Thoughts on the 2040 Transportation Policy Plan

I’d been meaning to spend more time digging into the 2040 Transportation Policy Plan, but I’ve been kind of busy with another project, and the due date for comments (today at 5pm) has snuck up on me. There are a couple areas in which I’m concerned but I think I’ll just send in the generic TLC supportive comment because ultimately my concerns are more quibbles than anything. Overall I think the plan makes some significant advances over the 2030 plan, particularly in its consideration of land use and form when evaluating transportation investments. But at the same time the plan is deeply troubling to me, primarily because in the time horizon of the plan I will have reached the end of my middle age (knock on wood) and this plan contemplates a transit system that still cannot be used for daily needs on a citywide scale.

1. Transit Market Areas

This plan makes significant improvements to the important policy known as Transit Market Areas. These areas are actually used to decide where and what kind of transit service is implemented. Briefly, the areas are numbered 1-5 (or I-V in the new plan) and as the area increases numerically the level of service warranted decreases, with the most important break in my opinion coming between areas 2 and 3, the former of which supports usable regular route service and the latter of which does not. The formula used to determine these areas has been updated to include intersection density, a proxy for (and characteristic of) transit-supportive urban design, but at the same time employment density has been demoted in the weighting of the different components of the formula. The result is a map that has changed from the 2030 plan in unsettling ways.

First, the 2030 map:

2030TPPTransitMarketAreasAnd now the 2040 map:

2040TPPTransitMarketAreasIt disturbs me that Area 3 expands in the new map while Area 2 contracts significantly. This represents a decline in the area where it is practical to use transit, since it is extremely difficult to use peak period express service for anything other than a daily commute. This transit-slashing result is due to the use of current figures for population and employment rather than projections. Bloomington is a great example of this, as the Met Council’s 2040 population forecasts predict a 37% increase in the city’s population, an absolute increase of over 30,000 people, and the city’s land use policy directs half of that into the area in the eastern tip that surrounds the Mall of America. Yet the Area 2 actually shrinks out of this growth ghetto in the updated map!

There is a bit of temporal incongruity in the plan’s use of the Transit Market Area map, as despite the fact that this plan is covering the next 26 years, this particular portion is actually supposed to reflect current conditions, be used immediately, and revised as conditions change (I’m not sure how often that actually happens). However, as I noted above the important achievement of this plan is the degree to which it articulates land use and transportation policies. As such, I don’t think it should be unreasonable to recognize the influence that transportation facilities have on land use. So while it would be inadvisable to base current transportation policies solely on future land use, I think it would be wise to include the population (and employment) forecasts in some degree while developing the Transit Market Area policies. After all, what incentive is there to build transit-oriented development in a place with no transit?

One more brief quibble that is illustrated by the new exclusion of the Mall of America’s neighborhood from Transit Market Area 2 is the underweighting of employment density. Again, I think it’s great that intersection density is a factor in determining these areas, but does it really deserve to be weighted higher than employment density? What is more important in the decision to take transit, the relative comfort of taking it or the existence of something to take it to? While both are important, if the latter were all that mattered, would anyone ever take transit in this nation of curb cuts and skinny or nonexistent sidewalks?

For easy reference, here is the relative weighing of the different components of the formula that determines the Transit Market Areas (which they call the Transit Market Index or TMI, which apparently is also Too Much Information for the typical reader of the plan, so they buried it in Appendix G):

𝑇𝑀𝐼=0.64∗(𝑃𝑜𝑝𝑢𝑙𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝐷𝑒𝑛𝑠𝑖𝑡𝑦) +

0.23∗(𝐼𝑛𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑠𝑒𝑐𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝐷𝑒𝑛𝑠𝑖𝑡𝑦) +

0.20∗(𝐸𝑚𝑝𝑙𝑜𝑦𝑚𝑒𝑛𝑡 𝐷𝑒𝑛𝑠𝑖𝑡𝑦) +

0.11∗(𝐴𝑢𝑡𝑜𝑚𝑜𝑏𝑖𝑙𝑒 𝐴𝑣𝑎𝑖𝑙𝑎𝑏𝑖𝑙𝑖𝑡𝑦)

2. “Increased” Revenue

I’m moving away from the Twin Cities in which I was born and raised because of the low quality of the transit system. One of the reasons I’ve stayed as long as I have is that my family is here, but it is frustrating or impossible to visit them without a car, and I’ve grown to realize this is not going to change. The 2040 Transportation Policy Plan confirms this. It plans for broad swathes of the metro area to remain distant from transitways, condemning anyone without a car to the limbo of mile after mile on a lumbering, rambling local or interminable waits and planning your life around extremely infrequent service, or simply not being able to access much of the city.

Of course I’m not saying transportation for the region should be planned around my family, but I do find it strange that this plan has ended up with such little coverage. Interestingly, there is some discussion on pages 246-247 of the factors for determining transitway investment, and regional balance, a form of coverage goal, is included. Unfortunately this seems to mean that at least one transitway should touch each county, which has the bizarre effect of allowing 19th century politics and geography to determine 21st century transportation investments. I would think that if this coverage goal could be included as a factor, there could be something about considering regional employment and retail centers.

Now may be the time to mention that the Current Revenue Scenario vision for transitways is exceedingly bleak:

2040TPPCurrentRevenueTransitwaysThere is a caveat in the plan that it does not include arterial transitways that may be added if the winds of the next 10 years are favorable, but that says nothing about how this vision leaves the vast majority of the metro area, and a significant number of employment centers, completely unserved by transitways and therefore unusable for transit outside of downtown commuting. In what may be an unprecedented move in American planning, it also represents a retrenchment of the transit vision from the 2030 plan:

Of course, the plan also considers an Increased Revenue Scenario, the transitway vision of which is pretty similar to what, in May 2013, the Met Council was planning to have accomplished by 2030:

2040TPPIncreasedRevenueTransitwaysThis vision, while pushing transitways deep into the exurbs, leaves the region’s third largest job center and probably largest retail concentration, Southdale, unserved by rapid transit. Just a couple of years ago, we were considering building light rail to rapidly growing Maple Grove, but this plan doesn’t even consider it worthy of arterial BRT. According to this plan, it will take more than 26 years to figure out how to serve the hundred thousand jobs loosely clustered in industrial districts in Plymouth, Eagan, North St Paul, and Spring Lake Park with some kind of higher-speed transit.

The reasons behind the underwhelming advance in transitway planning deserve deeper reading of the plan that I was able to give. It’s possible that the vision was pared to fit the revenue available under the assumptions of their Increased Revenue Scenario, but I’m not entirely sure what those assumptions are and probably deserve the blame for not being able to interpret the figures given in the plan. If I’m reading it right, the sole difference between the Current and the Increased Revenue Scenarios is that the latter includes a half-cent sales tax increase. I’m unclear about why this number was chosen, since peer cities such as Denver and Salt Lake City have higher transit sales taxes (I think). But I have deeper questions about the assumptions in the Current Revenue Scenario, in which categories such as State Bonds and Property Taxes see declines over the life of the plan despite increases or plateaus in recent history. What am I missing that would account for a 30% drop in property tax revenue. In a political world where we’ve seen the traditionally biennial bonding bill become a yearly feast, why would state bonding support for transit drop? But again, I haven’t had time to give the financial underpinnings of the plan the scrutiny they deserve.

Ultimately this plan represents a major advancement in transportation policy for the region, and as such it deserves support. If you’re interested and have time today, check out David’s and Brendon’s critiques at, and if you still feel compelled, submit TLC’s form letter. If you have had more time than I have to spend with this plan, I welcome your corrections, insights, or general comments.


Steven Dornfield recently did an article on the Met Council’s Livable Communities grants.  Since 1996 the Met Council has been granting for developments or planning that encourage location efficiency or affordable housing.  As Dornfield writes:

From 1996 through 2010, the council awarded 633 grants totaling more than $212 million in Livable Communities funds. Of those, 68 awards have been relinquished, for a net of 565 grants totaling $181 million. The net results of these grants are expected to leverage billions of dollars in private and other public investments.

Dornfield does not mention that grants to projects in Minneapolis and St Paul are capped at a combined 40% of the total granting.  He does link to a Met Council staff report that displays all the fury of a bureaucrat politicized.  If your sense of humor is as nerdy as mine, you’ll agree that it’s worth quoting extensively:

Impact of the 40/60 ratio between the central cities and the suburbs

The previous Council instituted guidelines for funding that allow the LCAC to recommend no more than 40% of the available LCDA funding for projects located in the central cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The LCAC may, if it desires, suggest an additional amount to be awarded to the central cities above the 40% threshold. In this funding cycle, the LCAC is recommending 39.13% to the central cities. Between 1996 and 2010 42% of LCDA funds have been granted to the central cities out of the total $98,014,453 awarded, or $40,711,364.

As a result of the requirement to consider the urban/suburban ratio, in some funding cycles higher-scoring projects in the central cities are not funded, while lower-scoring suburban projects receive awards. In the 2011 recommendations, five central cities projects were not recommended for award in whole or in part in order to maintain the required 60% recommendation for suburban projects.

…To make their recommendations for Development awards, the LCAC starts with the highest-scoring projects and works down the list, making funding recommendations for each individual application. During this process, the LCAC monitors the overall percentage of funding being recommended for the central cities. When the percentage equals the 40% limit, the LCAC skips any further recommendations for central cities applications, moving down to the next-highest scoring project from a suburban applicant.

This makes the funding recommendation process somewhat complicated. For example, the top five scoring Development projects are all located in the central cities. However, when the two Pre-Development projects from the central cities are added to the top five Development projects, the amount for the central cities exceeds the 40% threshold. The LCAC therefore withheld their recommendation for the fifth-highest project, Currie Park Lofts, until they could determine how much was available. They then recommended the full funding for The Enclave Trails Apartments. Because the 40% limit had already been exceeded, the LCAC did not recommend any funding for Corcoran Triangle, from Minneapolis, but instead recommended full funding for the next three projects, all from suburban applicants. The Committee then skipped West Side Flats, from Saint Paul, and recommended full funding for Cobblestone Senior Housing and 9805 Highway 55 Apartments. They skipped Minneapolis’ Spirit on Lake, recommended full funding for Woodbury’s City Walk Apartments, skipped Saint Paul’s Beacon Bluff, and fully funded Watertown’s Downtown Redevelopment Phase II. With the available remaining funds, the Committee opted to recommend partial funding to the Mahtomedi request and, skipping back up to the highest-scoring unfunded central city project, they were able to recommend just over 40% of the requested amount for Currie Park Lofts, rounding out the full $9 million available for 2011.

The Met Council, of course, “serves at the pleasure of the Governor”, so it’s not surprising that Pawlenty’s council would cap the amount of money going to an area that never voted for him.  Seems like bad policy, though, to limit grants for multifamily housing in the part of the metro that has the most available land for multifamily housing… and that was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.  Hopefully this new council will read the frustration in this bureaucratic report and allow merit to be the primary determinant of grant recipients.

Can you find the brown in the suburbs?

Apartments go boom!

With all the chatter about apartment construction in the last couple months, I wanted to see whether the current level of activity is really an aberration or just a way to sell newspapers.  There certainly are a lot of proposals floating about, but after the severe downturn of the last few years, it’s hard to know what’s normal.  Besides, is it a coincidence that the paper that says the most about the new construction just happens to have a subscribers only online map of it?

But what exactly is the current level of activity?  If 8500 units were under construction or proposed as of September, what does that mean in terms of eventual places to live?  Presumably almost all of what is under construction will be finished, but much of what is proposed will never see the light of day.  I thought it safe to compare the number proposed to building permit data, although probably a bit more is proposed than actually gets permitted.  From F&C’s 8500, I thought it safe to subtract 2000 considering my count of 1,732 units that were under construction in 2011 just in Minneapolis (most of which would have been permitted in 2010).

So how rare is it for 6500 multifamily units to be permitted in the metro area?  Met Council data going back to 1970 gives us a hint:

Permit rainbow!

Well, not very rare.  10 of the last 40 years saw 6500 units permitted.*  In fact, in the 70s the average year saw 6100 multifamily units permitted, helped out by the massive years 1970-1972 that permitted over 10,000 multifamily units each.

I think the story here is more likely that not nearly enough rental units were constructed in the last 20 years.  As I’ve noted before, the 90s were a disastrous decade for dense development.  When multifamily heated up again, it was the condo craze, leaving little room for renters.  But while the ownership housing stock was increased, sometimes at the expense of rental housing, the number of renter households was increasing faster than the number of owner households.

In other words, it’s true that there is more multifamily rental units being proposed and built than in recent years, but don’t think of it like a speculator-driven bubble.  Instead it is more likely to be a “new normal,” where the market is providing a supply in reaction to demand.  That’s good news for people who want an energy-efficient, walkable, low-maintenance place to live.

Zooming In

There’s more news buried in this building permit data, and I’m going to finish up with a long digression on it.  Check out this table of the top 10 metro area cities for total residential building permits issued between 1970 and 2010:

Minneapolis 98 854 21507 6543 4238 2807 36047
Plymouth 44 118 9172 240 13925 3273 26772
St. Paul 146 652 16033 3234 4537 1172 25774
Eden Prairie 32 1112 6498 95 12132 4430 24299
Eagan 75 704 6886 68 12430 3710 23873
Woodbury 107 442 4836 1127 12490 4123 23125
Maple Grove 157 565 3646 692 14496 3473 23029
Brooklyn Park 16 834 2750 475 12820 3504 20399
Burnsville 0 366 8431 394 7472 3305 19968
Coon Rapids 2 736 4760 48 9106 3462 18114

DTQ=Duplex, Triplex, Fourplex


MF3=Multifamily (3 units or more)

MF5=Multifamily (5 units or more)

SFD=Single-Family Detached


Minneapolis has a comfortable lead, appearing to have added more housing units in the 40-year period than any other municipality (assuming the same rate of actual construction resulting from permits across all the municipalities and years).  This lead seems to have primarily resulted from the 70s and 00s, in the latter of which Minneapolis added significantly more housing units than anywhere else in the Twin Cities.

Seas of purple and green

So how could Minneapolis add tens of thousands of housing units in the last 40 years, while simultaneously losing more than 50,000 residents?  Some of the reasons for a similar effect in the 60s are also valid for later decades; the entirety of the drop occurred in the 70s, when a great deal of (edit: Froggie points out in the comments that most of the clearance for freeway construction had been wrapped up by the 70s) freeway construction and some slum clearance was still underway.

Later decades fared better.  The 90s saw a population increase; looking at population by sector makes it clear that the mediocre performance of the 00s was almost entirely a product of the foreclosure crisis:

Sector 1980 1990 2000 2010
Downtown 19155 21824 24977 31034
North 61278 64001 67674 59970
Northeast 37507 36515 36913 36255
South 137551 136333 142150 139854
Southwest 83728 79912 78292 77989
University 29615 29798 32612 37476
Citywide 368834 368383 382618 382578

The two sectors with the most foreclosure activities were also the only two with significant population decline.  In the case of North, two decades of steady growth were wiped out.

The 80s are the mystery for me.  Seven or eight thousand units were constructed in Minneapolis, which should have resulted in some population growth.  Instead the most population growth occurred in North, not in the Downtown and University neighborhoods that saw the most units added.  I don’t have demolition permit data, so I don’t know if an unusually high number of units were demolished.  Household size may also have been a factor, since many of the units added were likely smaller than any units lost.

Regardless of what happened in the 80s, the census data seems to suggest that, barring any new freeway construction or popular predatory lending practices, Minneapolis should see steady population growth in this decade.  Wandering back to the main topic of this post, the return to historic levels of multifamily rental construction, a greater proportion of which tends to occur in central cities, is another indicator that the chatter may soon be about how Minneapolis and St Paul are leading the metro in population growth.

*Until 2004, semi-detached units with more than two units were counted in the multifamily category.  In 2004, they were moved into the Duplex category.

Rapid Stats

New transit landscape

I guess I’m not delivering them very rapidly, but I thought it would be useful to enter the data from Metro Transit’s Rapid Bus Corridor concepts into one spreadsheet.  The individual corridor sheets are beautiful and packed with facts, but the advantage to a spreadsheet is easy comparison of one corridor to another.

The reason we must compare corridors is that Metro Transit isn’t necessarily planning to build all of the corridors they developed concepts for, and some will be built before others.  Part of the purpose of the study is to develop “a prioritization plan for the arterial corridors”.  That language comes from SRF’s summary, but apparently we will have to wait until the study is published in February to know exactly what the prioritization will be based on.

In the meantime, we have the stats from the corridor concepts, which we can assume will be used to prioritize (as opposed to political prioritization, i.e. regional balance – we already know that Scott County is not in the running).


One place to start is to just look at the number of people who live or work along each corridor.  Metro Transit gives us these numbers both in a 1/4 mile circle and a 1/2 mile circle around the proposed stations for each rapid route.  The raw numbers are of course weighted toward lines with more stations (the number of stations runs from 15 on Hennepin to 28 each on Nicollet and Chicago), so I created a “density” measure, which just divides the total by the number of stations for a more fair comparison.

On the above chart, like the next three, the scale is distorted by the high number of jobs in Downtown Minneapolis.  To offset this, Metro Transit included a metric for jobs outside the downtowns, although in reality the downtowns are the largest trip generators and should be considered.  As you can see, Chicago really places well in this chart, coming in first in jobs (thanks to an added boost from the Mall of America) and also in population.  Nicollet and Lake are close seconds in population, and Central, Nicollet, Broadway and Hennepin also get job boosts from Downtown, although each follows its predecessor by 10k jobs or so until Hennepin finishes with 60k jobs fewer than Chicago.  Presumably this distance mostly stems from proximity to the core, as the different routes vary much more slightly in jobs outside Downtown.

The Mickey's station on West 7th has the highest grease density of any corridor

The above chart shows a slightly different picture, with the same five Downtown Minneapolis-serving lines appearing at the top of the heap again, but in a different order.  In this measure American and West 7th rank close to the Downtown Minneapolis lines.  These lines still have fairly high job numbers (though less than half of Chicago’s), but are helped by their much lower number of stations per mile – American has the least of any corridor, with 1.33 stations/mile, and West 7th is just behind it, with 1.42 stations/mile (see table below).  That means they don’t waste time serving low-density stations, like most of the other corridors do generally as they get further from the downtowns.

Making the circle a bit wider makes some sense – though the typical walking distance to transit is 1/4 mile, people are usually willing to walk further to faster service, and 37% of Hiawatha riders walk more than 1/4 mile.  But the chart above doesn’t show a drastically different picture.  The y axis is larger, but the corridors mostly seem to rank in the same order, as is more evident when you apply a color scale to the data in a table:

The table above is a good way to finish the series on demographics, because it clearly shows which routes have the advantages in the various demographic categories.  Nicollet and Chicago have the advantage both in jobs and population, and although they have some competitors in individual categories, no other routes are competitive across the board.

But for consistency I’ll present this last chart above, which shows that the most bang for the buck will probably come from the Hennepin line.  That’s the one where every station built is likely to reach a high amount of riders.

Station Spacing

An interlude about station spacing – the corridors all deviate from the half-mile station spacing ideal.  In many cases this is due to traversing either of the downtowns on a N-S axis, where the stations are often placed two blocks apart (where they currently stop in Downtown Minneapolis).  However there are a number of factors, for example Central has 3 stops in the half-mile from 18th to Lowry to serve the higher-density neighborhood; similarly, the routes that run between Franklin and Lake have 4 or 5 stops in that mile.  The opposite is the case with East 7th, which generally keeps to half-mile spacing, but leaves more than a mile without a station between Arcade and Clarence.

The stations depicted on the concept corridors are not final, of course.  But it seems as though Metro Transit prefers to keep the much closer spacing downtown, which makes sense because most of the lines terminate there anyway, so it’s fair to trade travel time for coverage (plus they’re apparently sinking some money into bus stations on 5th and 6th in St Paul anyway, a factor that may help the 7th St corridors).

Speed, Frequency and Reliability

Demographics are not the only factor to consider when prioritizing implementation.  Instead it’s important to consider the degree to which the routes will be improved by the enhancements.  Pretty stations are nice and all, but what I care about is how fast I can get to Mickey’s.  To that degree, Metro Transit included measures of speed, frequency and reliability in its rapid bus concepts.

A number of the proposed rapid bus enhancements should improve on-time performance, but maybe Metro Transit found it hard to quantify or predict, because they only included the on-time performance for current locals in the concepts (shown in the above chart).  From this, we can glean the lines that are most in need of improvements; Central rises to the top by virtue of its placement at the bottom.

The only clue Metro Transit gave us as to the increase in on-time performance was a series of pie charts showing the factors of travel time for each route.  I’ll admit that I’m not sure how to process this information, although generally it seems right to look for an increase in “In Motion” time and a decrease in “Dwell Time”.  (Since these are percentages, an increase in “In Motion” doesn’t mean the trip will actually take longer.)  Part of my confusion stems from the two factors that aren’t listed for all routes – especially that those factors disappear from the projections for after improvements are made.  It makes sense that “Hold/Other” would disappear, since holds are mostly scheduled to make up for delays.  But how can they expect that traffic delays will disappear?  Maybe if they were including dedicated bus lanes in the scope of this project, but my understanding is that’s off the table.

Assuming Rapid Bus routes are pretty reliable, they should be quite a bit faster – between 5 and 30% faster.  That 5% is for the already limited-stop West 7th line and is a much smaller improvement than most lines, implying that much of the speed increase comes from wider stop spacing.  Chicago, Central and East 7th are also outliers in this measure, all improving by around 10% (the rest of the routes improve by between 20 and 30%).   Presumably Central’s improvement is small because the 10 already uses signal preemption; East 7th and Chicago are a mystery to me.

Disclaimer about the above chart:  the % change in travel should actually be negative, but I changed it to positive to get it show on the chart.  Technically I shouldn’t use a line graph to show a nonlinear measure, but this is the best way I’ve found to get different y axis measures to show up in Excel – if you have a better idea, please let me know.

That last disclaimer should probably also apply to the above chart, too, but I’ve always wanted to use a radar chart and it seemed to fit pretty well for comparing frequency.  I was able to calculate effective frequency for the proposed corridor by simply adding the proposed rapid and local frequencies.  Assuming they will not be scheduled to bunch (i.e. to make the local bus show up as close to the rapid bus as possible), these routes will have really impressive frequency – 6 corridors will have 6 minute headways or less.  Hennepin will end up with an effective headway of 4.3 minutes, with a rapid bus every 7.5 minutes on top of locals still running a respectable every 10 minutes.  The radar chart shows the biggest improvements in the American and Broadway lines, where current 30 minute headways are halved to every 15 minutes.  In the case of Broadway it’s a bit misleading, though, since the densest part of West Broadway – the mile between Knox and Washington – will retain local bus service, although at what frequency they don’t say.

Busing for Dollars

Another factor presumably will be the cost of construction.  This will be relatively low, but how low seems to be unknown – the presentation on Metro Transit’s site suggests $1-3m per mile, but a subsequent Star Tribune story says it could be as much as $6m per mile, and today’s MinnPost article quotes a Met Council rep as estimating $2-5m per mile.  Probably inertia is causing them to estimate the cost per mile – since there are no guideway improvements under consideration, a per station estimate would be more useful.  Apparently Metro Transit is considering large and small station concepts, and presumably there would be a hierarchy of stations, with high-boardings stations getting large stations.  If that’s the case, you couldn’t just assume that routes with more stations will be more expensive, since for example the Lake St route, with a high number of transfers, will have a higher per station cost.  On the other hand, because the highest boardings tend to be downtown, maybe routes that serve the downtowns will have the highest per station cost.


With uncertainty still surrounding nearly every detail about the Rapid Bus concept and corridors, maybe the only thing I’ve proven with this exercise is my obsession with transit.  However, the evidence strongly suggests that each corridor has unique factors that necessarily be boiled down to a set of numbers.  After all, with one exception these lines all currently serve tremendous numbers of riders, so where ever improvements are made it will improve a large number of rides.

Personally, I tend to favor improving network connectivity, which could boost routes like American or Snelling that (will someday) connect light rail lines.  Other considerations, such as improving underserved areas, would boost the Broadway or East 7th lines.  As long as we’re speculating, we may as well hope, and I for one hope they just build them all at once.

Numerical Afterword

As I mentioned, all the charts in this post were made with Excel, which was the ideal tool for me only because its crudeness so well matched my own ineptitude.  I’ve always enjoyed visual presentations of information, but never really had the training or talent for it.  So if anyone reading this has any constructive criticism, please don’t let your Minnesotanism hold you back from commenting.  Also, if anyone has any suggestions for better chart-creating software than Excel, please share.  Finally, I want to spread the fruit of my data entry – apologies for the mess.


What have we learned?

Urban Decay

Yet another downside to municipal fragmentation is the loss of institutional memory.  Many are realizing that urban decay is not a process intrinsic only to central cities due to their inability to adapt to the automobile, but rather a byproduct of the American slash-n-burn style of city-building that can strike anywhere, but at a specific time, often about a half-century after greenfield development.  Unfortunately, as urban decay hits the suburbs, these fragments of cities are less able to learn from the experience of their older siblings what will combat and what will hasten the process of decay.

So when I came across the Strib’s article on the impending redevelopment of Brookdale Center I couldn’t help but think of Minneapolis’ earlier efforts to redevelop the commercial district at Lake & Nicollet.  The moribund Brookdale is probably in a more extreme situation than the struggling but alive Lake & Nicollet of the 70s.  The connection in my mind is the use of TIF to subsidize a developer to build a low-intensity, single use development of the sort that, in all likelihood, will be redeveloped in at least the same time frame as the structure it’s replacing, if not sooner.  Here’s a statement from the very study looking at redevelopment options for the mall area, 2003’s Brooklyn Center Opportunity Site:

Modern retail development often becomes obsolescent in the matter of a few decades…

So what do they go and build?  A modern retail development.  You gotta wonder if Brooklyn Center knew who they

Modern retail development

were hiring when they commissioned the study – Calthorpe and Associates is run by one of the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism.  After the completion of the study and a plan a few years later, the city actually included an 8 point refutation of their principles in their comprehensive plan, with the brilliant recommendation of increasing highway-oriented development and reducing open space.

What is likely to be built is the exact opposite of the design principles enumerated in the Opportunity Site Master Plan & Development Guidelines (although the plan actually applied to a site across Bass Lake Road from Brookdale, and I don’t know if there was ever any move to extend it to the Brookdale site).  Not only do we get a big box Wal-Mart, with its auto-dependent acres of parking and low-intensity land use, but accessory retail uses are scattered throughout the site, making future infill much more difficult.  To be fair, it is possible the planned smattering of smaller stores will never come to be, as a local retail real estate consultant notes in the Strib article:

“The challenge for the developers in Brookdale is, what are the stores that would see an opportunity to be at the Brookdale site that don’t already have a location that serves that area?”

In addition, complementary stores would have to stock items that are unavailable at Wal-Mart, or that are appreciably better or cheaper than at the retail giant.

Plans that came to naught

What could Brooklyn Center have done differently?  They already had a policy framework (in the Opportunity Site Master Plan) to encourage mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development, but they followed the old suburban course, waiting for a developer to come along and proposed a PUD along the lines of the Master Plan.  If they had looked at the success of older cities in guiding development with zoning districts or overlays, they could have had zoning in place that would have discouraged the Wal-Mart style of rapidly-obsolete shopping strip.  Maybe Wal-Mart would have just moved up the street to a less restrictive city, but maybe they would have come up with a plan more like their proposal for Washington DC.

Half a page of scribbled plans

I’m writing under the assumption that Brooklyn Center wants to move away from auto-dependent commercial strips.  They have every reason to do so.  From the 2000 census to the 2005-09 ACS data, single-occupancy vehicular travel declined only very slightly and public transportation use increased at a similarly minuscule rate.  But in the same time frame, poverty increased dramatically in the suburb, from 7.4% to 12.9% of individuals.  This suggests that an increasing number of Brooklyn Centrists could benefit from the affordability of transit and improved opportunities for walking.

Brooklyn Center is only one tiny part of the region, and an adjustment of regional priorities would result in better development in inner ring suburbs.  A map from the Calthorpe planning effort shows as a third-tier regional center, while distant Maple Grove ranks as a second-tier center.   Why is our region prioritizing development in distant greenfields over vast acreage closer to the city?  These priorities have consequences, exemplified in the Bottineau Transitway’s decision to bypass existing transit centers, such as Brookdale, in the hopes that new transit centers will spring up on the fringe.

Maple Grove is sitting pretty

Until we agree to focus development in existing areas instead of on the edge of town, the municipal cogs that make up the regional machine will continue to spin freely, leaving minor cogs like Brooklyn Center to make their own mistakes.

The Chosen One

Mark Dayton’s pick for Met Council Chair is, on the whole, good news for urbanists.  The best sign that Susan Haigh will lead the Met Council back to the city is her credentials as an administrator, both at Habitat and as a commissioner at Minnesota’s most urbanized county.  I have never heard of the Metropolitan Counties Light Rail Transit board mentioned in her bio, but even if it was made up it would be a good sign that she thought it to be a beneficial lie.

I always had a knee-jerk negative reaction to Habitat for Humanity because they seem to perpetuate that American myth that all you need is a single-family home and a mortgage (plus they’re Christian).  They do, however, build some multi-family units, and are definitely in the trenches of the affordable housing crisis.  Haigh says that she “would like to see the council do more work on housing.”  Presumably, not a lot of that work would be with Habitat, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.  There certainly is a lot to do; Housing Link says that in 2009, only a third of Twin Cities families that needed affordable housing could get it.


(sometimes I wish this blog could shoot lasers from the screen, you know, for emphasis)

Meanwhile, has-been Peter Bell claims to have overseen a “golden age” for transit.  I sure hope not.  The Strib article, while prefacing with the profound insight that Republicans are not generally disposed towards transit, give us hope that the “golden age” will soon be outshined:

In an interview Wednesday, Dayton said Haigh’s background on affordable housing makes it very important for her to select a senior staff “that has transit as a certainly, co-equal priority.”

Probably just politics, but Dayton has promised to fight for a billion-dollar bonding bill, which could get a lot of transit built (hint, hint, Minneapolis:  it’s time for alternatives analysis on a Hennepin-University streetcar).

Susan Haigh says she’ll keep her day job at Habitat for Humanity, which is disappointing.  She says it’s because both posts are “exciting,” but the $60k salary for the Met Chair’s part-time job kind of points to a different motive.  Mark Dayton has said that he has had trouble finding commissioners since state law forces a $110,000 ceiling to their salary.  How many multi-billion dollar companies pay their executives that little?

Berg leaps in!

Steve Berg comes through today with the Quote of the Year:

the Met Council is a little like Pakistan. It says all the right things to America, but ends up helping the enemy because without the enemy’s approval it cannot exist.

Ok maybe you have to be a mega-nerd to think this quote is as great as I do.  And maybe the quote needs some explanation.  He’s talking about how the Met Council talks big about equitable growth in the Twin Cities, but basically stands back and lets all the growth happens in the fringe communities that have the land price and tax advantages.

This all comes back from his article today, which follows on the response from his article Wednesday of the last three Met Council chairmen to the comments of Myron Orfield in his article Monday (which I posted about Tuesday).

Berg starts out trying to stake out a compromise between Orfield and the chairmen, who contend that political reality ties their hands from using the statutory tools they have to curb sprawl and direct growth.  In a memorable phrase, Berg agrees with them, saying

The outer suburbs, with their hefty growth aspirations, have become the tail that wags the dog.

[I’d like to interject here with my belief that the political heft of the suburban fringe is overstated.  Not only are the central cities, with a quarter of the region’s population and close to half of the region’s jobs, tremendously vital to the region as a whole, they have good representation in the legislature:  19 house seats, which is 26% of the metro’s 72 house seats and 14% of the total 134 seats; and 10 senate seats, which is 27% of the metro’s 36 seats and 15% of the total 67 senate seats.  The fringe has pretty much the same representation: 13 house seats (18% of the metro and 10% of the total) and 11 senate seats (30% of the metro and 16% of the total).  So the power is in the inner and outer suburban ring districts, and the central cities should have more in common with them than the fringe does, since the inner suburbs have a similar form and increasingly similar social makeup, and the outer suburbs have to deal with Minneapolis (for work, Twins games, etc) more than they do with the fringe.  Maybe this is a case of familiarity breeding contempt.  But I wonder if Minneapolis is doing enough to network with Richfield, Crystal, Brooklyn Center, Columbia Heights, Roseville, etc.  You certainly never hear about any networking activity.  Anyway, back to Berg.]

In a stumbling bit, Berg dreams about what Maple Grove would do if the Met Council were to stop a planned office development, confusing the Council’s power to approve comprehensive plans and thereby influence zoning, with actual police power.  But he dusts himself off in the next section to smash Bell’s blind devotion to ideology regarding concentration and perpetuation of poverty.

And the rest of the article throws compromise aside and goes with Orfield’s “fact-based” assessment of the metropolitan situation.  I wonder if Berg knows how revolutionary is his suggestion to reverse the ratio in the Met Council’s development location goals of “70 percent of development to occur on fresh ground and only 30 percent in older areas.”  It is questionable whether American cities have ever achieved 70 percent infill development, except for Manhattan, though of course it is common in other parts of the world.

And Berg brings up the Met Council’s benchmarks, which he points out have not been reached, and rightly points out that the failure to direct growth towards the Hiawatha line should “deeply embarrass” them.   I would add that the council’s historical directive to develop rapid transit has also been a thorough failure, and it is likely due to their lack of accountability.

Berg doesn’t wade into the question of whether the Met Council should be elected.  Ted Mondale doesn’t think so, but fails to provide evidence for why.  I would say that is the one reform that could be reached: voters understand that direct elections make officeholders accountable, and continuing prevalence of judicial elections is an example of that.  In addition, that is one thing that everyone I’ve talked to – exurban or street rat – has agreed on.

Berg’s post ends with a raft of goals that he’d like to add to the Met Council’s benchmark, all of which are laudable and none of which will be considered as long as a Republican is governor.  Let’s all thank Steve Berg for the contribution he makes to public discourse in this state, and try not to forget November 2nd.

Myron Orfield interview – Dissecting the Met Council

Another Steve Berg work of art:

On Monday, Steve Berg interviewed Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce for his excellent Cityscape column for MinnPost.  Orfield ascribes the accelerated expansion of the exurban fringe of the Twin Cities metro to the failure of the Met Council, starting in about 1994, to not use their regulatory power to manage growth.  As he puts it, “…we have the strongest structure in the nation to shape growth. But we choose not to use it.

This choice to not do their job has important consequences, including, as Orfield says, “[making] it harder for low-income people to get to work,” but also reducing the inner cities’ tax receipts, reducing their ability to pay for inclusionary streetscapes such as those advocated on this website, which unfortunately many in city government still consider luxuries.

The interview is here.

Comments good!

I know I’m down on the City of Minneapolis’ Public Works Department a lot, so I wanted to mention something I found that they did that was really cool.  The Met Council has a new draft 2030 Transportation Policy Plan that is out for comments right now.  The plan itself is an improvement, in that it recognizes more explicitly than before that the region won’t fix congestion by building new highways.  But what I really like are the comments, approved by the Transportation & Public Works Committee today, by a gaggle of planners from the city’s public works department.

The bulk of their comments are on the Transit chapter, and they serve to prod the Met Council to beef up their definition of the Arterial BRT Network to an Arterial Transitway Network.  This is certainly due to the City’s sporadic support of a streetcar network (including, of course, their TIGER II application for an Alternatives Analysis for the Central-Nicollet line(s)), but also opens the door to other technologies along these routes.  I also like that they speak up about the Plan’s emphasis on express buses (as opposed to local or arterial transit).  Their comments include the fact that “urban local bus routes comprise over 3/4 of ridership on Metro Transit bus routes, and bus routes serving the High-Frequency Network comprise over 1/3 of ridership on Metro Transit bus routes.” (p. 5) Vaguely-worded (is the High-Frequency stat a subset of the urban local stat, or separate?), it is an important considering the lack of attention shown to improving those routes.

Also worth noting is their advocacy for a regional bicycling plan.  While most trips are short (as the City transportation planners note), in an interconnected region (read: municipally-fractured) like this one, they often cross city limits.  I might add that there is an important branding effect for regional networks, which would be a boon for the growing cycling tourism industry.

I’m going to try to add the pdf in case it disappears off the city site.Draft-2030-Transportation-Policy-COMMENTS