Berg is back

“We scratch our heads when we see a Democratic governor and two senators pushing to build a big new bridge over the St. Croix River to encourage more sprawl into Wisconsin,” said [Ethan] Seltzer of Portland State. “That wouldn’t happen here.”

My favorite quote from Steve Berg’s commentary in the Sunday Strib.  I was delighted to see the piece prominently placed on the front page of the Opinion section, having suffered from Berg withdrawal since his hiatus from MinnPost turned into a permanent absence (although Steven Dornfield has been a capable replacement).  Of course I agreed with most of his points and enjoyed the comparative perspectives with Portland, Seattle and Denver, as good role model cities as any in the USA.

(My agreement has two caveats:  in his six-point plan for growing the center cities, he recommends “adopt[ing] form-based zoning codes” and “simplify[ing] bureaucracy.”  Form-based codes would certainly give developers “clear options on height and mass” as he asserts, but the NIMBY problem that he refers to repeatedly makes it uncertain that a form-based code that allows the necessary density to grow the city would be adopted in first place.  And while it’s easy to say that everything would be better if the dang gummint would just get out of the way, I’ve never seen any convincing evidence that it’s any harder to get approvals for development in Minneapolis than anywhere else.  My understanding is that the Mayor that I’m always ripping on has pushed through some reforms at CPED – one of which may be the single-point contact that seems to me about as simple as you can get – and Gary Schiff just got rid of the pointless CUP requirement for buildings with 5 or more units.  I freely admit to having no experience developing real estate in Minneapolis or any other city, however.)

My reproduction of the table that accompanied Berg's commentary

But as much as I enjoyed reading about those three urban success stories, I still think they’re the wrong cities to compare with MSP.  You might be able to make a historical case for comparison with our sibling cities of the Great Northwest, Seattle and Portland, but we took different paths starting in World War II at the latest.  In the post-war era, the Twin Cities have been more in line with other low-industry Midwestern cities, such as Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Columbus.   So on Berg’s metrics, MSP fares much better in the Midwestern conference (at least we have a lot of company in the Zero Club):

Big 10

I certainly don’t blame Steve Berg for aiming high, although there’s something to be said for setting realistic goals.  For example, the Ford plant is probably the biggest single opportunity for development in the Twin Cities, but it’s only 2.5% of the size of the Stapleton Airport site that provided the bulk of Denver’s growth in the last decade.  The city of Portland has over 25 square miles more land area than Minneapolis and St Paul combined (with around 80,000 fewer people living there than MSP) and can still annex land to the northwest and the southeast.

Seattle’s model would seem to be more attainable, since it grew more than any city that didn’t annex or build on greenfields except New York.  But is it really?  I hadn’t looked at poverty data much until Berg included it as a metric along with his commentary and advocated working on reducing concentration of poverty as a means of growing cities (or guarding against shrinking cities).  Seattle really is exceptional here, ranking third-lowest for percent of central city population in poverty, just behind famously gentrified San Francisco and its suburb that for some reason gets its own metro area, San Jose.  And looking at maps, it appears that poverty* really is dispersed throughout the Seattle metro:

From the NY Times 2009 5 year ACS map

And maps also seem to show poverty clustering in the central cities in MSP:


Suggesting that the Twin Cities do have the concentration of poverty problem alleged by Berg, a fact that is corroborated by national average central city poverty rate for metro areas of 1m or more, which at 21% is two points below the Minneapolis & St Paul combined rate of 23%.  We’re supposed to all be above-average here, goldarn it, which is reason in and of itself to work on this problem.  But what effect does poverty have on urban growth?  I made some quick graphs on Excel to try to answer that, using the data I collected on metro areas of 1m or more for my post on downtown population growth (or lack thereof).

First, thinking back to the Twin Cities’ underwhelming downtown growth, even compared to other Midwestern towns, I wondered about poverty’s effect on downtown population growth.  My amateur analysis found none:

Comparing poverty rates to central city population growth, however, shows a relationship:

The cities with higher poverty rates tended to grow less or shrink in the decade between 2000 and 2010.  This may be less about developers avoiding cities with high concentrations of poverty and more about the foreclosure crisis hitting cities with high concentrations of poverty harder.  So it’s more about resilience, which I think Berg is after when he recommends “Stabiliz[ing] poor neighborhoods not only for ethical and economic reasons but to stem population loss.”

One more chart, just for fun:

I looked at the relationship between poverty and density expressed as the percent of housing stock in multi-unit dwellings (defined by the Census as any structure with more than one unit within it, so not counting single-family attached units).  This would seem to suggest that denser cities tend to have more people in poverty, but may merely reflect the fact that center cities that are still annexing land are closer to their metropolitan average for both density and poverty than center cities that stopped annexing before World War II.

None of which really explains whether Seattle is a model that can be repeated (although I still suspect that they’ve exported their poverty to Tacoma).  And it doesn’t address other issues, such as retail health, that may affect the ability of central cities to draw developers.  But I had fun looking a bit deeper into the issues that Berg brought up, and I’m glad he started the conversation.

Every post should have a picture, even if you have to steal it

*Actually these maps show households earning less than $30k/year, which is different obviously but I haven’t been able to find maps of metropolitan poverty.

How the neighborhoods got their shapes

In an undated photo from the HC Library, Herman Olson makes a convincing case for tearing it all down and building a freeway

Once upon a long, long time ago, Minneapolis didn’t have any neighborhoods.  Well, of course the city had neighborhoods, but they were the sort of organic shorthand referring to important intersections, like Cedar-Riverside or Chicago-Lake, you know, the kind of place that in the old world would have been called a square and given its own name.

In this amorphous pre-neighborhood era, all planning was handled by a grumpy old man named Herman Olson.  He spent his time thinking about where to put public markets and how to cram more cars into the downtown, but no one really put much stock into his recommendations, because no one could remember why he was qualified to say where stuff should go except that he had worked for the city for decades.  Since the City had plenty of other employees who’d also worked there for ages, Olson was frequently ignored.

And, in the late 50s, he was finally replaced.  The colleges of the day were churning out urban planners and giving them a scientific veneer and an interest in something called comprehensive planning, and Minneapolis received a typical product by the name of Lawrence Irvin.  No one really knew what comprehensive planning was, but the new planners were very insistent on doing it, and they got cracking by working on the Official Plan that was to be published in the fall of 1960 and to be heavily dependent on the concept of neighborhoods.

The earliest introduction to Irvin’s conception of neighborhoods that I can find is in a document with the amazingly dated title Minneapolis in the Motor Age, basically a book-length argument for why we need to subvert our lifestyles to accommodate cars.  He* starts with the reasonable observation that streets can “unify or divide related activities.”

Blobs are the answer

The idea that streets can unify or divide seems a platitude when you consider that depending on placement, any physical object can unify or divide any number of other objects.  So it’s a pretty big leap when on the next page Irvin declares that one of the “functions of importance” of streets to land use is to “provide a means to define Neighborhoods” (emphasis in the original).  What he’s after is the consolidation of vehicular traffic onto arterial streets, and he uses a cool chart to attempt to portray the severity of the problem of car-choked side streets:

Not too different from today, with our freeway, lower population and higher motorization rate

Irvin goes on to explain that arterial streets should not go through communities and neighborhoods because neighborhoods and communities “must not be divided by major physical features in such a way as to prohibit effective internal circulation” (emphasis again in the original).  Besides its circularity, this argument is notable because, in the midst of a document that proposes building wider and faster roads to accommodate the needs of the motor age, Irvin is acknowledging the ways that roads actually inhibit mobility.  But hey, he comes up with a far out map of a “hypothetical” community to illustrate his point:

North Anywhereville

Finally, Irvin drills down to the level of the neighborhood, sketching a almost kibbutz-like concept that can “support”  (he probably means justify) an elementary school and a park within a half-mile walk, includes a few stores but “separate[s] residential and non-residential districts.”  There’s a conceptual neighborhood drawing, too, but greyscale this time.  It shows street concepts like cul-de-sacs, diverters, and “safety walks”, but the only text about streets in neighborhoods is the now-repetitive admonition to route “Major streets around, not through the neighborhood” (emphasis yet again in original).

No room in the budget for some industrial brown?

After using all those pages and three full colors to illustrate his concept of communities and neighborhoods, Lawrence Irvin did not yet see fit to actually unveil how it would apply to the actual city.  After reading Minneapolis in the Motor Age you know you’re not supposed to route arterial streets through neighborhoods, but where are the neighborhoods you need to avoid?  Luckily Irvin didn’t wait long, as a couple months later The Official Plan – the city’s first comprehensive plan – was published, and included a map of communities and neighborhoods.

As you can see (if you squint enough to make sense of my terrible scan), Irvin came up with something pretty similar to today’s neighborhoods.  Note that the commercial intersections that heretofore had been the only differentiated points on the map are excluded altogether from the shading that denotes neighborhoods.  Despite the somewhat elaborate setup in Minneapolis in the Motor Age, the neighborhood boundaries weren’t Irvin’s creation but rather mostly reflected contemporaneous attitudes in the planning field.  They certainly had little to do with Minneapolis’ history as a streetcar suburb, and in many cases reflected an aspirational conception of which streets would become arterial (consider the extension of 36th St across South Minneapolis, despite the fact that it is only intermittently a collector east of Bryant and creates awkward boundaries near Powderhorn Park, later rectified).  In fact these aspirations created conflict with other city departments, specifically the transportation department.**

The plan came up with two stated purposes for inventing these neighborhoods – to serve as a conveniently small unit for planning and to be a platform for “citizen action” – that they were to fulfill in the major zoning overhaul that Irvin was shortly to launch, and they still fulfill them more or less to this very day.  And that is how the neighborhoods got their shapes.

City of parkways and freeways

*Irvin had a staff that was actually writing these documents, but it’s more convenient to my narrative to attribute it to him – and anyway, he as Director approved the plans.

**As told by Alan Altshuler in his classic The City Planning Process, which I’ve leaned on heavily for the outline of this history

Cross-posted at

How to be good, if you’re the mayor

A little while ago I accused RT Rybak of being a not-good mayor.  This was done mainly as a way to show how the hundreds of millions Rybak wants to give to the Vikings Corp as locational subsidies could be better spent, but it also stems from noticing that there has basically been no improvement in urban quality-of-life in Minneapolis that did not have a national origin (i.e. crime, biking).

But having recently realized that my blog is exclusively negative, I decided to throw out a few ideas about what Rybak could do if he wanted to be a good mayor.  For the most part, they are not easy.  Rybak would have to show the dogged persistence and willingness to sail against public opinion that has been so evident in his fight to subsidize the Vikings Corp.  Here’s how the Mayor can earn the label of “good,” in order of likelihood that he’ll actually do it:

1.  Support cycling.  Minneapolis brags a lot (at least once a month, it seems) about what a great biking town it is.  But faced with a choice between parking and biking it almost always goes for parking.  Out of the 23 most recent bike projects, only five of them involved significant parking removal, and one of those five was cancelled because of that fact.  This may be due to the fact that it’s relatively easy to add cycle facilities without removing parking, and that explanation is supported by the fact that 10 of the 23 projects involved removing a through lane; for example in a road diet.  But it also suggests that only the low-hanging fruit is being picked at this point, and where the fruit turns out to be higher than expected, like on the stalled* Glenwood project, the City backs off.  A mayor as charismatic and persuasive as Rybak has the potential to change that.

Bill is a talented dioramist

He wouldn’t have to threaten to fire the Director of Public Works or pull veto shenanigans.  If he were to just show up to neighborhood meetings such as those held recently for the Penn Ave S reconstruction in the Mayor’s neighborhood, he could use his political talents to convince neighbors of the advantages of providing basic bike accommodations.  Since as Mayor he has repeatedly stressed that he wants Minneapolis to be a “world-class bicycle city”, I don’t see any conflict of interest in going to neighborhood meetings to work towards that goal.  The fact that he so far has never done so is the only thing that makes me think this item is unlikely; with all the talking Rybak has done about bicycling, you’d think that some day he’ll eventually work towards it.

2.  Green Downtown.  Sure, another small park or two would be nice in what is from 9 to 5 on weekdays by far the densest neighborhood in the city.  But an easier way to green Downtown that would have an even bigger effect would be to simply remove a through lane from all the overbuilt streets.  One lane provides enough room for a row of trees on each side of the street, and you’d be surprised at how many unnecessary lanes are scattered throughout Downtown.  I made a map based on the city’s 2005 Downtown Traffic Flow map, coding in green all 3-lane one-ways with a traffic count of 12,000 or less.  I cut out blocks that according to my experience have high turning volumes, but I may have missed a few due to not knowing by heart the average conditions on every street.  In addition I depicted on the map in yellow the handful of 2-lane two-ways that could be narrowed.  To some degree that’s my subjective judgement, but the narrowing of Chicago Ave in its recent reconstruction indicates it could be done in other places.  Finally, red indicates 4-lane two-ways that could be reduced to three lanes (all are less than 15k AADT and some are far less).

Let me explain what I meant when I said it would be easy to replace lanes with trees.  I know all too well that any reduction in car capacity is controversial, but I also believe that a tree has a bigger constituency than a traffic lane, especially if you can get a traffic engineer to say that the lane isn’t needed.  I feel like even the literally auto-driven Downtown Council would be in favor of a lane-tree swap outside of the Core, because they’re going to have to find some place to fit those 35,000 residents they want to add.  But replacing a lane with trees requires the curbs to be moved, which costs a lot of money.  So step one would just be identifying where the roads are overbuilt enough to lose a lane without disrupting sacred traffic.  I would think that Rybak would be eager to champion a Downtown Green Streets plan, since that would make it look like he’s doing something without actually changing anything and risking angering someone.  Once complete, it would be both backup and a time saver whenever a downtown street came due for reconstruction.

3.  Legalize space utilization.  I was surprised and pleased to read that Rybak in his state of the city speech fessed up to the population stagnancy uncovered by the decennial census.  Hopefully that means he’ll be receptive to the easiest and least disruptive way to add residents to the city: accessory dwelling units (ADUs).  The average household in Minneapolis is just over 2 persons, yet around 22,000 housing units have four or more bedrooms.  There has to be a substantial number of single-family homes that have an extra couple rooms that could be converted into a small separate unit, or garages that could fit a half-story apartment on top.

Minneapolis already allows accessory dwelling units, but confines them to Ventura Village.  I don’t know the history on this, but presumably it was an idea that came out of the neighborhood rather than this area being chosen as a test case, because I would think 10 years would be a long enough test.  I haven’t heard of any ADUs actually being built, and if that means there hasn’t been any, it may be because of the restrictions, such as that the principal structure must be homesteaded and that the ADU be built outside the principal structure.  While the former no doubt makes ADUs more politically palatable for neighbors, the latter actually may be counterproductive.  After all, if you allow the ADU to be built within the principal structure, it’s likely the neighbor won’t even notice a difference, whereas most people notice a half-story being added to a garage.  Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not neighbors notice them, they are likely to be opposed, or at least that seems to have been the case in Vancouver.  Because of the political force of knee-jerk NIMBYism, my guess is Rybak is unlikely to push this one, even though it’s a no-brainer if you look at it dispassionately.  In addition, Rybak doesn’t really have any way to implement it besides cheerleading at the council, so I’d say ADUs are a long shot.

Listen to the people, R.T.

4.  Respect pedestrians.  In 2006, a miracle happened in South Minneapolis.  I don’t know if it was an accident or an experiment, but Hennepin County added zebra crosswalks to the streets crossed by the easternmost phase of the Midtown Greenway.  Then, something even more miraculous happened: many motorists observed Minnesota crosswalk laws at these crossings (tragically, many didn’t at the 28th St crossing).

So respect for pedestrians may be one of the easiest things to accomplish thanks to Minnesotans’ already sheep-like driving.  A study in Miami Beach found that all it takes is enforcement to get drivers to obey crosswalk laws.  Traditionally in Minneapolis the Mayor has had the most control over the police department, so why shouldn’t Rybak lean on Dolan to do some crosswalk enforcement, including ticketing for stopping past the stop line and blocking intersections?  Well, because no one really cares about pedestrians.  The mayor seems to feel that promoting (but not really supporting, see above) biking satisfies his transportation alternatives cred.  Meanwhile, we already get ped-friendly awards by just not being as terrible as the rest of the cities in the sprawling country.  So this easy step is not likely to be taken and Minneapolis will continue to be relatively walkable in terms of density but rather unwalkable in terms of conditions on the street.

You might be able to tell that this list is just a bunch of stuff that’s been floating around in my head, hammered into a frame about what R.T. Rybak could do to meet my standards of goodness.  Franky, I have no idea how likely he is to do any of these things; after 10 years of semi-activism and obsessive attention to local government, I can’t really tell how much of his rhetoric is just politics in a pervasively but vaguely left wing city and how much he really cares about causes like cycling, sustainability and Trampled by Turtles.

I do know that if he actually showed up to meetings to advocate bike lanes, more lanes would get striped.  If he pushed a study of which streets could trade a lane for trees, Public Works would find the dough for it and the first step would be taken towards a greener downtown.  If he browbeat some councilor into introducing an accessory dwelling unit ordinance, currently wasted space could be used to grow the city.  And if he got the cops to enforce crosswalk laws, people mind find it less stressful and more convenient to walk, and do more of it.  So hopefully this post comes across less as a wish list, and more as a to-do list for a progressive city.



*It may not be stalled – the project page claims it will be built in 2012 – but if not, it is eviscerated, downgraded to sharrows for about a quarter of its length.

Binge Traveling: Phoenix, or The Worst City

A possible test for the presence of even minute traces of ecological awareness in an individual is to ask whether he or she feels a disconnect when golfing in a desert

A couple months ago when I posted about my plans to travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to transport my grandmother, I was waaaaaay too easy on Phoenix.  Just because I happen to be a pretentious snob doesn’t mean Phoenix doesn’t deserve the scorn I heap upon it, which I should have known thanks to my having visited the town far too many times.  But wrapped up in my own white middle-class critiques, I also wasn’t aware of just how terrible Phoenix is.

It all came flooding back when we arrived, coming from the east on the enormous Beeline Hwy that mysteriously carries heavy traffic through deserted mountains, and then stopping and starting through 15 miles of thick suburbia on 8-lane Shea Blvd, somehow congested at midday on a Monday.  Sure, Phoenix is one of the most auto-dependent cities in the country, and I took pictures of endless parking lots with views of dessicated peaks, and even worse, the serpentine sidewalks that constantly meander around turn lanes and curb cuts.  But I had no idea how truly bad Phoenix was until I read, upon my return to relatively green Minnesota, Bird On Fire.

I wasn’t expecting much from this book, to be honest.  Being from flyoverland, I get defensive when a guy from NYC writes a book about a city that’s not on the coast without even moving there.  And as someone who has gone to somewhat ridiculous lengths to avoid flying to or from Phoenix, I scoffed at how often he had to commute to Phoenix by plane in order to write a book about how damaging to the environment Phoenix is.

South Phoenix Industrial Hellscape

But to tell the truth, I ate it up.  The guy knows his narrative journalism, and peppers the book with characters that have analogues to Minneapolis:  the urban-pioneering artist, the hippie farmer, the vaguely green mayor.  But things started getting heavy when I read the chapter on environmental injustice in South Phoenix, which is home to 85040 or what the author calls “the nation’s dirtiest zip code.”  I’m going to reproduce a few paragraphs that make me feel a little douchey for complaining that someone refused to yield to me in a crosswalk:

CRSP [a coalition of South Phoenix resident organizations] was formed in 1992 after fire gutted a circuit-board manufacturing facility (Quality Printed Circuits) in a South Phoenix neighborhood not far from the riverbed.  In the aftermath of the 12-hour fire, which burned off several thousand pounds of sulfuric acid and hydrogen fluoride, residents complained of a wide range of illnesses… City Hall, it transpired, had granted the company a permit to rebuild in the same neighborhood after a smaller but similar kind of fire burned down its former facility in 1989, and the new permit actually included an exemption for installing overhead sprinklers.  After the 1992 fire, tests of selected homes conducted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) found evidence of elevated fluoride and zinc concentrations, but the agency concluded that no adverse health impacts would result.  Several years later, more systematic EPA tests found statistically significant levels of these chemicals that were consistent with the symptoms.  Residents had been living for several years with poisons and toxics circulating through the air ducts of homes that lay downwind from the fire.  Many of the houses were subsequently demolished, but lax, or nonexistent, ADEZ inspections of other facilities in South Phoenix all but guaranteed that other fires would break out.

In August 2000, the area saw one of its worst airborne toxic catastrophes when the main warehouse of Central Garden, the Valley’s largest supplier of pool and lawn chemicals, exploded and caught fire.  “It was like the Fourth of July,” recalled Pops [founder of CRSP].  Firemen, motorists, and residents were captured vomiting in the streets on nightly news footage as the blackened fumes billowed far and wide.  The fire burned for two days, hundredes ended up in the hospital, and many died or suffered debilitating ailments in the years following.  Emergency responders had no idea what chemicals they were dealing with, and to this day, no adequate inventeory of the warehouse contents has been compiled.  ADEZ only tested air quality for standard hydrocarbon releases and, five days after the fire, announced that there was no “public health concern” to the residents of South Phoenix.  Yet, a month later, the agency’s water tests, not announced to the public, showed arsenic at 100 times the maximum level allowable for drinking water.  In the fire’s aftermath, community pressure stepped up to legislate electronic reporting of the hazardous contents of facilities.

Something funny in the water, from Bird on Fire

Inspired by the high degree of citizen involvement after the 1992 fire, Pops’s organization looked to other sites that needed preemptive action.  The area’s hazardous waste management facilities (five of the city’s seven were located in South Phoenix) were an obvious target, and one in particular, operated by Innovative Waste Utilization, stood out as a threat to the entire neighborhood.  The former owner of the site, which had several contaminated areas, including one from a significant arsenic spill, had operated for seventeen years without a permanent permit and had been allowed by the ADEZ to store hazardous waste (including DDT and lead) exported from California.  When the new owner applied for an expansion of the facility in 1999, Pops and other activists responded with a civil rights complaint aimed at the ADEQ’s long-term complicity in allowing toxic waste facilities to cluster in their neighborhoods.  The expansion permit process was arrested, but the agency still approved a permit to store hazardous waste.  The company subsequently contracted with the state of California to accept toxic waste collected in West Coast methampetamine busts.  Pops recalled that “the stench in the neighborhood was so vile that we accused the city and county of burning animals in incinerators.”  Over time, employees took to selling the seized chemicals to local meth labs, and the facility was raided in 2003.  “The odor,” Pops reported, “stopped immediately when the place was busted” and then shut down by the ADEZ.  The state legislature, outraged that the agency had finally found some regulatory teeth, debated whether to abolish it.

A state with leaders so dedicated to free markets that they threaten to shut down an agency that infringes on the community’s narcoentrepreneurs is a good indication of what Phoenix is about:  growth.  But is that so different from the Twin Cities?  Minneapolis’ last comp plan was dedicated in the title to delivering growth, which modified by that adjective ‘sustainable’ may mean that the City wants to sustain growth indefinitely.  St Paul’s last mayor, Randy Kelly, had a focus on population growth that was only matched by his dedication to the reelection of George W. Bush.  And those are just the two cities in the metro area that aren’t actually growing.

The Twin Cities don’t necessarily measure well against Phoenix on “green” living.  Their light rail system is around 7 miles longer, with a bus system that provides much better coverage for local routes, if their frequency is comparatively pathetic.  Minneapolis may out-brag Phoenix when it comes to biking, and I’m not sure of either metro’s total mileage, but Phoenix claims 500 miles of bikeways (including routes, signed or unsigned), and based on maps I’d guess they’re fairly comparable.  Phoenix is a truly terrible place to walk, but the Twin Cities are pretty bad themselves, outside of maybe a few core neighborhoods.

So our superiority complex will have to rest on the damaged lungs and carcinogenic water of South Phoenix.  While not without environmental justice issues, the Twin Cities have nothing on the scale of South Phoenix, the dumping ground for all their heavy industry.  Phoenix is notorious for its sprawling form, but it has the framework for a multimodal paradise:  the bones of transit and cycling systems and, as noted in Bird on Fire, vacant land totaling 40% of the land area on which to add dense infill.  The trickier issue will likely be a history of pervasive environmental injustice that’s poisoned relations between different socioeconomic groups as much as it’s poisoned neighborhoods.

Oh yeah, and their primary water source is a river more than 300 miles away.

The humid desert air

St Paul transfer

Transferring to the bus

I know we’re not supposed to judge past actions based on the standards of the present, but I’m confident that even by the standards of the early 50s it was a bad idea to replace the University Ave streetcar with a bus.  Anyone who has taken the 16 knows what I’m talking about:  bus bunching and standing room only from morning till night, seven days a week.  Imagine what it would have been like in 1960, when 30,000 more people lived in St Paul and the motorization rate was less than a third of what it is today.

That’s why I’m so excited about Central LRT – while Hiawatha was politically a good first line, Central is the first one that actually provides a long needed capacity upgrade for an existing transit route.  Riders of overburdened bus lines like the 5, 6, 10, 16 and 18 have watched for years as area freeways get lane after lane added – sometimes at the expense of transit advantages – and while there is plenty of room to debate whether what’s actually being built is the ideal upgrade, it’s meaningful that with Central transit riders are finally getting a degree of equal treatment.

Not exactly a blank slate

But fixing the broken bus line is only the first step.  Like an overburdened gusset plate can bring down an entire bridge, the decrepit 16 line may have had the effect of depressing bus ridership across the city of St Paul.  Once the city’s transit spine is reinforced, a little work on the connecting transit, um, rib cage can have a wider effect on the utility of the system.  That, in one kinda gross anatomical metaphor, is what is going on with the Central Restructuring study that Metro Transit is currently conducting.

Having been frustrated for years by attempts to take the bus to St Paul, I’ve been thinking about restructuring the bus routes there for a while.  My thoughts, summarized at, are basically that in the short term service should be shifted from a east-west orientation to a north-south one, in order to benefit from transfer opportunities to higher quality Central LRT and W 7th service.  But due to Metro Transit’s relatively tight fist with its data, I’ve always been missing a crucial ingredient: the service hour budget.  Basically, I can create a fantasy bus network to my heart’s content, but until I know how much service is currently provided in the area, I can’t measure exactly how far from the realm of reality my ideas are.

That all changed when Metro Transit let slip a boatload of data in its Existing Conditions report as part of the Central restructuring process.  Here’s a snapshot of the weekday info:

The motherlode

So there are 1567.7 daily service hours to play with, or 1513 not counting the routes numbered over 300.  Technically, those are up for grabs, too, and I think that a case could be made that those resources would result in more rides if allocated to a denser environment.  However, while eventually I’d like the region to move to a network of locals feeding freeway BRT and LRT lines in place of specialized-destination express buses, in the short term I think there is political value in maintaining suburban coverage with expresses, and moreover these particular expresses mostly have pretty good performance in terms of passengers per service hour (though they also tend to have higher ratios of platform time to in-service time, suggesting that they require a higher subsidy per passenger, something generally true of express routes).

Anyway, as a starting point the Central Corridor EIS listed some bus route changes that I believe are still planned as part of the restructure.  Route 50 will be eliminated, saving 88.1 service hours, and route 16 will be reduced to every 20 minutes at peak and every 30 off peak, saving 135.6 service hours.  My formula for Service hours (H) is Run time (R) * Daily Trips (T), where R= Route length (L) * Average speed (S) and T = Peak trips (P) * Off-peak trips (O), which can further be broken down into P=Peak buses per hour * 7.5 hours (this doesn’t correspond exactly to the hours in which peak fares are charged; I noticed that most routes had some peak frequency spilling outside of those hours, or else had extra high frequency in one peak period, and with some trial-and-error found that this best approximated the service hours listed) and O = Off-peak buses per hour * 10.5 hours (equaling an 18-hour service day, which again can be stretched or compressed by tweaking the number of buses in any given hour; at this level it wasn’t worth it to me to be any more precise).  Here is a more confusing way to write it:


And here is what my restructuring ideas look like in numerical format:

Pretty close, huh?  And that’s with pretty generous frequency increases – the 62, 65, and 87 all go from basically every half hour all day to every 15 minutes at rush hour, which I think is really the minimum for a useful service.  Remember that a lot of these routes will actually be picking up people transferring from Central LRT to jobs on Pierce Butler or in Energy Park.  For those who prefer graphical descriptions, here’s a hopefully-legible map of the restructure:

If you want to check out the details, I imported the altered routes to google maps (WordPress doesn’t seem to allow kmz uploads).  Basically I took the added service assumed in the EIS – the Lexington route, the Hamline – Victoria circle line, and extending the 67 down Fairview – and I pulled a switcheroo with the 63 and the 87, extending the former from Grand up to Rosedale and the latter from Cleveland following Transfer Rd around to the Front branch of the 3.  The other big change is removing service from St Clair, which is covered by the new circle line and otherwise every half-mile by north-south routes, and then extending the 80 downtown to cover the missing East Side 70 service.  Here are route by route descriptions:

2:  My thought was that the 2 should take on the 8 as a branch, both to make the 8 more useful and also as a way to add a bit more service to the heavily-used 2.  When Tcmetro pointed out on Minnescraper that the RSIP seems to suggest extending the 2 down to Raymond, I incorporated that sensible idea.  However, the 2 will still need a branch between 8th St SE and the U of M, which is evident if you look at the boarding map for this route, on which the off-campus stops with the highest boardings are on 8th.  It may be that eventually another route could take over this branch, and based on my experience going to Brasa from Seward, very few people go all the way to 8th from Franklin.  Taking it back to the near future, the 2 illustrates a point to keep in mind about my data: I use the longest route length to estimate the service hours in an attempt to get the most conservative estimate.  So while a trip or two per hour may branch to Raymond, this estimate uses the length of the 8th St SE branch.

3:  I’ve spun off the Front branch of the 3 into its own line, to be described below.  The remaining 3A should remain the same with the exception – and yes I know this isn’t what’s being studied here – of some stop consolidation in Minneapolis Como.

6:  I get why the 6 is included in the restructuring study despite just barely grazing the Central Corridor (the 68, in contrast, actually duplicates some LRT service yet is not included): the possibility of replacing the 6’s Eastside service with the neutered 16.  I’m not necessarily opposed to it, but I just don’t see what good it will do.  Don’t get me wrong, I know too well how hard it is to get a bus between Downtown and Old St Anthony, but the post-LRT 16 would not cross the river any more than the 6 does today.  Moreover, the 6 is more likely to get a frequency boost if ever there are more resources put into transit than the permanently redundant 16.

16:  Speaking of, I assumed the 16 would continue to follow the same route for purposes of calculating service hours, but I can see truncating it somewhere around Raymond or Oak.  It also seems like the 16 could do something more useful around downtown St Paul, but I’ll be darned if I can think of what that could be.

21:  My only change is to axe the detour to the Midway and let the 21 sail through on Marshall, tacking over to Selby at Lexington, which saves about a mile.  Using my formula, cutting a mile at 10mph saves 6 service minutes, which at the St Paul frequency of the 21 (I believe every 15 minutes at peak and every 20 minutes off peak) adds up to 12 service hours in the course of a weekday, not bad.   My formula is again conservative here, as it assumes that St Paul gets the same frequency as Lake St, which it certainly doesn’t deserve.  I could see hi-frequency all the way to SPUD though.

46:  I didn’t calculate the service hours and it’s not a part of the study, but on the map I showed the 46 going east on Montreal to W 7th as a replacement for its current E branch down Cleveland.  They’re both about the same length, but I’d say a Montreal branch would be needed less for its own sake than for the transfer possibilities from the 54 or the 84.  In addition, I actually drew these routes going over 35E because that would be a great spot for a freeway BRT station, although it seems like there are only three express buses running down there right now.

53:  No changes for this route, although its frequency could be upped a bit.

60:  Jarrett Walker has a saying about circle lines:  “Few people want to travel in circles.”  I believe this characteristic is going to be a problem for the Hamline-St Clair-Victoria-University circle line proposed in the Central EIS, but included it here as its function is merely to be a feeder.  I could see the advantage of extending it down to West 7th, but I’m not sure that should be a priority.  Long term, I see no reason to run a circle line here, and my ideas for longer distance routes for Hamline and Victoria are in the map below, but hard to justify until ridership picks up.

61:  This route wasn’t included in the restructuring study, but I really would like to straighten out that detour down to Arlington.

62:  I don’t propose any changes to the routing of the 62, but I think this is one of the routes that most deserves an increase in frequency.  In fact, Metro Transit may want to bump up the frequency before Central LRT starts rolling to placate Bev Scalze, who introduced a bill this session to gut Metro Transit funding in order to further the balkanization of regional transit.

63:  dreww on Minnescraper mentioned that a planner at a restructuring meeting told him Metro Transit is thinking of extending the 63 up to Raymond station.  I’d go further, assigning it the entire northern segment of the 87.  On the map I showed it going up through Desnoyer Park, which is currently not served by any routes, but if the Desnoyerians aren’t receptive it may also make sense to go up Cretin.

65:  Not a huge deal, but I think it would provide a bit more connectivity to run this down to Grand instead of Selby.  My guess is that would not even produce a noticeable change in service hours, since the Selby route twists around to get to Kellogg anyway.  Cathedral Hill wouldn’t really feel a decrease in service if the 21 was bumped up to Hi Frequency for its entirety.

67:  The Central EIS proposes extending the 67 down Fairview, which I think makes a lot of sense.  I’m not sure if that means splitting off West Side service into its own route, but if not, I would run the 67 down Western and cross the river at Smith rather than downtown.  That will save a little more than 2 miles, or around 16 service hours on a weekday assuming 15 minute peak frequency and 30 minute off-peak, but perhaps more important will create a quick way to cross the river.  Undoubtedly most riders will actually want to go downtown, but they would have five opportunities to transfer to do so.  Transfers to a North End or East Side route will be more difficult, but most 67 riders will be within a half-mile of an LRT station.  I think this would be an interesting experiment in grid-based network structure, but if Metro Transit wants to stick to their old radial ways, it will not be a huge deal other than missing out on having a Western feeder for Central LRT.

68:  Mysteriously the restructuring study ignores the 68 despite its potentially important connection with Central LRT at Regions hospital and parallel route downtown.  This is another route that cries out for a simplification, which I think could be accomplished by giving it the 61’s Arlington detour.   As you’ll see on the long-term map below, it could then proceed along Roselawn and terminate either at Rosedale or the Quarry.  The problem is that the 68 already crosses the river onto a ridiculously serpentine Dakota County segment, so extending to the Quarry would create a 29 mile route.  If that is as untenable as it seems (at an average of 15mph the route would have an almost two hour run time), the route would have to be split, and ideally that would happen under another restructuring study so some of the kinks in that route could simultaneously be straightened out.  That is necessarily a long term project and also too complicated for me to figure out now, so I’ll leave it for another day.

70:  Ok, so it’s not good to mess with much outside of the Central restructuring study area, but part of my plan involves unfortunately sacrificing the St Clair bus on the alter of adding more north-south routes.  Its East Side segment would be taken over by the 80, which currently terminates at Sun Ray.  Long term, if ridership ever builds enough to justify routes every half-mile in both directions, I would restore the St Clair bus, but send it northward up Victoria.

71:  No changes in the short term for the 71, but I did forget to include it in my short term map above, so just clarifying that I don’t want to chop it.

74:  Also no changes for the 74, which has surprisingly high frequency for a St Paul route.  Just mentioning it because it’s not clear from the map that it would continue to cross the river.

80:  As mentioned above, the 80 would assume the East Side segment of the 70.  Riders who are hoping to end up at Sun Ray would have at least a couple opportunities to transfer there.

84:  I assumed a pretty big bump in the 84’s frequency.  I’m not sure whether some extra resources will be found for Rapid Bus of if it’ll come out of Central restructuring, but I assumed something close to the 7.5 minute effective Rapid Bus plus local frequency.

86:  I added something close to what the EIS described, a bus heading up Lexington from West 7th, cutting over at Cty Rd C to Rosedale.  In the long term, or as an alternative, it may be a good idea to continue up Lexington to the employment cluster along 694, which has a good 15,ooo jobs, although they’re heinously unwalkable.

87:  My plan to assign the northern segment of the 87 to the 63 leaves Cleveland unserved, but the Front branch of the 3 can come to the rescue.  A well-timed connection to LRT would provide comparable or better travel times to the U of M, and provide better access to the jobs in Energy Park and along Front.  It may be tricky, though, to also time an easy transfer to the 63 for people who want to go from Cleveland up to the St Paul campus, but riders going to Rosedale would have have no problem catching the 84.

94:  Personally I think that the improvement to transit on University Ave doesn’t go far enough, so it pains me a bit to cut the 94 so much.  However, I can’t see how it would be to the advantage of Metro Transit to provide a service that would be a direct competitor to its flagship, so I would say cut it from all periods in which Central LRT is unlikely to be constantly overwhelmed.  Likely all that’s left is the peak.  Ideally they would combine it with one of the express services going to downtown St Paul to minimize the number of vehicles and drivers needed, but I’m not familiar enough with the express network to know what that would be.  Anyway, in terms of service hours it would basically be a wash.

134:  With decent local service on Cleveland this service is superfluous in my opinion.

144:  Ditto.  9 service hours for the pot.

Whew.  Well, hopefully the length of this post gives an indication of the complexity of this issue, which is constantly reminding me that I don’t have the perfect solution.  This post is intended to throw out ideas, many of which likely should be thrown right back.  The service hours formula is also intended to be an indicator of the feasibility of the ideas, but certainly isn’t a realistic plan for implementation.  For one thing, I ignore platform hours.  These had a surprisingly predictable percentage of total operating time (service hours + platform hours) for the routes in the restructuring study data, which for the locals was between 56% and 60%.  As a result I felt safe ignoring them, since these are seemingly fixed based on the total service hours.  But I really don’t have enough experience or knowledge to say that for sure.  In fact, I don’t have enough knowledge or experience to be certain about any of this, and I’m a bit disconcerted at the amount of service I was able to add.  So please let me know if I missed something – don’t hesitate to knock over this house of cards, because it will help me build the next one a bit stronger.

Speaking of the next one, here’s a sneak preview of my long term ideas.  This is for a future with much higher transit ridership, and the only place it is anywhere near complete is in this Central restructuring area.  I have no plans for a detailed post about this, but I thought it might illustrate how my short term ideas could be a stepping stone, but the question is whether Minnesota will ever want to take that step.