Twin Cities

Podcast #75 – Restoring University Avenue Parking with Chris Ferguson

Streets.MN - Fri, 10/31/2014 - 4:39pm

The podcast this week is a conversation with Chris Ferguson, a University Avenue business owner who is leading the charge on re-adding on-street parking to the street as it runs through Saint Paul and Minneapolis. As you probably know, University avenue is home to the green line light rail line, the Twin Cities’ most recent and most successful transit project.

When they built the train, the planners removed the vast majority of the on-street parking which has made it more difficult for small businesses that don’t have their own separate parking lots. Ferguson and his group, Parking Possibilties MSP, is doing a study and a survey aimed at putting parking back on the street in places and narrowing the road to a smaller configuration. We sat down this week at the Cupcake café in Prospect Park to talk about his project.

The link to the audio is here. Please take a minute to fill out the survey. The more feedback they get, the better the case they’ll be able to make. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Twin City Pumpkins #3

Twin Cities Sidewalks - Fri, 10/31/2014 - 11:47am
[All pumpkins from Northeast Minneapolis.]
Categories: Twin Cities

Chart of the Day: Childhood Obesity over Time

Streets.MN - Fri, 10/31/2014 - 10:00am

Hm. So if you have kids, odds are they’ll be doing more walking today than on most days. The only problem is that they’ll also be eating more partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and corn syrup than on most days.

Here’s a horrible chart from the CDC:

[The figure above shows the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents, by age group, in the United States during 1963-2008.]

Why is anyone talking about ebola? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that safe routes to school might help fix this long-term trend. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

No Big Bucks Needed for Complete Streets!

Streets.MN - Fri, 10/31/2014 - 7:30am

When I was in New York City a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to get together with Nolan Levenson, a Macalester graduate who now works at the NYC Department of Transportation. We met near his office on Water Street in lower Manhattan to talk about ways the City of Saint Paul might apply some of New York’s successful Complete Streets implementation tools, then took a brief tour of the Wall Street area. What he showed me provided convincing evidence that it doesn’t have to take many years and a lot of money create a more walkable, bikeable, livable city, even when streets are narrow and budgets constrained.

A lot of the treatments I saw were not fancy or aesthetically pleasing, and frankly, could use a facelift, having been in place for some time. Even so, they’re still effective in making the area safer and more comfortable for walking, while retaining parking spaces and one or two lanes of traffic. Using simple, inexpensive ingredients — mainly paint, giant planters, and cheap, bendable, plastic bollards — the streets have been reconfigured by expanding sidewalks and bumpouts, creating new plazas on vacated streets, and tucking tiny parks and playgrounds into triangular spaces at intersections that used to be concrete eyesores.

We first looked at some examples of expanded sidewalks and bumpouts, essentially taking what used to be the parking lane and turning it into additional areas for walking. The spaces are defined with painted edges,  plastic bollards, and planters as well where space allows. The bollards are flexible to prevent damage to cars or trucks if they graze them, and generally cost about $50-100 a bollard, including the base which is screwed into the pavement. The cost of paint is minimal, but would of course vary, depending on how much of the surface is covered. Throughout lower Manhattan, the standard treatment for pedestrian areas consists of white lines and bollards along the edge, blue patterns on a reddish background within the walkway, and large planters at major crosswalks and around plazas. The cost of planters is about $300-500 apiece. All-in-all, a very cost-effective way of expanding the pedestrian realm. And although there are few bike lanes in lower Manhattan, these same treatments could be used interchangeably for improved pedestrian or bicycle improvements. It strikes me that Saint Paul could create many more miles of pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets if we were willing to try this low-cost approach.


I can think of a couple of opportunities to try out this low cost approach in Saint Paul in 2015. One would be to use paint and bollards to add bicycle lanes and pedestrian improvements, such as high visibility crosswalks and corner bumpouts, to the eleven “Terrible Twenty” streets that were repaved this fall. This would first require a community process to determine priorities, which could be undertaken in the winter months. Then the City would need to identify sources of funding and develop engineering plans and schedules to complete the work, probably in the fall of 2015 (I’m an eternal optimist!) or more likely in 2016. The good news is that implementation could be done relatively quickly and inexpensively if funding was secured and enough people got behind it.

96th Street & Broadway — demonstrates the advantages of wide, high visibility crosswalks

Another low budget project that could be undertaken in 2015 would be to plan and stripe new protected bike lanes on three additional streets in downtown Saint Paul to complete the bike loop proposed in the Draft Saint Paul Bicycle Plan. The 8-80 Vitality Fund that was recently adopted by the City Council already sets aside $8 million to create an off-street bicycle trail on Jackson in conjunction with a full-street reconstruction. The fund also provides an additional $450,000 to plan the full loop, with temporary treatment on three legs. I’m not sure if this would be enough to complete both planning and low cost striping of one street for each of the three additional legs of the loop, but it would be great if people could have a chance to try out the whole loop and see how it works before deciding on a final alignment.

Of course, I realize there’s also the added complication of determining which streets to stripe for a test period. At the moment, two alternatives are being proposed by different constituencies for each leg — Saint Peter or Wabasha Street, Kellogg Boulevard or 4th Street, 10th Street or 11th Street. Before embarking on a longer term temporary treatment, perhaps we should try a Friendly Streets or Better Block approach, building a temporary bicycle trail on one set of streets, leaving it in place for a week, then moving it to the other set of streets for a similar period of time. Then people could vote on their preferences, and we could proceed to a more longterm temporary striping of the chosen streets. This would allow for continued evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each alignment through a community process, while also providing bicyclists with the opportunity to experience riding on the new bicycle trail network over a longer period of time.

Above all, my New York visit impressed on me the advantages of moving forward with quick-and-easy, low cost people-oriented improvements NOW. In addition to paint and bollards, small things like this solar-powered computer plug-in station or free wi-fi in the plaza can make a big difference in encouraging people to get out and enjoy the city.

When walking and biking are safe and pleasant, when streets and plazas feel welcoming to everyone, more will use their feet and two wheels to get around. And it really doesn’t require big bucks to make substantial progress on implementing our adopted Complete Streets policy, and creating an 8-80 city that’s the most walkable, bikeable and livable city in America. Let’s get moving, Saint Paul! is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities and UrbanMSP Merge, Creating a $2500 Global Transport and Land Use Leader

Streets.MN - Fri, 10/31/2014 - 6:00am

MINNEAPOLIS, MN and ST PAUL, MN, October 31, 2014 (NYSE:SMN) and UrbanMSP (NASDAQ:UMSP) announced today a definitive merger agreement to create a multi-dollar global transport and land use leader based in Minnesota. The new offers the industry’s most comprehensive set of discussion points on transport, land use, design, and architecture in Minnesota, with a commitment to serving customers with accurate information and righteous opinions. The combined organization will have the #1 worldwide position in discussions on transportation, land use, design, and architecture, as well as leading positions in overall information dissemination.

The merger is expected to generate cost synergies reaching approximately $25 annually and drive significantly toward an improved cost structure.

David Levinson, chair of, will remain chair of the new organization. Bill Lindeke will be vice chair, Nick Magrino, of UrbanMSP will be secretary, and Reuben Collins will hold the seat of Treasurer in the combined organization.

Carly Florina and Michael Capellas, executives at HP and Compaq, respectively, which merged a long time ago in a land far, far away. Press Release

“This is a decisive move that accelerates our strategy and positions us to win by offering even greater value to our customers and partners,” said Levinson. “In addition to the clear strategic benefits of combining two highly complementary organizations and product families, we can create substantial shareowner value through significant cost structure improvements and access to new growth opportunities. At a particularly challenging time for the information industry, this combination vaults us into a leadership role with customers and partners — together we will shape the industry for years to come.”

Magrino said, “We are creating a new kind of industry leader — one founded on customer success, world-class engineering and planning knowledge, and best of breed products and services. In sharp contrast to our competitors, we are committed to leading the industry to open, market-unifying architecture and information, which reduce complexity and cost for our customers. With this move, we will change the basis of competition in the industry.” is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Chart of the Day: Homeownership over Time

Streets.MN - Thu, 10/30/2014 - 10:00am

Here are two charts from a recent article in The Atlantic about changing rates of homeownership across different age cohorts and time periods:

[US homeownership rate.]

Of course, the tone of the Atlantic’s piece is that homeownership is automatically a good thing, suggesting that “the economy has a Gen-X problem” because they’re not buying homes. While homeownership is automatically a good thing if you’re a realtor, in fact, the US has far higher homeownership rates than other countries. There might be lots of reasons that people don’t buy a house that have little to do with a weak job market. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Reading the Highland Villager #117

Twin Cities Sidewalks - Thu, 10/30/2014 - 9:36am
[A Villager embraces the sidewalk.][Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. That's why I'm reading the Highland Villager. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free.]Headline: Council passes mayor's 8-80 Vitality Fund; Palace Theater, street repairs, bikeways to split $42.5 millionAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: There's a pot of money for projects in Saint Paul and the city is going to spend it on some projects. CM Bostrom voted no because he prefers paving. Projects include a park at University and Griggs, restoring an old downtown theater, and the city's first protected downtown bike lane on Jackson Street. [Though the big question is if the city will be able to link this new network plan up to the already-existing heavily-used bike lanes on Summit Avenue. Without that, the bike loop will be weak tea.]Headline: Developer tapped for 7 Corners GatewayAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: A long-time vacant lot across from the hockey arena might be turned into a hotel/housing/retail thing. Opus/Greco is the developer's name. [At least it's not a practice facility or a parking lot.] Article includes [ominous] quote: "One issue that has yet to be sorted out is the possibility of skyway connections." [No, please no. A hundred reasons why...] CM Bostrom is pro-skyway. [Does he go outside? Does the light of day burn his eyes?]Headline: Commissioners split on zoning for Sibley Plaza [Misleading headline; people merely asked questions.]Author: Jane McClureShort short version: [Though it was a public hearing and not a vote] the Planning Commission seems split on whether or not to re-zone the strip mall to traditional neighborhood mixed-use zoning. [See both previous Villagers for for info.] Article includes highlights from the public hearing. [Note: Iw as there and we haven't voted on it yet.] Weirdest quote: "designs under TN seemed to 'turn their back on the neighborhood.'" [If by "neighborhood" you mean "parking lot."]Headline: Salt Cellar may need more parking after allAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: A restaurant that wants to open in a vacant building by Selby and Western may need to build one more parking space. [All this fuss about one parking space?] Article includes lots of detail about city parking requirements and more relaxed minimums based on "standard operating times" v. "peak times." [Basically, do you plan your parking lot for the day after Thanksgiving, or for all the other days of the year?] "Local restaurant owners and residents" complained loudly about existing parking difficulties in the area. [I hang out on this corner all the time, and sometimes you have to walk a few blocks to find a parking spot. Walking is nice and I like it. You should too.]Headline: UST neighbors are finding students more disruptive than ever; Balmy fall has brought an increase in bad behaviorAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: Tommies are still drunk, getting drunker. Especially on "Tommie-Johnnie" weekend [whatever that is, I don't want to know]. Highlight of the article the quote that "serial neighbors interviewed for this story did not want their names used for fear of retaliation." [Wow. Do Tommies read the Villager?] Police are considering forming a "mobile field force." [I want to see a reality show based on this.]Headline: Ethiopian restaurant on West 7th fined for license violationsAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: A restaurant [in a poor neighborhood] has to pay fines because people parked in the wrong places and their video system was not working and they didn't have a permit for plumbing and other repairs. Article includes quotes from CM Tolbert ("I wish it could be a bigger fine") and the owner of the building ("We have hundreds of supporters; the owner and management have come very very far in addressing concerns"). [This must be the place that used to be the Steelers bar.]Headline: Insult to injury? University Ave. is assessed for street workAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: Property owners are being assessed for streetscape improvements and new sidewalks. [This always is the case.] Best quote is from the guy who owns Wendy's: "Construction of the Green Line and any associated improvements did not increase the value of Wendy's property." [Well, I bet it did, just not of the Wendy's itself, which is a one-story fast food bunker just like every other one.] Article also references the Russian Tea House, MPR, and a few interesting churches.Headline: City Council clears way for Summit hotelAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: The proposed B&B-style hotel in an old building was approved by the City Council. Article includes a quote from a neighbor: "A hotel would degrade the neighborhood."Headline: BZA lands blow in Summit Hill parking fight [This headline is an  example of why I find the Villager's tone so irritating. Is parking inherently good?]Author: Jane McClureShort short version: "The illegal conversion of a parking spot into a dwelling" has caused a ruckus. [Wouldn't want to have a human living in a place where a perfectly good car could be.] It all has to do with a garage apartment and whether it was legal or not when some people bought the house on Grand Avenue. [Saint Paul needs an ADU ordinance. Summit Hill has many historic carriage house-type things.] Article ends by saying "BZA members also noted that the garage stalls must be used for vehicles, not storage." [Really? Is that a thing?]
Categories: Twin Cities

Halloween is the Sidewalk Holiday

Streets.MN - Thu, 10/30/2014 - 7:35am

[This post first appeared on my blog, TCSidewalks.]

Every holiday has its geography. Thanksgiving and Christmas are domestic. People hole up in houses, locked in living rooms, huddle with fires and TVs and set themselves against the long winter dark. Summer holidays, like Memorial and Labor days, are outside under skies and in yards or parks with picnics and barbeques. The 4th of July is fireworks, the way they burst high above the city, creating horizons of light embracing entire cities.

Halloween is different. Halloween flies in the face of everything about our modern era of paranoid parents, media hysterics, over-protected children, and privatized communities. Somehow, through the magic of Halloween, parents actually want their kids to wander the city, approach random homes, and take candy from strangers. People are encouraged to dress in creepy ways and be weird. Instead of holing up in your house and gathering possessions onto a dinner table, at Halloween you pace behind your door and wait for the doorbell to ring. You hang out on your porch and watch your neighbors pass by. You wander the streets in the evening, kicking leaves into the gutter and looking for pumpkins. Halloween is the sidewalk holiday.

Somehow, Halloween reconfigures the social orientation of US cities, taking people that are normally homebodies and dragging them off the couch, taking kids out from their electronic bedrooms and fenced-in yards and, using the surefire lure of sugar, demands that they aimlessly wander the streets. Younger kids walk clutching parents’ hands, while older kids form elite trick or treating teams, action squads of exploration that map out yards and streets of whatever part of the city seems to hold the most lucrative blends of corn syrup and Pennsylvania chocolate.

Halloween gives kids trotting twixt front doors a gift that will haunt them for years, lingering twilight giggles of city memory that lay a foundation for urban mystery. Early memories of walking winding streets past dark homes and wondering, “who lives inside?” and “why aren’t they giving me candy?”… these are precious city seeds. The first discovery of a new street, a little trail connecting the park to the back road, sticks with you like a cockleburr… these are the first steps of a lifelong road of alleys and lanes, of possibilities and potential people you might become.

Every holiday makes its own city. The Thanksgiving city is nothing but living rooms, dinner tables, and doors sealed to the outside, homes linked only by telephones and TVs. The Christmas city is a forest of chimneys, churches, and shopping malls. But the Halloween city is wide open and linked by endless strolls. It is a city made from porches and doorbells and strangers and shrieks of laughter. Halloween is the holiday of sidewalks. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Steeling Myself for the Winter (Bike) Commute

Streets.MN - Thu, 10/30/2014 - 7:30am

Dear Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board,

Please make your winter trail maintenance plans for the whole City — now, before it’s too late for the 2014-2015 winter season.

Warm regards,


The Loring Bike Bridge – how I get to downtown and work, especially in the winter. (Image by SEH)


I’m hopeful that for me and the hundreds of other year-round bike-commuters who navigate the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck using the Loring Bike Bridge, this winter will be a change from the past.  However, it’s but one of many bikeways the MPRB is responsible for plowing, and the MPRB’s team needs to catch up to the City of Minneapolis crew responsible for plowing the Midtown Greenway. What they are learning on this bridge needs to be applied throughout the city.

The History

Unfortunately, ever since this bridge was built, when the first snowfall arrives there’s confusion about who is responsible for snow removal.  It’s not a surprise — it was built by one entity (City of Minneapolis) on land owned by other entities (under the freeway entrances belongs to MN DOT, there are easements with the churches for the trail) and is maintained by a third (MPRB).  Also, it’s not IN a park.

Several years ago, about three snows into the winter, no one had touched the snow. I called 311 to ask the City to plow the trail from Bryant to Loring Park. After a few days, they responded. “The Loring Bikeway isn’t our responsibility. When we built it, we signed a maintenance agreement with the Park Board – call them.”

I called the Park Board, and they said, “That’s not our responsibility, that’s the City of Minneapolis. Call 311.” I explained I had called them, they insisted it wasn’t their responsibility, but agreed to look into it. I also e-mailed people — I didn’t care who, but I had to get to work, preferably without riding through the Bottleneck! I included my Park Board Commissioner, Anita Tabb, and the City’s then-Bike/Ped Coordinator, Shaun Murphy, and my City Councilmember, Lisa Goodman.  I figured they would solve my problem. [Pro-tip:  use this handy list to figure out who is responsible for your maintenance problem.]

A week later the MPRB sent out a Bobcat. Unfortunately, it was a month into the snowy season. It was a rutted, icy trail with a hairpin curve in the middle of a slope and blocks of icy bike/walk space on a hill.  There was no way they could make it rider-friendly.  Eventually it melted and I figured it’d be fine the next winter.

I was wrong. Skipping all the details, the same story was repeated the next fall, and the next.

Winter 2013-2014

Last year, it only took one snowfall and one call/e-mail to get the crews out. (I still had to insist it was a Park Board responsibility). Having been properly raised by my mom, I sent a thank you note right away.

That’s when I realized that plowing for joggers and pedestrians circling lakes is different than plowing for bikes. In one, your primary goals is to avoid ice. Whether you have clear pavement or an inch of snirt/salt mix doesn’t matter. In the other, the point is avoiding a snowy-slushy mix, especially on corners an inch of snirt/salt mix means no traction for turning or climbing and rider down. My thank you note also asked if they would be open to suggestions on how they could better serve bike riders.

This sludge is impossible to ride through, especially on a sloping hairpin turn

They plowed all winter, thankfully. Awkwardly, though, sometimes they left a ridge of snow plowed across the south end of the bridge — that riders would have to go through or carry bikes over to ride down the Bryant Bike Boulevard.  I found I was walking my bike the length of the bridge and daintily navigating the sludge along the churches to Loring Park. When I felt impatient, I took Hennepin/Lyndale, despite the plowing.

While I’m not shy to contact my elected officials, I’m also happy to pitch in and do my part. On a mild January weekend day, I figured it would take less time (and be less frustrating) to go and do it right myself than to walk the bridge every day and to wait for the MPRB to fix it.  I grabbed my shovel.

Seriously hard work

Post-shoveling, check out the sand and salt about to be washed directly into the Chain of Lakes

This is best-case if the MPRB misses the boat

Predictions for 2014-2015?

I want to thank MPRB staff and Commissioner Tabb already. A couple months ago I got a call from the guy who supervises the plowing crew. He asked if I’d be willing to walk the Loring Bikeway with him and talk about how they could do an even better job this year.  (We still haven’t scheduled the walk, though.) I’m hopeful that this year, they will finally hit their stride, at least on this stretch.

I’m wondering about their plans for the rest of the city, too. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and I’ve been squeaking about this route for years.  I know my peers use Park Board trails all over the City to get to work. I know they’ve faced similar and other trail-specific — challenges. (For example, the plows in Loring Park often miss the curves in the trail by a foot and my bike tire has found the trail edge by sinking into the snow more than once.) I don’t know if every trail has someone like me, persistently requesting attention.

On the other hand, bike-friendly winter maintenance shouldn’t depend on having someone like me persistently requesting attention.

Here’s my call to action:  Minneapolis Park and Rec Board, develop a uniform policy for how to plow bike trails, as well as training for bike-specific plowing. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Examples of Skyline Views vs. Axial Views

Twin Cities Sidewalks - Wed, 10/29/2014 - 10:08am
Last week, I put up a column on Minnpost about the difference between skyline views and "axial views," which are a concept out of Baroque or City Beautiful style planning. Here's how I described the difference:Axial views occupy a special place in urban history. During the 19th century, city planners took great pains to transform European cities with long avenues terminating in public squares. Paris’s boulevards are the most urban axes, built where the powerful city planner Baron von Haussmann bulldozed boulevards through the dense confines of working class Paris. These views tied the city together along wide streets that connect landmarks like the Arch de Triomphe.The Paris example is widely known, and you'll find these boulevards and landmarks all throughout late 19th century art and literature.[Pissarro's painting of the axial view of L'Opera.][The Arche de Triomphe.][Haussman's axial boulevards.][The classic axial view. Note: all the cars.] This is not to say they weren't problematic. Much of the impetus behind Haussmann's creation of these boulevards came from an uprooting of the working class, the replacing of thier homes with new bourgeois housing, and the desire to accomodate more traffic through the unruly city for often military or policing reasons.[Barricades during the 1871 Paris revolution.][Image taken from David Harvey's book.]Twin Cities' Examples The axial views in the Twin Cities fall into two categories: accidental and planned. The latter is an easy thing to describe, because examples are so few. As I described in my piece, the Minneapolis Plan for 1917 was basically a Haussmann-style plan (though more directly modeled on more recent and more proximate Burnham Chicago plan):[The 6th Avenue boulevard for Minneapolis.]Along the way, the Minneapolis plan (never built) references efforts in Saint Paul to plan the State Capitol Grounds around a "trivium" (or three-road) City Beautiful design that would emphasize the monumentality of the Capitol, the Cathedral, and downtown. While it involved bulldozing a whole bunch of historic Saint Paul buildings, this is one of the Twin Cities few examples of a City Beautiful plan that actually got built.The original plan looked like this:Today's capitol mall complex is pretty close. Here is the panoramic view of downtown and the cathedral:[Three axes coming together.]A similar planned from Smith Avenue on West 7th street also frames the Capitol building as a terminal focal point. According to a friend of mine, "the architect of the capitol envisioned the building interacting with this street/view. (I think it was called Mohawk then)." Anyway, this is the view from near my house, and it's an excellent lesson in vanishing points and scale:[Smith Avenue.]An odd Minneapolis example is the axial view from along Victory Memorial Drive on the Minneapolis/Robbinsdale border. The construction of long terminal views, which were then seen as somehow civilizing, is pretty much the only thing that can explain this weird park/road:You might argue that the view of downtown Saint Paul from West 7th Street is also a planned axial view, as the street was not always straight as an arrow. Anyway, once you cross the (largely unnecessary) railroad bridge by Saint Clair Avenue, you get a lovely axial view of downtown from the street:[Farther away on top; closer on the bottom.]Accidental AxialsOther than that, there are a few accidental axials scattered around as well. I'd place the Selby Avenue view of the Catherdal in this category:[Selby Avenue. H/t Matty]Here's the view up Nicollet Avenue that terminates in fine white walls of the Hyatt Hotel:[Nicollet Avenue.]As well as the view of City Hall from Park Avenue (whose layout probably predated the construction of City Hall in 1906):[Park Avenue.]Here's another accidental City Hall view from the Warehouse District:[I think this is 2nd Ave S.]SkylinesOnce you get past that, you're left with skyline views. Because the skyline sticks up, you can see it from lots of places througout the city. Here are some of the most interesting skyline views of Minneapolis sent in by readers:[From Cedar Lake Trail. H/t Michael.][From the UMN transitway. H/t Michael.][From the railyards. H/t Mike.][From Cedar-Riverside. H/t Sian.][From the 15th Street bridge. H/t Scott.][From Lauderdale. H/t Steven.][From the 24th Street Bridge. H/t Cassie.][Again with the bridge. H/t Joe.]
Categories: Twin Cities

At the End of the Green Line, a Building That Would Say “Welcome to Lowertown”

Streets.MN - Wed, 10/29/2014 - 10:00am

Roberta and I live in a loft in the Union Depot and we are always encountering lost, bewildered and confused travelers. Very often, they step off the Green Line and ask us where the Amtrak station is or the bus terminal. This should come as no surprise as the train and bus platform is not  visible from the Green Line platform and there is no sign on the colonnaded  building identifying what it is or what is inside. People have told me they mistook the Union Depot for a bank or office building.

Finding a store or other business to get directions is not easy. On the eight corners adjoining the Green Line’s last stop in Saint Paul in front of the Union Depot, there is a tot lot, two parking ramps, two surface parking lots and a vacant heavy metal bar – none of these corners has a store or other establishment to ask  information  the Saint Paul Farmers Market, Mears Park, The Black Dog Cafe, Golden’s, Christos,  the Minnesota Museum of American Art or the all the art and music events (the Bedlam Theater, mid-block is hidden behind the wall of the station). Today, an Amtrak passenger standing in front of the Union Depot asked me where he could get something to eat and drink. 

When the new ballpark opens and East Fourth becomes a bike route, the numbers of confused and bewildered visitors will likely increase.

Roberta and I had an idea – a building that would serve as a welcome mat for visitors to Lowertown and a community center for people who live and work in the area.

This is a photograph of one of the surface parking lots on the northeast corner of East Fourth Street and Wacouta Street:

Here is a drawing of a building that would serve as an information center, coffee and sandwich shop and bike center (much like the bike station in Washington D.C.). The upper floors could have rooms for community functions and public events. The top floor could house a brightly lit artwork (I think Ta-coumba Aiken’s Lite Brite  mural would be nice up there). What do you think?: is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Traffic Signal Trivia

Streets.MN - Wed, 10/29/2014 - 9:03am

Previously I covered some of the history of the traffic signals in service in the area, as well as how to recognize them in the field. Due to length I didn’t really have time to detour into more of the general history of signals, so I’m taking a chance to do so now.


The Early Days

There’s not really a distinct “first traffic signal”, it was more an evolution of early mechanical aids to a policeman directing traffic. These involved rotatable stop/go signs or various semaphores and arrows up to elaborate structures resembling railroad control towers. Some of these were naturally illuminated to aid visibility at night. As such there’s various conflicting stories about the first “real” traffic signal, but one claim is a device that  was built by policeman Lester Wire in Salt Lake City in 1912. It resembled a birdhouse and used standard 5-1/2″ red and green railroad lenses (it was  eventually discarded in the 1960s by the museum that had it). From this, it wasn’t too much of a leap to realize that you could install a mechanical timer and have it run automatically. The first three color traffic signal was installed in Detroit in 1920 by William Potts, but the sequence was originally different: the yellow would flash briefly to warn of an impending change between red and green. Railroad lenses proved suboptimal, being both too small and too focused to work good for city streets. To address the problem, the lenses were increased in size to 8”, and designed to spread light more.

Elaborate manually operated signalling tower, this is one of the later ones. By this time they had dispensed with signs and flags and were using lights exclusively,

Replica of the first traffic light (although this appears to use all red lenses). Utah Department of Transportation, CC License.

From the 1950s on, even the 8” lenses were becoming too small for the higher speed, higher volume, wider roads becoming in use, so the 12” version was introduced. (And of course signals companies were eager to sell bigger, more expensive traffic signals. The Crouse-Hinds “type K”, which had 12” red lenses, was the first. Arrows were hard to see in 8” so they quickly increase in size, the green and yellow balls were slower to be changed out. To this day 8” indications are permitted where the speed limit it 30 mph or less, and some agencies, including New York, take advantage of that.

1957 Crouse-Hinds advertisement for the new 12″ signals


Why Red, Yellow, and Green?

These are copied from railroad signaling. Red is the obvious choice for “stop”, since being the color of blood it has meant “danger” since time immemorial. The original choice for “caution” was green, and “go” was white. (I’d speculate green was chosen at random because it was noticeably different from red, and a green filter was more efficient than say blue or purple. Probably they just didn’t hire colorblind engineers). The obvious problem is you have a “fail deadly” situation if the red filter doesn’t engage or the lens falls off, which supposedly actually happened around 1914 causing a crash. A second problem was even back then there were a lot of white lights around making it hard to tell a “go” signal from a light in a barn. When the colors were reassigned, they kept green and made it “go”, and added yellow as “caution”. The meaning of those colors entered culture because of signal lights, not the other way around.


Two section vs Three section

The yellow “caution” indication was an option almost from the beginning, but with slower and lighter traffic in those days some agencies decided it was an unnecessary expense, and dispensed with it. Notably New York City primarily installed two section displays up to 1952 (In defiance of a federal ban in 1935) , some of which persisted into the 1980s. Sometimes the signal would go dark to signal a phase change, but later both lights would illuminate, and red and green blended together to form yellow farther back. Perhaps the ultimate in cheap was the two lamp Darley. There was one lamp in each section, with red on top for the main street and green on top for the side street. Each lamp was projected in all four directions, so the top section would show red for the main street and green for the side street simultaneously. A simple three position controller was included in the light, so all the city had to do was hang it and hook up mains power.

Vintage Darley Traffic Signal ad.


The Acme, Wiley, and Mercury Signals.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York each had unique designs specific to that city. Los Angeles had the Acmes, which in addition to the lights had a bell and the stop/go flags which would come out of the housing- you see these in old Hollywood movies and cartoons. Wiley “birdcage” signals were in San Francisco, and had lighted red and green “stop” and “go” panels that rotate around. New York had the Mercury signals, with conventional red and green lights, but made of bronze, very ornate, and with a statue of the goddess Mercury on top. The Mercury signals were all destroyed by New York City, although a few of the statues survived. There are a few Acmes and Wileys around in private collections, and they normally fetch 5 figures when sold.

Acme Traffic Signal. Late at night the large red and green lights would go out, and the small red light in the stop sign would flash indicating a four-way stop.  Alan Weeks, Metro Library and Archive, CC License

Wiley “Birdcage” signal. the top was internally lit, and a rotating drum would change each side between stop and go. Metro Library and Archive, CC License

Mercury Signal



Traffic Signal Lamps

Signals always have and most still do run on mains electricity (although some of the very newest ones run on 48 volts DC). The lamps are specialized incandescent lamps optimized for long life and an even light dispersion rather than efficiency. 8”  and 9″ signals would use 69 watt lamps, 12” and 16″ would normally use 116-150 watt versions, although often yellow balls, which pass more light through the lens than other colors, would use 69 watts.

Traffic signal bulb. The filament is supported in a way that throws light down towards the reflector. Not all of them have this silvered band around the middle which helps the lens light more evenly.


Paint Colors

Originally signals tended to be  black, green, or bare aluminum. The yellow as used here and other areas comes from a 1950s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices recommendation that was eventually removed. Yellow makes the overall installation more visible, but black provides more contrast making the indications easier to see. Minnesota used the best of both colors by using yellow bodies and black doors. Poles here were also traditionally painted yellow. Mn/DOT and most counties  have recently switched from yellow aluminum signals and painted steel poles to black polycarbonate signals and galvanized steel poles that need no paint.

Old and new Mn/DOT standard signals, 90th and I-35W, Bloomington


The Future

Even the new LED indications mimic the same basic three “lamp” configuration that’s more than 100 years old even with the different abilities of LEDs. Other nations have been more adventurous- Asia has animated pedestrian “mans” that speed up as the time counts down. For vehicles they horizontal bars that light up red, yellow, or green that as needed, and shrink as the time expires. In Germany pedestrians can even play a game on the push-buttons with the person across the street. One proposal for the US that made it into prototype was the  “Unilight” that used a single section to light up a red square, yellow diamond, or green circle.  There’s been various proposals that would give drivers feedback as to how much red and green time they have left (presumably for pre-timed installations only). And perhaps with self-driving cars the overhead installations will go away entirely and the controller will talk to the cars directly and tell them they need to stop, the very few people still driving “manual ” cars will need an adapter that lights up an indication inside their car.

This concludes the post, you may have noticed there’s nothing about lenses, left turns and pedestrian signals. These are long stories in themselves and I hope to write about them individually in future articles. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Chart of the Day Part 2: Lane Miles Revisited

Streets.MN - Wed, 10/29/2014 - 8:32am

Quick follow-up to a comment by fellow writer Adam Froehlig regarding the chart of the day showing lane miles per 10,000 residents. It is a fair claim that outlying counties have plenty or roads and lanes serving farms, many of which are gravel or not up to urban pavement standards. I quick dug into MnDOT’s lane mileage data, filtered by the 7 county metro area, and removed non-incorporated areas contributing to county-wide lane mileage (ie, I only counted miles within cities). I used 2013 population estimates (some had to use 2012) and re-built the chart.

Here are the results:


I separated out Minneapolis, St Paul, and Eden Prairie for comparison. Why Eden Prairie? I don’t know, they’re just a typical 3rd-ring suburb in my mind (and I’ve used them as a comparison before). Adam’s assumption may be true – Carver’s average drops from around 225 lanemiles/10k to just over 120, moving it from last (first?) place to fifth (third?) (?depends how much you like roads I guess).

I would assume both Minneapolis and St Paul numbers do not include alleyways in the total. According to the City of Minneapolis’ snow plowing page, the city has over 400 miles of (1 lane) alleyways. I added that in for reference.

For fun, here’s what the ranked order of counties looks like when you give a bar to each city. Someone cooler than me should make an interactive graphic to roll-over each data point.

Clearly, even within Hennepin County (#2 overall) there is huge variation by municipality. Hope this helps the discussion! is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Ford Parkway Reconstruction – Close but Not Quite

Streets.MN - Wed, 10/29/2014 - 8:19am

A protected bike lane in Montreal.

Here is my open letter to Ramsey County Public Works. I know I’m late to this process and honestly don’t expect them to change their plans (which can be seen here [large PDF]). I will preface this by thanking Ramsey County for putting in any bike lanes, but if no one demands better then we can’t expect better.

My wife and I recently moved to Saint Paul’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood. We both use our bikes on a daily basis to run errands, shop, visit restaurants/bars, and commute. We chose Mac-Groveland (and the proximity to Highland Park) because we were looking to settle down in a walkable & bikeable community. My wife commutes from our home near Jefferson and Snelling to the 46th Street Blue Line station via bike which requires her to ride on Ford Parkway to cross the river. I was very excited to hear that Ramsey County would be rebuilding a portion of Ford Parkway and including bike lanes in the design. However, when I attended the open house on October 21st at Hillcrest Recreation Center, I was very disappointed to learn the placement of the bike lanes in relation to parking and the travel lane. In 2014-15, we as a region should be past the stage of just adding door-zone bike lanes and patting ourselves on the back. This stretch of Ford Parkway also offers something that very few road segments in Saint Paul offer, no curb cuts for driveways. We have the unique opportunity to provide block long uninterrupted parking protected bikeways. This is the kind of bike infrastructure that induces cycling and provides a safe calm environment for the ~60% of the population who is enthusiastic to ride but still isn’t sure about safety. I’ve attached an image below showing what I mean (excuse the poor Photoshop skills).

You get the idea.

This type of infrastructure has been shown the world over to create a safe and inviting place to cycle. The lack of curb cuts means that the only conflict points would be at intersections. This can be made safer by daylighting each intersection by removing two or three parking space and allowing drivers to easily see into the bike lane and assess potential conflict. On this same note, the A-Line will have far side stops. Currently there doesn’t appear to be anything in the plan sheets for bus v bike conflicts, as the bus will be crossing over, and stopping in, the bike lane. The parking lane is 7′ and the bike lane is 6′, but Metro Transit plans 12′ wide bus pads which is pretty much the entirety of the parking and bike lanes. With a parking protected bike lane, the bus stop could be an island in the parking lane (again, very common the world over) and the bus stopping in the traffic lane creates a traffic calming effect, essentially adding a brief 15-20 second stop sign which calms traffic. If we’d like to see our city reach a cycling mode share of more than 3%, we need to take innovative steps (they are only innovative in here in the US, see the photo of a Montreal family cycling in a protected bike lane). Actually, Saint Paul has a goal of 5% cycling mode share by 2015. Let’s mature past door-zone bike lanes and really take a step into the 21st century.

A bike lane behind the bus stop. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

The Bank for Better Buses, Part 3

Streets.MN - Wed, 10/29/2014 - 7:30am

Creating a full-service Metro Go-To Card would benefit transit users and those without access to traditional banking services. It would also benefit the Met Council. There are examples of public institutions acting as lending agencies that provide great benefit to a range of people. The largest example of a public institution bank is the Bank of North Dakota (BND).

In 1919, North Dakotans, in a wave of populist progressivism and angry at the financial control wielded by Twin Cities’ banks, created a publicly operated bank that could provide loans and hold savings. Created by and for the people, BND was designed to provide more affordable loans to struggling farmers and families out on the prairie. Over the last 80 years it has provided a tremendous service to the state of North Dakota and continues to receive large support for citizens.

Banks make money by charging a higher interest rate on loans than needed to pay the smaller interest rate of depositors. As a private institution they seek to maximize these profits. Banks can make small loans to farmers that need new equipment or to governments that need new infrastructure, making money on each of them. North Dakota found that a public bank worked better for them.

As a public institution, BND has a different objective, to provide a quality service to its citizens. Instead of profits being placed in the hands of bankers, they are returned, in various ways, to the people of North Dakota. Mostly profits are returned through lower interest rates. Farmers and students can better escape the stress of high levels of debt that plague them both. It can also provide low interest rate loans to the cities and state of North Dakota. Studies have shown that interest from private loans composes 30-50 percent of public loans. Without needing to pay back expensive interest to private banks, cities can build better schools and the state can build sewers more affordably. This makes North Dakota a better place to live.

The Met Council can learn from the success of the Bank of North Dakota by creating a bank that could provide loans for infrastructure improvements. The Met Council has recently invested in the water and sewer system so these will need little large investments in the coming decades (Thrive 2040). The Met Council and the region do recognize that we need to significantly invest in transportation infrastructure for the next couple of decades. These projects would benefit from the assistance of a public bank. I want a bank that begets better buses. Don’t you?


This post first appeared on MN2020 is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Four-Lane Death Roads Should Be Illegal

Streets.MN - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 12:19pm

I was biking with a friend the other day around the East Side of Saint Paul, and we happened across White Bear Avenue. I knew at once it was a Death Road™.

Death Road™ is what I call 4-lane streets that have been shoehorned into a narrow right-of-way in an urban area. If you bike or walk around Minneapolis or Saint Paul, you can recognize a Death Road™ in an instant. It’s a four-lane street where cars are weaving unpredictably at high speeds, turning left at low speeds. You’ll see cars speeding around other cars stopped waiting to make a turn, or cars weaving around other cars racing to make a stoplight. Death Roads™ often have narrow sidewalks and usually lack an on-street parking buffer.* The mix of speeds and multiple lanes means that biking on, driving on, or trying to cross one of these streets can be deadly.

White Bear Avenue is just one example. The list is long (in order of worse-ness): Northeast Broadway Avenue, Cedar Avenue, the middle part of Franklin Avenue, Hennepin Avenue north of Central, Maryland Avenue, Hamline Avenue, Edgcumbe on the East Side, and the list goes on and on. 

These roads run all through the walkable areas of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, along streets with businesses and homes and schools and parks.

Another “Accident”

Then yesterday in Saint Paul’s North End neighborhood, where I used to live, a kid going home from school got hit by a car. It was an entirely predictable Death Road™ situation, where one car slows for the kid to cross the street and the car behind speeds around it and hits the kid. (Note: this is exactly what happened at Snelling Avenue earlier this year, where a car sped around another slowed car and seriously injured two college students.)

You can read accounts of the situation here, including what are very typical quotes from the police and public works officials. For example, in the Star Tribune story, the police officer calls it a bad accident:

The accident occurred shortly after 7 a.m. on Rice Street at Hoyt Avenue in the city’s North End, leaving the boy in critical condition, said Sgt. Paul Paulos, spokesman for the St. Paul police.

“This is just a bad accident today,” Paulos said.

Similarly, in the Pioneer Press, there’s a quote from a city traffic engineer, who seems to suggest that nothing can be done:  

The city reviews a streetscape “when incidents happen that are particularly tragic like this one to see if there’s anything that can be done,” said St. Paul city engineer John Maczko.

But he said he doesn’t think a painted crosswalk at the intersection would have prevented the crash, saying they can give people an illusion of safety.

There has been one other pedestrian accident at Rice and Hoyt in 10 years, Maczko said.

“Everyone needs to be part of the solution,” Maczko said. “Vehicles that are driving around other vehicles need to wonder why that other vehicle is stopped and understand if a car is stopped, it’s stopped for a reason. …As pedestrians, when we cross these four-lane roads, we have to cross every lane as an individual roadway.”

Meanwhile, in the KARE 11 report, you have a quote from an actual resident who seems to grasp the situation very well:

Local resident Virgil Calamese says that stretch of Rice Street is extremely busy and dangerous all year around. He points to a stretch of the street near where the accident happened where Rice Street funnels down from four lanes to two, and says drivers often rush to get ahead of slower moving cars so they won’t be stuck behind them. Calamese says not having a crosswalk near Rice and Hoyt makes things even worse.

“For a person to actually try and cross the street, you’re literally playing that (video) game ‘Frogger'”, Calamese said. “You’re literally trying to get across the street without actually getting hit. Unfortunately, a young kid got hit this morning.”

These different accounts of the situation are revealing. But it’s the last guy, the “local resident,” who gets it right, pointing out the structural problems with the road design. If only he know that there’s an easy fix for a Death Road™ like Rice Street.

Quick Facts about 4-3 conversions

At this point, there is a lot of research about how to fix 4-lane Death Road™. The easiest solution is a “three-lane road diet,” where the center two lanes become a turn lane for cars. This is also known as a “4-3 conversion.” 

Here are some facts well supported by research:

#1) 3-lane roads are much safer for car drivers. According to a Federal Highway Administration study, changing a 4-lane Death Road™ into a three-lane road reduces automobile traffic accidents from 20% to 50% depending on the context. (Note: this makes intuitive sense if you’ve ever driven on a street like this.) There are dozens of similar studies out there.

#2) 3-lane roads have marginal impact on traffic flow. I’m not going to suggest that a 4-to-3 conversion of a Death Road™ has no impact on traffic flow (though sometimes that turns out to be the case). Rather, fixing a Death Road™ usually sees a reduction in car throughput in the 5% to 10% range. As another Federal Highway Administration report puts it, “under most average daily traffic (ADT) conditions tested, road diets have minimal effects on vehicle capacity.” 

#3) 3-lane roads slow speeds. The main difference between a 4-lane Death Road™ and a 3-lane safe street is that traffic speeds go down and become far more uniform. It’s a proven fact that reducing speeds even a little bit, i.e. from 40 to 30 miles per hour, can make a huge difference on accident severity for pedestrians and bicyclists. 

#4) 3-lane roads increase biking and walking. After a 4-lane Death Road™ was fixed in San Francisco, “bicycle usage increased 37% during the PM peak hour,ƒ the number of pedestrians increased 49% during the PM peak hour, [and]ƒ public response has been overwhelmingly positive about this project.” That’s just one example; also, it’s common sense.

#5) Fixing a Death Road™ is really cheap. Unlike expensive street reconstructions or concrete bumpouts, cities and counties can quickly, easily, and cheaply fix these Death Roads™. Here’s a quote from a city engineer in Portland, Oregon:

Graff said the price of all five road diets considered in the city’s analysis was “in the $100,000 range,” or up to $120,000 or so for projects that added new median islands or other improvements.

“The cost/benefit is really high,” he said. “For the cost of one improved crossing — a median improvement or rapid-flashing beacon that provides a point improvement, you can reduce crashes across 10, 20 blocks.”

(Compare that to the quote in the news report above.)

The tradeoff: Marginal Traffic Flow vs. Safety for Everyone

If you bring up these facts at a public meeting (as I have), you’ll probably get a reply about how the city can’t do a 4-to-3 road diet because of high traffic volumes. The problem with this reasoning is that there’s no such thing as a free street. Particularly in a walkable city, achieving a high traffic volume always come at a cost. In this case, the cost is increased accidents and far less safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people living in these urban neighborhoods.

Street design is always about tradeoffs. Slow speeds that are good for local business are bad for high-speed through traffic. Four-lane roads that improve “stacking” (i.e backups at an intersection) are dangerous for people on foot or on a bicycle. A turn lane that is good for throughput is bad for anyone trying to cross the street. A bike lane can sometimes come at the expense of an on-street parking spot, etc. etc. Everything is a matter of choices and tradeoffs.

The Moral Imperative

When a decision maker says “we can’t do that because of traffic,” to me they are really saying that they value traffic volumes over safety. To me this is morally indefensible, and is not a choice we should be making as a society.

One rarely stated fact about these four-lane Death Roads™ is that they’re often found in our city’s poorest neighborhoods. For example, the poorest part of Franklin Avenue is the part with the Death Road™ design. The Maryland and White Bear Avenue Death Roads™ go through one of the poorest parts of Saint Paul. The Cedar Avenue Death Road™ goes through the heart of the Little Earth and Somali communities. And on Rice Street, where this crash happened,  the death road section disappears once you get close to the Roseville border (wealthier suburb). 

These patterns are troubling, but they probably point to the political disenfranchisement of particular areas of the city more than any grand conspiracy toward structural racism. These streets shouldn’t be allowed in any parts of our cities where people walk or bike or have homes and businesses. It shouldn’t matter where you are or how much money you have. These streets are dangerous for everyone, and there should be no excuse for them.

I wrote about this two years ago. I’m probably going to write about it again after the next person is put in a coma or coffin. Every day, these dangerous designs erode safety and quality of life, and our urban businesses and neighborhoods continue to languish in the shadow of death. Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Ramsey and Hennepin Counties can fix this problem and make Death Roads™ illegal in urban areas. Until they do, it’s only a matter of time before another kid gets mowed down.

Broadway Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis.

*I’m going to make a distinction here between Death Roads™ and other unsafely designed arterial streets like Snelling, Lake, or Lyndale. That’s a big enchilada. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Rochester, MN map: Surface Parking Lots

Streets.MN - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 11:33am

A few months ago, I plotted surface parking in Rochester, MN. Granted, the concept of mapping surface parking lots is outdated now that Andrew Price pioneered maps that show places versus non-places. Yet a map of surface parking looks to give the first layer of non-places in Downtown Rochester. These parcels are also the most easy to convert into actual places, especially as Rochester has the opportunity to liberalise parking requirements and provisions in their DMC plans and city comprehensive plan.

Downtown Rochester Surface Parking, by Matt Steele

Unfortunately, Rochester’s parking ramps aren’t places either…

In case you were wondering, park here to be civic

City-owned parking ramp over street, old

City-owned parking ramp over street, new

Mayo’s famous Ramp Row

A mighty fortress is this Mayo ramp

Parking developers in Rochester, as in most cities, have ignored the oath to “do no harm,” building blank walls and placing parking decks over streets. But with treatment of chronic anti-place conditions, these blocks can become healthy once again. Parking ramps allow for slightly more surgical insertion of “place” within an existing structure, especially ramps with level decks. These sidewalks could be activated by small flex spaces, creating storefront spaces that could range from small offices for startups to small restaurants to light industrial make-spaces. Anything is more active than a blank wall with empty cars behind it.

But surface parking requires no such triage: it’s not just a non-place, it’s a non-anything. It’s a blank slate, ready for replacement of the places that were once there.

Rochester, go turn your parking lots into places! is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Talk of Secession in St. George

Streets.MN - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 8:16am

The proposed City of St. George

I lived in New Orleans for several years, so I get pretty excited when Louisiana pops up on an international news service. Last week it was a news item on the BBC St. George. Currently, St. George is an unincorporated area in East Baton Rouge Parish (Louisiana doesn’t have counties, they have parishes) and after being twice denied the ability to create an independent school district because they were not incorporated some citizens started taking the steps necessary to incorporate. This week they delivered their petition and now the incorporation process officially begins. From a high level it seems pretty cut and dry, but like anything having to do with boundaries, money and identity, the reality is more complicated.

The citizens of a potential St. George are not trying to secede–they live in an area outside the boundaries of Baton Rouge proper, the area is an unincorporated suburban area–but if we examine what could happen if incorporation comes to pass and their reasoning for seeking incorporation, what they’re doing could be seen as a type of secession, though not a legally-defined one. They are breaking away from their neighbors, drawing boundaries and attempting to declare independence from the rest of the Parish.

Secession v. Incorporation

When most people in the United States hear the word “secession” they think of the Civil War. There isn’t another example quite as famous in American history. But broadly, secessionists are people united by a feeling of not belonging, who are unhappy and convinced they would be better served by going it alone. There are secession movements like the recent vote in Scotland and in the US even large municipalities have seen secession movements. Regardless of who or where, secession tends to bring up some tricky, sensitive matters.

As mentioned before, St. George is not a secession movement, strictly, but they are trying to separate themselves from the rest of the Parish through incorporation. In many ways, they already are economically, socially and racially separate and some might argue that St. George looks quite a bit different from the City of Baton Rouge. The demographic make up of St. George would be 70% white and 23% black compared to Baton Rouge with its majority black population (55% black, 40% white). The annual median household income in the proposed City of St. George would be $30,000 more than that of a Baton Rouge household.

In Louisiana the talking points and the materials from each side of the St. George issue sound more like the recent Scottish independence vote than a run of the mill incorporation vote. The language from those opposing incorporation puts class and race front and center and asks how this division is different from historical segregation. The opposition mottos are about strength through unity and fighting for the poor. On the other side, St. George advocates talk about localized power, quality of life, safety and money for better schools. Freedom, race and taxes – not subjects taken lightly.

Incorporation v. Annexation

Losing these residents to incorporation, not to mention the businesses currently within the proposed boundaries of St. George and the accompanying taxes that benefit the larger Parish, would likely cause some problems for East Baton Rouge Parish and the citizens of the City of Baton Rouge. And so, if you’re going to talk secession, you should probably discuss annexation, the other tool in the boundary-drawing toolbox. Baton Rouge has some rights at its disposal, too.

Since incorporation talks began the City has thrown open the doors to businesses located within the proposed St. George municipal boundaries, abutting Baton Rouge, and essentially asked, “Do you want us to annex you? (We’d love to annex you.)” This way the businesses, their taxes, their property and their interests become part of Baton Rouge proper. This is working. Large, regionally important businesses and institutions have accepted annexation, even sought it out. The Mall of Louisiana and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center have already been annexed and L’Auberge Casino and Louisiana State University have petitioned to be next. Large businesses have voted with their feet and whether or not incorporation happens Baton Rouge has expanded its footprint.

What does all this mean for us, for citizens of other cities in other states? Well, much like that Tolstoy quote about unhappy families, every secession movement is unique. Strict municipal secession is rare, however–areas would need to secede and then incorporate or secede and be annexed by another city, simultaneously. But perhaps the largest secession hurdle is proof. Municipal secession is rare because neighborhoods or sections of cities have to prove–to themselves, to voters, to politicians–that they’re capable of providing, on their own, all that a city provides, that it is in their best interest to secede, that their secession is not detrimental to the interests of the city from which they’re trying to secede, and that there is just cause to sever that connective tissue.

Incorporation v. “Detachment”

In Minnesota it is called “detachment.” Yes, it sounds more like municipal conscious uncoupling than the fiery reality of secession, but it is still a break. It is the disconnecting of a city that forces people to decide where one stops and other starts, where and why boundaries should be re-drawn and how to fit the pieces back together when the dust has settled. It’s a nasty, horrible break-up with public libraries, public schools, sanitation facilities, fire departments and taxes.

Cities would obviously prefer to avoid it, but just threatening secession can be a powerful weapon for neighborhoods. Staten Island threatened secession and their bid made it all the way to the Governor’s desk before it was halted. Enough political will was garnered through their threat to get the Fresh Kills Landfill closed. And in Los Angeles, the threat of losing the San Fernando Valley to secession eventually lead to political concessions in the form of greater decentralization of power and an additional city council member for the Valley.

When the secession talk transforms into secession movements with political weight cities can’t help but listen to demands. It’s the mediation phase. Sovereignty and unity are at stake (as are the tax base, regional importance, economic stability, etc.). This is how secession, or possibly incorporation, in the case of St. George, can be used for tangible change without going all the way. Boundaries might not be adjusted in the end, but it will be interesting to see what happens in East Baton Rouge Parish. The petition signatures have been submitted, now we wait to see if there will be a referendum in the spring and whether St. George will come into being. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Go-To Banking, Part 2

Streets.MN - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 7:30am

The expanding list of transportation options makes our multi-modal system stronger. All of these services should be lauded for their efforts. There is one catch, however. Each transportation service requires a debit or credit card as a payment option. For the 16.7% of Minnesotans who are unbanked or underbanked, debit and credit cards are out of reach.

The FDIC classifies unbanked as those people lacking any kind of deposit account at an insured depository institution such as a savings or checking account. Underbanked housholds have a bank account but also rely on Alternative Financial Services (AFS) like money orders, non-bank check cashing, payday loans, and prepaid debit cards. Each of these services exacts heavy fees, making these services more expensive than traditional banking.

While 16.7% unbanked or underbanked households is too many people with too few options, it is the lowest percentage in the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin is at 18.7%). However, like so many of the great successes in Minnesota, there is a large disparity in who shares in that success. Whereas 14.8% of family households (as compared to non-family households) were without full banking services, 36.5% of households led by a single female were without full banking services. Of those making under $15,000 a year, 58.5% were fully banked. Only 39.5% of black households were fully banked, compared to 84.7% of white households. This is consistent with national disparities where 41.6% of black households are fully banked compared to 77% of white households. People across the county are working on different ways to give everyone access to banking options.

Chicago has come up with one solution to help those without banking services while serving its transportation mission. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has switched to a new fare payment system called Ventra. Ventra operates similar to the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit Go-To card in that a person can buy long term passes and store funds. Its additional feature makes it different. The Ventra card also functions as a prepaid debit card, usable anywhere debit cards are accepted. This may seem like a large jump but in fact is just a continuation of previous services.

The fare cards preceding Ventra, Chicago Card and Go-To, also stored money for later use. The transit service restricted transactions to their proprietary transportation services but the principle of a financial exchange instrument is the same. Eliminating the payment restriction allows people to save money in their transit account just as they would in a traditional bank account. This change would allow those without banking better access to the services traditionally accessed though bank accounts.

The transition in Chicago has been controversial, however. The CTA outsourced fare collection and the prepaid debit card system to the private company Ventra rather than keep it agency-managed like the Chicago Card. The outsourcing has led to price increases similar to what was experienced when Chicago sold all city parking meters to investment firms. When Ventra took over fare collection for the CTA, single fare tickets increased from $2.25 to $3.00. The one-day pass jumped from $5.75 to $10, a 74% increase. The prepaid debit card is similarly riddled with high costs and hidden fees. Though it is free to activate, estimates using the card will cost $188 per year. This is more expensive than most other prepaid debit cards. This is a good reminder that outsourcing government isn’t better for citizens. It might look cheaper on paper, but only because costs are externalized, especially to those already struggling.

Minnesota can improve on Chicago by implementing the system though the Go-To card. Met Transit would expand the functionality of Go-To cards by letting them act as savings accounts. Public oversight from the Met Council would prevent the price gouging seen in Chicago, giving everyone the opportunity for affordable transactional instruments, creating more options for the unbanked and underbanked.

(Banking data from the FDIC 2011 National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households)


This post first appeared at MN2020 is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Making Room for Transit Makes Streets Better for Everyone

Streets.MN - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 6:00am

The post was originally published at Greater Greater Washington.

Many proposed transit projects in our region, from streetcars to bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, involve vehicles running in the street. Giving transit a place on our busy streets can be a hard sell, especially when it means displacing cars. But a recent trip to Minneapolis shows how it can create better places for everyone, including drivers.

The new Green Line runs through the University of Minnesota. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

Minneapolis finds a compromise on the Green Line

While presenting at Rail~Volution last month in Minneapolis, I had a chance to ride the Green Line, a new light-rail between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. The 11-mile line bears a striking similarity to the proposed Purple Line here in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Like the Purple Line, the Green Line faced resistance from a Republican governor and concerns about gentrification and neighborhood disruption from nearby large immigrant communities.

But it’s how the Green Line interacts with the University of Minnesota, and how community leaders came together to make it a success, that might be the biggest lesson for our area. Like the Purple Line, which would pass through the University of Maryland, the Green Line travels on Washington Avenue, the main street at the University of Minnesota.

Washington Avenue before and after. Photos from Google Street View.

The University of Minnesota, also known as the U, opposed banning cars from Washington Avenue, a busy commuter route into downtown Minneapolis, and turning it into a transit mall. Scientists in the over 80 labs along the street worried that vibrations from light rail trains would disturb their research.

Officials preferred a more circuitous route that went north of the campus, which would inconvenience fewer drivers but also reduce transit access to campus. The U sued to block the project, but after negotiating with the regional Metropolitan Council, officials eventually came to an agreement. The council would pay to reduce vibrations and electromagnetic interference, while the U would move some labs away from the line.

A busy road becomes a place

Since then, the U has worked to make the Green Line as successful as possible. It distributed over 6,700 special passes to students, faculty, and staff that allow them to ride between the three on-campus stations for free, and rerouted campus buses to divert more traffic away from Washington Avenue.

A plaza runs down the middle of Washington Avenue, with light rail and bus/bike lanes on the sides. Photo by the author.

The U’s cooperation with the Metropolitan Council meant that the Green Line could transform Washington Avenue from a traffic sewer to a gathering place. Today, the street feels like a natural extension of the campus. Trains run down the middle of the street, and there are shared bus and bike lanes on either side. The sidewalks are wider, and the crosswalks have special paving materials to make them more visible.

There’s also more green space than there was before. Since the Green Line stations are in the center of the street, there’s a space between the tracks. It would have been easy to just make it a grassy median, or find a way to squeeze in a car lane. Instead, it’s a plaza with tables, chairs, and lush landscaping.

Bikes, buses, and transit share the reconfigured Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota. Photo by the author.

A significant amount of development is happening around the Green Line as a result. Over 2,500 apartments have been built around the U’s three Green Line stations, with another 2,000 in the pipeline. New shops and restaurants have opened along the tracks to cater to the influx of students.

When I visited, Washington Avenue was bustling with students walking to class, cyclists headed downtown, and light rail trains gliding down the street. It was a nice place to be, but it was still a transportation corridor. In fact, the transition was so seamless that it wasn’t until I flew home and I looked at a map that I even realized cars were banned from part of the street.

Better streets make better transit

The development around the Green Line, coupled with the dramatically improved walking and bicycling environment, supports and reinforces the use of transit, making the Green Line more successful. Even before the line opened, 20% of faculty and staff and 40% of students used transit. But since the Green Line opened, it already has over 40,000 riders each day, higher than the projected ridership in 2030. The three University of Minnesota stations are the line’s busiest.

Passengers wait for a train on Washington Avenue. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

And diverting drivers away from campus hasn’t created the traffic congestion that some people feared. In 2011, there was an average of 18,800 cars on Washington Avenue through campus each day. According to the state’s traffic counts, some of those cars have shifted over to nearby University Avenue, which had an increase over 8,000 cars since then.

But on other nearby streets, traffic increased by a very small amount, or even decreased. It’s likely because some drivers chose to take the Green Line instead, opening up street space for others.

The Green Line required leaders to accept that, in order for transit to be successful on Washington Avenue, it had to be seen as a place for people, not just for cars. This is standard operating procedure in other countries, where transit usually gets top priority, but here it requires some persuasion. Hopefully, the success of projects like the Green Line can be a guide for leaders in the DC area as they try to build transit that not only moves people, but creates stronger places. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities