Twin Cities

Best (Urban) Articles from The New Yorker

Twin Cities Sidewalks - 1 hour 18 min ago
[New Yorker covers love bikes.]About two years back, my father got me a gift subscription to The New Yorker. I've been relatively diligent about keeping up on it, believe it or not.Now that the magazine has opened all its articles to the public to read for free (for a short period), I thought I'd share some of my favorite bits that are vaguely interesting if you're interested in cities.These are all the ones that jump out at me, and what I remember about them without going back and looking at them again.[In chronological order.]David Owen, Why Purell is Everywhere 3/4/2013I guess it answers a question. David Owen, Watch Where You Step in Florida 3/18/2013All about Florida sinkholes, which are common there because of the unique geology. This story has some amazing details of all kinds of things coming up out of the ground! Worth a read if you're interested in Floridian eschatology, as I am. William Finnegan, The Miner's Daughter 3/28/13Long profile of an incredibly wealthy and secretive Australian mining heiress and magnate. You wonder where copper comes from?Sean Wilsey, Open Water 4/22/13Amazing true memoir of a guy who worked as a Venetian gonodlier. It has islands and gondolier codes and stuff. So cool.Jennie Erin Smith, A State of Nature  4/22/13OK, so there's this one tiny bit between Panama and Colombia where the roads in either direction don't go. It's kind of amazing that there's this gap. Read all about it. It sounds wild.Douglas Preston, The El Dorado Machine 5/6/2013History of people searching for "lost cities" in Central America. Very Indiana Jones. Great read.Tad Friend, Crowded House 5/27/2013This is a funny story about people trying a mythical great apartment in New York City that a scammer keeps promising people but never delivers on. It reads kinda like a Seinfeld episode, involving the apartment being rented out to multiple people at the same time.Larissa MacFarquar,  Last Call 6/24/13Story of a Japanese Buddhist monk who specializes in talking to people who are about to kill themselves, which is a big thing in Japan. Poignant and illustrates something about our / Japan's individualized culture. John McPhee, The Orange Trapper 7/1/2013Great short memoir about a life long hobby collecting golf balls outside golf courses. Very well written and interesting to think about fences and edges and golf.Calvin Tompkins, Ed Ruscha's L.A. 7/1/2013A short bio piece about a famous L.A. artist, talks a lot about L.A. in the 70s and 80s and the state of the art scene. Ruscha is the one responsible for this hilarious painting...John Seabrook, The Beach Builders 7/22/2013About how much work it takes to rebuild the beaches destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and whether we should even be rebuilding those towns any more. Kind of wistful look at Jersey shore towns.Julian Rubinstein, Operation Easter 7/22/2013This one was literally unbelievable. There are people who spend their lives stealing the eggs of endangered birds in the U.K. So wrong! So strange.Sarah Stilman, Taken 8/12/2013Civil forfeiture is when police take your stuff when they pull you over. It's straight up extortion and happens all the time in the South. Heartbreaking piece.Ian Frazier, Walking Normally: The Facts 9/9/2013The funniest thing on this list. Trust me, you're gonna laugh your ass off. Rachel Aviv, The Imperial Presidency 9/9/2013Article about the controversial president of NYU, who has been buying up swaths of Manhattan and opening up a branch in Dubai.Andrew Marantz, The Unreality Star 9/16/2013OK I didn't actually read this one, but it looks good about surveillance culture and paranoia. Calvin Tompkins, A Sense of Place 9/23/2013If you're into architecture, this is about the guy who did the African American museum in D.C.Josh Eells, Night Club Royale 9/30/2013Apparently there's a huge electronic dance music (EDM) scene in Las Vegas now, which is the only think keeping that city from blowing away in the wind.  Akash Kapur, Rush 10/14/2013Fascinating story about a big highway being built through a tiny village in India. A lot changes! Learn about roads in India.Ian Frazier, Bus Ride 4/14/2014The most dangerous bus in New York is the B46, which Frazier rides from end to end. The quotes from the bus driver are amazing.Burkhard Bilger, Auto Correct 11/25/2013Short bit about the Google robo-car.Calvin Trillin, Mozarella Story 12/2/2013Lovely ode to an old store in Little Italy that sold handmade mozzarella for like forever. Really well written, of course.Ian Johnson, In The Air 12/2/2013Air pollution in China is amazing. Seriously crazy what their cities are like. Emily Eakin, The Civilization Kit 12/23/2013Guy in Missouri that is trying to build his own tractor (and all other machines) from scratch.Elizabeth Kolbert, The Red Light 1/27/2014All about traffic jam politics and Chris Christie. Pretty hard to believe that New Jersey politics revolves around traffic jams, but it does.John Colapinto, The Real-Estate Artist 1/20/2014Artist who is attempting to revive a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, one of the country's largest and poorest black ghettos. Really interesting if you're into Chicago.Dana Goodyear, Death Dust 1/20/2014About a plague of crazy disease-inducing dust in California's central valley, another incredibly poor part of the country. Really depressing and mysterious.Paige Williams, Drop Dead, Detroit! 1/27/2014Bio piece on this one right-wing asshole who has been in charge of the burbs north of Detroit for years, and made his living cordoning off the white suburbs from the black city. I didn't know this history, but it explains a lot.Jon Lee Anderson, The Comandante's Canal 3/10/2014The president of Nicaragua is trying to build a second canal and the Chinese are helping. Incredible, really. Evan Osnos, Chemical Valley 4/7/2014Another really poor place, West Virginia, and how deeply rooted the chemical industry is there. it's so hard to imagine people drinking the water and taking showers during the chemical spill, and the government doing nothing about it.Ian Frazier, Blue Bloods 4/14/2014Unbelievable stuff about horseshoe crabs. I didn't know anything about horseshoe crabs, which live in on Long Island. I guess I really like Ian Frazier.Sarah Payne Stuart, Pilgrim Mothers 5/5/2014A nice memoir about living in Concord, MA, and how strange the old puritan culture is there. Dale Russakoff, Schooled 5/19/2014Long and interesting history of school reform in Newark involving Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg. Really. Reforming schools seems almost impossible.Sarah Stillman, Get Out of Jail Inc. 6/23/2014For profit work programs is when courts take your money for life when you don't pay parking tickets. It's straight up extortion and happens all the time in the South. Heartbreaking piece.
Categories: Twin Cities

Transportation Benefits: Agreement, but Weak Action

Minnesota 2020 - 3 hours 18 min ago

By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

In my first major project as a Minnesota 2020 fellow, I highlighted the economic benefits for Minnesota of investing in transportation. This was a direct rebuttal to the contention of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty that hiking state fuel taxes for the first time in two decades to support highway construction and maintenance and raising new revenue for transit improvements would "hurt our economy."

That canard was nothing more than cover for Pawlenty's lockstep adherence to the right-wing dogma of no new taxes no matter what, which had already prompted him to veto two previous transportation finance bills. When he vetoed a third, shortly after my report was issued in January 2008, however, bipartisan legislators overrode him.

I'd like to claim credit for this triumph of sound public policy, but two other things wielded greater influence. The first was the deadly collapse of the Interstate Hwy. 35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007, which focused public attention on deteriorating infrastructure as never before. The second was an about-face by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which had lobbied against other transportation bills and, along with Pawlenty, was a target of my report's criticism.

Nowadays, as Congress and the White House alike repeatedly haggle over how to extend national transportation funding for shorter and shorter periods without irritating anyone at the gas pump, it's the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, unions and trade groups of truckers and manufacturers that are calling for the obvious long-term solution of increasing federal fuel taxes that haven't been adjusted for inflation in 21 years. But in dysfunctional Washington, that isn't even on the table, although no one I know of is saying it would hurt the economy.

What would hurt, all the players seem to agree, is impending default on federal Highway Trust Fund obligations, delaying up to 112,000 road projects and 5,600 transit projects and idling 700,000 construction workers. So we have a dizzying array of funding gimmicks being bandied about the hallowed halls, everything from moving fuel taxes up the pipeline and away from gas pumps to tax holidays on overseas corporate profits. The winner this week apparently is a proposal from the conservative-led U.S. House to change corporate pension accounting rules, impose higher customs fees and tap an environmental cleanup fund.

This plan was hilariously skewered by Comedy Central's Jon Stewart in a monologue for which you'll find a video link on Hindsight's Friday Morning Reads tomorrow. He didn't even mention that the House's brief eight-month funding patch will take 10 years of the aforementioned gimmicks to be paid for. Fiscal responsibility, indeed!

Nevertheless, with the highway fund needle ticking toward empty, the bill passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan approval, and President Obama and progressives in the U.S. Senate have voiced support. A Senate vote and signing ceremony are expected any day. Then the strange dance starts all over again after the November election.

Who's against the latest make-do? Far righties Heritage Action and the Club for Growth are giving members of Congress black marks for yea votes, and the libertarian Cato Institute published a screed headlined "The Federal Highway Trust Fund Is Going Broke. Here's Why That Could Be a Good Thing." In general, it pooh-poohs the fiscal and economic impacts of default and explains how to handle creaky bridges with "weight restrictions" or "smaller repairs."

Meanwhile, the National Association of Manufacturers also "scored" the House vote with a thumbs-up for support. The 367-55 roll call at least shows that most policymakers put more stock in the opinions of folks who make and ship stuff people actually buy than the radical dystopian dreams of "conservative" wacko birds. 

That said, there's still plenty not to like on rational grounds in this measure. Normally circumspect with its mass audience largely of business travelers, USA TODAY called it "a telling display of absurdity, [funding] highway construction by letting employers endanger their workers' retirement" and like "raiding your 401(k) to put a temporary patch on the hole in your driveway." It added: "The obvious near-term solution is to raise the gasoline tax back to where it was in 1993 dollars and index it for inflation."

The deeply conservative Wall Street Journal also thundered against the bill, but leveled most of its criticism at Obama and progressives for wanting "to claim a 'jobs' victory before Election Day." How dastardly of them!

More measured dissent came from no fewer than a dozen U.S. secretaries of transportation, a bipartisan group who served as far back as the Lyndon Johnson administration and included appointees of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. In an open letter to Congress, they said: "Never in our nation's history has America's transportation system been on a more unsustainable course ...This bill will not 'fix' [it]. For that, we need a much larger and longer-term investment."

Being transportation wonks, the 12 secretaries glossed over mention of why a sustainable transportation is vital: because it underpins economic prosperity. Fortunately, a well-timed White House white paper makes that compelling argument:

"A well-performing transportation network keeps jobs in America, allows businesses to expand and lowers prices on household goods. It allows businesses to manage their inventories and transport goods more cheaply and efficiently as well as access a variety of suppliers and markets for their products, making it more cost-effective for manufacturers to keep production in or more production to the United States. American families benefit too: as consumers, from lower-priced goods and as workers, by gaining better access to jobs.

"The economic benefits of smart infrastructure investment are long-term competitiveness, productivity, innovation, lower prices and higher incomes, while infrastructure investment also creates many thousands of American jobs in the near-term."

No one seems to argue with this anymore. We can hope that someday our national leaders will find a way to translate that realization into robust, honestly financed policies that extend over the long terms required for sound planning of the travel routes to a vibrant 21st century economy.

Categories: Twin Cities

Some perspective on the gas tax

StrongTowns - 4 hours 18 min ago

The federal highway trust fund is going broke, one of those long-known realities that is finally starting to sink in among the official nattering nabobs. Whether it is the New York Times, the USA Today or Slate (the hysterics of which I found particularly laughable), the analysis comes right from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) talking points. Even the Daily Show has weighed in. Here’s what we are to believe:

The gas tax needs to go up because (1) it has not been increased since 1993 so inflation has eroded a lot of its purchasing power (wait – I thought inflation was good). Then there is (2), our cars have gotten more fuel efficient and so the gas tax doesn’t go nearly as far as it once did. Finally, (3) we have horrible congestion, safety problems and we need the economic growth that comes with transportation investments.

I started wondering….how big would the funding gap be if we had indexed the gas tax to inflation back in 1993? What if we had indexed it to economic growth? We if we had adjusted it for average daily traffic, probably the best measure of demand given the fuel efficiency issue? Here’s what those answers look like when compared to the revenue the ASCE indicates is needed to continue on the current path ($94 billion additional per year).

I’ve passed this around and people want to know the math, which I’m going to provide below, but here’s the takeaway: we may have a funding problem, but that’s not what is going to take us down. Our real problem is that we have not had to think about what we are doing for a long, long time. We’ve been so wealthy and affluent that funding the most bizarre transportation arrangement on earth became akin to the American way of life. Congestion-free roadways and ample parking are to the United States what bread and circuses were to Rome. Get out your fiddle, that smoke is real.

The question facing us now isn’t whether or not to increase funding for transportation but whether or not to reform – or even question – the very nature of our approach to transportation. An increase in the gas tax, additional sales taxes/fees or more deficit spending only allow us to continue to distort – for a few more years – a transportation system that is not financially viable. Without any price signals providing supply/demand feedback, we are destined to build ourselves into insolvency (again).

And a final word to you transit and bike/ped advocates who have been promised riches if you’ll get behind calls for more money for this system: you are fighting for scraps today with disingenuous partners when, if you simply walked over the next ridge, you would find more financial support than you ever dreamed. That ridge: localization.

We had the greatest transit and the greatest pedestrian facilities before we had centralized transportation policy. Bike/ped and (when not done by highway engineers) transit improvements are the highest returning transportation investments a city can make. Phase the federal and state governments out of this game and you open up enormous possibilities for bringing about the world you desire. Stick with this tired approach and you will continue to be an afterthought in a system that is going bankrupt.

Now the math…


There is one overriding assumption to my calculations that I know to be false, but here it is: I assume a static response to price increases. In other words, as the price goes up, I assume that people absorb the increase and continue to drive just as much. They will not.

There is a complex and dynamic feedback loop that occurs when energy prices increase that cannot be accurately modeled. The end result for my calculations is that I overestimate the amount of revenue to be gained from an indexing to inflation, gdp and traffic and I underestimate the amount of gas tax increase needed to meet our needs. Since the startling thing about this analysis is the gap between what a reasonable increase would produce and what is needed, guessing at a dynamic feedback loop would simply be running up the score. The gap is already too big to overcome; we need to start thinking differently.

Just know that, when you are looking at the chart, the inflation, GDP and traffic lines should be lower, and the need line much higher, than what is represented. I've attached my spreadsheet so you can mess with it yourself.

I began my analysis with our actual fuel tax receipts since 1994. These I obtained from the Federal Highway Administration.

I then took the consumer price index as an inflation adjustor from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (Table 24) and adjusted the gas tax by inflation for each year. At the end of last year, the inflation adjusted federal gas tax would be 29.7 cents per gallon. This is a 57.3% increase that would produce (again, with a static analysis) an additional $16.7 billion, enough to close the present hole in the trust fund.

The GDP numbers worked out in much the same way. I obtained them from (top of the Google search). A federal gas tax that grew as fast as the economy would currently be at 30.1 cents per gallon and produce an additional $17.3 billion dollars annually (assuming a static response).

I’m not one who believes there is a direct relationship between transportation investments and economic growth so I thought it important to model a non-economic statistic. Average Daily Traffic (ADT) is about as close as we can get to measuring actual demand in a system where the relationship between supply and demand is shrouded in a web of perverse incentives. I obtained ADT numbers from the Federal Highway Administration. Growth in traffic was substantially less than economic growth over the years in question. Adjusted for ADT, the 1993 gas tax would today be 23.8 cents per gallon. This would add $7.6 billion to the trust fund.

The adjustment for funding need is certainly going to be the most debated number I’m putting forward – as it should be. I used the headline number from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which states on their website:

ASCE’s economic report on surface transportation, released in July 2011, found that our deteriorating infrastructure will cost the American economy more than 876,000 jobs and suppress the growth of our GDP by $897 billion by the year 2020.  We are facing a funding gap of about $94 billion a year with our current spending levels.

To get 77.7 cents per gallon, I use a simple ratio of current spending with total needed spending.

I'll repeat that this is a static analysis and thus 77.7 cents is a low number. If gas prices were to rise that much there would be many people who would drive less or choose a different mode of travel. This means the gas tax would need to go up even higher to collect the same amount of revenue. At some point the situation becomes a dog chasing its tail; every price increase prompts a reduction in driving and the need for more price increases. Ultimately the gas tax funding mechanism would collapse and/or driving would become an activity for only an elite few. That's difficult to see happening politically.

A final word about the ASCE need number. Those of you that have read Strong Towns for any appreciable time period know that I am not a fan of ASCE. They are not a group that works to support the noble engineering profession but a special interest group that advocates for more public funding for its members. It uses shameless tactics, including distorted math, to make the case. Any numbers put forth by ASCE should be highly suspect.

So why would I use their number for need? I use it because the ASCE approach is actually how engineers and city officials put together their list of needs. I’ve been in the meetings, been part of assembling the capital improvement plans. We used to call them “guaranteed employment plans” because the engineers would program into them their next five years’ worth of work and then go out and chase the funding. There is always a lot of padding in these plans masquerading as “need”, the money that then flows to the city creating – via the mechanisms by which it flows – a prioritization of the large, new project over the routine maintenance.

I use the ASCE number because there is no limit to the “need” we can come up with if there is enough money. There is no feedback – no direct price that any consumer of the system pays – for its use and so there is no signal discerning actual demand. No way to determine a want from a need. The goal is a congestion free commute with ample, cheap parking for all along with all the ribbon cuttings and well-paying construction jobs.

I use the ASCE number because it represents an America where we don’t have to think very hard, one with an embarrassment of riches available to cover up our immediate folly and allow us to put off anything truly difficult. One where the only real feedback is total failure. That’s a fragile place. It is yesterday's America. This generation's challenge is to change it.

We’re running out of money. It’s time to start thinking.

Categories: Twin Cities

Make a B-Line to the Metropolitan Council

Streets.MN - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 3:22pm

An anonymous reader writes in:


 If anyone is available to attend a Met Council meeting at 4 pm (Wednesday July 23), this could get interesting.

Met Council/Metro Transit had most of the $28 million for the B line (West 7th) in place, but at the last minute Ramsey County (with St. Paul as second) did something procedurally to  prevent Metro transit from using its own money to get MSP region’s FTA formula funds and complete design work in time before other funds to build the project expire. They are doing this because they think Riverview LRT will be open soon.  The B Line would be open before the LPA process for Riverview can even be adopted in 2016.  Nothing about ABRT on the B Line would prevent future light rail service. So, for the next decade (if we’re lucky), we’ll continue to have substandard bus service while we argue about an LRT line that once built, won’t go fast enough. More info: is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

National Gathering Update

StrongTowns - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 3:14pm

Registration is now open to our members for the 2014 National Gathering in Minneapolis, September 12-14, 2014.


Last week we announced that Monte Anderson will be keynoting the event. This week we want to announce one of the other exciting items that is scheduled to happen: release of Transportation in the Next American City.

Yes, Saturday morning we are going to give attendees an early sneak peak at the long-awaited Strong Towns report on mobility and transportation. There will be no cameras or recording devices and lots of time for discussion and feedback. Not only will attendees get the information before everyone else, but we need you to help us finalize this important message. Be part of the team -- see you at the gathering.

Optional Friday Morning Workshop

On Friday morning prior to the start of the Gathering (8:30 AM – 12:00 PM), Chuck Marohn will be conducting a stand-alone workshop that covers the in-depth look at the Curbside Chat and Strong Towns transportation principles.  AICP credit will be available for this workshop and will be a separate fee of $65. To register, click here.


A hotel room block is available at the Hyatt Regency at the south end of Nicollet Mall in downtown for $109 a night. Rooms are available through the block on Wednesday-Sunday nights.  The Hyatt is conveniently located along the 18 bus line which will get participants to all the weekend’s events. It is 8 blocks from the Blue Line LRT which runs to the MSP Airport.  The rooms contracted through the block will receive complementary wi-fi access. Rooms will be available through August 8 and you can book a room directly through this special website interface:

We hope to see you all at the Strong Towns National Gathering!

Categories: Twin Cities

Classic Sidewalks of the Silver Screen #95

Twin Cities Sidewalks - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 2:04pm
The confrontation under the interstate overpass...... from the finest capoeira / inner city schools film of the 90s, Shelon Lettich's (1993) Only The Strong.
Categories: Twin Cities

Classic Sidewalks of the Silver Screen #94

Twin Cities Sidewalks - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 1:31pm
Pee Wee doesn't sell Francis his bike even though it's his birthday...... in Tim Burton's (1985) Pee Wee's Big Adventure.
Categories: Twin Cities

Classic Sidewalks of the Silver Screen #93

Twin Cities Sidewalks - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 11:53am
A clandestine Miss Piggy gets harassed by some New York City construction workers...... and goes to town on some scaffolding, in Frank Oz's (1984) Muppets Take Manhattan.
Categories: Twin Cities

Urban Freeways: A Question of Value

Streets.MN - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 8:50am

Was it worth it to run interstates right through built-up areas of Minneapolis and St Paul? That’s a tough question to answer, and maybe an impossible one given the complexities of the discussion.

These fine gentlemen sure thought it would be worth it. (Source: Star Tribune)

And yet we constantly hear public officials tout the benefits of our freeway capacities, and the economic value they bring, not only to their respective downtowns but the city and its residents at large.  When the I-35W bridge collapsed in 2007, not a single person from the mayor’s office up to the President of the United States bothered to pause and wonder if life (and our regional economy) would go on without that link, did the estimated economic losses justify the amortized capital and annual maintenance costs of the replacement bridge, or if that money would be better spent on other transportation projects.  Ask a friend or random stranger on the street if it was worth it – my guess is the response is simply pure shock that you’d even ask.

Defining the System, Outcomes

The 1960s and early 70s gave rise to the majority of our urban freeways, with the last connection (I-394) finishing in the early 1990s.  Others were planned – some even cleared out buildings in preparation; some real, some satirical:

Astute readers will know the difference (Image Sources: Left – Adam Froehlig, Right – The illustrious Minnesota Citizens for Roads, Asphalt, and Parking)

Neighborhood group opposition and a change in federal highway planning processes halted progress on some routes, but we still ended up with about 67 centerline miles of freeways ( ex. I-35W) and highways (ex. Hiawatha Ave and Olsen Memorial Highway) inside Minneapolis.  What did this new found mobility give Minneapolis residents? The ability to leave, for one:

The media can’t stop reporting on Minneapolis’ recent surge, that small nudge up on the right there.

Population peaked in 1950 at about 520,000 residents and began plummeting afterward. Yes, other factors were certainly at play in the city’s population decline; household sizes began dropping after the 50s, home preferences changed, etc. But it’s pretty hard to ignore the interstates’ effect on housing location and transportation choices.

Property Taxes: A Proxy for Value

But Minneapolis leaders (and, presumably, many residents) believed this was still a positive for the city, or at least necessary to compete with burgeoning suburbs.  Were they right?  Did property values increase city-wide as a result of the mobility gains afforded to its residents and businesses?  I took a bike ride to the Minneapolis Central Library to gather some data:

Data collected every 5 years because, well, 80 years is a lot of annual city budgets to look through.

Tough claim to make.  In real (2013) dollars, property values after 1940 began dropping.  The post-1995 crazy valuations make my head spin (housing market bubble? crazy county estimators? urban revival?), but it’s hard to say freeways made Minneapolis a substantially more valuable place to live or do business in the decades following WWII.  What about the taxes collected in the same period?

Missing data points are a result of bad smartphone camera skills…

Again, tough to discern a positive pattern here.  Aside from a bump in 1970, the 80s and 90s saw lower taxes collected city-wide.  Plus, prior to the freeway era, property taxes accounted for a larger share of the city’s revenue stream:

Once the city began bleeding residents (I’m not sure if the same can be said for businesses/jobs, but I do know there are plenty urban-friendly office jobs along the 494/694 beltway), Minneapolis began relying more on sales taxes, state aid, and other forms of revenue to provide services, to say nothing of the tax burden per-capita.  Only in the last decade, as the state has cut back on LGA and other programs to Minneapolis, do we see property taxes, both absolute value and share of revenue, climbing back up.

What could have caused the stagnant-to-declining property values and taxes collected during that timeframe?  Well, there’s a big difference between putting a freeway through this:

Image source

…and this:

Image Source: UrbanMSP

The land freeways paved over not only has value, but it had even more value when buildings were there.  Using road and highway area calculated here, I was able to calculate the foregone revenue to Minneapolis given average property taxes per developable square mile:

Plus St Paul, Eden Prairie, and some other measures to stir up debate.

Minneapolis gave up over $23 million in property taxes to ram freeways through itself. That’s over 7% of what it’s currently taking in.  This is likely conservative since the per-square mile tax rate is higher as a result of non-profits, government buildings, and universities – entities that consume large swaths of city land but pay no property taxes, effectively raising other properties’ rate.

We also know that freeway noise de-values nearby properties (0.40% per decibel according to one study), and pollution is disproportionally high near them as well (we won’t even tabulate those health costs here).  At least the noise study notes that housing mobility isn’t affected – time on the market isn’t longer near freeways, just price (I guess that’s one way to build affordable housing).  I calculated the opportunity cost of property taxes near freeways by using I-35W between 36th and 37th Streets (a neither exceptionally wealthy nor slummy area of our city) as a sample:

Without the aid of GIS, I had to manually grab property taxes radiating outward from I-35W and average the two slopes representing lost dollars by distance from the freeway. This yielded the lost revenue within 1,000 feet of freeways, per 1/8 acre parcel, which I then multiplied by all 67 miles of freeways and highways in the city (minus space for local streets and parks).  The total bill came to roughly $20 million.  Again, this is likely conservative as high value places with apartments, small condos, and commercial properties pay far more per acre in property taxes than the single family homes evaluated.

That brings the total property taxes foregone to $43 million city-wide, a solid chunk of change.  To put that in perspective, the roughly 580,000 vehicles driving on Minneapolis highways and interstates would need to pay $0.22 per trip on an urban freeway to cover just the property tax losses alone.  Am I suggesting every mile of freeway in the country charge users this way?  Not necessarily, but it’s a real cost that not a single driver is currently paying (at least not directly).

Moving Forward

While the investments of the past should pragmatically be viewed as sunk costs, we need to have the tough conversations like this, which is why I encourage commenters to poke holes in my numbers and theories. Seriously. I believe this is a debate worth having, since it’s been nearly 50 years and we’re still replacing bridges over freeways without even considering mitigation options (to my knowledge).  A 50-year plan to slowly convert freeways to value-building boulevards and parks (with thru-traffic taking our soon-to-be 6 lane beltway, adding a couple minutes of drive time) is a laughable proposition at best.  Let’s be honest about the costs, impacts, and, yes, benefits of our current system, but constantly push for better and challenge the status quo.

Note: I apologize for some loose data referencing. There’s so much buried in this post that doing so would be a challenge.  I’m more than happy to send my mess of an Excel spreadsheet if anyone is interested in reviewing my work. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Chart of the Day: Councilmember Zimmermann’s Plan for Personal Rapid Transit System for Minneapolis, MN

Streets.MN - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 7:00am

Councilmember Zimmermann’s Plan for Personal Rapid Transit System for Minneapolis, MN

It was 2004. PRT was in the air. Dean Zimmermann was still a free man on the City Council, having grown up from his role in the Co-op Wars. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

The Subpar (Public!) Land Uses of Downtown East

Streets.MN - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 7:00am

After many decades as a sad parking crater, the eastern side of Downtown Minneapolis is being rebuilt. The next few years will see the completion of the new Minnesota Vikings Stadium, a two-ish block public-ish park, a two-ish block set of matching office towers filled by Wells Fargo employees, a block-sized ~1,600 space parking ramp, and a currently TBD development atop said parking ramp. The office towers will include some residential units along 4th Street South, and in all likelihood the project that goes on the parking ramp will also include hundreds of residential units, probably in addition to some sort of hotel. There will also be a residential development one on of the park blocks. Put together, something like eight or nine city blocks will be rebuilt in the space of about five years, assuming no more projects are announced–which seems unlikely.

Current and accurate renderings of this project are nearly impossible to come by–here’s an aerial view (Image from Ryan Cos.)

There are hundreds of millions of dollars in public money (mostly for the stadium) that have been pledged towards rebuilding this part of the city, and it’s been a long time coming. An all around excellent article in Twin Cities Business details the whole Downtown East redevelopment story, including the more or less intentional decision to ignore Downtown East while development was concentrated in Downtown West. Before we get too upset about that, it’s important to keep in mind that Downtown East was not necessarily the Champs-Élysées before it was parking. An aerial view from 1947 shows railyards, parking lots (potentially historic!), and some buildings like the Armory that are still there.

And on that note, there are a great deal of current land uses in Downtown East that are not great. To be clear, there are a number of things in Downtown East that are clearly necessary things to have in a city, but that are not necessarily places that you’d want to live or own property near. And more importantly, these land uses all have pretty much entirely terrible street frontage. We’ve got the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility, Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center, Hennepin County Crime Lab & Morgue, huge Hennepin County Medical Center complex, and two gigantic, City-owned parking ramps along 5th Avenue South.

Metrodome no longer applicable

But! You may have noticed that, during that list of buildings and uses, all of the users are government. So we can change that street frontage! Maybe. Reworking the intake area of the county jail is probably harder than auctioning off land around HCMC for a liner development. Still, it’s worth examining the buildings we’ve got in Downtown East at least as a way to avoid doing similar things in the future, and maybe with an eye towards changing some of what’s there.

For the purposes of this post, we’re looking at Downtown East as an idea (?) rather than the actual, technical City-defined neighborhood boundaries. So, approximately the area east of Minneapolis City Hall before you get to I-35W. Here are some photos I took on a Tuesday afternoon during rush hour. There was also a Twins game that evening.

Hennepin County Public Safety Center–i.e. the county jail–along 5th Avenue South

Walking along the jail on 5th Avenue South

The jail is hard to move or change. It’s probably a good idea to have it near the courthouse, which is located in the Hennepin County Government Center kitty corner from the site. But still, there have to be some possibilities for changing the exterior of this building so that it’s not a blank wall with fire exits and nature band-aids. Fun fact: I was in the jail a couple weeks ago! Voluntarily. Did you know the fourth and fifth floors of Minneapolis City Hall are also a jail? Like literally a jail, connected by tunnel to the one across the street. Guys in jumpsuits playing cards six feet above Mayor Hodges’ head. There’s a basketball court directly above the City Council chambers. Crazy.

Two block long parking ramps (Government Center and Haaf) along 5th Avenue South

The parking ramps on 5th Avenue South are a barrier between the future Downtown East development and Government Plaza

There are two block-long parking ramps on either side of the jail facility. Both ramps are owned by the City of Minneapolis. There was, apparently, a strategy in the 1980s to locate large parking ramps on the periphery of the then-developing downtown area. Now the periphery is a barrier. The city actually used to also own two more block-long parking ramps along 5th Avenue South, the Gateway Ramp and the Centre Village Ramp, which are a few blocks from here. Both were sold to Alatus in 2007 as part of a package where the city sold yet more (!) parking ramps on the condition that some of the parking ramps, or the areas around them, be redeveloped.

I work in this part of downtown, and while I don’t park a car, some of my best friends park a car, and I hear it’s getting harder and more expensive to do so. Especially with the closure of multiple surface parking lots in the past six months to make way for new development. So it may be hard to gather the political will to just up and tear either of these ramps down. However, the street frontage could be improved with minimal loss of parking spaces. The Haaf Ramp does in fact have two retail spaces at the corner of 5th Avenue South & 4th Street South, which is great.

Corner of the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center at Park Avenue South & 5th Street South

There’s actually a garage exit with a curb cut right on the corner at the front of the building. Never noticed that until now. Odd design decision?

A blank wall

The Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center is directly across 5th Street South from what will be the new park, and that’s what it looks like. Lots of blank walls. Similar to the situation with the county jail, it’s hard to imagine this facility moving or being substantially reconfigured, but it’s something to keep in mind as we build a park nicknamed “The Yard” directly across the street from two (2) detention centers.

Crime Lab!

Chicago Avenue & 6th Street South–across the street from the future stadium

You’ve got to imagine that the crime lab & morgue would be a little easier to move than the jail, but estimated costs to do so have been estimated at $20 to $25 million dollars. That second picture is what will sit immediately across the street from the front plaza of the $975 million dollar Vikings stadium. Certainly a crime lab & morgue have a great deal of specialized equipment, but you’ve got to think that they’d be able to figure out how to do something with a one-story, largely windowless structure. Build something on top of it? Who knows.

Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) has a parking ramp which features an eight story tall, block-long wall

HCMC over 7th Street South

HCMC at the corner of Chicago Avenue & 7th Street South

Really puts the park in “Park Avenue”!

Like the two jails before it, it’s hard to imagine moving HCMC or substantially reconfiguring its operations. It’s obviously good to have a Level 1 trauma center in Downtown Minneapolis. The HCMC complex takes up an enormous amount of land, spanning five whole blocks, blocking one street and partially capping two others. There is, sort of, a front to the building which I wasn’t able to find on foot, but I did find on Google Streetview. There are literal blank walls and effective blank walls. One helicopter landed and one ambulance departed in the ten minutes or so I spent walking around. The whole complex is pretty brutal, kind of like Moos Tower at the University of Minnesota, which I used to describe as Death Star-like when I gave campus tours back in the day.

However, much of the complex does have generous setbacks from the street. It may be possible to do liner developments in the future to improve the street frontage and break up the monolithic structure.

1980s Mars Colony

Lately I’m really into Mars, and this picture looking down 6th Street South makes me think of a 1980s Total Recall-style Martian colony. Let’s not let any part of our downtown look like a Martian colony. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

The Monkey Parking Arbitrage

StrongTowns - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 5:00am
I’m rooting for Monkey Parking in this one. If you believe our cities have too many parking lots and not enough productive space, you should be too.
Categories: Twin Cities

Chart of the Day: Distribution of Parking Revenue

Streets.MN - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 12:53pm

This is a chart from Donald Shoup’s parking tome, The High Cost of Free Parking.

Here’s Shoup’s explanation [from Chapter 12]:

Consider the lower left corner, which represents the current situation in almost every city: all curb parking revenue goes into the general fund and nothing goes to the neighborhoods. … Because everyone objects to paying for parking, and no one sees a direct benefit from the revenue, no one supports the idea of charging for cub parking … No consider the upper right corner, which represents the situation where cities return all curb parking revenue to the neighborhoods that generate it. No one wants to pay for parking — that will never change — but residents begin to think like landlords, not tenants, and they agree to form parking benefit districts that charge nonresidents for parking. Business owners also form Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) that use the curb parking revenue to finance public improvements in commercial areas. Because neighborhoods receive the revenue, citizens demand market prices for their curb parking, which in this example yields $100 million a year in new public revenue.

Think of downtown Saint Paul or Uptown Minneapolis, and you get the picture. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

The One Where I Pick on the Disabled

Streets.MN - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 12:35pm

A handicapped placard in downtown Saint Paul.

I was at a meeting a while back about a new parking policy in downtown Saint Paul. The city was changing its policies about handicapped parking. Until very recently, anyone with a handicapped parking placard on their dashboard was allowed to park for free all day downtown.

As it turned out, that was not such a good idea. The city did a rough survey of downtown parking spots and found handicapped placard cars were everywhere, taking up a huge amount of the downtown on-street parking. So this summer, the city has begun limiting free parking for handicapped placard cars to four hours in an attempt to alleviate the problem.

I felt sorry for the engineer working on placard parking issue. Picking on the disabled is just about the most politically poisonous thing a person can do. (Kinda like harassing nuns?)

But it turns out, handicapped placards are a big problem! The results from the cursory Saint Paul survey (about 25%) are closely matched by a study done in L.A., where cars with handicapped placards occupied a significant amount of the total on-street parking supply.

Well, someone has to pick on the disabled. Politicians aren’t going to do it. (OK, maybe Mitt Romney…) And I don’t want city staff to have to do it. So I’ll do it. I’ll ask the tough questions.

How can we stop the scourge of handicapped placard cars parking in our our valuable downtown on-street spaces?

Placard Abuse

The first problem with free parking for the disabled is the issue of “placard fraud.” One issue not often discussed is that many people with handicapped placards are not actually disabled.

(Probably the most egregious example, taken from Donald Shoup’s book on parking, was the entire UCLA football team.)

I’d imagine that many of these kinds of abuses happen somewhat innocently. You might get a handicapped placard for a short-term disability (like a broken leg) and then keep using it. A friend of mine (who shall not be named) keeps using the handicapped placard of her late husband to park downtown. While there is a grassroots website devoted to combatting placard fraud, there is almost zero enforcement of handicapped placards. (Cops don’t want to be seen picking on people with disabilities either!)

There are different kinds of parking abuse, ranging from tampering with meters to different kinds of “official use” placards (e.g. police, diplomats, public officials, etc.). But handicapped placards are by far the most common.

[Yes, there's a great Seinfeld episode about this too!]

Handicapped Spaces vs. Downtown Meters

But even for legitimately disabled people properly using placards, is free unlimited downtown parking a good thing?

When I think of the archetypical “handicapped parking space”, I think of the mall parking lot. There, and in most places (strip malls, fast food restaurants, museums, etc), the spaces closest to the door are reserved for the disabled. It makes sense, and is a rare example of our society treating people with dignity despite limited mobility.

But in almost all those examples, parking is “free” for everyone. (Note: actually this parking is very expensive, but the cost is embedded in the costs of land, services, and goods and paid for by all users.) When you get to downtowns, the situation is different. On-street parking represents an undervalued premium, and local businesses depend on having these spots turn over frequently. Millions and millions of dollars are spent on expensive ramps to alleviate the “parking problem.” 

This begs the question: While everyone agrees that disabled people deserve convenient parking close to their destination, should they also have a right to free parking? 

The distinction is important, because if enough people start using handicapped placards to take occupy valuable on-street spaces, free parking for the disabled becomes counterproductive. If all the spaces in downtown areas are given away, they become scarce and difficult to find. Picture a situation where a person with a disability can’t find a spot because they are all occupied by handicapped placards parking for free all day. If the parking studies are any indication, that’s the actual situation in many downtowns right now!

Demographics and Trends

Parking is one of those things that drives people crazy, and many Americans today (like George Costanza) live by the creed that they are entitled to free parking in any city at any time.

But the costs of this kind of behavior are extreme: congestion from “cruising”, pollution, expensive overbuilt parking lots everywhere, impervious runoff, lack of green space, unwalkable cities. 

And it’s only going to get worse. Two trends are going to make this problem increasingly difficult to solve.

Boomer Americans are rapidly aging, and the demand for handicapped parking placards will likely skyrocket over the next ten years. Meanwhile, for lots of good reasons, downtowns are increasingly attempting to reduce parking minimums. Unless we start charging more for parking downtown, these colliding trends will increase both legitimate and fraudulent use of on-street spaces, and make problems worse for everyone. 

Instead, if we want to make parking convenient and fair for everyone, we need to rethink how we can best serve disabled people. For example, in Portland (of course) they’ve recently changed the rules to make disabled drivers pay for metered spots. If we want actually people with disabilities to be able to park  outside their destination (and we do!), that won’t happen until we charge the full market value for on-street parking. That will remove the incentive for placard abuse (which should also be more thoroughly enforced).

… OK. I did it. I picked on the disabled. Now I have to live with myself. How will I sleep tonight? I’m gonna find a nun and step on her toes. 


Saint Paul has had a 4-hour limit on free handicapped placard parking at meters since 2004. The recent change was to make that 4-hour limit a daily limit. Here’s part of the memo from the city on the topic:

State statute stipulates that vehicles with disability placards or license plates may park in metered spaces without obligation to pay the meter fee, and without time restrictions, unless those time restrictions are posted separately from the general time restrictions1. In the City of Saint Paul, a time limit of four hours is separately posted for those exercising a disability parking privilege at all metered spaces, with the exception of spaces with a thirty minute time limit. The four hour time limit was set with the understanding that the added convenience of an on-street space may have added value to a person with reduced mobility, and that required a person with a disability to move their vehicle after two hours may be a significant hardship to carry out the purposes intended to be promoted by metered parking.

The current ordinances allow for those with disability certificates or plates to park their vehicles for four hours for free at a metered space and, after moving their vehicles a minimum of two blocks, park for an additional four hours. The ability to “repark” within two blocks, when combined with the common four hour time limits, makes using disability placards or plates a very attractive option for those working downtown, who otherwise would likely be required to pay over $100 a month to park their vehicle in an off-street facility. This type of use is contrary to the intended purpose of the disability parking privilege, and creates an incentive for those who may not need to park close to their destination to acquire a disability plate or certificate.

A parking survey conducted in the summer of 2013 in the downtown core revealed 24% of all vehicles parked were exercising their disability parking privilege. As of March 2012, there were 4,411,496 passenger vehicles registered in the State of Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, there were approximately 400,000 disability certificates and 28,000 disability license plates registered statewide. There is approximately one disability certificate or plate registered for every ten vehicles, yet nearly one in four vehicles parked in the surveyed meter zone is displaying a disability plate or certificate. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Bust open the Bottleneck with buses

Getting Around Minneapolis - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 11:32am

Last Thursday I threw a post up on that proved using mathematics! that the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck is overbuilt as a roadway and could be reduced by a lane in most segments without risking more than moderate congestion. This result fits with my experience as a frequent user of the Bottleneck at rush hour over a period of many years – the freeway-scale design makes it feel like you’re inching through the facility at slug speed, but in reality traffic moves through the Bottleneck no slower than on other nearby urban streets. On top of the space that could be recaptured from the extraneous lanes, the existing lanes are mostly far too wide, so a lot of pavement can be reduced just by rebuilding the lanes at a more appropriate width.

Scroll down for pics!

So what to do with all this extra space? Anyone who glances over the last year or so of posts here, if still awake, can guess what I say: bus lanes. The thousands of bus riders that travel through the Bottleneck could be sped through daily and be insulated from occasional congestion, and those sitting in cars would watch as the buses made it through faster on this highly visible facility, encouraging them to think of transit as a better option. One of the great transportation weaknesses in Minneapolis is that the Devil’s Backbone (the ridge that comprises Lowry and Loring hills) creates a wall that makes it difficult to travel between Downtown and Uptown. It’s in the city’s best interest to encourage as much of that traffic as possible to take place on space-efficient travel modes such as mass transit.

Here is a map-like graphic I used on the streets post to show which segments could lose a lane without risking much congestion:

Most of the route along Hennepin is green, indicating that a lane can be removed, and the one segment that isn’t is just barely over the 75% threshold. This segment has an enormous amount of queuing space (650′ for the lanes coming from the Bottleneck and over 2000′ for the lane coming from I-94), so I’d suggest that here too a lane be removed and replaced with a bus lane. Here is a lane diagram of the Bottleneck with extraneous lanes removed and replaced with bus lanes where needed:

This provides a bus lane through the entire facility for buses coming to or from South Hennepin, and for much of the facility for Lyndale buses. The bus lanes would also be used for right turns indicated by standard lane symbols, which simply involves a switch from a solid while line to a dashed line shortly before the intersection, along with a right-turn symbol or two. I’ll reproduce an example from British Columbia here, because a lot of Minneapolitans seem to have difficulty picturing this:

The northbound segment just north of Franklin is more tricky, due to traffic exiting to I-94. The bus should still have priority, so I’d recommend striping a short lane for general traffic north of the intersection that is required to merge across the bus lane (yielding to buses in the process) before exiting:

This may seem tight, but there is about 330′ or the length of a downtown block in which to accomplish this, which shouldn’t be a problem for traffic moving at urban speeds (20-25mph). I’ve depicted it within the existing curb-to-curb width, but as the northbound segment is being rebuilt as part of The Project, I’d suggest that the general traffic lanes be reduced to 10.5′ a pop, with the bus lane at 12′, so that it can be reduced 2′ overall and adjacent sidewalk/boulevard made a bit less pathetic/dismal.

As long as we’re discussing the above image, I’ll mention that it depicts the existing southbound roadway, the 34.5′ of which will not be touched as part of The Project. In this space I’ve ruthlessly slashed one of the general traffic lanes and replaced it with an offset bus lane. Additionally I portray the corner with a striped (and bollarded) curb extension, which should be added to every corner on a street with parking as the city’s adopted policy recommends.

It’s possible that something similar could be done on Lyndale at the north leg of the intersection with Franklin. The roadway there happens to be exactly the same width as Hennepin, and the traffic patterns seem to be mostly similar. I think that the city’s policy to reduce VMT is enough to justify replacing a lane in each direction with a bus lane, and additionally this area has been screaming for an extension of the Lyndale bikeway to Franklin (not to mention more pedestrian space, the lack of which forces an awkward dance at the southbound bus stop and taking turns in front of Rudolph’s). If this were to occur, here’s a suggested cross section:

However, there is a much higher volume of vehicles per lane on Lyndale than on the corresponding segment of Hennepin, and anyway this segment of the Bottleneck isn’t going to be rebuilt as part of The Project. It should still be restriped, though, to improve the currently awkward required movements and outrageously overwide lanes. Additionally, the Lyndale bikeway should be extended south by replacing the existing parking lane with a bollard-separated two-way cycle track. Here’s an idea for how this would look:

This could also improve traffic flow by removing the scary merge of southbound traffic just north of the intersection (technically the traffic from I-94 is supposed to yield but they often don’t). It would do this by replacing one of the lanes of Bottleneck traffic with a bus lane, then giving each stream their own lane at the intersection and banning Bottleneck traffic from turning left (they have had plenty of opportunities to travel in that direction already). Here is a diagram:

This plan reduces capacity as measured by square feet of pavement, but I think it will actually improve traffic flow by reducing conflict points and increasing clarity about where to go (note how the northbound lanes now have one clear lane to get in that will take them either to Hennepin or to Lyndale & the freeways). I’ll point out that here too there is enormous queuing space, so dozens of cars could pile up (er, behind, not on top of each other) before impacting an intersection.

If you look back to my overall lane diagram above, there are a few other places where reducing a lane actually has the potential to aid the flow of traffic by making destination more clear. The southbound lanes are an example; currently the four lanes are ambiguous about which will go where, but if you cut a lane it’ll be one destination per lane, from left to right: 15th/I-94, Lyndale, Hennepin. The other spot improved by a lane reduction is the northbound lanes where it splits into Hennepin vs. Lyndale/freeways. Currently one of the lanes splits into both destinations, making the signage confusing. Since Hennepin downtown has been reduced to two lanes inbound, there’s absolutely no need for three lanes to split off the Bottleneck here, so I’d say do one general traffic lane to Hennepin that can be flared out to two at the intersection if necessary.

As you may have noticed, my plan mostly doesn’t actually reduce the number of lanes, but rather replaces some lanes with bus lanes. But there are many other changes needed along the Bottleneck, such as improving the space for bikes and peds and general greening, all of which requires space to do. Amazingly, the current lanes are so overbuilt that even assuming one of the current lanes in each direction is replaced with a 12′ bus lane, by reducing the remaining lanes to 10.5′ a substantial amount of space can be captured (zoom your eyes to the 4th & 5th columns from the right):

Note that each line of the chart indicates only one direction, so that for most of the segments, at least 10′ can be converted to bike/ped space or green buffers. Also, my analysis hasn’t even touched on the pointless “access” road between Groveland and Douglas, which could be eliminated altogether but at least could be substantially narrowed for a significant aesthetic improvement and public gathering space.

Public works has promised to release their latest design for the reconstruction at a public meeting on August 4th. I’m hopeful that they will use the space gained from narrowing lanes to separate the bike & ped streams along the Loring Bikeway, and my best case scenario is that one of the obviously superfluous lanes heading to Hennepin downtown will be dropped. But aside from that I don’t expect any substantial changes, in part because of Public Works’ continued auto-orientation but also because of the rumor I mentioned in the streets post that got so much attention in the comments. Rebuilding the Bottleneck substantially the same would be a tragedy for Minneapolis, not only because it dooms the city to decades more of unpleasant, auto-centric commutes but because it is a huge opportunity lost for a great central public space. If this occurs, rest assured I will expound on this rumor and call to account those responsible for the tragedy.

Postlude, because I really haven’t written enough yet: I of course think that the freeway ramp overpasses should be torn down and replaced with surface facilities like a roundabout or traffic circle, thus freeing up developable space as well as providing room for much greater pedestrian connectivity and cycletracks throughout. The plans shown here operate only within the constraints of the current reconstruction project, which do not allow us to ponder changing the freeway interchange, possibly with the ulterior motive of requiring their continued presence.

Categories: Twin Cities

The cost of auto orientation, update

StrongTowns - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 10:46am
Instead of devaluing our city, instead of spending our money on things that aren’t paying back, there are a ton of small, affordable things that could be done to improve the value of our asset that are already outperforming other assets we are spending millions on. These opportunities are everywhere, we just need to start seeing them.
Categories: Twin Cities

Fixing Permit Parking (with Econ 101)

Streets.MN - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 12:01am

Yesterday there was a great post about coupon parking, and how it can be used in parking critical areas to make use of an entire street’s built parking infrastructure instead of using only permits to exclude people from using the spaces.

The economics of most markets look similar to the following chart, as price rises, more products will be made, but fewer will be bought, thus always bringing the price and quantity of the product in question to a balance.

A basic, simplified economic market.

But in parking, the supply is fixed (thus the vertical supply bar), and in most neighborhoods there is a surplus of parking, even when it is free (to the park-er).

The bronze is showing the gap between demand and supply at the price level.

In neighborhoods near popular areas (Minneapolis zones) the chart looks much more like this, with there being more demand for parking, when it is free, than there is demand. Thus the dashed line beyond the supply bar.

Here the hashed area and bronze highlight the people who are demanding parking (when it’s free) who are not able to receive it.

Dealing with this using permits leads to a discrimination against people who don’t live in the area. Excluding them from the marketplace makes the entire system less efficient as resources are not used. (Note to economist readers, while the value of the parking space might not be highest for those who live in the area, this would be the best case scenario for this style of solution).

The dashed line is the demand if those consumers/motorists, weren’t excluded from the market/parking.

This solution to the issue of parking can help keep property values higher for a city and maintain the American ideal of easy parking for those areas that have high intensity uses nearby.

Metering all these streets may also seem like a solution, but setting meter prices correctly is difficult and hinders the American ideal of cheap parking by residences. This would lower property values and tax rolls. Some might have said that this solution is ugly or expensive to collect, but the new parking meters in Saint Paul and Minneapolis can correct this by having less intrusive posts and fewer collection sites.

The bronze dot here signifies the price point for perfect balance of supply and demand. Unfortunately this is hard to find in terms of actual money, and not on a hypothetical chart.

While placing meters may be feasible, to protect property values and keep the status quo of a midwestern city’s parking availability, and maintaining the current permit system, meters should not be the only solution, but also be mixed with permits.

By mixing the permits and meters we can guarantee not causing mass disruption to residents, while still capturing the value of the rest of the stalls.

By mixing these approaches (or using coupons), we can create a more equitable and economically efficient parking system for the on-street parking we have already built. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities

Where do Bicyclists Fit in this Picture?

Streets.MN - Mon, 07/21/2014 - 1:45pm

(The following is from an email sent to Saint Paul Smart Trips and my City Council Representatives. I was asked to post it here.)

This is the lead photo from the email sent out by St. Paul Smart Trips encouraging me to support streetcars in St. Paul by attending a public meeting.

I was not able to attend the streetcar meeting but I am glad to hear that the ​proposal to study the streetcar concept got approval to move forward.

I am not against streetcars. All​ of my career I commuted by bike in the summer and Metro Transit bus in the winter. A streetcar would be much preferred to a bus. The above photo inspired me to search out​ more​ information on how streetcars and bicycles interact in other cities. In​ looking at the photos and​ links below it becomes clear that it takes really good design ​(​and probably a lot of money)​ to integrate streetcars successfully into the existing infrastructure while providing safe travel for all. ​Also, it appears that most cities forge ahead, build the streetcar, and deal with the issues later. I am definitely against that approach.​

I read through the streetcar posts on the Open Saint Paul forum and found that no one was mentioning bicycles so I thought I should comment.

This is what I found in looking around the net…

Tucson is starting streetcar service this July and even before carrying the first passenger there are lots of bicycle/streetcar problems. This is one situation – very tight  quarters for bikes​.


And this scenario could force the biker to cross the tracks at a dangerous angle causing tires to catch the rails and result in a fall. Like this.


There has been enough controversy in Tucson to generate this TV News story on streetcar “pinch points.


And Tucson isn’t the only city having problems.

This approach has been tried in Washington DC – to me it doesn’t look safe for either bikes or peds.


Here’s another​ TV news story, this time from Toronto, subtitled “A new study says an inordinate number of bicycle accidents in Toronto are caused by streetcar tracks.


And then there’s this video “Bicycle Crashes Caused by Streetcars” which starts out with a short PSA but goes on to document problems in multiple cities.


​Taking this info and applying it to the situation in St Paul a couple of issues stand out: - On the favored streetcar route, both East 7th and West 7th are key routes into Downtown and neither has any decent parallel alternative routes that allow for efficient point-to-point cycling. ​ Bikes would have to mix with streetcars.​ - All of the proposed St Paul streetcar routes have one thing in common – they all pass through the same traffic bottlenecks that bicycles must navigate now to get into Downtown. These choke points are the biggest deterrent to safe bicycle commuting in St Paul and having tracks and streetcars will only make matters worse. ​So…​ if streetcars are to be implemented in Saint Paul, let’s learn from experiences in other cities and do ​proper​ design and construction to ensure that we build a system that is safe and convenient for all road users. We should even take this as an opportunity to engineer ways to eliminate our multi-modal bottlenecks as much as possible and make streetcar projects a win-win situation.



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

Categories: Twin Cities

How Much Energy Could Minneapolis Get from Solar?

Streets.MN - Mon, 07/21/2014 - 11:53am

Solar PV seems to be the current darling of the renewable energy world.  But how much “resource” is really out there?  How much should cities rely on the development of local solar resources to meet their climate and energy goals?  What trade-offs should urban cities make between desirable things like tree canopy and maximizing solar energy resources?  GIS tools and new data resources can help begin to answer that question.

Counties and states are beginning to produce LiDAR data more regularly, which provides the building block information needed to analyze solar resources on buildings and elsewhere (see my previous post for a brief intro to LiDAR, or see here).  Minnesota happens to have LiDAR for the whole state, and Minneapolis has a climate action goal that references local renewable development, so I’ll focus there.

So how much solar electric potential does Minneapolis have?  Enough to supply 773,000 megawatt-hours (MWHs) each year, at the upper bound.  That would mean covering every piece of rooftop with good sun exposure and appropriate pitch (southeast to southwest facing or flat) with the best modern PV panels.  It would also mean solar installations on 68,351 structures, consisting of over 2.3 million individual panels.

773,000 MWhs would represent about 18% of Minneapolis’ total annual electricity consumption (based on 2010 figures).  It would be the equivalent of reducing 392,684 metric tons of CO2 (also based on 2010 figures), which is equal to the emissions from the energy usage of almost 36,000 average American homes each year.

Explore the results for individual buildings in Minneapolis.

There are some limitations to this calculation, and some additional interesting findings, but first a brief description of how I came up with these numbers.


Annual solar insolation values in the Wedge neighborhood shown in a black-white color ramp.

I briefly covered how to calculate solar potential in a previous post, and the process for this analysis was similar.  I was able to get my hands on the solar insolation raster for the whole city thanks to the excellent work of some students in Dr. Elizabeth Wilson’s capstone class at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School.  Solar insolation represents a measure of the total energy from the sun reaching any particular point (each square meter in this case) on a building, tree, earth, etc.  To calculate this, ArcGIS has a complex tool called Solar Radiation Analysis.  It takes in to account things like how trees shade buildings, and how the sun moves across the sky at different times of year based on the latitude of a particular point on earth.  It spits out a measure of solar energy hitting that location over the course of a year,  measured in watt-hours per square meter. This gives you a good idea of where exactly on each building a suitable spot might be for a solar PV system.

LiDAR data can also be used to calculate the slope of roofs, another important piece of information to understand solar potential.  This allows a user to pick out areas of flat or south-facing roofs.

Red hatched areas represent areas of rooftop that are good for solar

Finally, Minneapolis supplies building footprints, so I knew approximately what was a roof. I confined my analysis to building roofs, assuming we don’t want any of our precious open space filled with solar panels.  I also buffered the roof edges, since I’m told OSHA requires some open space between the panels and the roof edge for safety, at least for flat roofs.  I also considered 1,000 watts to be the minimum size that would warrant an installer to climb onto a roof.

Combine all this with some assumptions about the space needed for installations on flat and sloped roofs (the students helped with that too) and information on the size and power output of panels, and you get a measurement of the total “good” roof area and associated potential energy production from each roof.

That’s enough how-to, here are more interesting findings.


The 100 buildings (0.14 percent of the total building with solar) with the largest solar potential would provide 14 percent of the total production, or over 109,000 MWhs annually. The 1,000 buildings (1.4 percent of the total buildings with solar) with the largest solar potential would provide 43 percent of the total production, or over 333,000 MWhs annually. Targeting these structures for further analysis and possibly incentives would probably make sense to achieve the largest economies of scale for installation costs.

Buildings symbolized by their total solar energy potential – warmer colors represent higher potential

The 100 highest-potential buildings are geographically concentrated in roughly three areas: the northeast industrial area – roughly north and east of the U of M campus, the Lake Street/Greenway Corridor, and extending from the North Loop along the river into north and northeast Minneapolis.  Unsurprisingly, these are areas that still have many large, flat-roofed warehouse and industrial buildings.  If Minneapolis wants to maximize its solar resource, we may want to think about the trade-offs in redeveloping these areas or developing high density near them that may shade existing rooftops.

Commercial, industrial and single-family residential structures (based on parcel data) each account for almost exactly 23% of the total roof-top solar potential in the city.  The next largest potential was among apartment properties at 9%, and duplexes at 7%.  While the top three were evenly split potential-wise, single-family residences with good solar potential included over 46,000 structures, while commercial and industrial together was about 4,300.  See economies of scale note above.

The fact that 46,000 residential structures have good solar potential means that lots of homeowners, even in leafy Minneapolis, could be empowered to go solar.  This would be a more powerful political constituency than a small number of commercial property owners.  Obviously some would face the trade-off between more trees and their benefits and electricity from solar.

Suburban areas are much more likely to approach energy production equal to energy usage.  With its high density commercial core, Minneapolis uses a lot more energy than it can produce on its roofs.  Residential structures are also smaller and more shaded than many suburban areas.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as density brings many other environmental benefits, like the ability to use transit cost-effectively.


Xcel Energy limits the size of solar installations they allow to be connected to their system.  An interconnected solar PV system cannot be designed to produce more than 120 percent of the customer’s total usage from the previous year.  Many homes in Minneapolis, and possibly low-energy warehouse buildings, could accommodate systems larger than that.  This analysis limited system size only based on roof/sun conditions, and not electricity usage in the structure since that wasn’t known.  In some cases, this means this analysis over-represents solar potential.

This analysis includes no information on roof age or structural integrity.  Some flat-roofed buildings aren’t structurally able to accommodate solar without expensive retrofits.  Residential structures may need to have old roofs replaced before putting on a solar energy system (which are typically designed to last 20 years).  Some structures, like parking ramps and stadiums, would require additional structural supports to be added before a solar energy system could be added.  These factors could all further limit solar potential on Minneapolis buildings.

There was a geometry problem I couldn’t solve in GIS.  While I could calculate the size of a roof area that got good sun and had the correct slope, I couldn’t quickly figure out how many solar panels of a certain shape (defined length and width) fit in that area.  I only used total square footage divided by the square footage of a standard solar panel.  Internet forums are filled with many people better at GIS than I discussing this problem (but not providing me with easy solutions).  If anyone reading this wants to take a crack at it, let me know in the comments.

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Categories: Twin Cities

Coupon Parking for Minneapolis and Saint Paul

Streets.MN - Mon, 07/21/2014 - 11:47am

Parking is a quintessentially local issue. There is nothing more local than wanting to park close to your destination, and caring about the parking spot in front of your house. Attend any meeting about new development in the Twin Cities, and the unique “parking issues” of a particular location will be related. Yet “parking issues” in the Twin Cities today are always about too many cars chasing scarce kerbside spaces.

Parking is also, to many Americans, a quintessentially American issue. Americans supposedly have a cultural affinity for cars that Canadians, Australians, and Europeans don’t have. Yet culture is nothing if not adaptation to law and policy over many years. American cities have required and provided free parking to a greater extent than similar cities abroad for several generations. It is unsurprising that Americans expect free and easy parking, after growing up with it.

Both tendencies can blind us what the Twin Cities can learn from similar cities abroad. Minneapolis and Saint Paul—like many cities in Europe, Australasia, and Canada that first boomed between 1870 and 1940—have large areas of moderate density housing served by small commercial nodes. Initially these nodes served locals on foot or off the street car. Now many of these commercial nodes host businesses drawing a driving public from further afield. With limited off-street parking, visitors to popular restaurants and yoga studios and parks search for kerbside spaces in residential streets. Both the cities also have several areas where residential neighborhoods are directly adjacent to large institutions like universities and hospitals, which generate substantial traffic from visitors, students, and staff.

These neighborhoods include Uptown, Loring Park, Como, Marcy-Holmes, Dinkytown, and Prospect Park in Minneapolis; and Grand Avenue, Selby Dale, Highland Park, and around Seven Corners in Saint Paul. Because of their mix of uses, these areas are all desirable for new residential and commercial construction. In all of these neighborhoods there are few opportunities to provide off-street parking without removing existing buildings, and on-street parking spaces are sometimes fiercely contested. In response parts of these neighborhoods have residential permit parking, restricting kerbside spots for residents’ exclusive use.

Residential permit parking is a poor solution to kerbside scarcity, effectively privatizing the public right of way for the benefit of adjacent residential property owners (in Minneapolis a permit costs a mere $25 a year). Permit parking pushes parking problems onto streets without permits, often slightly further away from businesses, and leads to more driving as people search for even scarcer kerbside spots. In some instances permit parking will lead people to change destinations or not travel at all, because of the perceived difficulty of finding parking spaces open to non-residents. Residential permit parking thus disadvantages businesses and other non-residential uses near streets where it applies.

The least worst way to minimize parking problems is to charge something for the privilege of occupying a kerbside parking space. In both downtowns, around the University of Minnesota, and in parts of Uptown, kerbside spaces are metered. We could put meters on the streets in the neighborhoods where kerbside spots are scarce. But meters are not that attractive, and come with a high capital cost (new meters cost Minneapolis $6.6 million between 2010 and 2012).

A simpler technology used in cities in Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is “coupon parking”, sometimes known as “disc parking.” It is little used in the United States, but is used in Eugene, Oregon to charge for parking on residential streets near the University of Oregon football stadium.

A block of coupon parking zone begins near Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Coupon parking can work even when people drive on the “wrong” side of the road.

Coupon parking zone ends sign in Wellington, New Zealand.

So, how does coupon parking work? It is often paired with residential permit parking, in an overlapping or adjacent fashion. Thus, as with permit parking blocks are designated as coupon parking areas with signs posted at regular intervals that drivers searching for kerbside spots will be able to see.

A driver using a coupon to park in a designated kerbside space places a dated piece of paper (the coupon or disk) in the windshield, showing they have paid to park in a coupon parking zone on that specific day. In this respect, coupon parking is just like the machine-based pay and display parking in use at Minneapolis parks.

Daily coupon ($7) in Wellington, New Zealand. Just scratch if off like a lottery ticket, and every entry wins a day of parking.

Monthly coupon ($120) in Wellington. Cheaper than contracted spots in a garage.

However, in many overseas cities with coupon parking, coupons can be purchased at convenience stores, supermarkets, gas stations, or directly from the city council. Physically the coupon is just like a scratch-off lottery ticket, with the parker scratching off the date they are paying for. In some cities coupons are available in weekly or monthly denominations, as well as daily coupons. When I lived in Wellington (New Zealand) where coupon parking was in effect, many people I knew kept a few coupons in the glovebox in case they needed one.

And that’s all there really is to it on a technological level, making it relatively easy to price kerbside parking without investing in expensive meters. Slap up some signs, print some coupons, distribute them, and kerbside parking is no longer free in areas with excess demand and the associated conflicts over whose moral claim to a kerbside spot is greater.

The politics of establishing coupon parking in Minneapolis and Saint Paul neighborhoods are, of course, a little trickier. Most importantly, new ordinances establishing the program may have to be passed. Both cities already have provisions in existing residential parking ordinances for temporary visitors’ passes, but these have to be purchased by the property owner. Coupons would be available on a wider basis for visitors to any type of property. Decisions about where to have coupon parking zones and how much to charge per day are partly technical (where are kerbside spots often fully occupied?), but also inherently political by changing who benefits from access to the public right of way.

The benefits to the wider public would be making kerbside parking easier to find. Giving away kerbside spots for free in areas of high demand often leads people to cling to parking spaces, even when turnover and thus open spots would benefit everyone. In Wellington, coupon parking was introduced in areas near universities and hospitals that often saw a flood of people searching for kerbside spots in the early morning, and then staying all day. Coupon parking reduced some of these problems, so that it was possible for people arriving later in the day to find spots (in big cities we are never going to solve parking problems to everyone’s satisfaction, so I blanch at saying anything will “solve” problems).

What about benefits for local residents? By pricing kerbside parking in areas of high demand coupon parking could reduce pressure to privatize kerbside spaces by establishing residents’ only critical parking areas. Neighborhoods that demand “critical parking” restrictions are at some level very selfish, claiming the public right of way for their own car storage needs. But at another level they correctly identify that they live in an area of high demand for kerbside spaces. Coupon parking in conjunction with annual permits for residents would help balance the demands for kerbside spaces in several Twin Cities neighborhoods, and keep the public streets open for all to park on. For a small price.

By raising real money coupon parking is also an opportunity to create parking benefit districts in Minneapolis and Saint Paul neighborhoods. Money from the coupons could be returned to neighborhood associations or local business associations to spend on improvements to the public streetscape and other neighborhood amenities.

The introduction of coupon parking would also be an opportunity to re-consider the absurdly low prices Minneapolis and Saint Paul charge for residential permit parking ($25/year and $10/year respectively). It is unlikely that these charges even cover the costs of administration and erecting signs. Both cities should consider charging $500 annually for residential parking permits. Compared to the cost of a garage or the daily rate for coupons, $500 is an absolute bargain. Politically it would be difficult to move from the current low prices. A compromise solution would be to charge existing residents the current rates at their existing residence, but a person getting a permit in a new location (or their first permit) would be charged the higher rates. If prices can’t be reformed, more limits should be set on the number of permits allowed per household. Minneapolis, for example, allows each member of the household to have two permits. In comparable cities in Australasia and Canada, cities limit the entire household to two vehicles.

How much to charge for daily coupons? When I have discussed this idea in Prospect Park, several neighbors have astutely noted that students park in the neighborhood and walk to campus to avoid paying the $4 rate for single occupancy cars at the U carpool lots, and have suggested a $4 daily charge for coupons would eliminate the attraction of neighborhood parking. A similar calculus applies in other neighborhoods adjacent to the U. To keep coupon parking simple (crucial for public acceptance) a uniform charge across the city is appropriate. Whether it’s $4 or $5 or $3, the crucial step is that people are no longer getting kerbside spaces for free. Having to pay something, having to pay anything, reminds people that parking is not free, and that realization can nudge people to take alternative modes or carpool.

It’s a simple idea, it’s worked overseas in cities of similar density and land-use patterns. And now is the time to contact your council member and mayor, and suggest we try it here.

(Photo credit: Nigel S. Roberts) is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities