The University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies and MnDOT have a Blog! Crossroads | A Minnesota transportation research blog "Crossroads is a collaborative effort between MnDOT Research Services and the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies. This... David Levinson http://nexus.umn.edu
“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there” -Will Rogers
Earlier this week, Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis released preliminary design options for a reconstruction of Minnehaha Avenue (or County State Aid Highway 48 as the folks on 148 acres in Medina call it) between Lake Street and 46th Street in South Minneapolis. Full PDFs were posted showing on-street bike lanes similar to the existing layout or a separated two-way cycletrack on the west side of the street.
Out of these two options, the cycletrack option is clearly the better “complete street,” providing enhanced amenities for walkers, bikers, and transit riders. Yet there are still valid concerns to be addressed- intersection conflicts between bicyclists and cars, and concerns from local businesses and residents over the loss of on-street car storage and mature boulevard trees. Those minor difficulties can be mitigated and pale in comparison to the advantage to users and the potential for nuanced design which would enhance placemaking along the corridor.
For good insight into the tradeoffs of both options, check out Rebekah Peterson’s articles on TC Daily Planet covering impact on bikes and businesses. Peterson reports that Hennepin County will recommend the on-street bike lane option to the Minneapolis City Council (so if you disagree, make your opinion known to the project, your county commissioner, and your council member).
But do these two alternatives represent the two best choices for those who use Minnehaha Avenue to access adjoining land uses?
Multiway boulevards are a great answer to retrofit existing stroads, but what about scaling them down a little and using the main principle of separation to get more mobility and placemaking utility out of our narrower urban arterial streets? Challenge accepted.What do we have to work with?
Minnehaha Avenue has 100’ right of way for most of the project length, tapering a fair amount wider near Lake Street. Yet for most residential blocks, it’s unrealistic to encroach upon the outer eleven feet of the right of way, which contains the existing sidewalk and about five feet of lawn. Additionally, it is preferred to keep the existing boulevard trees and the wonderful canopy they provide. Even within these constraints, a multiway boulevard is possible.
For the typical cross section, I propose a middle carriageway of 11 foot travel lanes surrounded by buffer medians. These medians serve multiple purposes. They allow for a tree canopy to be planted about 25’ apart in the middle, calming the perceived width of the street. Street lights can be provided on the medians providing better coverage and more diffused lighting options for the slip lanes and sidewalks. They can contain gutters on both sides, so the entire stormwater system can drain to these two medians even if the outside needs to change between a standard slip lane, cycletrack, or woonerf. Finally, they provide some snow storage space for the primary travel lanes.Is flexibility valuable?
At certain spots, it makes sense to widen the center carriageway beyond 22 feet to accommodate bus stops or left turn lanes. This is completely doable by sacrificing street parking just the same as the two plans proposed by the county. Yet, unlike the bike lane plan, bus stops would not create conflicts with the cycleway. And, unlike the contraflow cycletrack alternative, vehicular conflicts at intersections still abide by the right-side behavior we find predictable.
But the true flexibility comes from the variety of treatments on the outside of the buffer medians.
In residential blocks dominated by single family homes, curbside parking supply may outstrip demand (despite a price point of $0 – really a testament to how zealously our culture adopted the religion of free parking that we’ve supplied so much of a private good that people can no longer consume more of it for free, but I digress).
Additionally, these are the blocks where the boulevard tree canopy is particularly valuable and adds significant value to the adjacent properties. Solution? Switch one side of the street to a six foot cycletrack rather than a 18.5’ slip lane and parking space. This allows for even larger grassy boulevards than we have today.What about commercial nodes?
Business owners have shown a desire to maintain on-street parking and access to their existing driveways. Yet the conflicts between cars traveling multiple blocks and cars looking to parallel park or exit a parking lot creates frustration for everyone (and that’s without the additional problems found by squeezing bikes in a danger zone between the two). The concept of a woonerf helps solve this problem, separating these slow vehicular movements from congested traffic lanes. It means people can get to businesses in these nodes easier and safer, whether arriving by car, bike, or foot. The woonerf right of way is flexible and can accommodate nuanced needs on a parcel by parcel basis, such as on-street bicycle corrals or valet parking.
Woonerfs can also be more flexible and welcoming to bicyclists and pedestrians, since it is truly shared space. The sidewalk can actually blend right into the slip lane in these cases, virtually extending the pedestrian realm from storefront to café/display space to sidewalk space to car/bike throughway space to parking with one unified look and feel, capped off with the buffer median providing a vegetated/canopied buffer between people-centric space and space reserved for cars, buses, and even fast bikers who would rather not use the cycleway.How could this be better than a cycletrack?
Cycletracks are great. I love riding on them. But we don’t like cycletracks because they’re cycletracks, we like them because of their advantages. By defining what we really like, we open up the possibility that there are other alternatives which also meet our needs but have fewer opportunity costs and more synergies.
Here’s why NATCO likes two-way cycletracks, and why I think a multiway boulevard could be just as good.
- Dedicates and protects space for bicyclists by improving perceived comfort and safety. Eliminates risk and fear of collisions with over-taking vehicles. Slip lanes are shared space. So, while not dedicated, it has roughly the same perceived comfort. Just like cycletracks, slip lanes and woonerfs would be segregated from the travel lanes, buffering bicyclists from fast-moving cars. Slip lanes and woonerfs, designed for very slow vehicular travel of a block at most (except for bikes) mean that vehicles would not be in a position to try and overtake bikes.
- Reduces risk of ‘dooring’ compared to a bike lane, and eliminates the risk of a doored bicyclist being run over by a motor vehicle. With multiway boulevards, there’s a wide and slow lane, so the normal condition would be for cyclists to “take the lane.” Furthermore, by placing parked vehicles on the left side, it further reduces dooring risk similar to a cycletrack.
- On one-way streets, reduces out of direction travel by providing contra-flow movement. When NATCO talks about the advantages of contraflow bike lanes, the primary advantage is on one way streets where sightlines and complex turning movements are not a problem. On a wide street like Minnehaha Avenue, there would be significant left-hook potential for left turning vehicles since there are no other conditions in existence where left-turning traffic needs to look over their left shoulder to spot fast-moving through traffic while simultaneously expecting and yielding right of way to traffic approacing from ahead. In this case, a contraflow design can become a liability.
- Low implementation cost when making use of existing pavement and drainage and using parking lane or other barrier for protection from traffic. On Minnehaha, the plan is to replace curbs, so we might as well take advantage of this investment to gain additional utility and placemaking potential for generations to come.
- More attractive to a wide range of bicyclists at all levels and ages. We really need to know what qualities make a cycletrack more attractive to users if we wish to compare it to alternative designs. Obviously a cycletrack is more attractive than a bike lane which is more attractive than riding in a traffic lane, but we need criteria to dig into comparisons that are less obvious.
The quality of our results will be determined at a fine-grained level, no matter what type of facility we build. This requires compromise, neighborhood engagement, and placemaking more than it requires pro-forma compliance to engineering standards. We need to be creative with our use of scarce space. We need to think outside the box to find ways to get the most placemaking potential and mobility out of our neighborhood streets. We need to ask the right questions and not be afraid to challenge assumptions. If a cycletrack is built on Minnehaha Avenue, it will be a huge improvement. But why stop at better when we can do better yet?
So, today, I bring you a salute to something awesome about Blaine: The NSC Velodrome. Tonight is the first night of Thursday Night Lights for the 2013 season. It’s the 23rd season of racing at the Velodrome. Outdoor velodromes are rare, putting Blaine in an elite space in North America.
Another cool thing: The Velodrome offers programs to teach people to ride on a banked velodrome track, and have children’s programs starting around age 8 to get kids involved in the sport. Track bikes require constant pedaling to ride, let alone race — there is no coasting. Control is vital. Strategy varies depending on the race, which doesn’t always go to the quickest but to the cleverest.
Velodrome racers have won US and world championships in both youth and masters categories.
Similarly, the clever can certainly bike to the Velodrome, depending on their origin point (and willingness to be out after bedtime). Those who are able to connect to either Mississippi River Road in Minneapolis, or Long Lake Road from Roseville can develop several good routes with a minimum of risk to life or limb. Naturally, this being Blaine, there is abundant vehicular parking.
Racing begins at 7 and goes until it is done. Adults are $5, kids under 12 are free. Prizes are there to be won by spectators and racers. Snacks can be purchased.
Racing happens every Thursday night, weather permitting, through September. Several special events, including the Fixed Gear Classic and the Minnesota State Championships, occur throughout the season.
So get out there some Thursday. Bring your own cowbell.
Apparently, amid the rising ridership of Amtrak — which had a record year in 2012, and has been busting records through March 2013 — there is a new class of passengers clamoring to get on. And pee.
Yes, it’s apparently time for the Pets on Trains Act of 2013.
Per the Humane Society of the United States:
Amtrak currently does not accept animals unless they are assistance dogs. Passengers traveling on Amtrak must either leave their pets at home or seek alternate transportation. This can result in additional hardship and expense on behalf of the owner if Amtrak, the national rail operator, with more than 500 destinations, is their only option for transportation to a particular area.
You mean, the kind of expense faced by pet owners all the time, because you can’t always bring your pet everywhere you go? While pets are allowed on airplanes, they follow specific rules and seasonality due to temperature issues. Generally speaking, the pets are not allowed out of their carriers within an airline cabin.
There are specific rules proposed in HR2066:
- There will be a designated “pet car” on each train
- The pet must be contained in a pet kennel
- The pet kennel must be stowed as carry-on luggage per Amtrak regulation on carry-on luggage
- The trip cannot be more than 750 miles
- The passenger will pay extra for Fido or Fluffy’s passage
It is being touted as a source of revenue for Amtrak, which runs at a loss/on a subsidy. Is that really necessary, given the increase in ridership? Many trains and routes are full up, without designating a car for pets. In many cases, non-pet owners may be forced into the pet car against their will (or the will of their allergy medications).
Many countries allow pets on trains as a standard. Most British trains allow pets free of charge, on a leash or in a basket. Thalys, a joint service of the Belgian, French, Dutch and German railways, allows dogs free of charge, but passengers “must ensure that other passengers agree to the presence of your domestic animal.” TGV between Belgium and France allow pets, but charge passenger fees for them. Eurostar does not permit pets. So it’s not as though dogs (and cats) on trains is unheard of — or that failure to allow them will dog a rail line to failure.
The idea that it will drive revenue and demand in the US, however, does seem to be a solution in search of a problem. Ridership is already booming.
However, perhaps in a Congress of gridlock, this bi-partisan bill will be the signature transportation legislation passed. Dogged sponsors will drive success. Truly a source of pride in a representative democracy.
This legislation seems to mostly apply to cats and dogs. There is not specific mention of bunnies, guinea pigs, goldfish, or gerbils. There is also not specific mention of snakes.
Which is good. Samuel L. does not approve of snakes on a train, either.
Thanks to my friend Chris Chromy for forwarding this RFQ for the Nicollet Mall Design Competition! Great timing for my post a few weeks ago about the benefits of design competitions. Here are key details from the RFQ on how... Mike
If you have been following this blog, you may have detected a theme, I don't like the public wasting money on un-needed infrastructure. Of course no-one endorses "wasting" money, we just disagree what is wasteful and what is an investment.... David Levinson http://nexus.umn.edu
By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
It's been nearly six years since I last posted about Minneapolis' plans for a streetcar revival, but except for a short park ride at Lake Calhoun, no trolleys are clanging in the Mill City. These things take time.
A century ago, Twin Cities newspapers heralded the imminent construction of a subway line between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Obviously, that didn't happen. Next year, finally, the Metropolitan Council's Central Corridor light rail project will link the downtowns with trains running above ground.
Meanwhile, both core cities seem to be getting serious about establishing modern streetcar service in selected locations. With tax-increment-style financing authorized by the state, Minneapolis hopes to begin laying a 3.5-mile starter segment along Nicollet and Central Avenues by 2015. Running from Lake Street to S.E. University Avenue, it's estimated to cost $35 million to $50 million to build. Outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak said he will do "everything possible to deliver a financing plan" by the time he leaves office at year's end.
St. Paul is getting on board, too, conducting a feasibility study through the end of the year. This early planning stage is devoted to identifying corridors with the best streetcar potential and prioritizing where to start. Financing plans will come later.
Working streetcars haven't been seen in these parts for nearly 60 years, since the old Twin City Rapid Transit Co. burned some, sold some to other cities and replaced them with buses. Similar changes occured across the country in the 1950s and '60s, leaving only a handful of legacy rail transit systems such as San Francisco's cable cars in operation.
Starting in Portland, Ore., in 2001, however, a growing number of U.S. cities are bringing back sleek new versions of bygone trolleys. The list includes Sunbelt cities Charlotte, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, San Antonio and Tucson as well as rustier places such as Baltimore, Cincinnati and Kansas City.
"Suddenly streetcars ... are among the hottest and most coveted components of public transit's future," Jeff Turrentine blogged at OnEarth.com. "What big city in America wouldn't want to inject just a little of San Francisco's charm or Portland's uber-hipness...?"
He also noted the amazing economic boost Portland got from its $103 million downtown trolley: $3.5 billion in private residential and business development within three blocks of the tracks, most of it dense and mixed-use. This has helped cut area residents' carbon footprints to barely a third of Portland suburbanites'.
Turrentine, however, is no full-bore believer in streetcars.
"Streetcars can't transform the cultural character of a city or single-handedly pull one out of a national recession," he added. "And unless they're structurally connected to a much larger and thoughtfully administered mass transit system, they can't even make much of an impact on greenhouse gas emissions or climate change. But if they're done right, they can leverage their unique attractiveness to get people out of their homes and into stores, restaurants, cafes, sports arena -- or even offices -- without having to get into or out of their cars so many times."
This is a worthwhile goal, as well as a powerful magnet for "creative class" folks yearning to breathe car-free. Minneapolis and St. Paul already have attracted lots of these economic dynamos, and many of their historic neighborhoods can match America's coolest urban locales.
With smart planning and sensible financing such as the "value capture district for transit" newly passed as a pilot project for Minneapolis by the state Legislature, the Twin Cities can grow economically stronger, environmentally sounder and culturally more alluring with a return to streetcars as part of a comprehensive 21st century transit system. Here's hoping we're not in the 22nd century before it happens.
[Guitar. T station, Somerville MA.] [Chinese instrument. Harvard Square, Cambridge MA.][Bass and guitar, West Bank Campus, Minneapolis.] [Guitar. Santa Monica Pier.] [Guitar. Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis.] [Guitars. West Side, Saint Paul.][Guitar. Rice Park, Saint Paul.]
On our way to the ceremony unveiling the plan for the five-block Star Tribune property in Downtown East, my son Shaw and I got off the train at the Downtown East/Metrodome station and I was asked directions by an older couple. They were looking for Periscope, the ad agency, at 10th and Washington. Obliging, I agreed to walk with them from the platform across 4th Street, where I would point the way to Washington and bid them adieu.
We stood waiting for the Walk signal to get across 4th Street and I detected a murmur from them as nothing was happening; there was no traffic, except for the one car that had come to a stop in the crosswalk in front of us, but nobody seemed to have a green light or walk signal. But the view across surface parking lots towards the Guthrie was…a view. Great, I thought, here is someone’s first exposure to our city and it is one of crosswalk confusion and lack of urbanity.
Why couldn’t I be pointing them in the direction of Nicollet Mall?
We finally crossed 4th Street, maneuvering roller bags around the car still stopped in the crosswalk. As I pointed down Chicago Avenue towards Washington, past the surface parking lots and hardscape, I detected a possibly Scandinavian accent. I asked where they were from. “Ohio,” she said. I raised my eyebrows and the man, sensing my confusion, chimed in “We’re originally from Denmark.” Ah, that’s better. I apologized for our crosswalk and lack of shade trees. They joked that Copenhagen has more bike lanes, and I sheepishly said “yeah, but we look to you for inspiration.” Not to be deterred, I encouraged them to take a stroll on the Stone Arch Bridge after their meeting at Periscope.
They went on their way, and who knows how the rest of their visit transpired. I like to think they had a pleasant time at their meeting, followed by perhaps a meal at one of our fine restaurants and show at the Guthrie. Shaw and I went to the unveiling of the Downtown East plan and I kept thinking about them and all the people who get off the train for the first time or the hundredth time and walk from the platform to the Mill District. What about them? What kind of city are we showing off to guests? What kind of city are we building for ourselves? How will that experience change in three short years when it all this new development is planned?
In an attempt to answer that question, I spent time on the Ryan Companies website looking at images and watching the “flyover” presentation on YouTube. I was shouting at my screen “go left,” “slow down,” “zoom in,” “pan down,” “focus on that streetscape,” “is that street two-way?” “oh, hell, was that a skyway?” It is hard to tell, as there is not much detail yet, but according to the plan’s timeline, if I should run in to my Ohio/Copenhagen friends on the train platform three short years from now, we’ll be looking at a decidedly different surroundings.
To our right will be a “striking” new indoor stadium that will draw crowds but not necessarily give the Vikings the necessary competitive advantage an outdoor stadium would bring to help them return to the Super Bowl. To the left will be a green space, with any luck a fully programmed park that will be the focal point of the downtown, a gathering place for all, and a crowning achievement in this public/private partnership. Possibly the crosswalk at 4th Street will be a little less confusing and more pedestrian-friendly. Across 4th will be an apartment building that fronts the 4th Street side of the easternmost Star Tribune block. As our friends from Ohio/Copenhagen walk down Chicago Avenue towards the Mill District, they’ll very likely pass under a skyway that connects a massive parking structure on that same block to another parking structure farther east, both of which are connected by skyway to the stadium. Unless some parking can be put under the new park, they will also very likely pass by that large parking structure. Maybe the streetscape along Chicago Avenue will be better, with street trees and benches, but only so much can be done to enliven a parking deck. Maybe there will be storefronts, but it is also possible that retail space won’t be viable at the street level because the skyways suck the life and customers from the street.
Maybe our friends will finish their meeting at Periscope and be intrigued enough to wander back to the Downtown East area and look around. They might walk along a pedestrian-friendly urbane street, with good commercial and residential frontage and plenty of pedestrian doors (their fellow Danish urbanist Jan Gehl would be proud). They could well pass a busker along the way, but whether that busker be leaning against the wall of a parking ramp as he wails on his saxophone remains to be seen. If they are seeking a late afternoon coffee, they may find it at street level, or perhaps it will be tucked away up on the skyway level, possibly not even open late in the day, as is often the case with many skyway-level businesses. Perhaps there will be a market event at the Armory and our friends can browse artisan crafts or sample some bacon-wrapped lutefisk on a stick. Maybe there will be a movie showing in the new park across the street. Maybe Wells Fargo employees will be emerging from work and populating the sidewalk tables facing across 4th Street to the new park. It is possible that 4th Street itself will be a safe, sane two-way street planted with trees that will provide valuable shade in a decade or so. Our friends might join others on the patio, sipping a drink and gazing across the new park at kids playing in the fountain, couples nuzzling in the glow of dusk, commuters biking across the park where Portland and Park Avenues used to run. Afterward they could grab a nightcap at a cozy wine bar in one of the new mid-block alleyways, while gazing at paintings in a small art gallery.
There is much to be resolved, as the site plan is promising but vague, but yet all of this is possible in Downtown East. Over the next few weeks and months, it will be very critical for us to demand good urbanism from the city council, Ryan Companies, CPED and ourselves. There is public financing going to this project and it will pay for parking and improving the green space to a “basic level.” I sure hope we get something in return, like an attractive public realm and an actual park with a reason to visit. We cannot afford another Gaviidae Common, City Center, Conservatory, or Block E, and we must raise the bar even above the Target corporate campus and store and even the excellent Midtown Exchange. There is much more on the line with this project.
We must have better streetscapes and fewer skyways, more pedestrian doors and no visible parking. This isn’t rocket science, it is just sensible urban values and attention to detail. A stadium, 6,000 employees, 1,700 parking spaces and a green space doesn’t guarantee good urbanism. Good sidewalks, doors, windows, crosswalks, trees, benches, activity and people do. I sincerely hope there will be a little more public vetting of this plan as it races forward to the deadline of ensuring enough parking for the Vikings on opening day 2016. The city cannot afford to “fumble” this opportunity. It costs more upfront, but the return to the private sector, public coffers and our overall enjoyment of our city will be much greater over time. But we must demand a good urban experience, not only to impress our friends from Copenhagen, but to impress ourselves.
This was crossposted at Joe Urban.
The Strib reports: State gives city new tool to fund streetcars : "One provision in the state tax bill could have a significant impact on Mayor R.T. Rybak's dreams of building a streetcar in Minneapolis. The bill allows the city... David Levinson http://nexus.umn.edu
National eyewear company, SEE, plans to open its 30th store in Uptown Minneapolis adjacent Magers & Quinn Booksellers and Penzeys Spice at 3032 Hennepin Avenue. The store promotes that it sells fashionable eyewear at affordable prices.
No information was available about the store’s opening on the company’s website, local job sites, or news sites.
Harris Hardware, once located at 3045 Hennepin Avenue, placed this ad in the 1975 Calhoun Elementary School newspaper. The ad was a throwback. Check out this 1981 ad that’s a bit more conventional.
Hip carpet tile store, FLOR, opened in Uptown May 17, 2013, at 1426 West Lake Street. FLOR sells carpet tiles with a huge range of designs that the customer chooses (staff designers can help come up with designs) and then assembles themselves in their home or office.
The carpet tiles are placed on the floor and are interconnected to one another, rather than affixed to the floor. This allows easy installation and allows the customer to change its design on a whim. Each carpet tile is approximately 20″x20″ and costs range from about $8 to $16 per tile.
FLOR has 20 locations in the US and Canada.
My way was blocked by a sign signifying nothing. Same site as last fall, at The Commons hotel on Harvard.- dml... David Levinson http://nexus.umn.edu
Baseball is one of my favorite things, and I wrote a post for Streets.mn today about the lessons that SABRmetrics can teach critical urbanists.Lots of good stuff:First, baseball statheads rigorously test their theories. No old baseball assumption goes unchallenged at a SABR convention. For decades, there have been endless debates over whether pitchers can induce outs, the existence of clutch hitting, the importance of batting order, or how catchers “frame” balls and strikes. The adages of old school managers — e.g. the hit and run, bunting, always having a middle infielder in your leadoff spot (ahem, Gardy) — are continually being debunked by the sabermetric community.That’s something that urbanists should be doing too. Do streetcars really attract investment? Are wider car lanes really safer? Do parking minimums really reduce congestion? Continually challenging the assumptions of the urban design professions is a noble cause, and we can learn a lot from sabermetrics. No theory should go untested.Second, sabermetrics is excellent at noticing and ridiculing bad investements. Some baseball teams are legendary for signing aging players to long-term contracts. Some cities do the same thing, building spectacular economic development or transportation boondoggles. Ryan Howard’s contract is like Block E. The convention center subsidy is like signing Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year deal. The new Vikings Stadium is going to be for Minneapolis what Barry Zito was for the Giants. (A-Rod = the Big Dig?)Rejecting bad investments, and developing alternative models for allocating scarce dollars, should be the goal of saberurbanists. Some teams are adept at trading players when they’re most valuable, and signing young players to long-term team-friendly contracts. Is Portland the Tampa Bay Rays of urban planning?The final lesson of saberurbanism is that outsiders can change the rules of the game. As Moneyball shows, for a long time baseball insiders have been hostile to outside (sabermetric) analysis. People like Bill James have been writing critical analyses of baseball since the 70s, and new measures of value (like OPS, xFIP, WAR, VORP, etc.) have exploded in popularity for decades (especially on the internet). But most teams began paying attention only recently. The Twins just hired their first dedicated statistical researcher, and it seems that most front office people have slender grasp on even basic advanced baseball stats.
I have been a baseball fan all my life. I went to my first Twins game at Met Stadium when I was less than a year old (or so I am told), and saw them win the ’91 World Series from the upper deck of the Metrodome. I’ve been following the sabermetric revolution since 2001, when I started paying attention to the Twins new crop of young players — Hunter, Jones, Mientkewicz, Koskie, Santana (eventually), Mauer and Morneau — as they began to gel and win games. That’s about the same time that an excellent group of Twins‘ bloggers emerged onto the internet and began critically analyzing the best and worst Twins’ performances. Because of their great writing, I’ve endured the Twins’ last few seasons — the terrible trades of Bill Smith (especially Hardy, Ramos, and Young), the inability of the front office to sign a decent starter, the back-to-back horrible seasons — with an unflagging optimism.
That’s why last week’s article on “the sabermetrics of urbanism” caught my eye. (SABR stands for the Society of American Baseball Research, people who write statistically-minded outsider analysis.) The author, Michael Hathorne, talks about the movie Moneyball and how the same kind of analytical revolution might occur in urban planning. He asks “what is the currency of urbanism,” and identifies a list of possible statistical measures that might help cities reconsider value.
It’s an interesting question that I’ve pondered before. Let’s call it “saberurbanism.” While there are few crucial differences between cities and baseball that limit the metaphor, at the same time, there are important things that urban design fields can learn from the sabermetric revolution in baseball.
The Limits To “Saberurbanism”
The first crucial limit to saberurbanism? One commenter on Hathorne’s piece wrote, “baseball is continuous, society is not.” Actually he’s got it backwards: baseball is discontinuous, society is not. A baseball game is an aggregation of hundreds of repeated, discrete events. Each individual pitch is a single data point, sometimes resulting in balls in play, seperated by long periods of standing around, kicking the dirt, and scratching oneself. This discreteness and discontinuity is the main reason why baseball is so amenable to statistical measure. The sample size and repeatability is very large.
Cities, on the other hand, are extremely complex systems that flow contiuously without separable “events.” (Think of an endless soccer game with millions of players, thousands of balls, and many different goals.) While certain things are measurable (traffic flows, tax receipts), so much remains inherently unquantifiable, and the complex interactions of everyday life are not remotely reducable to sets of numbers.
The second limit of saberurbanism: baseball is commensurable, cities are not. In baseball, even though some ballparks are large and “pitcher friendly,” some small and “hitter friendly”, and some have giant green walls where left field should be, baseball takes place within relatively comparable spaces. Advanced statistics take into account park effects (even Coors field’s atmosopherics), so that you can make an educated guess as to how many home runs Mauer might hit if he played for Yankees [shudder].
Cities are not like this at all. Notoriously, urban planners often assume that an economic development idea from one city will work in another. (Thus everyone building aquariums back in the 90s, urban malls in the 2000s, landmark museums, university research corridors, downtown casinos today, etc.) But cities aren’t interchangeable like baseball fields. Omaha doesn’t work like Orlando. Portland, Oregon is incomprable to Portland, Maine. You can’t apply “park effects” to apples and oranges.
Finally, cities are moral while baseball games are not. Baseball is literally a game. The Yankees winning another World Series might seem like the 27th coming of the apocalypse, but it really doesn’t matter. On the other hand, the design of cities controls people’s livelihoods. Alex Anthopoulos excepting, the Toronto Blue Jays’ poor start to the season won’t ruin anyone’s life, but Toronto’s allegedly crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford’s policies certainly will. Cities can foster generations of racism, lift people out of poverty, start revolutions, or slowly destroy the planet. The stakes are rather different, and treating urban planning like a game does not do justice to the billions of livliehoods held in the balance.
The Lessons of Saberurbanism
That said, there are a few things that the sabermetric revolution can teach urban designers. First, baseball statheads rigorously test their theories. No old baseball assumption goes unchallenged at a SABR convention. For decades, there have been endless debates over whether pitchers can induce outs, the existence of clutch hitting, the importance of batting order, or how catchers “frame” balls and strikes. The adages of old school managers — e.g. the hit and run, bunting, always having a middle infielder in your leadoff spot (ahem, Gardy) — are continually being debunked by the sabermetric community.
That’s something that urbanists should be doing too. Do streetcars really attract investment? Are wider car lanes really safer? Do parking minimums really reduce congestion? Continually challenging the assumptions of the urban design professions is a noble cause, and we can learn a lot from sabermetrics. No theory should go untested.
Second, sabermetrics is excellent at noticing and ridiculing bad investements. Some baseball teams are legendary for signing aging players to long-term contracts. Some cities do the same thing, building spectacular economic development or transportation boondoggles. Ryan Howard’s contract is like Block E. The convention center subsidy is like signing Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year deal. The new Vikings Stadium is going to be for Minneapolis what Barry Zito was for the Giants. (A-Rod = the Big Dig?)
Rejecting bad investments, and developing alternative models for allocating scarce dollars, should be the goal of saberurbanists. Some teams are adept at trading players when they’re most valuable, and signing young players to long-term team-friendly contracts. Is Portland the Tampa Bay Rays of urban planning?
The final lesson of saberurbanism is that outsiders can change the rules of the game. As Moneyball shows, for a long time baseball insiders have been hostile to outside (sabermetric) analysis. People like Bill James have been writing critical analyses of baseball since the 70s, and new measures of value (like OPS, xFIP, WAR, VORP, etc.) have exploded in popularity for decades (especially on the internet). But most teams began paying attention only recently. The Twins just hired their first dedicated statistical researcher, and it seems that most front office people have slender grasp on even basic advanced baseball stats.
Saberurbanism can learn a lot from baseball about how critical outside voices create change within large risk-averse institutions. The same kinds of outside voices have long popped up in urban planning. Jane Jacobs was the Bill James of urbanism, re-evaulating city neighborhoods and activities that had been written off as worthless. For baseball nerds, it took years of building alternative narratives, attending conventions, and sharing publications before insiders began to listen to them. How long will it take for urbanists?
For example, I remember when a group of dedicated baseball stat nerds used to sell their own alternative scorecards [called Gameday] outside the Metrodome. It was a far more interesting read, with actually critical thoughts about the Twins’ recent play and some snark about the opposing team. At first, the Twins’ managment saw this as a hostile challenge, and forced Gameday vendors to stand outside stadium property. Eventually the team realized that these devoted nerds were an asset, and now the Gameday notes appear on the official scorecard sold in the stadium.
The point is that it takes a long time to change institutions. Are cities more or less conservative than baseball teams? Are city planners, business leaders, civil engineers, politicans more open to new ideas, to letting go of misleading beliefs, than general managers or pitching coaches?
Changing the Rules of the Game (or Will the Twins have a strikeout pitcher before Minneapolis builds a cycletrack?)
The danger of saberurbanism is that it becomes another form of economics. For example, When Hathorne writes that “consideration should be given towards a human being’s rights regarding free will (ability to choose) that are associated with the human condition,” it crushes my will to live. We can’t continue to measure cities strictly in terms of economic value, no matter how creative we get with the numbers.
But cities can dramatically improve how they quantify value. For example, saberurbanism might replace LOS for cars with LOS for all people, or think more critically whether “jobs created” aren’t just being moved around in the metro area. These kinds of changes, combined with an increasingly wide-ranging counter-narrative about what matters in cities, will hopefully start to change the rules of the game. Cities are not baseball, but cities are complex institutions resistant to change. Maybe by looking at how sabermetrics has changed the game, we can start re-evaluating the really important things about urban life.
Metro Transit is hosting two open houses in May to gather input from community members about potential transit improvements in the Midtown Corridor in South Minneapolis. The Midtown Corridor includes Lake Street and the Midtown Greenway trench as possible routes for a potential streetcar (in the trench) and/or bus improvements on Lake Street.
Tuesday, May 21, 6-8 p.m. Colin Powell Center, 3rd Floor 2924 4th Avenue S., Minneapolis
Thursday, May 23, 6-8 p.m. Whittier Clinic 2810 Nicollet Avenue S., Minneapolis
Just for the historical record, please find attached a scan of the 1 page / 2 sided brochure that the promoters of the Northern Lights Express distributed at the May 11, 2013 National Train Day event at the Saint... David Levinson http://nexus.umn.edu
There’s a certain bar in my city that is famous for being right-wing. It’s an old family joint in a run-down corner of downtown. The people are surly but friendly, and the inside of the place is half-covered with right wing bumper stickers ridiculing Obama, bashing immigrants, and promoting guns. (Interestingly, there is also a large collection of union membership stickers.) On the other hand, they make the best coney island hot dogs in the city, and I enjoy going there once in a while for a snack and a change of perspective.I found myself there last week polishing off a coney with cheese and onions. I paid my bill, went outside, and as I was unlocking my bike, the patriarch/owner (also the cook) comes out to the sidewalk to smoke, and begins gently ribbing me about riding a bicycle. “Sure takes you long time to get on that thing,” he said as I was unlocking it, and arranging my bag. “I still have my bike from when I was 12 in my garage.”Actually, the whole exchange was friendlier than I thought it'd be, but it still got me thinking about why conservatives (in general) seem to have such a disdain for bicycles. Why is that?[Michele Bachmann promising $2 gas if she gets elected.]If you stop to think about it, real conservatives should embrace bicycles. Here are a few reasons why:Bikes are cheap – When I think about a “conservative,” I imagine someone who’s judicious, skeptical, careful with their money.Well, bicycles are a great way to save money. On average, cars cost over $8,000 per year $9,000 per year to own and operate. When you start talking about two- or three-car families, that adds up. If a bicycle lets you start cutting back a car or two, that would seem to be a sound financial decision. But, more than that, bicycle infrastructure is a great way for the government to save money. Conservatives are always talking about "wasteful government spending," but for some reason don't view freeway and road infrastructure as part of the problem. A single stoplight costs more than $3,000 per year to maintain and operate. (And huge projects like the unnecessary $600M+ bridge to rural Wisconsin being built right now in Michele Bachmann's district should make fiscal conservatives cringe.) Bike lanes and trails are extremely cheap and last a long time, one of the best values for government spending you'll find. [No caption needed.]Free from (foreign) oil – Go ahead and ask me: Hey Bill, What's the price of gas?Trick question! I have no idea. I might visit a gas pump once a year. I'd say that most conservatives don't like the thought of buying energy from overseas, particularly from places like Venezuela, Russia, or Saudi Arabia. Well, real energy independence comes from riding a bicycle. Zero % foreign oil. You can't beat that with all the drill rigs in all of Sarah Palin's dreams put together.The Ultimate in Personal Responsibility – Another conservative mantra is the notion of personal responsibility. Each of us should be "held accountable for our actions." Each of us should "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps" or whatever.Well, bicycling around the city is literally pulling yourself up with your bootstraps. (It's actually pushing yourself forward with your feet, but its pretty much the same.) Find another form of transportation (other than walking) that contains more personal responsibility. When I'm riding a bike, nobody or nothing is going to get me to the top of that hill except for my own limbs. The bicycle takes the conservative metaphor of individualism and independence and literalizes it, makes it real.You Can Fix it Yourself – Another conservative narrative is the "fix it yourself" mentality. (Here in the Twin Cities, one local radio blabber calls this "garage logic.") The idea is that real conservative people (men) have their own tools, and can fix and tinker with their own machines, and don't have to depend on anyone else. Well, its becoming more and more difficult to repair your own car. Nowadays, most of them have computerized black boxes that require proprietary tools. They have incredibly sensitive fuel injection systems or computers that nobody can fix themselves. (Thus the conservative nostalgia for American muscle cars of the 50s and 60s.)On the other hand, you can still take a bicycle apart with a few key wrenches. Most everyone who rides a bicycle has basic knowledge of how to fix a flat, and many bicyclists can disassemble their handlebars, cranks, brakes, or pedals. It's very common to build your own bicycle out of individual parts. Bikes display a DIY culture that conservatives ought to embrace.[Anti-bike lane protest signs from LA.]You're Out in the Elements – Hunting is another right-wing trope that has a bit in common with bikes. If you went up to a deer hunter and said, "Isn't it cold sitting in a tree for hours each November? Why would you do that?" they'd rightfully mock you. Hunting is part of a macho conservative culture that celebrates the idea of overcoming the elements and not whining about it.But for some reason, the same rules don't apply to everyday life, to walking or biking. The same people that will sit for eleven hours in a deer stand or ice fishing shack will whine about a lack of air conditioning in their cars. Conservatives will routinely say things to me like "Isn't it [windy/hot/cold] riding that thing?" Sure it is, but bicyclists learn to tolerate and even enjoy the changes in the weather. Most of the time, most people riding a bike wouldn't trade the sun on their skin and wind in their hair for the isolated comfort of a car. Bikes Support Local Business – Conservatives (like all political parties) love to tout their support for the small businessman, the shop on main street, the old-school store. Well, most people that ride bicycle support small businesses at high rates. (This is partly because its difficult to access large corporate retail places because of their large parking lots and auto-drenched locations. It's hard to ride a bike to a Walmart!) Riding a bicycle everywhere, you spend a lot of time on old main streets, old commercial corners. Bicycling fits neatly into the older commercial fabric of small and local businesses. You'd think more conservatives would notice.Freedom From Rules – Finally, most bicyclists I know have to adopt a libertarian attitude toward how they ride, and how they choose to regard traffic laws. Partly for safety and partly for efficiency, bicyclists have to make their own rules of the road. In some places you'll cruise through a stop sign, or disregard the red light. Sometimes you'll have to go onto the sidewalk or cut through the alley.In a way, to bicycle through the city is to live a libertarian fantasy. The official rules don't work well for bikes, so most bicyclists adopt their own rules. Isn't that what libertarians are supposed to be doing too? [Allegedly crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.]Yeah but...Of course, none of this really matters. Despite the professed principles of self-relaince and smart spending, most conservatives see bicycles as a vast left-wing conspiracy.Right-wing politics is deeply tied to the politics of the automobile. In fact, more than anything else, the car ties together the coalition of exurban escapaism, elderly white people, sunbelt autopians, and vast rural industrial economies that forms the fractious right-wing. In Canada, Rob Ford slaps NIMBY magnets on parked cars while unpaving bike lanes. Scott Walker and Chris Christie campaign against transit. Dennis Hastert, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann trumpet hugely expensive freeway pork projects. Most conservatives probably believe that if God had meant for us to ride bicycles, he wouldn't have given us all Ford F-350s and endless supplies of $2 gas. Still, it'd be nice if conservatives would get out of their SUVs and try living their values for a change. I'll consider my life's work complete when my local right-wing bar has a bike rack out front.[Reagan riding a bike.]
I have a new post @ streets.mn: No Parking and De-Signing Streets : "Why is the default assumption that we give away scarce public right-of-way for the free storage of private vehicles?"... David Levinson http://nexus.umn.edu