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.
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.
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.