The Turmoil

Just finished The Turmoil, a fierce roar from a hardened lamb named Booth Tarkington who with it attempted to to take down the American heartland of 1914 and very nearly succeeded. For us transpo dorks, it contains fascinating descriptions of a society coming to grips with its recent surrender of safety, community and sanity to its new overlord automobile:

There was a heavy town-fog that afternoon, a smoke-mist, densest in the sanctuary of the temple. The people went about in it, busy and dirty, thickening their outside and inside linings of coal-tar, asphalt, sulphurous acid, oil of vitriol, and the other familiar things the men liked to breathe and to have upon their skins and garments and upon their wives and babies and sweethearts. The growth of the city was visible in the smoke and the noise and the rush. There was more smoke than there had been this day of February a year earlier; there was more noise; and the crowds were thicker – yet quicker in spite of that. The traffic policemen had a hard time, for the people were independent – they retained some habits of the old market-town period, and would cross the street anywhere and anyhow, which not only got them killed more frequently than if they clung to the legal crossings, but kept the motormen, the chauffeurs, and the truck-drivers in a stew of profane nervousness. So the traffic policemen led harried lives; they themselves were killed, of course, with a certain periodicity, but their main trouble was that they could not make the citizens realize that it was actually and mortally perilous to go about their city…

There’s something sort of naive and juvenile in his determination to make this charging, heaving, American machine take a breath and a look in the mirror, but he does it with a passion that’s charming. Worth a read.

ps he’s the guy who wrote The Magnificent Ambersons, which Orson Welles later filmified.

Advertisements

Why isn’t anyone talking about an Olson Memorial Bikeway?

Some people think that Minneapolis has more than enough off-street bikeways. I’m not one of those people. Though I’ve been cycling the mean, car-choked streets of this city for over ten years, I’m never more comfortable on two wheels than when I’m on one of our off-street trails. Streets are intrinsically pervasive, so there are only so many opportunities for off-street infrastructure, and I’m not holding out for the day when the entirety of all my trips are in the comfort of an off-street bikeway.

But where there is potential for development of an off-street bikeway, it should be snatched up. That’s why I’m puzzled that no one has mentioned the idea of building a bikeway along Olson Memorial Hwy. It should be a no-brainer – long segments of this road have wide open space buffers along them that are currently used for absolutely nothing (with the exception of one pigeon perch). Where the open space buffer (obviously intended as future interchange space) is missing, there’s a 30′ wide frontage road, which can easily give up 10′ for a two-way lane separated with candlestick bollards (the aerial google had up as of this writing shows exactly 8 parked cars on the 4500′ of frontage road on the south side of the highway west of I-94). So substantial segments of this bikeway (around half) would be separated enough to have the feel of an off-street bikeway.

morgan-knox olson bikeway

The I-94 overpass is a trouble spot, as MnDot built it with 105′ of roadway and only 15′ for sidewalks (7.5′ on each side). There is a significant amount of right-turning traffic onto the frontage roads on either side, though, so it seems like one of the through lanes could be converted into a second right turn lane, allowing the through lane on the overpass itself to become a two-way lane. The eastbound outside lane appears to be 14′ wide, which would allow a nice buffer.

i-94 overpass olson bikeway

East of I-94 it gets a bit tighter. The open space buffers are ample for the first block, but after that it’s hampered by a bank drive thru on the north and another road on the south. Still, there are options here. In the short term, one of the lanes from the horrible frontage road stump of Royalston can be used for a two-way cycle track. If some engineer demands two lanes at the intersection, the center line can be moved and one eastbound lane reallocated to westbound (or whatever direction you want to call it). Royalston, after all, gets by with one lane in each direction for the rest of its short length, so it should be fine here. In the long term, however, this area should be reconfigured so that the frontage road stump of Royalston no longer exists. Here’s my idea for how to do that, or here’s what the Southwest Transitway Station Area Planning process came up with.

olson royalston bikeway

A curb cut will need to be built to connect to and across 7th St, probably using the huge porkchop island to cross into the HERC block. At that point it’s within the boundaries of the Interchange project, another long stretch of government-owned land that seems to have been planned with no consideration of locating bike facilities there. It’s been hard to find a detailed or consistent site plan for this project, but this one is the latest I know of. There appears to be a good chunk of open space, probably underneath a future Bottineau viaduct, on which to site a 12′ trail approaching from the west. Depending on how the grades end up working, the trail could then share space with one of the redundant motor vehicle access points, leaving only a short gap of what is presumably open space to connect to another motor vehicle access point. There may be a few tight squeezes here, but brain power is cheaper and usually even easier than buying power, so overall this is an excellent opportunity.

Moving across 5th St, it would have been nice to reserve some space on the Shapco block for bikeway, but it seems that they needed to maximize the amount of grey and beige they could fit on that site. There should be enough space on 5th Ave N, though, as the existing roadway is about 50′ wide. That leaves room for 18-19′ thru + parking lanes (the existing parking lanes are 8-9′ wide) with 12′ for a two-way bikeway with a bollarded buffer. The tricky part here is the rough paving surface – it looks like it’s just asphalt that’s been laid on top of brick haphazardly throughout the years. Hopefully they could do another layer on top for a temporary fix, but if not, it’ll be a long wait before the street is reconstructed since it’s not on the CLIC report at all.

5th-ave-n

The next segment is most iffy part of the whole proposal. The bikeway would need to cross the huge chasm created by the I-394 stump and the Cut. There is, of course, an existing pedestrian bridge, but it’s only 6 or 7′ wide, so would either need to be a dismount zone (yeah right) or extensively modified. It may be possible to cantilever the existing ped bridge – I don’t have a solid grip on this process, but I believe it has been done on this type of bridge (concrete girder) before. If 5′ could be added, it would still be a bit narrow, but doable. Unfortunately no amount of cantilevering will fix the squeeze point at 2nd Ave N, where the ped space is shoehorned into 6′ between a building and a concrete wall. I’m hopeful that eventually the road space allocated to the viaduct here can be reduced, especially since much of it seems to be going to a merging lane that ends before long anyway, but that is certainly a long-term prospect.

After that we’re in the home stretch. 3rd & 4th Sts already comprise a bikeway known as the Hiawatha Trail extension. I can’t leave well enough alone, or rather, I think we deserve better, so I would advocate for protected facilities here to replace the existing paint stripe. Any type of protection will do, but I have a thing for the type of curb-separated two-way bikeway popularized in Montreal (and since spread to Seattle). These are generally better than protected one-way lanes because of their size (i.e. 14′ or so rather than 8′ or so). This makes them more visible, which makes them more legible to users, easier to understand and avoid for other roadway users, and it also makes it possible to plow with standard equipment.  When the alternative would be a one-way protected lane on each roadway of a one-way couplet, it also is more legible in that you can just assume the facility is on one street rather than have to keep track of which direction is on which street.

I’m not aware of any near-term plans to rebuild 3rd St, so it would have to be retrofitted to handle this facility. This can be done by reducing it to two traffic lanes, which should be done throughout Downtown to maximize the comparative advantage of transit, biking and walking (Minneapolis has an extremely high private car mode share for its job density). Then lanes can be slimmed to provide about 15′ for a two-way bikeway with a candlestick bollard buffer.

3rd-st-retrofit

When the street is reconstructed, the sidewalks should be widened to at least 15′ to accommodate the streetlife that hopefully will someday exist here. Then a parking lane should be dropped, since terminal facility availability and cost are a big part of that crazy huge private car mode share. We still have room for an ample bikeway, with two through lanes and a parking lane to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. 3rd-st-rebuiltIf all the elements I’ve discussed here are carried out, Minneapolis could have a high-quality, low-stress, legible bikeway bisecting the city. Cyclists would have a comfortable, no-turn ride from Wirth Park to Minnehaha Park. Even if the connection over I-394 and the Cut are found to be unfeasible, a bikeway along Olson would still connect to the wide bike lanes on 7th St, providing an excellent route through Near North. But none of that will happen until the conversation starts, and maybe I’ve done that with this post.

A Better Nicollet Mall Survey

I just took the Nicollet Mall survey that I guess they borrowed some interns from Fallon to write, and I have to admit, I had a little bit of trouble understanding the questions. They just didn’t speak my language I guess, they really had trouble seizing the urbane zootgeist that emanates our primer throughfare. So I came up with my own survey, hope you like it:

Minnehaha and the sad state of Twin Cities streets

Today on streets.mn I write about Hennepin County’s half-assed new design for Minnhaha Ave, and their pathological use therein of one of the dopiest beasts in my menagerie of pet peeves: bus pull-outs. On probably one out of every four bus trips I take, I witness some schlub motoring recklessly around a bus and into some crosswalk, careless about the pedestrians that might be there that he or she has no way of seeing. That’s every other day I witness this personally, and spend most of my time on the bus staring at a piece of paper covered in ink markings.

There are other horrors of the roadways that I experience on a daily basis in Minneapolis. Related to the Crosswalk Plunge described above is the Half-cocked Hook, where a motorist completes most of a turn but slams on the brakes right before entering the crosswalk that’s occupied by a pedestrian that the motorist didn’t care to look for. This happens to me daily. Literally every day. Of course I already described in probably my greatest ever piece of writing that slimy piece of human garbage known as the Crosswalk Creep. I encounter this scum I would say once or twice per mile of walking.

All of this adds up to some truly terrifying (in the literal sense) and constantly frustrating walking conditions in Minneapolis. So why not just ride a bike? Well, because I encounter at least one bike lane blockage per ride. At least one driver buzzes me per ride. And on top of that, bikes also have to deal with Half-cocked Hookers who have no idea how to judge the speed of a cyclist so they delay their turn until just when the cyclist is entering the intersection. On a bike I probably get that every second or third ride.

This is not an inherent quality of city life. I’ve walked in countless cities that are more congested but don’t make me fear for my life with every step. This is an inherent quality of living in one of the most sprawling cities on earth, where there are entire municipalities of people who think it’s their god-given right for the government to provide them with an unclogged road to anywhere they want to go with a free, easy to find parking space at the end of it, and without having to pay a dime in taxes for it. That’s why a bike lane here and a bump-out there isn’t good enough. No, when the walking is deadly and the biking is deadly and the buses are only good for homeless shelters, but the streets are kinda bumpy, you don’t take new revenue and put it into filling potholes. At least you don’t if you’re a leader with integrity. You put it into the modes that have been marginalized and underfunded for decades. At least you do if you’re a leader with integrity.

That’s why it’s frustrating when there’s an opportunity to entirely rebuild a street, because that’s exactly when they should be optimizing streets for these historically marginalized modes. But instead we see stuff like the design for Minnehaha, which is much better for pedestrians, about the same for bikes, and much worse for buses. There has been some progress in the last 10 years, but we’re coming from way behind, so we can’t afford to let any opportunity pass us by.

Walkable City

The great tragedy of urban planning is that its practitioners, constantly challenged by their arch nemeses the civil engineers, feel compelled to discuss it as though it were a science. Confusion here is understandable, both because it’s common practice in the radically libertarian United States to consign all planning tasks to the engineering office (or alternately in the radically corporatist United States to the economic development office), and because, as a bureaucratic practice, planning comes with a plethora of codes, ordinances, regulations, and complicated maps.

Planning is not a science anymore than music, with its galaxy of modes, notations, and technologies, is a science. Just like there is no one song for every situation (well, maybe MacArthur Park), there is no one planning technique for every situation. Even worse, there is no one set of proscriptions that apply to a given set of conditions. In other words, urban planning doesn’t have an instruction manual, it can’t have an instruction manual, it can only be done well by someone with an eye who takes time to know a subject location intimately.

But if urban planning did have an instruction manual, Walkable City by Jeff Speck would comprise an important chapter. As you might guess, I see that both as a strength and a weakness. On the strength side, it’s probably the most complete and readable compendium of the current state of urbanist thinking (the urbanists being the faction that dominates discussion in the planning field, if not practice) on urban design. Speck does a great job organizing what is in reality a complex set of tools and approaches into 10 comprehensible categories. An example is the chapter Make Friendly and Unique Faces, which I’d summarize as the need to front public space (e.g. parks and streets) with permeable or at least interesting building frontages. Speck of course goes deeper than that, to cite just two examples: demanding parking ramps have first floor retail or be hidden on the interior of blocks, and recommending right-sized parks that facilitate recreation but don’t cut neighborhoods off from each other. These two topics could have been covered in a chapter about parking ramps and a chapter about open space, respectively, but by instead organizing them according to their effect, rather than their mere form, Speck guides the reader to the next level. This approach is a means of understanding the components that make up a place not just as a collection of Dungeons and Dragons characters with their various powers and differing attribute points, but as a collection of unique individuals that don’t always fit into categories and come together with unpredictable results. This approach is an artistic one.

Unfortunately it is not found consistently through the book. Speck too often falls in the engineeringist trap of absolute declarations. One that rubs me the wrong way is his insistence that on-street parking is always a good thing for a street. Certainly, in a place with high parking demand on-street parking will act as a buffer for pedestrians against the motorized traffic in the roadway. But even this is only beneficial if the parking also has the effect of making the roadway feel narrower for moving traffic, resulting in reduced speed – too often (Lake St in Uptown is a local example) roadways are designed with 12′ traffic lanes and 12′ parking lanes, in which case the parking is also a mental buffer for motorists, who can speed through their expressway without having to draw their attention to the human life in the margins. And on-street parking can have a significant downside at intersections if not paired with bump-outs or at least significant clear zones, since parked cars can often obscure any traffic using crosswalks to a turning motorist. Finally, on-street parking is only a buffer if it’s used. Empty parking spaces, as can be seen locally on 38th St, are just a psychological widening of the roadway, predictably increasing top speeds of cars and degrading the walking experience. For all the buffer that on-street parking can provide, a well-landscaped and ample boulevard is just as good a buffer, as can be experienced on Chicago’s State Street or even in places on our own Hennepin Ave. My point, of course, isn’t that on-street parking is always a bad buffer, but rather that it’s one of many tools in the toolbox and shouldn’t be universally prescribed as Speck seems to do at a couple points in his book.

But such absolutist moments are the exception, which is itself exceptional. The best ever book on urban planning – Death and Life of course – took an artistic approach as well, famously describing cities as a sidewalk ballet that couldn’t be taken apart and rebuilt as so many interchangeable or even reliably specialized lego blocks. Unfortunately, Jane Jacobs didn’t win the 20th century, the engineers did. And so engineeringese has predominated in too much of the planning discussion, which wastes vast quantities of hot air attempting to prove that because such and such a signal timing or so and so code phrasing worked in Town A, it’ll do the same thing in City B. While not perfect, Walkable City is a step in the right direction towards a discourse that acknowledges that cities are not perfect either, and as such there is no perfect approach to urban planning.

Question everything

So this week (Tuesday the 15th at 7pm to be precise) streets.mn, urbanmsp, the Minneapolis Bike Coalition, the U of M’s Interdisciplinary Transportation Student Organization and Minnesota Urban Studies Students Association, the League of Concerned Cyclists, Minneapolis Swimmers Against Swimmer’s Itch, and NASA are hosting a mayoral candidate forum on transportation. We all know how it will go – two hours of cracker jack talking points about streetcars and cycle tracks. In the interest of not being bored when I show up out of obligation, I’ve come up with some questions. With these questions comes a challenge: can you top them? My questions suck of course, but are yours any better? Prove it, post them in the comments on streets.mn! Anyway here goes my dreariest queries:

  • What will you do as mayor when a proposed piece of infrastructure that is a critical link in the city’s bicycle network is opposed by neighbors?
  • What does your ideal bus stop look like?
  • What is the number of your favorite bus route and why is that bus the best?
  • Should Metro Transit stop accepting cash fares on-board and why or why not?
  • Is it better to have most bus routes converge downtown or should they be arranged in a grid?
  • What is the value in retaining a bus route network structure that is nearly identical to the streetcar network?
  • What makes a street complete?
  • What is the primary purpose of a street?
  • What role should induced demand play in street design?
  • Is Minneapolis walkable and what makes it so?
  • What is your favorite restaurant to walk to?
  • How important is it to connect Minneapolis’ non-motorized transportation network to the networks of the surrounding suburbs?
  • Is it generally better for retail business parking to be accessed from a street with a curb cut or through an alley?
  • From a transportation perspective, what do you think makes Nicollet Mall successful or unsuccessful? What can be done to build on its success or improve on its failure?

Show me up! Stump the candidate! Post your questions at streets.mn!

Giveth and Taketh Away

A pleasant surprise awaits weary crossers of the Plymouth Bridge, after many months of narrow laned, jersey barriered tribulations, as they drift down the gentle sand plain bluff:

DSCN2651[1]

What’s that in the distance? Through the hazy heat lines of a brutal Minnesota summer I think I glimpse an oasis on that bridge:

DSCN2653[1]

These are easily some of the most badass bike lanes in the city. They took one of the four previously-existing 12′ lanes on this bridge, made 1-2′ of it into a big ole candlestick bollard buffer, cut off a good 4′ of that heinous gutter pan, and left a solid 6′ of riding space.

DSCN2656[1]

Such a quality facility should not exist in a void, so it’s too bad that the City didn’t put in sharrows or advisory lanes on 8th Ave NE when they resurfaced it last year. At the very least they should extend the lanes to the lanes at Marshall. The roadway appears to be 44′ there, which makes it a bit tight, but surprise surprise the parking on the north side of the street is rarely used, fronting as it does two blocks’ worth of parking lots. Would it really be a big deal to cut the parking on the north side of the street and extend these awesome lanes to Marshall?

…Taketh away

Just because I can’t be entirely complimentary, here are also photos of a cop cam taking up the entirety of the bike lane on University on Frat Row:

DSCN2635[1]

I’m all for spying on frat houses (although this cam was strangely aimed at the U’s new pseudo-frat dorm), but maybe they could have used one of those three through lanes? Or how about that sod farm to the right? To be fair, the bike lane symbols have long since warn away here, so maybe officer Bulleigh from Andover just assumed this was a shoulder, not a bike lane.