Thousands of protesters responding to the Ferguson, MO, grand jury decision gathered Tuesday night in south Minneapolis. But the local headline fodder was the story of the pedestrian protester struck and injured by a car at the intersection of Lake and Minnehaha.
The car’s driver, presumably used to the traffic norms of four-lane death roads, “paused behind a vehicle stopped in front of it, and then steered around that vehicle and drove slowly into the crowd that was blocking the intersection,” according to a Star Tribune article.
It seems the driver was so confused by the presence of people in the street that he simply decided to take what he assumed was his right of way.
Really, this was bound to happen. Tensions between pedestrians and automobiles in public space are a persistent theme in the story of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Remember that the confrontation between Brown and Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson began when Brown and a friend were stopped for walking in the middle of the street. Their interaction escalated from there, in a struggle between the patrol car and the street that ended in tragedy.
And, in the much broader context of the story, we should remember the role highway infrastructure plays in dividing neighborhoods, shaping suburban residential patterns, and enforcing segregation in cities like St. Louis and our own Twin Cities.
Tuesday night’s protesters – my partner and I among them – were out in sufficient force to take over Hiawatha Avenue at rush hour. The pedestrian masses walked the northbound lanes all the way from the scene of the hapless driver’s hit-and-run on Lake Street to the intersection with 35W. Marching on foot in this realm of the automobile, as a protest against the ways in which fear and bias play out in our streets, felt like the right thing to do.
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[This is part of streets.mn's "transpo convo" series, which aims to be an oral history of getting around the Twin Cities, one person at a time.]
“It’s nasty out here,” Phyllis proclaims after crossing University Avenue at Pascal. She was dragging her shopping bag suitcase on wheels in one hand and using a cane in the other. She had started crossing at the green light and the 22 seconds of crossing time didn’t quite allow her to get all the way across, but the cars waited patiently for her to get to the sidewalk.
“First of all, I don’t like that train,” she says, shaking her head. “It takes an hour to get all the way to Minneapolis. It has to stop at all those stoplights. And why do they build it in the middle of a street? It should have been on the freeway. Where I’m from, they don’t do things like this,” she says, referencing her hometown of Chicago.
Phyllis has been here since 1991. “I’m ready to leave, though,” she says. “It gets cold here. I get short of breath walking in the snow. It gets hard. It makes you tired. I’m moving to Florida.”
As we walk slowly down University Avenue between Pascal and Simpson, we meet a man with his family who is angry that we don’t yield fast enough for him to pass through. Between the trees on the north side and the shrubs on the south side, there is really very little sidewalk for people to intermingle. It seems few are happy with the return of snow to Minnesota.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Phyllis says. “I like Minnesota. I just don’t understand what they do sometimes. My main buses were the 16 and the 94. The 16 only runs a little bit now and he 94 doesn’t run on weekends. They do everything to make it convenient for them, but they got to think about the people.”
“Well, this is where I’m going. Thank you and goodbye.” Phyllis says at the end of the block as she lugs her bag up the steps. “It’s nasty out here,” she reminds me.
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Contorting existing neighborhoods to host regional infrastructure creates crazy spill-over effects. Check out the beauty it adds to our neighborhoods and cultural institutions.
It’s an award-winning design. The engineers who created this 50 years ago won a national award for it – shoehorning ramps, bridges, slip turns, pork chop islands, and infrastructure I can’t even name into an historic institutional corridor.
I thought I understood the Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck, having used it from every possible direction as a driver, a bus rider, a pedestrian, and a bicyclist for the last 18 years. On streets.mn we’ve blogged the area to death (see Bill’s summary here). As an interested neighbor, I participated on a neighborhood stakeholder group advising the design team last summer.
As neighbors, we all knew that in living here, we chose the benefit of proximity in exchange for the inconvenience of hosting this giant regional transportation service. As stakeholders, we were recommending this burden be mitigated by adding safety and green space for people walking and biking through the corridor. Unsurprisingly, we eyed the frontage road on the west side of Hennepin. It’s redundant! May we change it?
The project designers saw this, too. One of their proposed designs cut off west-bound right turns at Douglas (the “B” in the image above, top purple bit on the image below).
When this was mentioned out loud, I learned I hadn’t exited it in every direction, and I’d missed an unimaginable and hilariously perverse consequence of the design. [NOTE: this idea was immediately removed from consideration.]
Residents and institutional visitors of Lowry Hill and Loring Park are forced to use neighborhood streets as a cloverleaf interchange. When I first heard this, I was perplexed, so they walked our stakeholder group through it.
When you approach Groveland from either north or south, there’s No Left Turn.
Let’s say you’re a resident of Lowry Hill, approaching from the south on Lyndale or Hennepin, or maybe exiting 94 heading north. And let’s pretend it’s election day, and you are going to First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis on Mount Curve to vote. You need to go left on Groveland to get to your polling place. But, nope! No Left Turn. What do you do?
Alternatively, maybe you’re exiting 394 heading south to Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. Again, you need to go left on Groveland. What do you do?
It turns out those award-winning engineers snuck in a cloverleaf interchange Easter Egg without anyone knowing. (I wonder, did even they know?)
The “No Left Turn” – forced by sandwiching regional-scale traffic infrastructure into an historic neighborhood – places yet another burden of time and traffic on the neighbors of this interchange.
As long as we’re stuck with the Spaghetti Bowl of I94 entrances and exits, we’re stuck with this crazy cloverleaf navigation through neighborhood streets and on a redundant frontage road. Maybe someday, one of the visions proposed on streets.mn (#1, #2) can restore this grand corridor to it’s once grand state and address neighborhood access.
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In preparation for Thanksgiving, my son’s first grade class constructed three villages to compare and contrast the ways of life of three peoples: The Wampanoag Indians, 17th century Plymouth Plantation, and the Modern Suburb.
First, the handout. This came home in his backpack, conveniently labeled with his specific assignment:
Initial reaction: “He has to build a WHAT by WHEN?”
But then, I really read it. Now, sure, I wish he had the assignment to build a “tree.” I can do trees. But apparently, modern life has no trees. No rivers. No animals. (Well, no chickens — we’re not allowed chickens in my town per statute. But there are lots of yappy dogs!)
But we have, explicitly, a Target. Note that the coffee shop is not a Caribou or Starbucks, the grocery is not a Cub. And we have a gas station. But we have an explicitly branded Target being raised in this First Grade Model Town. We don’t have Park N Ride lots, municipal services, townhomes or multi-unit dwellings.
So what we have is two communal early American villages. And one suburb without trees.
What did they learn from this? Well, the main thing I got is “Indians and Pilgrims hunted in the forest, but some people still go to Wisconsin and hunt today!” Yeah, that was apparently my kid’s big takeaway.
Join me in reading too much into this. And be thankful if you have trees and rivers.
Here’s a chart from a 2007 University of Minnesota study all about how people perceive walking distance in various ways, depending on where they live and how they get around.
I’ve long been fascinated by this topic, and the results of the study show that it’s a very complex issue. Some walks can feel very long, while others can feel very short. Everything depends on your individual perception. And, really, from this study, it’s difficult to come up with any conclusions. Here are some of the results…
This analysis shows that individuals’ perception of distance and travel time is fraught with error; only about one-third of respondents correctly estimated the amount of time it would take to walk from their home to the nearest retail destinations.
According to all of the logistic regressions run for this study, placing businesses within a five minute walk of as many homes as possible is the most reliable means of increasing awareness about the destination. Of course, due to consumer choice, this approach will not necessarily reduce the amount that residents travel because they may choose to travel farther to a different store despite the fact that they are aware of the nearer opportunity and the travel time there, however that is an issue beyond the scope of this paper. The important finding is that holding distance to a destination constant, this analysis found that specific elements of urban form such as trails, parks, and intersections do not have a consistent impact on perceived accessibility.
Not all half-mile walks are made equal. [See also: Perceived comfort of varying bicycle facilities.]
This is part two of a four part series of “Traffic Signal Trivia”, dealing with some history and interesting facts concerning traffic signals. Part 1 covered vehicle signals in general, but left turns are a whole story in themselves, so here we continue.
It didn’t take long after the introduction of traffic signal until left turning traffic became an issue. These were the days before dedicated turn lanes became common, so stuck traffic unable to turn would back up through traffic behind that would otherwise be able to go straight. To solve this, a left turn indication was added that would light for a few seconds
Note how there’s no warning, the “clearance interval” in traffic signal speak, that the turn phase is going to end, Later came phases designed to let a significant amount of traffic through, not just a few stuck cars. Also there were longer delays after the left turn phase ended before releasing oncoming traffic, but there was initially no indication for this. This “blind clearance” has been banned for many years but is still present in some older installations in other parts of the country. (This absolutely freaked me out the first time I encountered it, in Keokuk, IA).
With the introduction of protected left turns, it took a while for this indication to be standardized. Some very early indications were white balls, rather than arrows. The indications were originally 8”, but soon grew to the 12” standard. Before the standard pattern came about, there was an alternative style (called the “Chinese Arrow” in collector / enthusiast slang) that had notable curves to the strokes, and another style with the arrow heads filled in. There was an arrow that was neon and even a white arrow has turned up, no doubt related to early white ball indications.
Also of note was the “Arroway”, which was a panel that replaced the green indication. There was a 8″ green ball in the center and red bars and green arrows extending outward would light up indicating prohibited and protected turns.
Later, with left turn lanes becoming more common and roads getting wider, left turns indications started being handled by a dedicated head. The yellow and red were standard 8” balls. Uniquely, California used visors on the red and yellow sections so through lanes would not see them. Red and yellow arrows came much later, in the 1970s, and red balls in left turn displays were still permitted until the most recent standards update. At one time red arrows were under consideration for being banned due to drivers not understanding them, but this is no longer a problem, drivers have since gotten used to them.
Protected vs Permitted
Permitted operation is simply the default, where you have a single green light for all traffic, and left turning traffic has to yield to oncoming traffic. Protected is where you have the three left turn arrows and traffic is not allowed to turn when oncoming traffic has the green. The tradeoffs are efficiency vs safety. With protected only you remove 4 conflicts from the intersection, but dedicated arrows take up time in the cycle, and turning traffic has to wait even if there’s obviously no-one coming. A hybrid approach is protected/permitted, where both modes operate during the same cycle. This is a split the difference approach between efficiency and safety. Left turning drivers are less likely to take chances if they know they’ll get a protected movement eventually, and the permissive phase allows gaps in the oncoming traffic to be utilized.
Lead vs Lag
There’s also various trade-offs as to whether arrows should come on at the beginning or end of the cycle. (Lead vs Lag Lefts) Lead lefts have the advantage if there’s no or inadequate left turn lanes and the traffic tends to back up, blocking the through lanes. A lead left allows them to clear before they’re in the way of through traffic. Second, if there’s an unusual volume of left turning traffic, extending a lead left impacts traffic operations less because you can still release the through traffic the same direction during the left turn phase. (And they actually did a survey and found lead lefts are what drivers want.)
Lag lefts have the advantage in that drivers have less of a tendency to continue going through as the arrow turns yellow and red. I’m sure everyone has witnessed it where left turning cars keep going through until oncoming traffic notices they have a green and start edging forward. Secondly, the overall left turn phase can be shorter, as more turning traffic has an importunity to find gaps before the phase begins. Finally, pedestrians have the tendency to step into the street as soon as they see a red on a side street, which would put them in conflict with left turning cars. (I see this all the time at Calhoun parkway and William Berry Parkway; this would be a good location to modify to a lag left just because of pedestrian behavior).
Sometimes traffic one direction will have both a through and protected left turn simultaneously, then it’s the other sides turn. The left tun traffic signal heads will be four lights, as in lag lefts the arrow always ends at the same time as the ball so a yellow arrow isn’t needed. This usually isn’t particularly efficient but is used where there’s a high volume of turning traffic relative to through (like a pair of shopping mall exits at a wide suburban road), or there simply isn’t room for adequate left turn lanes and it was determined a protected phase was necessary. In this setup it’s really easy for lanes to be used for both through and turning traffic as cars will never wait to turn blocking through traffic.
The Problems with Permissive
Over time permissive turns became an increasing safety issue, as traffic volumes in general grew, and drivers becoming used to protected turns didn’t realize they had to yield on green ball. (Yes, this is a real issue, a permissive phase had to be yanked from a traffic signal in Stewartville because too many left turning drivers were not yielding on green) Another issue is that and lead/lag protective/permissive phasing (the most efficient way to operate coordinated intersections) creates an extremely dangerous situation called the “Yellow Trap”. Various local solutions were tried, including “Dallas Phasing”, (in Texas), flashing red arrows (in Delaware), flashing red balls- (in Michigan- where they were treated like a yield in practice, and Maryland), and flashing yellow balls (Washington state). So it was obvious a national solution was needed. This led to the development of our new friend, the flashing yellow arrow. The next post in the series will deal with the flashing yellow arrow and the various issues with permissive phasing.
This is more of a chart / map (chap or mart?), showing the origin points for mortgages during the decade leading up to the housing boom. It’s a national map, but I zoomed in on the Twin Cities to take this snapshot.
The map also includes race data, which is interesting too. Click here for the full map.
No, I’m not joking. David Levinson wrote about an often overlooked but important subsidy* given to drivers: the lack of sales tax on gasoline and auto/truck purchases. I’m surprised this hasn’t received more attention given the other distortions that see press. Yes, we pay a motor vehicle sales tax when buying a car, but that is supposed to be a user fee for funding roads (well, 60% of it at least). Yes, we also pay state and federal gas taxes, but again those are user fees (the MN gas tax is 100% dedicated to the Highway User Tax Distribution Fund).
*The word subsidy is often used when no direct subsidy is actually taking place. In this instance, like the mortgage interest deduction or similar policies, the lack of payment acts as a price distortion given lack of exemption for most other goods purchased. It’s not a subsidy per se, but the term works good enough.
We pay sales taxes on windshield wiper fluid, oil, tires, parts, and other necessities to keep our cars moving. We also pay a sales tax on refrigerators, stoves, lights, and thousands of other durable goods (and other not so durable ones) to live a modern life. Cars and gas shouldn’t be any different (in the author’s humble opinion).
Let’s evaluate what this would mean under politically possible scenarios. What do I mean by “politically possible”? Well, it’s very unlikely that we’ll see a statewide increase in total sales tax collected. Not only is the sales tax one of the more regressive taxes around (making it unpopular with liberals), raising taxes (on cars and gas, specifically) would not go over well with conservatives. So, I’ll limit my analysis to revenue-neutral only.
For my analysis, I will be referencing the current gas tax ($0.285/gal, assumed across all gallons sold – an incorrect but rough estimate) and MVST Rate (6.5%), gas tax, general sales tax and MVST revenue collected by the state in 2013, a rough estimate on 2013 average gas price of $3.20/gal taken from here, spending information from the 2013 BLS Consumer Spending report, and number of MN Households. Again, in all scenarios I hold total revenue collected constant, otherwise we’ll get into a debate on if the current amount raised is too high/low and if the programs the money goes to are necessary. Also, when I say “add a sales tax to MVST,” I am proposing keeping the current 6.5% as a user fee (we need a dedicated funding source for roads) and the resulting general sales tax rate would be on top of that.
Scenario 1) We add a sales tax to gasoline and motor vehicle sales, apply a lower rate to all goods.
Scenario 2) We add a sales tax to gasoline sales only, apply a lower rate to all goods. Why? 3 million Minnesota residents live within roughly an hour drive of Wisconsin. If a family only buys a car every 4-5 years, they’ll likely make the trip across the border.
Scenario 3) We add a sales tax to gasoline, motor vehicles, and clothing. I know, taxing clothing seems extremely regressive, since it’s basically a requirement to survive. I’m just testing the waters here to see how the numbers shake out, and since clothing only represents roughly 3-3.5% of household spend for families making less than $40,000 per year. That share is roughly the same as higher income households (making >$70k), who also spend 3.1%. Compare that to groceries, where lower income households spend around 11% of their income, while higher income families spend more like 6-8%.
Scenario 4) We add a sales tax to gasoline and clothing, but forego vehicle sales, apply a lower rate to all goods.
Here’s the outcome:
We see that we can reduce the general burden on the MN sales tax by anywhere between 0.8% and 1.6% with these four scenarios. I’m inclined to suggest Scenario 1 – as a state, we shouldn’t favor the purchase of automobiles over other consumer spending by under-taxing it. Clothing is a pretty small household expenditure (clothing spend in low income households is half that of just gasoline, for example), but pragmatically, this will never fly in a fairly progressive Minnesota (and one where a certain mall will lobby hard to keep visitors coming to buy their wares on the cheap). The net result for an average Minnesota family/individual would be no additional tax burden. If you buy a lot of cars and drive a lot, you will likely pay more in total sales tax. If you own fewer cars and/or drive less, you’ll pay less.
Yes, Wisconsin or North Dakota may say they’re “open for purchase” or something similar, that’s fine. We could make it a requirement to pay the sales tax when registering a vehicle purchased outside the state to avoid this behavior; presumably, nearly all cars bought in Wisconsin acquire new MN titles, no? We used to dedicate a significant chunk of the MVST to the general fund – as recently as 2002, 69.14% was sent to the general fund, with years prior to 1980 seeing none dedicated to transportation. My guess is the DOT and state began realizing that gas taxes alone weren’t covering system maintenance and expansion so they began searching for ways to pay for roads. Fine, keep the MVST as a user fee (though I disagree with using fixed costs like these instead of mileage- or congestion-based ones), but lower the sales tax burden on everything else we all buy.
Territ Downs is, sadly, a fictional community. This post is looking for the buildings in Minnesota that belong in Territ Downs. Buildings for which a surface parking lot compares favorably. Not simply buildings which are minimal but functional, but buildings which are hostile to the rest of the world. Buildings you wonder how got approved. Post your nominations in the comments.
Here’s all the content from streets.mn last week carefully seasoned and stuffed into one post:Regional differences
More on the Infrastructure Cost Discussion and Re-Framing the Regional Transportation Debate continue discussion about regional transportation (and the costs of urban and suburban development patterns) which kicked off with a recent Chart of the Day. This should be read along with A Quick Fix for Minneapolis Transit for more discussion of costs and density. MN GOP Beware: Biking and Pedestrian Improvements Have Broad Appeal is less about the GOP and more about showing interest in biking and walking is state-wide and not limited to the (presumably DFL) urban core; commenters question both the title and scare tactics as well as the numbers in the post.Transit
Transit-Oriented Development: Quality Over Quantity considers transit oriented development policy (good), but also how to get development “good enough so that people riding the train want to get off at that station and have a look around” (better). A Quick Fix for Minneapolis Transit follows up on last week’s Transitopolis and suggests improvements for Minneapolis’ dense urban core (with special attention to the #18 Bus).City bikes
A Bike Matters could be called a buying guide for city bikes (where the Dutch omafiets is the ideal); commenters weigh in with more information about specific bike models and features.Minneapolis and St. Paul
Minneapolis Is Hitting the Trifecta of affordable housing, upward mobility, and great bike infrastructure to attract millenials; comments seize on the affordable housing piece including rent control, public vs. private housing, and linking housing to transit. Meanwhile in St. Paul Suggestions for a safer Jefferson Bicycle Boulevard is an open letter to St. Paul Public Works and Mayor Coleman critiquing the current bike boulevard and making specific suggestions (illustrated!) for improvement. Restore the Grid! A Vision for the Center of Downtown Saint Paul advocates for breaking up the SuperBlocks bounded by 6th and 7th Streets and Wabasha and Minnesota Streets to make downtown St. Paul (again) more beautifully walkable, bikable and livable.Greater MN
Duluth, the Urban Time Capsule looks at Duluth’s development pattern and finds a traditionally urban small city. Bike-cation in Northfield looks at bicycling in and through Northfield (and getting tripped up by a stroad).Audiovisual department
Video this week includes two very short videos: Metro Transit – A to B is a cute little broadcast TV ad for the Nextrip/GoTo Card ad and Holy Parking Meters, Batman defies characterization but is worth each and every one of its 17 seconds. And a longer (5 minutes) video about Oulu, Finland, The Winter Cycling Capital of the World, shows us how Oulu’s 30 year commitment to building bike infrastructure (17km of bike lanes per year) and maintaining it (bike paths plowed before streets!) make it a great place to bike (22% mode share) despite cold weather and very short days.
I am grateful for streets.mn this Thanksgiving with its growing group of passionate people who observe their places carefully, work to improve them, and have a great deal of fun while they’re at it. Here’s everything you need for fun winter cycling (including coffee and bagels); have a wonderful holiday week!
A nice Metro Transit Nextrip/GoTo Card ad for television broadcast.
Thanks to Bill Dooley for sharing (on Facebook) this great short video on winter maintenance for bicycle facilities.
The City of Oulu is the cycling capital of Finland and the winter cycling capital of the world. It has one of the most extensive bicycling networks (613 km, 4.3 m/inhab.) in the world, a cycling modal split of 22 % (2009 data) and state of the art winter maintenance levels.
R: No policeman’s going to give the Batmobile a ticket.
B: No matter Robin, this money goes toward building better roads. We must all do our part.
R: Holy taxation, you are right again, Batman.
Here’s a chart from a piece up at Streetsblog that shows which income groups get access to subsidized parking from their workplace via the “parking commuter tax benefit.”
There are two main problems with the kind of parking subsidies that are common in many workplaces. First, they go mostly to the wealthiest groups of people, as this chart shows. Second, they make congestion worse by encouraging people to drive.
…as Streetsblog says:
The result: The country spends $200 billion a year on transportation — much of it on road expansion justified as a congestion reduction tool — while simultaneously encouraging people to make congestion worse by driving downtown during rush hour and parking for free.
Sidewalk Rating: Worthy--> I found my bicycle (I didn’t know I had one) in the same place I must have left it. Which enables me to remark that, crippled though I was, I was no mean cyclist, at that period. This is how I went about it. I fastened my crutches to the cross-bar, on either side, I propped the foot of my stiff leg (I forget which, now they’re both stiff) on the projecting front axle, and I pedaled with the other. It was a chainless bicycle, with a free-wheel, if such a bicycle exists. Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation, I don’t know why. It is a pleasure to meet it again. To describe it at length would be a pleasure. It had a little red horn instead of the bell fashionable in your days. To blow this horn was for me a real pleasure, almost a vice. I will go further and declare that if I were obliged to record, in a roll of honour, those activities which in the course of my interminable existence have given me only a mild pain in the balls, the blowing of a rubber horn—toot!—would figure among the first. (15) [Sam Beckett.] [The steam plume in Downtown Saint Paul.]*** CLICK ON IMaGES FOR LINKS! ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** *** *** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ***
Yesterday I delved a little into the question of whether we’ve really under-funded or under-built roads. Of course the standard reply is that roads still recover more costs than transit, and transit (run by the Met Council) is partially subsidized by drivers (via the motor vehicle sales tax, 40% of which is now dedicated to transit). This is seen as unfair – money that could or should be spent on improving roads, especially as Thrive 2040 looks to curtail further expansion. But our region is not just roads and transit. We rely on many other services provided at a regional level to go about our daily lives, and I think many would be surprised to see how the costs break down for them.Fairness Goes the Other Way, Too
I’ve written before how urban roads receive a hidden subsidy that favors suburban drivers over core city financial health and livability. But that doesn’t pack the punch that bullying on the Met Council as a cash transfer to urban, transit-riding residents does. So what about other services the Met Council provides?
People see empty buses and farebox recovery ratios and can easily conclude “subsidy!”. But people can easily forget about the pipes under our streets and sewage treatment facilities in obscure places cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, maintain, and operate each year.
It might come as a shock to many that Met Council’s Environmental Services (wastewater treatment) annual budget includes a pretty hefty amount of debt.. 43%!
That debt service pays for major capital projects like, you know, repairing and replacing major trunk sewer lines, building new treatment facilities, etc. Yes, some of those lines are in front of core city homes, but we know from research that they cost drastically less to serve:
Denser areas like Minneapolis save anywhere from one third to 50% of the costs of less dense areas typically found in suburban neighborhoods. This is right in line with other research showing roughly 50% cost savings for annual utility costs with marginal increases in average unit density (Tables 3, 6, and 7). Given the flat rate Sewer Availability Charge for new units (regardless of context or cost to serve) and usage fees that relate only to gallons (again, not cost to serve), it’s hard to not conclude there’s a massive cost transfer from the core cities to their suburbs here.
I’m not knocking the Met Council here, but what fiscal conservative would look at a wastewater treatment budget where nearly 50% is retiring debt and feel comfortable with the system of pipes under their street? Ignore the knee-jerk reaction to a hyper-dense, European lifestyle (if that’s not your thing, which is totally fine) for a second. A place like Annecy, France (pictured below) undoubtedly spends less per dwelling unit or per-capita on its streets, roads, water mains, and sewers than a place like Plymouth. You can’t escape geometry.
Let’s imagine we built our own slice of Annecy on, say, the Ford Plant redevelopment site. Would it be fair to charge them the same amount per-dwelling unit as a new single family home in Elko? What about an ADU in Minneapolis? Under the guise of fairness, the Met Council has cross-subsidized low-density land uses on the fringe with less impactful infill and usage rates from more urban areas.
To be clear, I fully support a regional body handling things like transit and sewage treatment. Having each municipality (or even county) run their own transit lines would be insane, as would avoiding cost savings of serving an optimal population per treatment facility with strong coordination. But that doesn’t mean we should say yes to every new interceptor line or treatment facility that costs far more to build and operate. The Met Council should be charging impact fees for new development in-line with impact to the regional system, and usage fees should reflect additional service and ongoing maintenance costs per dwelling unit rather than on a straight gallons-used share.
The same could be said for private utilities like Xcel Energy and Centerpoint Energy, who maintain electric and gas lines in service footprints that spread across our region – their costs are shared among all ratepayers just like the Met Council.
Now, I don’t believe for a second that if we shifted full costs to users that we’d see wholesale abandonment of the suburbs (and no, that’s not my goal). There are plenty of folks out there with enough wealth to weather the charges because they really do prefer a car-oriented lifestyle on larger lots, and that’s fine. But price signals matter. Let’s elevate the regional discussion away from distinct silos of land-use, transportation, and services and move toward charging users the full cost of their lifestyle choices (including transportation, utilities, and externalities).
If you’re a millennial and you’re looking for a job in a new city, you might have read (or want to read) the November 19th article in The Atlantic about “why it’s so hard for millenials to find a place to live and work”. The problem, it seems, is that the cities with the most upward mobility and the highest median incomes are also the cities with the least affordable housing.
Three cities, however, buck that trend: Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, and our own Minneapolis. While I could play booster for Minneapolis (it has the highest median income of those three cities according to a follow-up article on Vox.com) there’s a different angle to this story: Bikes.
Pittsburgh became a national model for rapid bikeway progress this year when they announced, planned, and built their first three protected bike lanes in only four months. The city took the bold move of pushing the process forward–and the result? Over 1000 thank-you letters to the mayor of Pittsburgh from every zip code in the city and a number of surrounding suburbs.
That isn’t to say Pittsburgh hasn’t experienced some “bikelash” as Mayor Bill Peduto cleverly called the push-back from drivers. However, the project started with strong cyclist and business support and it’s reasonable to give time for education of the wider driving public.
Salt Lake City, as opposed to Pittsburgh, has a well-established cycling culture. From the hard-core spandex dudes (and chicks) riding the 8.3 miles of 3472 feet of vertical of Little Cottonwood Canyon (average grade of 9.2% for you climbing junkies) to its 2012 debut of one of the first city DOT bike web pages in the country, Salt Lake has taken a strong, early and successful stance on cycling as a sport and a means of transportation. (Full disclosure: this author spent 17 years in Salt Lake City, loves it, and misses it, even while embracing Saint Paul as her new home.)
And then there’s Minneapolis. I think I can assume most streets.mn readers know a little something about bike infrastructure in Minneapolis. We’ve had a turn ranked as the top bike friendly city in the nation by Bicycling magazine, and we’ve got a current designation by League of American Bicyclists as a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly City.
While Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis aren’t the only bike friendly communities on The Atlantic’s list of hot millennial picks for upward mobility (Denver, San Francisco, New York, I’m looking at you), they’re certainly doing better than some of the other “affordable” metros.
If you’re a regular (or even casual) reader of streets.mn, you’re probably aware of the debate being waged on transportation and land-use policy in the Twin Cities. The Met Council’s Thrive 2040 plan and recent election cycle seemed to magnify the divide (which may or may not be drawn along political lines). MinnPost (via our own Bill Lindeke) covered the eloquently nicknamed CWADS’ (the 5 suburban counties of the MSP area – Carver, Washington, Anoka, Dakota, and Scott) uproar over Thrive 2040’s goals of balancing transportation investments and imposing stricter land-use regulations, particularly around major regional transit investments. Adding fuel to the fire are the Center for the American Experiment voices using scare tactics to rile up the Strib commenters.
At its heart, the frustration from suburban residents and leaders seems to come from a position of unfairness. Statements like “..the plan focuses on transit and non-motorized transportation without paying enough attention to highways and freight, which they count as their lifeblood” and “There’s just a feeling that Thrive is not applied equally throughout the region” (both from the Star Tribune article) underscore this feeling. Bill already covered some structural underpinnings that actually flip this assumption on its head, but I’d like to dig deeper to help re-frame the transportation conversation.Roads, Streets, and Access
The belief that we’ve somehow under-invested in roads and streets baffles my mind. People are surprised when an endless supply of roads, each funneling to the next hierarchical level, ends in congestion – they shouldn’t be. But even if you’re still shocked, the belief that we don’t have enough roads is unfounded.
Lane miles (only within municipal borders to avoid counting rural farm roads) per-capita in suburban counties greatly outweigh the core counties. Even within Hennepin and Ramsey, the core cities have roughly 1/3 fewer lane miles per capita than in-county suburbs.
The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), who gives us fuel for more road building with their Annual Urban Mobility Report (which has been thoroughly debunked as far as I’m concerned), is nevertheless a great repository for metro-level road data reaching back to 1982. When we look at the number of lane miles (which only includes down into freeways and arterials) constructed over the past three decades or so, we see that road building has even outstripped population growth in the Twin Cities:
We should remember that this data set starts after the majority of our regional interstate and highways were constructed. Yes, the final bits of 35E in St Paul and I-394 had yet to be completed, but the early 80s Twin Cities had plenty of suburban space with large lot homes to go around. By estimates we spent over $10 billion in $2011 constructing only freeways and arterials (not including their annual maintenance costs or any municipal streets). We know that this infrastructure isn’t paying for itself anymore. But it certainly has been a boon to drivers:
I mean, I don’t know about anyone else, but that chart on the left looks pretty darn good to me. In fact, our region as a whole ranks fifth in the country for weighted average jobs accessible despite ranking 14th for total number of metro jobs. Someone living at the eastern edge of Chanhassen has as many jobs accessible to them by car in 20 minutes as a person living just south of Lake Street in Uptown does with a 10 minute head start by transit. We could stop building roads and lanes for 20 years and still have nationally competitive car commute times and job access.But the Economy!
And what did all this road-building get us? One of the silver bullets when arguing for more roads is always the economic development potential they bring. Is this even true in the last 30 years? We know at a national level that we’ve seen diminishing returns on the last-mile added for roads from an economic perspective. But what about the roads we built in the Twin Cities, specifically?
Using TTI’s freeway and arterial lane mile data and MSP metro GDP growth scientifically extrapolated from this chart (seriously, if anyone has hard metro GDP historical data, please let me know), I built these charts. The question is: does higher levels of road building lead to greater economic growth in the following years. I used previous 1 year lane mile change and 3, 5, and 10 year GDP change, as well as one test for the previous 5 years of road building. In no case have we seen a significant positive correlation to support our idea that roads = commerce.
The reality is that these roads were built almost exclusively to support a certain suburban lifestyle. We even elected a US congressman who partly campaigned to build more roads so we don’t have to fly a helicopter to work. Those opposed to the Thrive 2040 plan should honestly ask how many times the big, bad, Agenda 21-ers at the Met Council said “no” to a new subdivision, widened arterial, new 6 lane highway, or interstate expansion. When you push hard enough, MnDOT finds the money for a full (untolled) lane on 494. When Lakeville needs a $6 million roundabout to support future growth, they get it.
I’m not going to sit here and justify every single transit project in the hopper – there’s some pretty hefty costs per rider for most of those lines chasing suburban jobs and downtown commuters (though we should at least acknowledge that part of the high cost is baked into the transit-hostile land uses, freeway/arterial flyovers, and other cost escalators thanks to auto-oriented design).
And, we should definitely question why transit seems to fail at recovering operating costs when other parts of the world have proved improvements can be made. But I feel like we could have easily accommodated the roughly 1 million people our metro added since the early 80s all within the 494/694 beltway had we spent $10 billion on rail lines with downtown tunnels and a far better bus systems. Asking that we start to steer the massive ship away from the 60 year status-quo towards something more environmentally and fiscally sustainable seems like a fair goal for a regional planning body.Footnotes
 This estimation was tough since aggregate spending data on metro-specific projects is hard to come by. I used data by roadway type and location in Table 5.6 3-4. This includes right-of-way acquisition, construction, and an estimate of intersection costs added per lane mile. I brought the total cost down for arterials by 25% , and used BLS inflation calculator to bring the cost structure to $2011. I assumed 25% of new lane miles were in built-up areas with the rest being greenfield (outlying). I’m open to hone this model with anyone who has a better method, but I feel the ending number probably isn’t too far off.
A colleague of mine (from a more urban city) recently visited. When he arrived, I offered to show him around and he wanted to see transit-oriented development (TOD). Hmm…. I wanted to impress him, but I was stumped. Despite all our attention as a city and region to TODs, I don’t believe we have any great transit villages right off the platform where we could go that would really resonate with him. There’s Nicollet Mall and Target Field Station, but I wanted him to say, “wow, this is great!,” but I didn’t feel those would produce that response. Maybe I have impossibly high standards (maybe I’m just getting old and codgery), or maybe the Twin Cities is lagging a bit in the TOD quality department. So I took him for a drive along the West River Parkway and to West River Commons, which impressed him. This begs the question what is TOD and how can we do it better?
The City of Minneapolis defines it as “walkable, moderate to high density development served by frequent transit with a mix of housing, retail, and employment choices designed to allow people to live and work with less or no dependence on a personal car.” Hennepin County’s take is similar, and the first criteria they list when prioritizing dollars that support TOD is development that enhances transit usage and increases walkability through good physical design (I like this!). The Met Council’s TOD program is defined almost exactly as Minneapolis’s (not sure who copied the others’ website…). Interestingly, the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (CTOD) goes farther with their mission statement, which says they are “…dedicated to uncovering and deploying the best solutions for integrating community development with transit investments, resulting in an improved quality of life for all….”
Local, county and metro government agencies obviously want TOD. For example, the Met Council quite bluntly wants to “maximize TOD.” This is all well and good, since automobile dependency costs households a lot of money, so therefore TOD is good policy. So it is fairly easy to define, and is essentially a mix of uses near transit, thus easy to quantify. Development and planning professionals tout the thousands of housing units already built near Blue Line transit stations in Minneapolis and Bloomington, and now along the Green Line in St. Paul. Already development has occurred along the Green Line southwest extension, and planning for development along the Blue Line Bottineau extension has begun.
There is no doubt the numbers are substantial. Although development near transit is difficult, it is happening and will continue to do so. I doubt we’ll ever zone or approve enough housing and employment near planned Blue Line and Green Line stations, but that is another matter. The definition of TOD I’d like to add has to do with quality in addition to quantity. Is the development good enough so that people riding the train want to get off at that station and have a look around? Do people who work near the train enjoy getting some fresh air at lunch because the walk is interesting? Do people who live near the train find their walk home a great way to decompress? Can people actually pick up groceries or other shopping on the way to and from the train? It is important that not only development exists near transit as good public policy but that we members of the public actually like spending time in these places. In other words, “an improved quality of life for all,” as CTOD states.
I was drawn to live near light rail the day it opened in 2004, and I’ve been advocating for better quality urban fabric ever since. The results are mixed; some good, some work left to do, and I believe our TOD policies need to demand a little more quality. It’s too bad we are fighting over the alignment of the Southwest corridor route rather than focusing on creating high quality development near those stations. Did you know that St. Louis Park is creating a form-based code to do just that? You should. As part of that process, the visual preference survey is pretty interesting and shows that I’m not the only one who cares about quality. I’ve written previously about how a form-based code improved the design of a TOD in the Bay Area, and I think St. Louis Park is on the right track. Earlier this week Hennepin County approved funding to purchase a six-acre site at the Lake Street Station of the Blue Line for the development of a family services center, 500 housing units and location for the Midtown Farmers Market. As I’ve recently posted, there is room for improvement in the quality of design there. Oaks Station Place can become a national model for TOD if only they could land a restaurant that will make people want to be on that plaza, something that is proving tricky. While the Green Line has proven to be successful among riders and popular for developers, some place-related issues persist, although progress has been made on some of these.
I’ve used the following image in many posts, and I’m using it again because I believe it sets such an excellent example of what a strong transit-oriented development policy focused on quality can achieve. It also reminds me of how much work we have to do here. The bottom line is the quantity of TOD we are producing in the Twin Cities is significant. And while the quality is getting better (we’re on the right “track”), we still have a long way to go, and must stay awake and focused on demanding better places. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball and demand high quality transit-oriented development – places where we want to spend time. You see, that elusive perfect TOD actually does exist, just not in the Twin Cities…yet.
Today’s Chart of the Day contains useful instructions for sitting on a bus. Remember: Don’t be the worst.