The existing exit has working imperfectly for 50 years, so why choose this particularly cash-strapped moment to move forward with this project?

Of course the TPW committee voted in the consent agenda to spend $2m in city money on this nice gift for commuters from Anoka and northern Ramsey counties.

One more item, not from the TPW committee, but rather from the Planning Commission meeting of 9/13, but I haven’t seen anyone else discuss it so I’ll mention it briefly (or as briefly as I am capable of mentioning anything).

Gary Schiff has proposed amending the zoning code to blow the top off of the CUP ceiling for multi-family developments.  As it stands, you need a CUP for any building of more than five units.  Where that rule came from, I have no idea – while fourplexes and duplexes are more common, sixplexes aren’t unheard of and I knew a guy who used to refer to his building as a nineplex.  Anyway, if this passes, no hockey player will again need a CUP for his new sixplex.

The staff report contains some nice quotes:

  • The average fee for a conditional use permit is $750.00.  Between 2005 and 2010 there were 113 conditional use permit applications for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units submitted. At an average fee of $750.00 per application this amounts to $84,750 dollars that was collected.
  • Between 2006 and 2010, 92 percent of all conditional use permit applications for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units that were reviewed by the City Planning Commission were approved. Of the eight percent that were denied, other applications (i.e., rezoning) were typically required that were not supportable, so therefore the conditional use permits were also denied.
  • In both the City of St. Paul and the City of Bloomington, multiple-family dwellings are a permitted rather than conditional use in the zoning districts where they are allowed. In the City of Richfield, multiple-family dwellings over nine dwelling units in the MR-2 Multi-Family Residential District require a conditional use permit and multiple-family dwellings over 20 dwelling units in the MR-3 High Density Multi-Family Residential District require a conditional use permit.
  • The conditional use permit application for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units often adds relatively little value to the review process.

Good news as we move into an apartment “boom.”  Don’t get too excited, though – the proposal also would “require City Planning Commission action on site plan review applications for any development of ten or more units…” with an associated application fee.

Sidewalk Re-opening Brings Closure

One year ago (give or take a week or four), on a sleepless summer night, a little boy logged onto the internet and innocently created a WordPress account.  All he wanted was to organize his thoughts, vent his spleen, and maybe change the world a little bit, or at least change a little bit of the world a little bit.  Now that little boy is all grown up, his spleen has only grown, and the world… pretty much the same.

Ah but she was yar.

Coincidentally, one of the issues that motivated me to start this blog recently wrapped up.  I’d been featuring it in my masthead for months, which since around August 1st or so has been inaccurate.  That’s when the sidewalk on the west side of Hennepin Ave re-opened only 17 months after closing to be used as staging ground for the Shubert Theater renovation.  Frankly, I couldn’t believe it when it closed.  This stretch of sidewalk is directly between the major bus stop on 6th St at Hennepin and the Warehouse District Hiawatha station – anyone with an understanding of how pedestrian traffic operates would know that closing that sidewalk would push people to walk in the street.

And that’s exactly what they did, possibly between 600,000 and 900,000 of them in the time it was closed.  That’s my estimate based on observing the pedestrians using each sidewalk on Hennepin in two separate one-hour periods about a month after the westerly sidewalk closed.  I conducted these counts five days apart, but because it was late March in our continental climate, the temperature varied by about 50 degrees.  That may have accounted for the more than twice as many pedestrians observed in the second (warmer) count, although I’ll confess to a methodological wiggliness in counting at two different times of day: the first was between 9 and 10 am, and the second between 5:30 and 6:30 pm.  Hey, it’s not my job to count pedestrians, so sue me.  Here are pie charts showing the results of the counts:

Pedestrians counted on the 500 block of Hennepin Ave between 9 and 10 am on March 26th, 2010

Pedestrians counted on the 500 block of Hennepin Ave between 5:30 and 6:30 pm on March 31st, 2010

After counting, I extrapolated the daily pedestrian traffic using the method described in the City of Minneapolis’ 2008 Bicyclist Pedestrian Count Report.  Basically, they have estimates of the percent of daily traffic divided into half-hour increments, from which I can calculate what the daily traffic would be from each half-hour I counted.  Using that method I estimated between 1588 and 2306 people per day are walking in the bus-bike-right turn lane, an average of 1933 people per day.  Over the approximately 518 days the sidewalk was closed (I’m not sure of the exact dates; this is from the first time I saw it closed to the last time I saw it closed), that makes for 617,000 to 895,000 trips pushed into the street.

If it's not one fence, it's the other

But how much does a one-hour count prove, right?  More than the zero-hour count that Public Works did.  Apparently they didn’t feel they needed to do a count, because when I asked them about it, they acknowledged that “…this is a heavily used sidewalk.”  Not heavy enough to prevent its closure.  Even though this block of Hennepin sees around 15,000 vehicles a day, it seems unlikely that there is a great deal of turning traffic here – especially onto one-lane 5th St.  If they were weighing equally the importance of the facility for each mode, it would have been fair to close the turn lane and move the southbound through and bus-bike-right turn lane over to make room for a temporary pedestrian space.

It couldn’t have been cheap to close this sidewalk.  Even though Minneapolis charges for sidewalk closures at a quarter of the rate that they charge for through lane closures, it’s still charged by the linear foot and by the day.  My guess is about 250 linear feet of sidewalk were closed for 518 days, adding up to a $32,375 tab.  Except for about a month at the beginning of the project when they were doing utility work, they were just using the sidewalk for construction staging; that is, mostly to store equipment.  Certainly they did some work on the facade, but that could have been done either with a part of the 17-20′ sidewalk still open or with a scaffolding enclosure (is it really called hoarding, or just in Canada?).

Actually, it turns out the Shubert builders got a bargain – if they had used the parking lot that surrounds the building for staging instead of the sidewalk, they would have paid $437,657.  That actually doesn’t count the one month the sidewalk needed to be closed for the utility work, and it assumes they closed 5,550 sq ft of sidewalk, which is equivalent to 158.5 of the 35 sq ft parking spaces in the adjacent lot.  Of course, they probably would have found a way to avoid using all that space for staging if they had to pay that kind of money for it, which is an excellent reason for Minneapolis to jack up its sidewalk closure fee.

And it seems that Minneapolis is revisiting its sidewalk closure policy, in response to the passage of the Pedestrian Master Plan and its objective to re-examine the City’s existing policy and rate structure for sidewalk closures.  The proposals they sent me upon request are unfortunately tepid.  The language of one policy is encouraging:

Direct contractor to construct project while accommodating competing users (i.e., construction efficiencies are not the sole determining factor)

But ultimately toothless:

The Contractor is required to provide to the City a Traffic Control Plan for motor vehicles, transit, bicyclists and pedestrians for projects with closures or detours

And the city’s fee structure actually discourages pedestrian accommodation.  The sidewalks, as their name implies, are on the side of the right-of-way and are therefore the most likely target of obstruction by construction projects.  So a contractor decides he needs a bit more space to park his bulldozers.  The sidewalk is a cheap parking space, but he has to submit a pesky traffic control plan.  One option for accommodating pedestrians would be to close a through lane for a temporary pedestrian space.  The directive to accommodate competing users may prompt the contractor to consider that, but at some point he’s going to notice that that option will cause his obstruction bill to increase four-fold, so the most likely plan will be to close the sidewalk and detour pedestrians to the sidewalk across the street.

The Case of the Disappearing Sidewalk is closed, albeit unsatisfactorily.  A dark case like that required a dark masthead, and a dark visual theme to go with it.  Now that I’ve moved on to other cases, I’ve moved on to a brighter masthead (blue sky!), and a brighter, more 21st-century theme, which will hopefully require less squinting to read.  My new masthead is a bit reminiscent of my first masthead, in that it features an idyllic transportation scene in a bustling city.  I’m really glad I finally got some mass transit in there too.  Hopefully I can change up the look every once in a while, and I have a feeling that eventually I’ll give in to the temptation to steal the best masthead I’ve ever seen on any website:

From Eric Austin's really great, really snarky Outstate Politics

WARNING: Navel-gazing ahead!

So after a year, I have to ask myself:  What have I done?  Was there any point to all this blathering and bloggering?  Looking back to that first entry, it seems I had two main goals:  first, to organize my advocacy efforts; and second, to elucidate and develop my ideas for transportation improvements.  Some secondary goals included developing my writing skills (read that first entry and tell me if I’ve been successful – wait, on second thought, don’t read that first entry) and keeping track of and responding to interesting city- or transportation-related items I come across.

I have to admit I’m floundering on the first primary goal.  My advocacy efforts have mostly petered out, although I’d like to think I played a role in raising awareness of the pedestrian facilities stripped from Nicollet reconstruction.  I used to volunteer regularly, pester elected officials, and perhaps most effective, wear my Cars-R-Coffins shirt.  Lately I’ve been… I don’t know… unmotivated?  Dulled by the summer sun?  Whatever the reason, I just haven’t been a very active activist.

But besides the lack of advocacy and its resulting blog content, I also don’t think I ended up organizing what content there was very well.  I’m trying to streamline and simplify my categories, and remove the categories that should really be tags, for example most of the places (although Hennepin County appears here as an entity more than a place, and so should probably stay in the categories).

The second primary goal for the blog also hasn’t measured up well.  Only 5 of my 106 posts are in the “my ideas” category, although measured by quality rather than quantity I may be more successful, since a couple of my favorite posts are in that category.  (It looks like density is the most common category, followed by history – so much for this being a transportation blog).

So is Getting Around Minneapolis a failure?  Naw.  It’s been fun, it’s provoked some great conversations, and most important, it’s provided a venue for all the belly-aching that’s been building up inside me.

Grampa rode a tricycle

This blog may not make it another year, though.  Frankly, I’m tired of advocating for multimodal transportation systems; I want to live in a place where I don’t need to advocate for multimodal transportation systems.  Maybe a place like that doesn’t exist, but I want to find that out for myself, or at least get distracted by the novelty of other desolate, highway-like streets, crumbling transit systems and missing sidewalks.

I love Minnesota.  I was born and raised here.  I can visit the farmhouse near Red Wing where an ancestor lived in the 1860s.  At least two townships are named for various family members.  I love the clean, crisp air of winter, the lush gardens of South Minneapolis, the scenic beauty of the North Shore.

But Minnesota does not love me.  It screams at me or assaults me when I’m in the way of its fast, brainless commute.  It idles my buses the second the budget is pinched.  But maybe more disturbing than antagonistic behavior is the apathy everywhere.  Uptown is walkable, veined with fairly frequent bus routes, and choked with cars.  Minneapolis won’t even consider closing Downtown streets to cars, which is the only part of the city with a tangible goal of decreasing automobile mode share.  If this is the attitude in Minnesota’s most multimodal city, how multimodal is Minnesota?  And why would someone who lives multimodally want to live there?

Why you should care about Nicollet Avenue

The 13 cities of Minneapolis

Many people think there is only one city called Minneapolis.  They are wrong.  There are 13 cities called Minneapolis, which share staff and facilities but each of which is governed its own executive who directs staff according to his or her whim.

What effect does this multiple-mayors municipal framework have?  The City can publish any number of documents that pertain to policy and the 13 mayors can all ratify those policies.  Then each of the 13 mayors can go back to his or her own little fief and do whatever he or she wants.

Why does this matter?  Well, say you are an organization that advocates for multimodal accommodations in transportation infrastructure, and say you just spent hours and hours of staff time advocating and working with the city on their Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks.  Your work paid off, as the resulting policy document states on the first page that “[T]he intent of the design guidance is to foster the practice of providing complete streets that support and encourage walking, bicycling and transit use while promoting safe operations for all users.” [boldface and italics in original]  Seems like a fairly strong promise that this policy will translate in to concrete improvements that protect and encourage walking, bicycling, and transit use, right?

What policy dictates, er, suggests

Nope.  In practice, the 13 mayors are allowed to follow or ignore citywide policy in their own individual Minneapolises.  Technically their decisions can be vetoed by a majority of the other 12 mayors, but the other 12 mayors are loathe to override one of their fellow mayors’ decisions in fear that their own decision is similarly overridden someday.

Three significant street reconstruction designs have been approved since the completion of the Design Guidelines in 2008.  The first, for Chicago Ave between 14th and 28th Streets, generally followed the recommendations in the Design Guidelines.  Lane widths stuck to the 11′ required by MnDOT, with parking lanes generally provided throughout.  Exceptions were made for quirky spots, for example where intersections are offset.

The second design, for Riverside Avenue, was more of a test for the Design Guidelines.  Riverside is a relatively constrained right-of-way with heavy demand by users of all kinds of transportation.  This created conflicts between different guidelines, so in order to provide the minimum recommended facilities for pedestrians, for example, they had to ignore their recommendation to provide on-street parking whenever possible.  As a result of this compromise, a more versatile street was designed, with the potential to make more diverse groups of users happy.

The third design, this time for Nicollet Ave between Lake and 40th Sts, was approved by the City Council a couple weeks ago.  The original design was pretty much by the book, using the narrowest lane widths and including bump-outs at the corners.  After a lengthy community input process, which apparently mostly involved talking to businesses, the guidelines were set aside.  The proposed lane widths got wider and the bump-outs were removed.

Design Guidelines by definition can be set aside.  In fact, the Design Guidelines document outlines a detailed process by which the template design can be modified to meet needs specific to the segment.  The modifications on Nicollet Ave cannot be justified as specific to that corridor, however.  I haven’t been able to find any rational explanation for why the lanes ended up wider – the closest I’ve seen came from CM Glidden:

o  Driving lanes space is more than state standard width, designed to safely accommodate buses, trucks and cars at in-city speeds

Of course the state standard was developed to safely accommodate buses, trucks and cars – if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be used as a standard.  In addition, the through lanes approved by the City Council are exactly the “state standard width” of 11′; only the parking lanes are about 2′ wider than the state standards.  By increasing the lane widths, is Minneapolis now saying that parking lanes less than 12′ wide are unsafe?

The reasons given for removing the bump-outs are in fact reasons, but they are either ignorant of the function of bump-outs or are effects of bump-outs regardless of where they are located, and therefore not contradictory to the reasons the Design Guidelines strongly recommend them (the document uses boldface and italics for only one recommendation:“Curb extensions are recommended on all streets where on-street parking is allowed.”).  Here are the only reasons I’ve seen for why the bump-outs were removed, again from CM Glidden, with each reason rebutted by me in italics:

§  Effectiveness of snow removal around the bumpouts and concern for resulting loss of on street parking

This segment of Nicollet Ave does not see significantly higher levels of snowfall than the rest of the city.

§  Inclusion of boulevards and narrowing of the street from original width lessens need for bumpouts

The primary function of bump-outs is to increase visibility of pedestrians; as long as parking is allowed (and corner parking restrictions are rarely enforced) visibility will be limited, regardless of street width.

§  Bumpouts may discourage bicycle traffic;  bicycles are anticipated to be a regular mode of transportation to many properties on Nicollet

I’ve already explained why this line of thinking actually encourages unsafe cycling; more relevant is that heavy bicycle use is as specific to this segment of Nicollet as snowfall – actually increasing cycling is a citywide goal.

§  Bumpouts may need to be added in the future if streetcars are re-implemented on Nicollet (current streetcar technology recommends extending the curb to the streetcar stop for safe entrance).

This of course isn’t an argument against bump-outs but rather an acknowledgment that bump-outs will eventually be constructed.  I haven’t seen any evidence that building bump-outs now that may need to be modified in the future is any more expensive than not building bump-outs and adding them later (in fact the latter option is certainly more expensive if the street is constructed to drain to corners).

could be considered complete

So it seems the Design Guidelines were set aside not as a response to local conditions, but at the whim of a councilmember, responding perhaps to a short winter or a vocal business association.  Policy is a slippery slope; if it’s ignored once it becomes easier and easier to ignore it in the future.  That’s why the passage of Complete Streets legislation has had no practical effect on streetscapes; even if it’s led to a short-term interest in multimodal design (I haven’t seen evidence of this), in practice an engineer could include a cow path next to a highway and call it complete; a bike lane could be squeezed into a gutter and called complete; and bus riders… well, I’ve never seen any street design in Minnesota that took buses into account (pull-outs or “bus bays” don’t count – they exist solely for the convenience of motorists)…

The Minneapolis Bicycle Master Plan is more or less just Chapter 11 of the Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks, and while it is much more detailed than most of the rest of the document, its recommendations can be just as easily ignored as the bump-out provision.  Bit more snow than usual?  All of the sudden there’s no more room for bike lanes on 38th.  Popular new restaurant?  Maybe those sharrows on Johnson will conflict too much with parallel parking, after all.  Some ward could elect a Rob Ford, and he could decide to ignore the Bike Master Plan altogether.

The advocacy community has worked too hard to allow their gains to be swatted away by some petty ward chief.  Cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders need to support each other to ensure that every bike lane included in every city policy document is striped, every heavily-used bus stop gets a shelter, and every corner gets a bump-out.  We probably can’t change the weak-mayor system, but we can change the mind of each mini-mayor towards consideration for bikes, pedestrians and transit.

In conclusion, I promise this is the last post I’m going to write about Nicollet.

County Road Rethink

Another Transportation & Public Works Committee meeting brings another layout to critique.

Hennepin County will be reconstructing about a mile of County Road 9 (called 45th Ave N between York and Xerxes, but Lake Dr west of York) in 2013 or 2014, and apparently 100 feet of it runs through Minneapolis, so the county was kind enough to ask for the city’s thoughts on the design.

Not much will be changing in Minneapolis – the roadway will be a foot narrower, which in this segment is accomplished by taking away a foot from the 15′ of paved shoulder (currently 6′ on one side and 9′ on the other).  Oh yeah, and those useless shoulders?  They’re going to make them both 7 feet, paint an arrow on them, and a bike symbol and poof!  It’ll be a bike lane.

The Layout

Bike lanes have actually been conjured along nearly the entire segment to be reconstructed, beginning at Xerxes and ending without any logical terminus at Josephine Lane or Lake Road.  This is a fulfillment of the Hennepin County Bike Plan, which shows a bike facility along Lake Dr connecting Victory Pkwy and a yet-to-be path along Bottineau Blvd, although the plan (a product of the late 90s) actually shows the Lake Dr facility as existing (as opposed to planned).  This raises questions in my mind about whether the little bike symbols shown on the layout will suffer the same fate as crosswalk markings on Minneapolis’ bike facility layouts, doomed to never be applied to pavement.

Speaking of pedestrians, I’m not sure the new design for Lake Dr looks as nice from above two shoes as it does from behind handlebars.  The plan makes minor improvement to the sidewalks – currently on the south side the sidewalk is mostly 4′ with a boulevard that appears to be 2-4′ narrow depending on the block, and on the north side the sidewalk is 8′ with no boulevard.  The plan will widen the sidewalk on the south side to 6′ but leaves the minor aesthetic detail of how to treat the north sidewalk unaddressed.

Meanwhile, I’d like to point out the very low vehicle traffic on this road – it peters from 9,300 on the west end near Bottineau to only 7,050 near Victory.  Frankly, this road is useful for only a small number of people, since it runs through a very low-density residential area with only a smattering of retail except for on its west end.  The intersecting streets are also very local, and on the north side of the road, with the exception of France Ave, don’t run for more than a block or two.

Why, then, does Hennepin County provide a continuous center turn lane?  Is the level of turning traffic really so heavy here that they need that extra 11′ of payment along the entire road?  And even if there is a lot of cars turning left, 7,000 vehicles a day don’t make for a very long queue.  Here’s a thought – why not just provide turn lanes where they’re needed?  Probably France and Indiana could justify a turn lane, and maybe one of the streets further east could be designated as a neighborhood access street and given a turn lane.  With that extra 11′ of right-of-way, Robbinsdale would have room for a nice wide boulevard on either side, plenty of room for nice tall trees to grow some day (if Robbinsdale doesn’t like trees, they could use the space for parking their cars, although they don’t exactly seem to be hurting for parking).

Gateway to R-dale's toniest subdivision, Chowen Downs

The half-block Minneapolis segment has a (probably) more justifiable turn lane, and the sidewalks do strange things there, in keeping with the strangeness of a park that is also a road.  I know that Minnesotan traffic engineers really hate striping crosswalks, but the five streams of non-motorized traffic at the intersection of 45th & Victory really does justify some paint, I swear.  Technically that intersection is out of Minneapolis’ jurisdiction, the Robbinsdale segment is thoroughly out of Minneapolis’ jurisdiction, and the whole damn thing is way out of my jurisdiction.  Still, I wonder if there is a polite way to say to Robbinsdale or Hennepin County “you might want to think about not fucking this up”?

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.