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 min 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.
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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).
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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.
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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.
BUS RIDERSHAVE A SEAT ONME[Truck. Lexington Parkway, Saint Paul.] PADELFORDPARKINGHERE[Boulevard. West Side Flats, Saint Paul.] NO PARKINGVIOLATORSWILL BE TOAD[Lowertown, Saint Paul.]BICYCLESROLLER BLADESOR SKATE BOARDS[Pillar. Isanti County.]SECRETLURESINSIDE[Pole. Grand Marais.] NOBICYCLESSKATEOBARDSROLLER BLADSONSIDEWALK[Stop sign. Grand Marais.] Please No Pets or Food [Steps. Grand Marais.] THE BEAVER HOUSEIS FOR SALEFor BLDG and LANDMDSE is NEGOTIABLE[Window. Grand Marais.]
[Cedar Riverside.] [Downtown Saint Paul.] [Somewhere with brand new curbs.][Territorial Road area.] [Downtown Saint Paul.] [South Minneapolis.] [Old Town Stockholm.] [Saint Paul probably.]
[Note: this post is best read while listening to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2DFu7oWit0.]
An interesting chart from the Strong Towns blog showing biking rates in Memphis, Tennessee classified by ethnicity.
Race and bicycling is an interesting topic of conversation that happens too rarely, and brings into focus all kinds of often hidden assumptions about transportation, equity, geography, visibility, and feelings of security.
Bikeyface took a bike-cation somewhere near Boston, but could have been visiting Northfield instead. Doesn’t that look like MN Trunk Highway 3 through downtown Northfield?
What would a bike-cation in Northfield look like? There’s a surprising amount to do on a bicycle in Northfield, but navigating through the center of town on a bicycle to reach some of the best bikable bits does look a lot like Bikeyface’s drawing.
Bike-cation in Northfield, Plan A
Stay downtown at the Archer House River Inn. Riding south on Division Street, you can enjoy the shops, restaurants with an easy connection through Riverside Park under the highway to the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge (Peggy Prowe is Northfield’s tireless trail advocate).
Once there, you can ride on the Mill Towns Trail through Sechler Park toward Dundas. In the future, the plan is to connect the Mill Towns Trail to the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail toward Faribault and Mankato and to the Cannon Valley Trail to Red Wing. In the nearer future, after reaching Dundas on the west side of the Cannon River you could return to Northfield on the trail under construction on the east side of the river. Babcock Park could soon see a canoe/kayak launch and other improvements to diversify your active vacation.
Reaching Carleton College is a short (uphill) ride from downtown with connections to rural roads (paved and gravel). Visiting St Olaf College (or the Ole Store Cafe) requires something like the Bikeyface crossing experience at Highway 3 (but Northfield does have beg buttons and, at Second Street, a bike sensor) and a longer uphill climb (but returning to downtown is a breeze!).
You could come to Northfield for bike related events, too. The annual Defeat of Jesse James Days Bike Tour is the longest running and largest one, but the Tour De Save and MN Gravel Championships are based here.Bike-cation Plan B
Stay across MN3 at the Country Inn (only .25 miles from the Archer House). You’re not interested in the historic inn experience, but prefer the amenities at a more contemporary hotel (like the indoor pool, for example) along with the convenient parking for your car (with its bike carrier).
Unfortunately, this hotel is stranded at the corner of two state highways, so while it is very accessible by car, all the bicycle activities noted under Plan A take some additional work. The bike and pedestrian bridge which connects to the east river trail or under Highway 3 to downtown still requires crossing MN19. Reaching downtown (which you could see from your hotel room window) means crossing MN3. The Country Inn is,however, better situated for reaching El Triunfo.So close
Yep, it was so close to being a brilliant vacation. Small towns need safe streets and infrastructure that takes bikes seriously too. It’s good for recreation, transportation, and my vacations tourism. Even if driving is sometimes necessary, it’s always nice to drive less.
Northfield, too, is so close to being a brilliant bike-cation destination. Pieces of brilliance like the work developing the Mill Towns Trail, building the pedestrian bridge, and working to get the bike sensor installed do add up, but sparkling brilliance requires repairing the border vacuum created by MN3 (and to a lesser extent MN19).
There are jurisdictional challenges, certainly, since building and connecting bicycling facilities requires thinking about trails (DNR and the City of Northfield’s parks department), on-street bike facilities (MnDOT, Rice County, and the City of Northfield’s parks and streets departments), economic development (Economic Development Authority, Northfield Downtown Development Corporation, City of Northfield, Chamber of Commerce), streets (MnDOT, Rice and Dakota Counties, City of Northfield).
Plus, there are funding challenges since the different agencies and departments which deal with bicycle improvements also bring different funding streams and decision-making processes. The DNR often works through grant-making, MnDOT funds improvements to state roads and MSA-funding. Rice County funds some kinds of improvements in the City, but not others (like sidewalks). The City of Northfield might pay for improvements as special projects, through the CIP. Private groups could raise money for particular projects, and even the federal government can get involved.
There are many local stakeholders, too. Northfield has trail supporters, off-road cyclists, bike clubs, BikeNorthfield, as well as youth advocates, healthy community campaigners and more. Leadership from these groups along with city elected officials are needed to coordinate support over the time needed to plan and build better ways to crossing the highway. Visitors who bring their bicycles and their dollars can also help.
None of the recent accolades for livability or retirement mention the stroad through the middle of town, and it is still an impediment to walking and cycling. Northfield is already a good place to ride a bike and could be a great bike-cation destination (and even better place to live or retire) in the not too distant future if we could connect the dots.
A version of this post appeared on betseybuckheit.com
In discussions of bicycling for transportation we don’t often give much thought to the bicycle. We talk a lot about laws, facilities to ride bicycles on, and and all of the benefits of bicycling but the lowly bicycle itself gets pretty short shrift. And it shouldn’t. It’s important.
If we want to increase transportation bicycling we need all five of these: 1) safe, comfortable, segregated cycleways, 2) a complete network of cycleways, 3) appropriate bikes, 4) many many bike shops scattered through our communities, and 5) mindshare.
If you don’t have a bike that is comfortable and easy to ride and that works for your daily needs then you’ll likely not ride it very much.
Narrow Minded Bike Shops?
If you go in to many local bike shops to buy a bike they’ll ask a few questions and then usually direct you to a hybrid, road bike, or maybe a beach cruiser. Great for trails and racing, not so great for simple every-day riding like a quick trip to the store or to dinner.
If you visit a bike shop just about anywhere outside of North America they’ll show you their city bikes. Only if you tell them you want to race or do a lot of off-road riding will they suggest anything else. Why else, they reason, would anyone want a bike that’s not so comfortable to ride and with external gears and stuff that requires a fair bit of maintenance, may not work as well when wet or clogged with snow, and splatters greasy gook all over your clothes?
The two experiences are polar opposites. Mostly, the only bikes available in the U.S. are drop bar racing and touring bikes, off-road mountain or cross bikes, or beach cruisers and comfort bikes. But, few of us actually race, tour, ride off-road, or on beaches.
A Good Bike
Likely the most popular bike in the world is a Dutch city bike or some close variation.
These are the most popular bikes for a reason – they work. Every feature has a purpose in making them reliable, easy and comfortable for anyone to ride, able to carry the detritus from a day’s errands, and ridden whenever and in whatever clothes you have on. Armani suit? No problem. Badgley Mishka dress and silk Anne Klein heels? No Problem. (For a bit of daily fashion on two wheels check out Cycle Chic)
They come from the factory with the key accessories you need, all fully integrated, so no having to buy extra stuff and wondering about how well this or that will work. They’re designed and built to serve a purpose, last a lifetime and, best of all, they never go out of style.
Their upright geometry is not only safer since your body is naturally upright and your head is higher and more easily able to see people and cars and what’s going on around you, but also healthier because it vertically aligns your sit bone, back, neck, and head. (Most hybrids, cruisers, leisure bikes, comfort bikes, and pseudo-Dutch bikes like the Electra Amsterdam do not provide this crucial benefit.)
This geometry is critical for people with back or neck problems and for older folk. People who ride upright bikes also develop better and healthier posture when off the bike. This is why so many people can so easily and comfortably ride long distances on Dutch bikes—they’re designed for it. I’ve ridden 70 miles in a day in complete comfort. For more read Dutchness.
The geometry and upright posture also take the weight off of your hands which is more comfortable, eliminates sore hands and arms, and makes it much easier and safer to carry an umbrella if it’s raining or a cappuccino if it’s not.
This is all why they’ve remained relatively unchanged for nearly a century (and why sort-of-a-Dutch-bike or looks-like-an-omafiets aren’t so popular).
Fenders. The full fenders do a terrific job of keeping stuff, wet or dry, off of you.
Spats. Sometimes called a skirt guard or coat guard – those covers along the sides of the rear wheel. Similar to fenders – keeps stuff off of you and keeps stuff you’re carrying or wearing from getting caught in the spokes.
Rear Bumper. The tubes that support the rear fender extend out an extra bit which acts as a bumper.
Fully Enclosed Chain Case. Not just a fender across the top of the chain, but fully enclosed on every side. It keeps the chain and drive system clean and functioning well and keeps oil and grit off of your clothes. Prada? Yep, no problem.
Girlfriend Rack. They’re called that for a reason – you can carry your girlfriend or boyfriend on them. These are solid racks that can handle just about anything you can strap on them. Note the permanently attached straps that are always there and ready.
Lights. Front and rear. Typically the rear light is a ‘stand light’ which just means that it stays on for about 10 minutes after you stop. Some front lights are also stand lights. Note that most European countries do not allow blinking lights as they are believed to distract drivers more than make them aware. (Also, check out the super strong spokes in the picture above).
Dynamo. Batteries and LED lights have come a long way, but batteries still require charging and replacing. A dynamo, in the front hub or against a tire, powers both the front and rear lights. Your lights always work. You never have to worry if you forgot to charge them or bring them along.
Reflectors. Bikes in European and most Asian countries are required to have front and rear reflectors, side-wall reflectors on the tires, and reflectors on the pedals. This combination is believed to work better than blinking lights since drivers immediately recognize them as being a bicycle from any angle. This combination also provides others with a good indication of what direction a rider is heading and if they are turning.
Internal Geared Rear Hub (IGH). Unlike the typical derailleur, everything is fully enclosed and as close to bullet-proof as you can get. Even left outside all year in all kinds of weather it’s not unusual for these to go two or three decades without maintenance (though occasional maintenance isn’t a bad idea). They are much easier to use and shift more reliably than external derailleurs. One huge advantage is that they can be shifted anytime, even when stopped, which comes in very handy when you forget to downshift prior to stopping. They are also much quieter than external derailleurs.
Single, two, and three-speed hubs are available and work well for flat or moderate hills. For some people in the Twin Cities a 7 or 8 -speed may be a better option. For the ultimate in cycling luxury, try the Nuvinci variable speed that I have on my Opafiets.
Internal Roller or Coaster Brakes. Another nod to high reliability in any and all weather. Being internal not only reduces maintenance but keeps them working the same regardless of weather. External rim brakes and disc brakes require more maintenance and don’t work as well in wet or snow.
Many Europeans prefer coaster brakes since that allows them to keep their hands free for carrying lumber, holding their cell phone, or both. A coaster brake also has the advantage of no cables while roller brakes are hand brakes with cables. Options are coaster only, rear coaster plus front roller, or rear and front roller. What you choose is personal preference though folks with weaker hands, seniors in particular, should opt for a coaster brake.
Bell. Another legal requirement of all bikes in Europe. Bells work better (people are less likely to be confused and move left) and are more pleasant than “on your left”.
Ring Lock. Locks the rear wheel so that it can’t roll. Given the weight of these bikes this is usually enough for short stops or when you’re in a cafe and can see your bike from where you’re sitting. For longer security needs a U lock or similar may be good to have.
Steering Stabilizer. A spring that keeps the front wheel from turning easily when parked. Keeps your bike more stable and is especially important for loading stuff on front or rear racks or baskets. Also makes riding more comfortable. A seemingly minor detail that makes a world of difference when it comes to the daily enjoyment of these bikes.
Tire and Wheel Size. The slightly larger tire provides a much smoother ride, especially over bumps and curb cuts. The thinner tires on ‘English’ and other bikes are a bit harsher. The larger studded tires that this accommodates do amazingly well in Minnesota winters.
Schwalbe Marathon Tires. These are perhaps the most durable and comfortable bike tire available. The white strip is reflective.
Powder Coated Paint. Another part of lifetime durability.
Stainless Hardware. Yes, more lifetime durability.
Saddle. A leather Brooks B67 or B67s is the ultimate in upright comfort. And let’s be clear, for comfort, this is a very critical component. Other saddles such as those from Selle Royal work well, too.
Overall design, geometry, and construction. These bikes are designed for both comfort and carrying stuff. Many bikes get squirrelly when you weight them down with wine & cheese for 30 of your closest friends, but not these.
Center Stand. Not as ubiquitous as everything above but quite popular. Particularly useful for loading stuff on front or rear racks since the bike is upright and more stable.
Front Rack / Basket / Box. Often the easiest place for carrying stuff. These can be mounted to the handlebars, front fork, or frame. For heavier loads a frame mount is usually preferable. Beyond that it’s personal preference. The front racks on our Omafiets & Opafiets just slide in so are easily removed when we don’t need them, the rack on the Gr8 (above) is attached with screws so is a little more permanent. A basket or wooden wine crate makes a great addition to these racks.
Interestingly, front baskets and boxes are hugely more popular in Denmark and Sweden than The Netherlands where people prefer a box on their rear rack or panniers.
Personalization. Perhaps the most critical element of all. From custom paint to stickers to flowers.
My personal preference is Workcycles, Azor, and Batavus. Second place is Gazelle, Pashley, Velorbis, and VanMoof. Third is Bobbin and Linus which are more ‘English’ bikes but still fairly good. I think the biggest drawback to English bikes is that they aren’t as stable as Dutch bikes especially when carrying a lot of groceries. What works best for me won’t work for everyone though.
Considering the significant difference in the geometry and ride of a true Dutch style bike vs a Beach Cruiser or Comfort Bike you should ideally ride each for some considerable time before buying. In particular, flat foot and comfort bikes can leave some people with unnecessary joint and muscle pains so some caution here may be warranted.
For more on selecting and buying a city bike scroll about halfway down on this page.
Here are some bikes that are more common outside of North America than in.
Our Bakfiets is one version of a cargo bike. These are very popular for hauling children, groceries, hardware, plants, furniture, wine, cheese, or just about anything you can fit in or on it (including 5 gallons of gas). Though originally intended just for hauling stuff, they’ve become the vehicle of choice for parents who like having their kids up front where they can talk to them and point things out as they go along and kids love riding in them.
Parents outside of the U.S. often prefer to have their children up front whenever they can. This allows for better conversation, children enjoy it more, and they see the world around them better and learn from this.
The variety of trikes and other pedal-powered vehicles outside of North America is quite fascinating (photo courtesy of Henry @ Workcycles).
As cities put more and more restrictions on the types of vehicles allowed in to city centers (and even suburbs) it’s necessary to get creative. This is an e-trike.
 Varsity Bike Shop and Calhoun Bike Shop are somewhat the exceptions. There may be others but I’ve not found them.
Here is my open letter to Saint Paul Public Works and Mayor Coleman.
As a new resident to Saint Paul, I wasn’t present for the leg work and public meetings that went into creating the bicycle boulevards. I have, however, been using them extensively over the last 9 months since moving here. I’m a daily bicycle commuter on Jefferson Avenue, and we chose our house partially due to its close proximity to this bike infrastructure.
Bicycle boulevards [create] an attractive, convenient, and comfortable cycling environment that is welcoming to cyclists of all ages and skill levels. [Bicycle boulevards] allow through movements for cyclists while discouraging similar through trips by nonlocal motorized traffic.
However, the Jefferson Avenue bicycle boulevard leaves very much to be desired. I am routinely harassed, buzzed, yelled at, swerved at, stopped short in front of, etc. while biking on Jefferson by drivers. I’m an experienced bicyclist and assert myself into the lane when necessary and ride as far to the right as practicable.
I believe this constant harassment is because, east of Snelling, east-bound Jefferson functions essentially as an on-ramp for 35E. Randolph Heights elementary is located here and excessive speeding through a school zone is problematic and unsafe. Drivers can easily access 35E from either St Clair or Randolph and the city should fully prioritize Jefferson for safety over driver convenience. I’ve attached Jefferson’s ADT to show the marked drop-off in traffic east of Victoria/35E on-ramp.Again, I realize that Jefferson has a long history and that most city officials and employees want to raise design issues again. But I believe that with a few low cost improvements, we could see non-local traffic discouraged from Jefferson allowing it to serve as a calm safe road for all users, from 8-80 years old.
First example,here is a picture of a more extreme traffic diversion in Berkeley, CA near a busy transit station in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood. This actual bike boulevard has bollards to divert thru-traffic, along with huge painted sharrows that clearly mark the street as bike priority (along with great way-finding signage).While I know this may not sit well with emergency services, it will be the most effective way of diverting traffic off of Jefferson. I’d suggest using Brimhall, Saratoga, or Warwick because the block configuration won’t allow drivers to simply go to the next east/west street and quickly get back to Jefferson. Also, I acknowledge that residents on whichever street is chosen will most likely object to the increase in traffic. I’d argue, however, that once this diversion is known, drivers will adjust by using St Clair or Randolph, as they already should be doing.
The second example is turning block-long stretches into one-ways, which would be much easier to implement, requiring only a few signs. It is also a very local example seen all over the Summit Hill neighborhood. This would leave the roadway clear for emergency vehicles but also accomplish the goal of reducing thru-traffic. As for cycling, it would remain two-way using a contra-flow design similar to 5th Street SE in Minneapolis, that would allow cyclists to continue safely in the opposite direction from traffic. Since the biggest issue, in my opinion, is eastbound AM traffic headed to 35E, the one-way could only allow west-bound traffic and could be placed on any block between Brimhall and Pascal. The one-way signs could include language “except bikes, buses, emergency vehicles”.My third example of a design solution for Jefferson would be to reduce the speed on Jefferson. 30 mph is completely unacceptable for a bike boulebard. In a AAA study, the risk of severe injury decreases from nearly 50% at 30 mph to below 25% at 20 mph.
I understand this may be a state law, but urban areas need to lead the push to change residential streets from 30 mph down to a much more palatable 20 mph. In the meantime, the city should apply for an exception from MNDOT. We could also add speed bumps, as is common in the Union Park area.
Fourth, another area of concern is the stretch where Jefferson becomes Edgcumbe Rd for a block. The planted median is beautiful and adds a lot of character, but keeping the parking along this same stretch greatly limits the space available. I often need to take the full lane in order to not be buzzed or pushed into the parked cars by drivers looking to pass me unsafely. The light at Lexington is extremely long, but drivers still feel the need to speed up this stretch to get into the queue. (This is more of an issue eastbound because there is a slight uphill. Westbound is slightly downhill so I can usually get up to a reasonable speed and merge into traffic around the parked cars. However, when traveling westbound, there is a pinch point where the curb narrows just west of Edgcumbe’s southbound lane.) I have to assert myself into the lane to not get pinched into the curb. Bicycle boulevards, designed for riders of all ages and experience levels, should not require bicyclists to have to assert their rights to the road.
Finally, with $400,000 available for bike lane painting and re-striping from the 8-80 funds, I’d like to see the stretch on Jefferson as it passes over Ayd Mill and under 35E re-striped. There is a large “median” painted and that ROW space could be dedicated to a buffer zone for the bike lanes on both sides. On that note, I’d like to express my gratitude for the green paint on the lanes as they cross the Ayd Mill onramps. If I could, I’d really like to see green paint where the southbound Ayd Mill off-ramp intersects with Jefferson. Drivers often don’t fully stop at that stop sign and roll out into the bike lane.I think the idea of Jefferson is great, we did buy our home very near to it for a reason. But I also think we are so close to making it a true bicycle boulevard, and we should finish what we started. I fully understand that this has been a long hard process, let’s not let it be in vain.
The podcast this week is a conversation with Alex Cecchini, an engineer and regular contributor to streets.mn. Alex recently wrote a well-researched post entitled The Case for Quarter Mile Bus Stop Spacing, all about transit design and the tradeoff between frequent stops and bus speeds. We sat down at the Amsterdam Bar in downtown Saint Paul to talk about his transit planning generally, and his research, more specifically. We also blabbed about streetcars and Alex’s background as an amateur urbanist. I hope you enjoy the conversation. (Note: I also wrote about this issue, in part, over at Minnpost.)
The audio is here. Thanks for listening!
Minnesota Republicans captured control of the Minnesota House of Representatives in part by fueling urban versus rural resentment: “Those metro-centric DFLers give everything to Minneapolis and St. Paul.” The truth is, turnout trends associated with non-presidential year elections were a much bigger reason why the DFL lost control of the Minnesota House. But this “core cities versus the rest of us” theme was definitely a big part of the Minnesota GOP’s 2014 campaign, and a lot of analysts are convinced that is why Republicans won. For instance, MinnPost’s excellent reporter Briana Bierschbach noted:
“…Republicans had a potent message, too, and it was a simple one: Rural Democrats had left their constituents behind by voting with their Minneapolis and St. Paul leadership.”
Exhibit A in the Republicans’ rural victimization case was funding for pedestrian and bike infrastructure, something Republicans often characterize as “metrocentric.” In other words, they maintain it isn’t of interest to suburban, exurban or rural citizens. For instance, GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson tried to appeal to non-urban votes with this riff:
“We have spent billions of dollars on trains, trollies, bike paths, and sidewalks, but not nearly enough on the basic infrastructure most Minnesotans use every day: our roads and bridges.”
Beyond the campaign trail, that theme also has sometimes been a battle cry during Met Council transportation planning discussions. Finance and Commerce reports that:
“The suburban counties argue that the Met Council’s transportation investment plan emphasizes urban transit, bike and pedestrian options at the expense of highways, which they say could cause further congestion and safety issues.”
However, a survey released today calls the Republicans’ assumption into question. The poll found majority support in every region of the state for additional funding for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. The random sample of 1,000 Minnesotans sponsored by the Minnesotans for Healthy Kids Coalition found that the strongest support was in St. Paul and Minneapolis (71% support). However, there was roughly the same high level of support in the suburbs, which are key political battlegrounds because that’s where population is growing most rapidly:
- Western metro suburbs: 69% support.
- East metro suburbs: 70% support.
Even in rural areas, a strong majority support funding bike and pedestrian infrastructure improvements:
- Central Minnesota: 64% support.
- Southern Minnesota: 57% support.
- Northern Minnesota: 56% support.
In other words, if a politician mentions the DFL’s support of bike and pedestrian infrastructure funding in rural Minnesota they’re more likely to help the DFLer than hurt them.
The moral of the story is that the appeal of pedestrian and biking infrastructure improvements is hardly limited to the hipsters and fitness freaks in the core cities. Politicians who campaign or govern based on that false assumption may have a rude awakening.
[See also: The All New Annotated Met Council "Streetcar Letter" to Minneapolis, the All New Annotated U of MN v. LRT Lawsuit, or the Best of the 5-County Manifesto (Translated).][Courtesy of Chris Steller.][Editor's note: Joel Kotkin's New Geography website is the last refuge of the urban planning right wing hacks. I used to think there was no way they would pull a piece for being too lazy, too dog whistle-y, or too just plain wrong on facts. But then this piece came along, appearing in my .rss feed only to disappear again shortly later. Enjoy.] --> Would the Twin Cities Survive New Urbanism?Newgeography.com - Economic, demographic, and political commentary about places by Rick Harrison / 1h // keep unread // hide // previewIn the next few weeks, the Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, is scheduled to vote on a vision for the region's housing and transportation future. "Thrive MSP 2040” is the council’s comprehensive development plan for the seven county Twin Cities metro area for the next 30 years. It's a regional growth plan that will result not in a cure for the area's ills, though, but in a virus that will kill its vitality.The Minneapolis/ St. Paul area is one of the most livable regions in the nation. That's not because residents were forced onto transit and into high density housing, as Thrive will do. Growth occurred in a natural manner, in an area with great schools, because people here had the freedom to choose the size of yard for their kids, and the ability to embrace the natural openness of the region. The vigorous suburban growth that resulted has helped our vitality, despite past decisions from the Met Council to neutralize it.[Subtext: I live in an all-white suburb and never think about economic disparities.]The Metropolitan Council isn't alone in adopting New Urbanist plans on a wholesale basis. Their approach, and the problems that go with it, are being repeated by many planning boards nationwide. The 350-page ‘Detroit Future City’ plan, is a tunnel-vision strategy based on the same New Urbanism thought. With the best of intentions — goals of avoiding pre-fabricated monotony and sprawl, and creating affordable, livable communities — municipalities are actually writing prescriptions that will do just the opposite.[Subtext: Detroit = scary black people.]I speak with the perspective of a locally-based development consultant, and an observer and resident of the region for 31 years. I've witnessed what has actually helped make this area succeed. At my company, we've designed hundreds of sustainable neighborhoods that don't adhere to the New Urbanist principles of high density and only public transit.[??????Sustainable LOL "Coving?" Here are some names of Harrison developments: Fairway Estates, Pintail Ponds, Remington Coves, Sandstone Hills... They remind you of theoretical Edina neighborhoods.]Two decades ago, the Met Council placed its faith in an urban growth boundary, limiting sewer development in the metro area to inoculate itself against “sprawl”. The result was an increase in the very “sprawl” the council sought to avoid, as development leap-frogged outside the seven-county area to escape the high land prices created by the artificial land limitation.[Note: There’s a big difference between an urban growth boundary and making sure sewer investments aren’t huge subsidies. Conservatives might take note.]The Met Council hired Peter Calthorpe, the founder of the ”Congress of New Urbanism”, for several million in tax dollars, to provide a singular vision for our region’s future growth. The ‘one size fits all’ approach resulted in projects like Clover Ridge in Chaska, Ramsey Town Center, and indirectly, others like St. Michaels ‘Town Center’, all of which failed to deliver the promises that had been made.Calthorpe’s attempt to create a ‘sense of place’ failed to attract home buyers. For example, the ‘conventionally planned’ sections of Clover Ridge sold well. But, with their sardine-like density, the housing along alleys remained vacant. Because the development did not attract as many homebuyers as anticipated, among other reasons, local shopping and restaurants did not materialize as the Met Council had promised.[Question: Is this even true? I’d have to go to Chaska to find out… Someone please let me know.]More recently, ‘Smart Growth’ projects such as ‘Excelsior and Grand’ in St. Louis Park failed to acknowledge why their retailers were abandoning their spaces. A spokeswoman for Panera Bread cited location and convenience for customers. Yet 'Excelsior and Grand is a model New Urbanism plan, complete with the obligatory central ‘traffic circle’ with a ‘sense of place’ sculpture.[OK this the other SLP development is a pretty successful place, so successful that real estate effects are trickling out to Golden Valley next door. (Look an actual link to an actual source.)]These smart-growth projects are examples of architects preaching a singular growth model that does not work for all people, in all climates. Those who assume the working class will appreciate waiting outside in 20 below zero weather at an architecturally designed “sense of place” bus stop and then coming home to the 14th floor of a high rise are clueless. And the dense projects being built in this region have the same sort of repetition of design that smart-growth planners criticize in suburbia.[Note: By “singular growth model”, It’s as if he’s describing single-use single family cul-de-sac land use patterns. Meanwhile, apartment demand in places like Minneapolis and Saint Paul are off the charts without sign of slowing.] Today in the Twin Cities, sales of new, single-family homes are rebounding, creating a catalyst for economic stability. Despite this market reality, some developers are still submitting new multifamily housing proposals. That's due to Met Council density mandates, not because of market demand. The Council’s assumption is that the population will migrate to the urban core for its (expensive) restaurants and its 19th century rail technology, abandoning spacious suburbs and cars. But sales suggest otherwise.[Note: the opposite is true.]The Met Council’s ‘Thrive 2040' vision will undermine the American Dream of obtaining an affordable single-family home in an area where one desires to live, with the freedom of travel (and protection from our harsh winters) that only personal vehicles currently provide.Under the ‘Thrive’ mandates, more workers will need to live in ‘affordable housing’ (mid- or high rises) and take mass transit to their jobs. Yet ‘affordable housing’ remains elusive in ‘Smart Growth’ projects, unless it is heavily subsidized with tax dollars.[Read: I like my suburb surrounded by white people, not scary high rises filled with poor people who don’t look like me.]Calthorpe’s Congress of New Urbanism actually boasts of the gentrification it produces. When home prices go up, what happens to the living standard for displaced low-income families? The working class, regardless of race, should be outraged by ‘Thrive’.[Yes, mixed-use Traditional neighborhood development is very popular.]Density does not guarantee affordability. We cannot forever throw tax dollars at high-density development solutions in an effort to make them economically feasible. A successful, balanced housing market drives the economy. At their December meeting, let's hope the Met Council recognizes that the 'Thrive' vision is anything but balanced.Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are rhsdplanning.com and pps-vr.com.[Read: Rick Harrison is a hack.]
Here’s a chart courtesy of City Pages showing the bus on-time percentage during the big winter storm a while back. Transit ridership goes up in the wintertime as driving becomes more difficult. It’s good to remember that when contemplating how well to shovel your sidewalk.
Also, one of the big advantages of trains over rail is that they work much better in the ice and snow. I’ve seen lots of buses get stuck in the snow but I’ve never seen a train do so.
You never hear much about urban land use or transit oriented development in Duluth–or transit itself for that matter. Those topics seems to be restricted to the Twin Cities and sometimes Rochester. I’ve become much more familiar with the Zenith City over the last three years spent writing the new book “Twin Ports by Trolley—The Streetcar Era in Duluth-Superior”, just released by the University of Minnesota Press.
Let’s take suburban sprawl. In the Twin Cities it has happened in ever wider concentric circles centered on downtown Minneapolis (that includes the development east of St. Paul). In contrast, sprawl has never amounted to much in Duluth. I attribute it to Duluth’s peculiar geography and the lack of post-World War II population growth. Stretched out along the lake, harbor and the St. Louis River, the city is about 25 miles long but only 3-4 miles wide in most places and often less.
Sprawl was not possible on the lake side of the city facing the water, so it had to go elsewhere. Gary-New Duluth, the westernmost neighborhoods, are already 12 miles from downtown, which in itself was a disincentive foro development farther out, so it didn’t happen there. Lakeside, the easternmost neighborhood, is 6 miles from downtown, but little development has occurred east of the Lester River.
To the extent that new growth ocurred, it has mostly thickened the city’s narrow midsection, and much of the new stuff is considerably closer to downtown than pockets of much older housing. The big suburban winner has been Hermantown, with over 9000 people, but still closer to downtown than much of Duluth itself.
It’s true that Superior Street in downtown has lost most of the general retail to big boxes and the Miller Hill Mall. Duluth’s industrial base has also shrunk from what it was. The population, which hovered around 100,000 for decades, is down to 86,000, although I believe that’s mostly due to smaller households.
What I learned doing the book is that Duluth indeed experienced considerable suburban sprawl, but it happened back in 1890, when the new technology of electric streetcars brought outer areas within reach of a half-hour trolley trip. Developers extended speculative streetcar and cable incline lines to Hunter’s Park, Woodland, Lakeside, Duluth Heights and Bayview Heights, all outside the city and well beyond the limits of existing development. Duluth annexed all those suburbs in 1891, but to this day there is open land or only thin infill between them and the rest of the city. Even so, those neighborhoods are now historic, so it’s not like they’re McMansion subdivisions.
A second suburban wavelet occurred about 1915, in the runup to World War I. A pair of planned company towns, Riverside and Morgan Park, appeared along the St. Louis River, within the city limits but miles beyond the developed area. They were built to house the employees of the McDougall-Duluth shipyard and the U. S. Steel plant. Even today, one passes through much vacant real estate to reach them.
Thanks to this early sprawl and generous city limits, Duluth has always had very low population density. In my book is a table I found in the Duluth Street Railway records (which have survived intact at UMD) that compares Duluth to the Twin Cities in 1928. At the time, Duluth had more land area than either Minneapolis or St. Paul. Its population density per square mile was 1735, compared to 7662 in Minneapolis and 5613 in St. Paul. Not surprisingly, its streetcars were only 57 percent as productive as in Minneapolis, which explains why they were replaced by buses in 1939, while Minneapolis’ lasted until 1954.
On the positive side, a stable number of households has preserved a residential landscape that has changed little since the days of the streetcars. They don’t have a teardown epidemic, so it’s a time capsule available for anyone to view.
With some exceptions, the Duluth Transit Authority bus system is doing what the streetcars used to do. One of the city’s strengths is that its oblong shape concentrates ridership and funnels everything through downtown, even though downtown isn’t as strong as it once was. There’s no such thing as an outer freeway belt that ignores the downtown, although the I-35 freeway now separates it from the harbor. Time and the automobile have taken their toll on the retail and commercial sector, but because sprawl has been minimal, residential Duluth looks more traditionally urban than any other small city I can think of.
Last week, David Levinson asked whether we are “building a city” in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. He noted that rail investments only make sense in areas where there is sufficient density to support those investments. He further wondered whether Minneapolis and St. Paul could achieve those requisite densities for a majority of residents in core areas in 20 or 30 years.
While we may only be dabbling with building a city at the center of our region, Minneapolis already has densities sufficient to support a respectable transit system (St. Paul does not). This is encouraging because it means that smart transit investments in the city have a high likelihood of success.
But it is also discouraging that much of Minneapolis is transit-ready because it means the city should have better transit than it does. Perhaps the city’s poor transit system is the result of our decision makers’ priorities and experiences. As has been pointed out here and elsewhere, Met Council board members – who exercise control over Metro Transit – rarely “incorporate public transit into their daily lives — if they use it at all” because they are “often unable to include the additional time needed for transit in [their] schedule,” or they “can’t take it for work because [they] have to go to a lot of meetings.”
Maybe we can provide inspiration for smart local transit investments. After all, countless busy lawyers and financiers in New York and politicos in D.C. take public transit every day (as do a few busy people I know in the Minneapolis legal community). If they make it work, we can all make it work.
HIGH QUALITY TRANSIT IS A VIABLE OPTION IN MINNEAPOLIS TODAY
Let’s start with the basics. Roughly 40% of Minneapolis’s residents live in neighborhoods dense enough to support fixed rail transit. The adjacent map shows those Minneapolis neighborhoods with residential density greater than Montreal (11,701 people per square mile) in green, greater than D.C. (9316 people per square mile) in blue, and employment density greater than 9600 per square mile in red. I chose these cities as comparison cities because they both have significant transit systems.
Nearly all these dense Minneapolis neighborhoods are contiguous. The block is about 6.5 miles long (from Holland to Kingfield) and about 3.25 miles wide (from East Isles through Phillips). Because all the neighborhoods are contiguous, Minneapolis could build a mini world class transit system entirely within the already-dense neighborhoods and then gradually lengthen lines as peripheral neighborhoods became dense enough to support transit. This mini transit system might look something like this:
The map above is part of Metro Transit’s existing Hi Frequency bus map. These Hi Frequency buses have reasonably short headways (wait time between vehicles) but can be excruciatingly slow. Yet the Hi Frequency map shows that Metro Transit knows where good transit is needed.
What can we do to improve speed in this dense Minneapolis core? Some might point to the city’s approved streetcar network, which covers much of the same territory as the Hi Frequency system:
But the city and Metro Transit have indicated that our streetcars will operate within personal automobile traffic (the Midtown Corridor streetcar will be an exception if it is built). Therefore, any discussion about how to improve streetcar timing applies to our current bus network and vice versa.
So why not push to maximize our current system, even through pilots, before laying track? We could learn a lot, and improve a lot of peoples’ everyday lives, by experimenting with speedy bus corridors.
EXAMPLE LINE: THE #18 BUS
The #18 bus, which primarily runs along Nicollet Avenue South and Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, provides a nice case study for reliable yet inefficient service and for opportunities to fix these inefficiencies. Much of the #18’s route is part of Minneapolis’s first planned streetcar line.
According to Metro Transit’s own information about the #18 bus, it should take anywhere from 27 to 47 minutes to get from 38th Street to 4th Street if the bus is running on time (details in footnote ). According to Google Maps, it takes 13 minutes to drive from 38th and Nicollet to 4th and Nicollet on city streets.
WHY THE #18 IS SO SLOW
The #18’s timing woes are the result of many factors. Most can be classified into three general categories: (1) necessary delay, (2) delay that occurs due to the transit system’s priorities, and (3) delay that results due to prioritization of other modes of transportation (some causes of delay, such as requiring that riders pay fares on the bus instead of at the stop, do not neatly fall into one of these categories).
First, buses necessarily travel slower than other vehicles because they must take time to slow down as they approach a stop, must stay stationary to pick up passengers, and must take time to get back up to speed. This delay can be mitigated if buses are given their own lane.
Second, Metro Transit has determined that the #18 should stop nearly every block for much of the route. The agency believes this will serve more users and more types of users.
Finally, other factors explicitly prioritize cars over buses. Those factors with the most impact include requiring buses to lose time pulling in and out of traffic at stops and timing lights for cars instead of giving buses signal priority or preemption.
On routes where personal automobile traffic counts are magnitudes higher than bus ridership, these last factors may be logical from an efficiency standpoint, although the traffic counts and ridership numbers are influenced by the relative efficiencies of the respective systems. Commute figures on Nicollet, however, are not magnitudes apart.
Vehicle counts on Nicollet Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets are 9106 per day. Assuming 78% of vehicles are single occupancy (Minnesota’s average) and assuming 2.5 people in the remaining 22% of vehicles (this number is a guess), total car ridership at that point on Nicollet is about 11,500 per day.
Daily bus ridership on the full #18 route was 10,949 in 2010. It appears reasonable to assume that well more than half the #18’s rides traverse part of the route between 38th and 4th – anecdotally the bus is most crowded between Lake and 7th Street in Downtown, and the boarding map on page 93 of this Metro Transit technical memorandum shows the route’s heaviest boarding between downtown and Lake Street.
These numbers do not provide an apples-to-apples comparison because they contrast route-wide boarding data with traffic counts at a specific place. However, the figures provide enough information to show that the number of people traveling by car along Nicollet do not vastly outnumber bus patrons along the route. Notably, car passenger and bus ridership numbers are similar magnitudes even though the #18 is anywhere from 2 to 4 times slower than a private car on Nicollet.
Car travel from one point to another on Nicollet is more than twice as fast as the bus in part because those factors that explicitly prioritize cars over buses – placing buses in car traffic, making buses pull over to stops, and timing traffic lights for car speeds – are all in place for much of the route. Yet even on Nicollet Mall in downtown, where the city prohibits private automobile use, signal priority remains non-existent. In addition, private automobiles on cross streets are constantly blocking the intersection when buses have a green light. Although this “blocking the box” is a violation under state law that earns box blockers a $128 ticket, I have never seen someone ticketed for this offense in downtown.
These street design elements, traffic signal timing, and lack of enforcement reveal city, regional, and cultural priorities in favor of the automobile.
RESHUFFLING PRIORITIES COULD INCREASE TRAVEL TIME BY 40%
Metro Transit takes a lot of flak for inefficiencies and deficiencies in the system. Some of it is deserved, and the agency is gradually addressing some rider concerns. However, much of the responsibility for our bus system’s inefficiencies lies with municipal governments.
Cities, not Metro Transit, are usually responsible for traffic signals. Although there has been a lot of attention paid to green line signal priority and route speed on streets.mn and elsewhere, few discuss that signal priority and preemption could just as easily be used for our existing bus systems.
In addition, Twin Cities municipal and county governments are generally responsible for street design. While citizens increasingly hold cities and counties accountable for lack of dedicated bike lanes, we rarely hear outcry about lack of dedicated bus lanes.
So what would happen if the City of Minneapolis prioritized the #18 bus within the Minneapolis density zone by giving it dedicated lanes and full signal preemption?
Signal prioritization increased the Green Line’s travel time by 28% and, according to Mike Hicks and Metro Transit’s earlier travel time estimate, preemption could have increased travel time by about 40% (I am using initial end to end travel times of 67 minutes, current scheduled travel times of 48 minutes, and initial estimated travel time of 40 minutes).
Applying these travel time gains to the hypothetical 38th Street to 4th Street #18 trip, trip time could decrease from 27-47 minutes to 19-36 minutes (28% increase) or 16-32 minutes (40% increase) (calculations in footnote ).
I am not an engineer and cannot calculate how bus stop frequency vs train station frequency would affect efficiency gains, nor can I calculate how much time would be gained from giving the #18 dedicated lanes where it does not need to pull in and out of personal automobile traffic. Nevertheless, it appears safe to assume that signal prioritization or preemption would dramatically decrease travel time on the #18.
A PROPOSED PLAN
Here is a quick and easy way for Minneapolis (and perhaps eventually St. Paul and surrounding
on-the-grid suburbs) to become a more functional urban environment: take all segments of all Hi Frequency routes that run through neighborhoods that achieve a transit-supporting density and give those routes signal preemption and dedicated lanes (where feasible), even it it means removing a travel lane and/or parking lane for cars on the route.
This would reward the 162,000 Minneapolis residents who live in urban densities with urban facilities and might jolt other Minneapolis residents into realizing the benefits of density in their back yard. It would also make life instantly better for those dependent on transit and would make it possible for people with busy schedules to feel that they can take transit at least some of the time.
While explicitly rewarding density with transit investments may seem like a high political hurdle, it is not without precedent: Peter Albert, at SFMTA, gave a talk at the Pro Walk Pro Bike conference on doing just this in the Bay Area.
WHY WE NEED EFFICIENT TRANSIT
Public transit has the potential to be a positive and defining feature of a city and region. However, it has to be pleasant and efficient. Yes, trains are wonderful and I am glad that the Twin Cities is investing in rail. However, we cannot wait the decades it will take to build out our rail network to better our transportation system, and we should not settle for continued slow transit.
Minneapolis is a great place to pilot some better bus lines in anticipation of streetcars:
- The core city has the density to support a serious transit system and already has established Hi Frequency routes that serve that dense area.
- Minneapolis Mayor Hodges wishes to focus on her equity platform. More efficient transit would enable those who cannot afford a car or who cannot drive due to disability to get to work nearly as efficiently as their counterparts who can or choose to pay roughly $9000 per year in personal automobile expenses. This will lead to greater job access for a greater percentage of Minneapolis’s population.
- Increasing bus speed will likely increase transit use (induced demand applies to transit as it does to roads). If the city can move people from cars to transit, it will further the goals in the city’s Climate Action Plan.
- Improving our transit system will help the city attract people who do not want to have to own a car and will, in turn, increase the city’s economic competitiveness.
Improving transit in Minneapolis’s core would not solve all our problems. However, improving transit in the city’s urban core would make many people’s lives better and would incentivize further urbanization of the city. It would take some coordination between the city and Metro Transit, but it would be worth the effort.
Currently, according to Metro Transit’s own schedule, it takes 27 minutes to take the #18 bus from the commercial node at 38th St. South to the Library Central Branch on 4th St. downtown. This accounts for no delays (the #18’s on-time percentage is about 90, with “on-time” defined as “departing between one minute early and five minutes late.”).
Metro Transit’s #18 schedule also does not account for time spent waiting for the bus (wait time ranges from 5 to 15 minutes from 6:00am to 7:00pm). Some (mainly non transit users) argue that this wait time should not count toward the trip time because they believe riders should acquaint themselves with the schedules. However, I count this time because life (and meetings, for the busy among us) is not always predictable – an important side conversation can delay exit from a home or office and force the rider to miss his or her bus. Meanwhile the same conversation delays a car driver exactly the duration of the side conversation.
Trip + wait time + 5 minute “on-time” grace period means that taking the #18 from 38th St. to 4th St. should take somewhere between 27 minutes and 47 minutes. I did not count time spent walking to the station or bus stop toward the trip time on the theory that both transit users and car drivers must walk to their vehicle (although instances where transit is closer than a parking facility are few).
A travel time decrease from 67 to 40 minutes is a 40% decrease in trip time. A 40% decrease from 27 minutess would result in a 16 or 17 minute trip. In addition, if buses were 40% faster MetroTransit could run 40% more runs if it ran the same number of buses and drivers.
Increased trips per hour could reduce maximum wait time from 15 to 10.7 minutes (4 buses an hour at 15 minute headways would increase to 5.6 buses an hour). As a side note, headways would start to look really nice at rush hour: Currently between 7:00 and 8:00 am, there are 8 #18s that travel past Franklin. This averages out to 7.5 minute headways. If there were 40% more runs in this same time period, headways would drop to 5.4 minutes.
Using the same logic used in footnote  to calculate maximum trip time (trip + maximum wait time + 5 minute “on-time” grace period), the reduced headways and increased trip time would result in a new maximum trip time of trip time of 32 minutes. This is down from existing 47 minute maximum trip time without signal priority.
I followed the same logic to calculate trip times for a trip time reduction from 67 to 48 minutes (28% faster). This would knock 7.7 minutes off our hypothetical trip (to 19.3 minutes). Maximum wait time would drop to 11.8 minutes (rush hour to 5.9 minutes).
Here’s an old map of Saint Paul from a 130 years ago, courtesy of Citizens for a Better Snelling Avenue:
The city boundary was still much farther South than it is today. It’s also interesting to see the names of all the wealthy property owners like JJ Hill and John Ireland. Back then, it must have seemed like the town was owned by the railroads (and the Catholic church).