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?


3 comments on “Sidewalk Re-opening Brings Closure

  1. Bill says:

    hey, get off the road!

  2. Brendon says:

    I’ve really appreciated the commentary and transportation expertise. Keep up the good work. It would be a shame for Minnesota to lose you, but I’m sure I would enjoy insights and observations from other cities.

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