It turns out that sitting in a grassy median in a light industrial district by a bridge for two hours isn’t quite as bad as sitting in a vacant lot on a hill by a state highway for two hours. Last week I was again recruited by tricksy Saint Paul engineers into participating in the annual city-wide bike/walk count.As I explained in last year's post, Getting hold of statistics for non-cars is quite difficult because people, bicycles, and buses aren't very predictable. There are a few options. You can use cameras, but that's expensive and time consuming. (Someone has to watch them!) Another option is rigorous surveys, but that’s also expensive and usually only happens through intrusive long-form-style census data. (E.g. the ACS commute data numbers.) That’s why Minneapolis and Saint Paul’s annual bike and walk counts are so important. They provide valuable data that advocates, politicians, and city staff can use to justify and demand better bike lanes and sidewalks. They provide much-needed feedback in the process of changing our streets, something we can point to on a chart or graph. We've been doing these counts in the Twin Cities since 2007 and (at least in my cursory survey) it's pretty rare for a US city to have such a good set of longitudinal numbers.Two Hours in an Industrial ParkPerhaps the all-powerful bike lobby took pity on me. After the torturous hell of the Robert and Cesar Chavez, this year I was lucky to be placed at the corner of Wabasha and Fillmore. Because it’s on the downhill side of a bridge crossing, I hoped for a modicum of people rolling from downtown into the vacant lots and half-empty concrete buildings of the West Side Flats.And after the the Niagara torrent of cars last year, I was not completely disappointed. Nested on my “natural” industrial park grass, I faced the West Side Flats apartments, the only new residential building to be built in the flats for half a century. It is hopefully a sign of things to come. Its shiny facade, empty balconies, and even emptier first-floor retail space lent hope to the surrounding unwalkable wasteland. Over the next few hours, a few thoughts popped in my mind. The Wabasha Street Bridge slants steeply from high up the downtown bluff to the east edge of Harriet Island. It’s also the newest (major) bridge in Saint Paul, at just over a decade. As people gravitated down the wide sidewalks, it was fun to see them grow from ants in real people bodies. My first thought was to wonder where these white collar workers with their backpacks were going. Why were they walking down largely deserted Wabasha?My guess is that most of the people were walking to their cars. In good Costanza tradition, free parking can be found on the West Side Flats if you walk far enough past the vacant lots. The second thought was that the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, so that the smell of blood from the nearby Red Cross blood bank HQ drifted over the area. It’s easily one of the most disconcerting smells I encounter on my wending way through the city. It makes me uneasy, but I suppose compared to a slaughterhouse or a tannery, it’s not that bad.[The bike lane gap is only 1/3 of a mile, but makes the whole trip suck.]Thirdly, I happened to be placed at the exact spot where the bike lane disappears and needlessly throws bicyclists into traffic with the fast moving cars (speeding down the bridge). This is one my most glaring "bike gaps" in the city of Saint Paul (which is saying something), and perfectly illustrates the importance of paying attention to gaps and continuity when designing bike lanes. Time and again over the hours, I watched cyclists come down the bridge bike lane and veer up onto the sidewalk, or deal with aggressive driving. Finally, sitting there and watching the bridge bow down from downtown, I kept thinking about my recent visit to Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki. I imagined what this place might feel like in one of those transit-friendly, walkable, bikeable cities full of six-story buildings, wide sidewalks, and street life. What if there were actual places to walk to and from? How different these streets would be! Me and Don Quixote[Norton Critical Edition, yo.]I should add that, over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Don Quixote. The book has long sat in the “to read” pile on my shelf. And though I’d never actually read the book, the term “quixotic” has long been one of my favorite words to use. Before reading the book, I’d always thought “quixotic” meant “someone who fights a lost cause.” I’d cheerfully referred to US bicyclists, documentary filmmakers, or anyone attempting to end capitalism as being particularly quixotic in nature, people who spend days “tilting at windmills” and losing over and again. Counting bikes on an American arterial had seemed to me a quintessentially quixotic enterprise, devoting ones life to the mundane and microscopic, and imagining these things to be deeply important.Maybe it was the desolate landscape or the smell of half-baked blood, but actually reading the book while sitting on the street corner, I changed my mind about what is and is not quixotic. I began to believe it had nothing to do with lost causes, but instead someone lost inside a beautiful delusion.For example, sitting on the corner, I paged through the second section of the book, where a group of Don Quixote’s friends attempt to lure him back to his village by humoring him. Like Sancho, they join in to his fantasy of being a gallant knight on a noble quest, in order to they try to persuade Don Quixote to return home.One night, as they’re sitting around eating dinner an an inn, Don Quixote gives the following speech:And so they supped in high enjoyment, which was increased when they observed Don Quixote leave off eating, and, moved by an impulse like that which made him deliver himself at such length when he supped with the goatherds, begin to address them:"Verily, gentlemen, if we reflect upon it, great and marvellous are the things they see, who make profession of the order of knight-errantry. Say, what being is there in this world, who entering the gate of this castle at this moment, and seeing us as we are here, would suppose or imagine us to be what we are? Who would say that this lady who is beside me was the great queen that we all know her to be, or that I am that Knight of the Rueful Countenance, trumpeted far and wide by the mouth of Fame? Now, there can be no doubt that this art and calling surpasses all those that mankind has invented, and is the more deserving of being held in honour in proportion as it is the more exposed to peril."[The pedestrian of the mournful countenance.]If anyone is living in a land of delusion, it might be those that convince themselves that our cities can be sustainable. In other words, most US cities plans and self-descriptions are full of quixotic, flowery language about recycling, environmentalism, sustainability, or glorious bike-filled futures.Meanwhile, the vast majority of the country still drives everywhere and walks only as far as the next free parking spot. Meanwhile we continuing to build roads, buildings, and parking lots that lock us into the fossil fueled, earth-roasting future, and the non-motorized mode share continues to dwindle asymptotically near zero.Translated into the present moment, Don Quixote might say this:Verily gentlemen, if we reflect on it, great and marvelous are the things seen by those who make profession of the order of bike counting. Who in the world, if he entered the gates of St. Paul at this moment, would suppose or imagine this to be a top bike city in the country?We can’t be a sustainable city and keep expanding our freeways. I’m as guilty as anyone, but to say otherwise seems like self-delusion.
As you can see, most of the job growth is projected to take place in Saint Paul, Oakdale, and by the 3M campus (i.e the blue part of the chart). Much like the ridership projects, the different route alternatives don’t have a huge impact on the projections.
(I’m always curious about how much development-oriented growth planners include in projections like these. I have heard that those estimates are fairly minimal…)
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Back in 2003 I was working as a volunteer radio news reporter for KFAI, a great long-time community radio station on Minneapolis’ West Bank. Much like blogging, it was a fun (if unpaid) job involving many unexpected conversations and encounters with people from all corners of the city. I remember going to Minneapolis’ north side to cover one of Don Samuels’ day-long vigils following a shooting. I remember interviewing Cam Gordon when he was running for office against Cara Letofsky. (And lots of other stories too.)
One of the longest drives I ever made during those days* was to go out and interview the Lake Elmo city manager (and his assistant). Back then, Lake Elmo and the Met Council were famously locked in a legal struggle over the city’s comprehensive plan, and the regional planning authority’s right to require development in suburban cities. Lake Elmo was and is a sparsely populated city along the I-94 corridor about ten miles east of Saint Paul, and it’s one of the few places near the beltway where you can still find farms.
At the time I knew very little about urban planning, zoning, or development, and I remember sitting in the Lake Elmo office with the two city staff and listening to them talk about quality of life and the city’s rural character. (Of course, that’s usually a dog whistle for “rich white McMansions”.) One of the things I distinctly recall was the city manager saying, almost gleefully, “we don’t want to be another Woodbury. We’re going to build out [on one-acre lots], and then there’ll be nothing anyone can do.”**
The Gateway Corridor
Flash forward ten years, and Lake Elmo hasn’t changed much. They finally got on board with the Met Council’s comp plan requirements, but did so in an interesting way that attempted to focus on cluster development in a few key places. (They also defunded their library so that it now operates entirely on hopes, dreams, and unicorn sweat.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to Stillwater. The Met Council recently released recommendations for the Gateway route, a bus rapid transit (BRT) project that would run east from Saint Paul along the I-94 corridor out to Woodbury. Compared to the Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) Hindenburg, the Gateway has flown under the radar. For one thing, it’s a bus rapid transit project (a fraction of the cost of the semi-tunneled Southwest light rail). For another thing, it goes through Saint Paul’s sleepy East Side and far-less-populated eastern suburbs, which have been clamoring for more geographic equity in transit investments for years.
After choosing between BRT and light rail (LRT), and opting not to go along East 7th Street, the toughest decision the Gateway Corridor Committee made centered on the eastern part of the route. Once you get out to the 3M corporate campus, there are a lot of options for where to put the dedicated busway. As it turns out, the Committee and the Met Council settled on the D2-E2 alternative, which would run on the north side of I-94 through Lake Elmo (skipping already-developed Woodbury) and only cross to the South side of the freeway at the (skin curdlingly named) Settlers Ridge Parkway, on the far edge of Woodbury.
“We Don’t Want to be Another Woodbury”
Suburban transit is always something of an oxymoron, and I have mixed feelings about investing much public money in attempts to shoehorn transit service into cities that are uniformly designed to be auto-dependent. Typically, those kinds of investments are far too expensive, and do little to change the [time + cost + comfort] equation of different modes. (In other words, you can’t make second-ring suburbs walkable.)
The more I think about it, Lake Elmo’s histrionic attempts to resist planning might have been quite a savvy move. The Gateway alignment is proposed to go through Lake Elmo precisely because all the land along that side of the freeway is still undeveloped. It doesn’t have cul-de-sacs, strip malls, big box stores, and one-story beige three-garage homes as far as the eye can see, which means that the land can be developed in walkable ways that support transit-oriented development.
According to the people I’ve talked to about the project, this was precisely the thinking of the committee. When asked on which side of the freeway to build a BRT right-of-way, planners essentially looked at Woodbury and said, “this is a lost cause.” Instead, Lake Elmo’s farm fields, combined with a few willing land owners, mean that the Gateway BRT station areas could be mixed use, (relatively) dense, and walkable.
The Mediocrity of Suburban Transit Investments
In general, I believe that the cost-benefit ratio for transit investments makes suburban transit projects almost always a bad deal. We will need a massive amount of development in order to make a $1.5 billion dollar project*** like the SWRLT pay off for the public, and I doubt the ability of already built-out cities like Eden Prairie to make the kinds of changes they’d need to really shift their urban development patterns. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I’m pretty skeptical. Meanwhile, transit investments make far more sense in cities that already have sidewalks, street grids, few parking moats, and some degree of mixed-use fabric. We should focus our investments along these already-existing transit corridors.
But if we’re really going to try to build transit in the suburbs, despite the underwhelming ridership projections, the Gateway project seems like the best case scenario. Thanks to Lake Elmo, there are a whole bunch of greenfield acres just waiting for an innovative transit-oriented developer to build something great. Compared to the car-only “CityPlace” development across the freeway in Woodbury, maybe Lake Elmo was pretty smart after all.
* I had a car back then, a 1986 BMW 325e. Pretty sweet. It died. It was expensive.
** I have the tape somewhere.
*** So far…
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I’m guilty of using this point when I want to win an argument. Millennials want options, especially in transportation.
If cities want to attract new talent, younger residents and diverse citizens, you need to invest in transit. Right? Well…
It’s not that cut and dry. The idea of investing in transit “because Millennials” is just plain stupid. It actually negates the whole idea of a good transportation system, ya know, one that works for everyone.
Case in point, the controversial, overpriced Milwaukee streetcar.
I am not a huge fan of the Milwaukee streetcar. I think it’s a big gamble funded with federal money and has no real need. This is not to mention that the streetcar has seen more than a few setbacks since starting construction, making it that much more pricey to Milwaukee residents. My parents who live in Milwaukee, are even less fond of it because it doesn’t help them at all. My dad especially. He’s the principal of an inner-city school and can’t really figure out why they’re not spending the money on something like education.
In a recent article on the streetcar system, Mayor Tom Barrett was quoted saying “The streetcar brings a lot of value,” Barrett said. “The Millennials want to move around the city with ease.”
First off, if political correctness has taught me anything it’s that adding “the” in front of any group of people is a sure way to get them to hate you.
Second, if you’re investing in a expensive streetcar system “because Millennials,” stop.
The problem stems from the idea that cities need to progress and grow, ergo, they need a constant stream of people to fuel their development. If you as a mayor want to add some shiny new transit that is really slow just because you think it’s good for the “youngens,” then you ought to stop, re-evaluate and figure out your return on investment instead of pandering to a demographic.
Again, I’ll hop back to the Milwaukee streetcar. It’s a pretty small, pretty expensive piece of transit. And in a city like Milwaukee, where crime and poverty are abundant, it does little for mobility of the poor. But hey, Millennials!
Likewise, Detroit, a city essentially in ruin, is shelling out a ton of money for a streetcar. Why? I don’t know, it doesn’t really make me want to move to Detroit and I’m a 25 year old designer with no kids and I’m even wearing a plaid flannel shirt RIGHT NOW. How much more Millennial can I get?
I know it sounds like I’m hating on streetcars, I’m not. I’m hating on the idea that someone put an idea out there that streetcars=millennials=cool people=jobs=a better city. I don’t want my generation being a driving force in bad transit investments just because we’ll like them for a few years before we may end up in the suburbs anyway resulting in less people moving into the city to replace those that left.
Again, with the Green Line in The Twin Cities, am I the only one that thinks that eight breweries along a single transit line is a bit of a millennial-inspired bubble? This isn’t to say that the green line was built because of those breweries or that other things won’t build there in the future, but I think the notion of Green Line as recreation over transit is percolating.
Now, this isn’t to say that we should build roads “because cars” or we should do anything “because anything else.” Rather, this is aimed at the fad sweeping the nation that Millennials will save your city (which might be true) if you build them transit first. Honestly, I would value a strong sense of place over transit any day, but that might just be personal opinion.
Biking has seen a massive explosion not only with the young, but with older generations as well. Bike lanes, painted or protected, are way, WAY, cheaper than a full transit system. Cities need to start small and add when it makes financial sense.
This absolutely ridiculous “quiz” showed up on my news feed asking how “Millennial” my transportation habits are. I scored (what I assume is good) a “forever young” telling me that:
You’re so Millennial, you must have been born in 1990! Millennials are increasingly choosing all sorts of options when deciding how they’ll get around town, and public transportation options are an important part of that mix. Whether you’re 18 or 99, your transportation habits are just like these tech focused, social media savvy Millennials. Put your earbuds in and ride!
Gee thanks! I’m glad that I could be boiled down into some Saved by the Bell watching caricature. AND I WAS BORN IN 1989 THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
I think the problem is that, like a lot of things in America, we’re polarizing millennials as pro-any-kind-of-transit. This means we’re being used to fuel unnecessary projects that cost a lot of money and may end up hurting the cities we live in.
To fix this, be an advocate of financial responsibility, productivity, and common sense. If a city wants to build a transit, great, but ask why, where, cost, and efficiency instead of letting it get masked behind “because Millennials.”
Cover photo from Brad Hammonds on Albumarium
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I took a play from the Andrew Price Playbook and applied it quickly to the downtown of Mankato (using Microsoft Paint). Here’s the aerial from Google Earth:
I’m going to define “place” as: a location where people can comfortable stand without fear of being hit by an automobile. This is white with a blue outline. A “non-place” are streets and parking lots/garages. These are red.
This isn’t scientific, but it does a good job of illustrating what places need work. The street grid doesn’t need to be moved, as it serves a good purpose. However, the large swatches of parking lots (particularly open surface) need to be turned from “non-places” to “places”.
I made some new hand-made justapositional postcards last night, and want to send them to you.Here are five of them.For any donation of $5 or more, you will receive:
- One hand-made vintage-y juxtapositional postcard (featuring news clippings from either the late-80s to early 90-s and/or old textbooks and/or Twin Cities' news media from the early 2000s).
- One amusing message describing some bit of the Twin Cities' urban landscape.
This map comes from the Met Council’s Transportation Policy Plan draft which is out for public comment right now.
It depicts what the plans for what would happen if somehow the region received more money (most likely through a local sales tax).
Here’s the description from the draft document, transit chapter:
In order to complete the region’s vision of a transitway system and do it on an accelerated timeline, the region will need additional funding for transitways. Increased funding will allow the region to:
- Accelerate the build-out of the transitways included in the Current Revenue Scenario
- Afford the transitways in CTIB’s Transit Investment Framework beyond the Phase I
Program of Projects
- Afford additional transitways not in CTIB’s Transit Investment Framework that are under
study or needing to be studied for mode and alignment by other partners
- Implement the complete system of 12 arterial BRT projects
After quasi-graduating this past spring and backpacking around Europe for two months, I have slowly adjusted back into reality. And, like a plethora of quintessential University of Minnesota millennial-aged graduates, I have moved from my humble, seven-people-in-a-four-bedroom college shack in the Dinkytown area to much greater (and less smelly) ventures in Uptown.
What isn’t typical about my current situation is that I have, in reality, several classes left to take at the U in order to finish up my second major. In addition to this, my place of employment is rather close to campus, so needless to say, I make my way over to “Minneapolis SE” every day of the work week. Although I occasionally weep quietly to myself when I think about how conveniently proximate my life would be if I still lived in the college neighborhoods, I am thankful to live in arguably the most transportation mode-diverse area of Minneapolis.
Since Septembers in Minnesota are simply the nicest, I thought it would be a great experiment to test all modes to get from Uptown to the U of MN campus, and see which is truly optimal in several categories. My very un-scientific analysis consisted of grading three main travel modes to get from Uptown to campus and back: biking, driving, and using transit (bus and LRT). I timed how long each one took, and how expensive each one was. My (still very un-scientific) testing standard used similar starting and ending points for consistency, going from Uptown Transit Station to the intersection of Church Street and Scholars Walk in the geographic center of the east bank of campus. However, my routes out and back varied and added another nice un-scientific twist to the adventure.
My first test certainly burned the most calories out of any other mode, and was also the most consistent in both directions. Uptown is a focal point in the local urban biking system, and enjoys close proximity to the Midtown Greenway, the Chain of Lakes trails, and, if willing to partake in a quick jaunt westward, the SWLRT trail network too. Recently, the Dinkytown Greenway finished the important Bluff Street connection under Interstate 35W and now connects straight to the Mill District in Downtown East. It is now possible to bike the 6.2 miles from Uptown to campus entirely on paved, segregated bike trails (except for a few short blocks in DTE, where a bike lane exists), which in itself is an amazing feat unseen in most other American cities.
My route both ways consisted of taking the Midtown Greenway from Uptown Transit Station to the Sabo Bridge over Hiawatha Avenue and up the Hiawatha LRT Trail alongside the Blue Line. My route varied a tad when approaching Cedar Avenue, as seen below. In the morning, I proceeded into Downtown East, biked north on 11th Street S, east on 2nd Avenue S, and hooked up with the Dinkytown Greenway connection. After the Dinkytown Greenway Bridge (AKA #9 Bridge), I took a hard right and pumped up the hill to East River Road and proceeded my way to Church & Scholars Walk. In the afternoon, I opted to bike to the West Bank and down Cedar Avenue (through heavy construction, I might add) to connect with the Hiawatha Trail near the Franklin Avenue Blue Line Station. I marked the areas where vehicular traffic was heavy.
Overall, the trip took me 27 minutes in the morning at a moderate pace, and 25 minutes in the afternoon at a similar pace. With the assumption that I owned my bike, and the fact that it is free to lock up to any bike rack within campus, my travel costs were essentially zero. However, if I chose to use a Nice Ride bike, I would accrue costs associated with the bike share program. (Side note: one could probably ride nonstop on a Nice Ride bike to and from campus, but might need the natural and legal ability of a Lance Armstrong to pump through. I would recommend switching bikes once on this journey.) The ride was pleasant, easy, and stress-free. Not having to deal with vehicles helped this notion. Downsides of this mode included general sweatiness, as well as dealing with any potential inclement weather that might be present.
Similar to biking, Uptown is a major hub for transit routes that embark into all areas of the city. The Uptown Transit Station is host to six regular routes and two express routes to the U of MN campus. However, most express buses do not run during the summertime or during school holidays. Therefore, I rode a 12 bus into downtown to connect to the shiny new Green Line in the morning, and opted for the 114 express bus in the afternoon.
My 12 bus into downtown was speedy! From Uptown, it only took 10 1/2 minutes to get to the corner of 5th and Hennepin. I glanced down toward Nicollet Mall and noticed the eastbound Green Line just taking off, so I unfortunately had to wait a little longer for the next train. This morning, I got on 6 1/2 minutes after unloading from the 12 bus – obviously not the 3ish minute headways you see in NYC or Europe, but not a long time nonetheless. I’m not sure if it was a forgetful driver or what, but my train never switched directions on the display boards and constantly showed “TARGET FIELD” all the way to campus. I assumed it was a new conductor, because the train ride was hesitantly slow, even after downtown. I arrived at East Bank Station 30 minutes after leaving Uptown, and walked to Church and Scholars Walk. Overall, the morning trip took 33 minutes.
The afternoon trip was much faster, as expected. I took 4 minutes to walk to Coffman and just barely caught the 114A bus. Normally stressful driving corridors, the 94/35W maze and Hennepin deathtrap seemed peaceful inside a bus. The trip only took 24 minutes from Church/Scholars to Uptown, walking included.
Although not totally free, the two rush hour tickets would have normally cost me $4.50. However, I have a handy dandy little U Pass, which gives me unlimited transfers all semester long for $100. Both unloading points (Coffman and East Bank LRT Station) were located on Washington and gave me easy walking access to the heart of campus.
Due to many overly stated reasons, the driving route from Uptown to campus was the most straight-forward. Both morning and afternoon, I drove on Hennepin Avenue, Interstates 94 and 35W, and utilized the University/4th Street SE ramps to get to campus.
The morning drive was very easy and quick, but it was likely due to my early departure time of 7:00 am. It took me 9 1/2 minutes to get from Uptown to the University Ave offramp. From there, things got a little trickier. I attempted to park in the Church Street Ramp underneath Northrop Auditorium, but it was closed on this particular morning. I flipped a You-ee and headed for the 4th Street Ramp near Dinkytown. In this path, it took 10 minutes from the University offramp to my final parking destination, and a couple more to walk to Church/Scholars. Overall, it took me 19 minutes in the drive.
The afternoon drive was a completely different and much more painful experience. Since I had been parked all day, I needed to pay a hefty $12.00 to exit the ramp. As I pulled onto 4th Street, I was greeted by hundreds of other happy SOVs crawling through Dinkytown. It took me 9:30 to get to I-35W, and I continued to hit traffic all the way through the maze and onto Hennepin Avenue, where I took a picture while in completely stopped traffic. (Is it safe if everyone isn’t moving? Probably not, but oh well.)
Grudgingly, I inched forward block by block until I reached Uptown Transit Station. Overall, the trip took 32 minutes back to Uptown, almost double what it took to get to campus that morning. Financially, I assumed the trips cost about $1.00 in gas to go each way (city driving in a mid-2000s SUV isn’t the best way to get environmental street cred), in addition to the $12.00 in parking for the day.
I graded each as seen above, and gave points in according to overall performance (3 points for green, 2 for yellow, 1 for red, 18 points possible). Although each mode was only tested once, the results were quite eye-opening for an Uptown-to-Dinkytown virgin commuter like me. I originally predicted that driving was going to be by far the fastest overall way to get to and from campus, and although it was technically the fastest, it only beat biking by one measly minute, and transit by a mere 5 minutes. Driving also cost much more than any other mode. I will likely only drive if I am in a serious rush one day or need to load heavy things for class/work.
Also surprisingly, transit had the lowest grade of any mode, but only lost to driving by 1 point. Honestly, this metric could have been easily switched if a few small things would have happened. If the Green Line driver wasn’t slow, it could have saved that extra minutes or two. If I could have caught that Green Line train at Nicollet 30 seconds before, transit would have been the fastest mode in both directions. Finally, if I took the 114 bus in the morning, it would have beaten both as well. Transit is a good way to go if you know the routes, have a good feel for the system, and aren’t afraid to wait a couple extra minutes if its bogged down at moments. This will probably be the mode I take frequently once the weather gets too cold.
In general, biking was by and far judged to be the cheapest and most consistently timed way to get to and from Uptown, which makes sense – dedicated bike routes like the Midtown and Dinkytown Greenways don’t suffer from massive amounts of congestion seen on roadways. Even though I had to pat my back with a towel at the end of each ride, it was also refreshing to get a bit of exercise while commuting. As long as the weather stays somewhat decent, I think this is the mode I’ll stick with for a while to get to Gopherland.
The development at the intersection of Franklin and Lyndale Avenues in Minneapolis has gotten a lot of attention, but primarily because of buildings proposed at the corners, to replace under-developed buildings at this highly accessible, emerging locale.
The intersection itself has gotten little consideration. It is an at-grade 4-way traffic signal. However, Franklin Avenue finds itself in a valley at Lyndale, such that a 3-dimensional option presents itself.
Urbanists are often aghast at the notion of highway overpasses in cities, and certainly most have been done poorly with no respect for urban form. But that is no reason to throw out the concept altogether.
Using my extensive computer drafting skills, I present two diagrams. The Plan view (from above) and Side view (facing west) illustrate a concept in cartoon fashion. These are, as they say, not-to-scale and obviously not engineering diagrams.
The top diagram shows how the middle two lanes on Franklin Avenue (the left lanes Eastbound and Westbound) bridge over Lyndale Avenue (the blue bar represents the bridge). Since there are already two lanes, additional land required is only for bridge barriers, and hopefully that is minimal. Lanes can be narrowed as necessary.
This does several things. It gets cross-traffic on Franklin (going to or from Hennepin mostly) off of Lyndale. This reduces pressure on Lyndale itself, reduces traffic delay, reduces pedestrian delay, reduces bicyclist delay, reduces pollution at the intersection, reduces street crossing times for pedestrians on Lyndale going North or South (there are two fewer lanes to cross). A median boulevard could be added to Lyndale (the green bars).
The intersection of Franklin and Lyndale thus becomes an urban diamond.
There would be an option to eliminate some or all left turn movements as well, and make Lyndale more Boulevard like with no at-grade cross traffic from Franklin. The intersection could be just right-in/right-out for motor vehicles. Pedestrians could be given a Hawk signal if they wanted to cross Lyndale, with a median refuge island. The purple bar shows this region.
The downside is making it more difficult to access businesses on Lyndale (e.g. The Wedge Co-op) which are already difficult to access by car.
But even if there were left-turns allowed, traffic would be much lighter at the intersection.
The second diagram shows a Side view / cross-section. The idea here is not the particular architecture or building heights, but to illustrate that just because there is a 2 lane overpass, the underside of the bridge can have a pedestrian serving business (that is no more than 26 feet wide). (This need not be a cafe, but in every urban rendering I have ever seen, there are cafes, so there must be a reason).
Most intersections are not situated such that 3-dimensions is such a natural solution, but there are some, and we should consider the possibilities.
Full disclosure: I don’t live very near there, and only use the intersection occasionally as a motorist.
When I was a kid, I watched the Olympics on television and they had this artist with a big mustache painting a big canvas. That painter was Saint Paul native Leroy Neiman. Whenever there was a dull moment or a break in the action, the announcer would ask, “What’s Leroy Neiman up to?” and the cameraman would pan to the painter daubing the canvas with bright pigments. Somehow, Neiman was able to finish the painting just as the games ended. It was real performance art. Here’s a YouTube video showing Neiman painting. Here’s another one.
Leroy Neiman grew up poor during the Great Depression in Saint Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Nieman studied art at the Saint Paul School of Art. Neiman studied painting with Minnesota landscape artist Clement Haupers. Neiman left Minnesota to study art in Chicago and met Hugh Hefner, who was just beginning to publish Playboy. Hugh Hefner wanted an artist who would visualize the jet-set–bachelor-playboy lifestyle and Neiman fit the bill. Neiman sketched in crowded bars, nightclubs, casinos, boxing arenas and racetracks and turned those sketches into vibrant, action-packed paintings.
Neiman lived the good life, hobnobbed with politicians, celebrities and sports legends. Neiman’s paintings and prints sold well and he raked in the dough. He had a posh apartment in Manhattan and travelled the world in style. But, there was one thing that Neiman could not obtain in his lifetime – respect in his hometown.
Leroy Neiman planned to donate millions of dollars worth of art to a proposed museum in the Jemne Building on Kellogg Avenue when Pioneer Press columnist Katherine Lampher penned a nasty condemnation of Neiman’s artwork. Lampher declared Neiman’s art “stinks” and compared it to Precious Moments figurines and ceramic villages of Little Dickensian houses.” The museum never happened and Neiman remained bitter all his life. He wrote about the column in his autobiography, calling it a “savage, insulting attack on my character and work. I feel like I was mugged … in my old home town.” What a terrible way to treat a local legend! I would hate to see Lampher have the last word on Neiman’s legacy in Saint Paul.
I can think of a few ways to honor Leroy Neiman. My first idea is a sketch-out in honor of Leroy Neiman. A sketch-out is a social event where artists of all abilities gather to sketch. The ideal place for the annual Leroy Neiman Sketch-out is the new ball park under construction in Lowertown. Neiman sketched and painted baseball and Lowertown is an artist community. It would be way awesome to invite artists and baseball fans to sketch the Saint Paul Saints. It would be even more fun if the sketchers wore paper versions of the trademark Leroy Neiman mustache. It would also be awesome if the event raised money to fund a program to benefit the kids in Neiman’s old neighborhood in Frogtown. Maybe a portion of the proceeds could support art programs in the schools.
Roberta and I had a lot of fun sketching the Saint Paul Saints at Midway Stadium this summer. Here are our sketches (click to make the sketches bigger):
The new ballpark and its fun spirit is taking shape in Lowertown – a sketch I did last week:
Another way to honor Leroy Neiman is to create a museum for commercial art in the still-vacant Jemne Building. The Twin Cities has a bunch of art museums, but they all look down their noses at commercial art. Minnesota has been home to many great commercial artists and many more have toiled for companies like Brown and Bigelow. A museum would go a long way to remove the outdated stigma that commercial art is somehow inferior to “fine art”.
Here are some quick sketches I did this week of the two Frogtown homes the young Leroy Neiman lived in and the Jemne Building – click on the sketches to make them bigger:
NOTE: I will be taking a break from posting Sunday Sketch to finish some projects. I have also been distracted recently by a defamation lawsuit in which I’ve been named a defendant. I’ll be back when it is all sorted out.
The first frosty Fall morning has dawned (at least in Northfield, MN) and we are walking more briskly, putting on our gloves at the bus stop, scraping our windshield and feeling renewed energy with the new (school) year. Streets.mn writers got to work, too and here’s what we posted this week:
Quick Looks and Listens: Two charts this week on VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) Chart of the Day: Future VMT Scenarios and Chart of the Day: Per capita VMT (commercial trucks vs. personal vehicles). Plus Saturday Photo – Fair and Balanced. Transpo Convo: George at the Bus Stop (read earlier Convo’s with Bill and Mohamed, too) continues the conversations with transit riders many of us might not have a chance to hear otherwise. Charles, Churches, and Culture – Part 2 (Part 1 is here) takes us for a ride in St Paul and shows us lively places like the Hmong Market.
Bikes, pedestrians and skateboards: We haven’t had much skateboard coverage here on streets.mn, but the shortish (8 minute) video Rollin’ With Davis Torgerson – Minneapolis, Minnesota Skateboarding helps fix this lack. Build It Properly For Isabella showcases a new People for Bikes Green Lane project campaign advocating for building bike infrastructure which works for 12-year old Isabella (see also 8-80 Cities for more thinking like this). Bicycle Infrastructure: Minneapolis vs. Saint Paul compares the two and the political and community factors at work.
Transportation efficiency: Commenters flocked to these posts this week. The Case For Quarter Mile Bus Stop Spacing considers bus stop spacing and efficiency with many comments considering specific routes in the Twin Cities as well as the larger policy. 17 Minutes, One Red Light Second At A Time thinks about how to reduce the amount of time waiting for the light to change from roundabouts to signal cycle timing; commenters weigh in on some of the strategies, especially roundabouts. How About a People Mover at the Mall of America? to link the expanded mall, IKEA and a better transit station; commenters are generally skeptical about the people mover, but there’s some good discussion about transit to/from the mall.
Policy discussions: Why did the New Markets Tax Credit Disappear? explains the now-expired tax credit program which incentivized investing in low-income communities and considers what could happen in the future. The Political Implications of Minneapolis Population Growth is a good primer on electoral math at the local level (plus maps!) which reminds us how representation depends on where we draw the lines, but also where we draw the lines shifts with population.
Minneapolis: Dreaming of Hennepin/Lyndale is less about dreams than reality; Hennepin County voted on improvements to the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck which get a favorable (if not dreamy) review. The Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck (or commons) has had much attention on streets.mn; some earlier posts are here. The Political Implications of Minneapolis Population Growth is a good primer on electoral math at the local level (plus maps!) with implications far beyond Minneapolis.
St. Paul: 2014 St. Paul Street Repairs — An Opportunity For Complete Streets takes the opportunity created by St. Paul’s decision to add $2.5 million to the streets budget for repaving the “Terrible Twenty” to advocate for a larger vision: fixing streets is the chance to implement the Complete Streets policy and improve streets for more than cars (streets.mn ran a series earlier this year on implementing and institutionalizing Complete Streets policies; here’s part 1). Charles, Churches, and Culture – Part 2 (Part 1 is here) bicycles a bit of St. Paul.
Comparing Minneapolis and St. Paul: Minneapolis is ahead now, but this could change. Bicycle Infrastructure: Minneapolis vs. Saint Paul reviews Minneapolis’ cycling successes and the political and cultural factors involved while advocating for change in St. Paul by building the team needed to improve cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, education and enforcement (meetings are required).
There’s one more Sunday Summary before the autumnal equinox and then Rosh Hashanah, but we think it’s Fall and the new year. Time to get back to work building and enjoying great streets!
Last month I posted a selection of photos from a road trip I’d been on throughout much of the U.S.A. Under the post, one commenter wrote that there was “plenty of good to go with the bad.” Later in the Sunday Summary, the post was described as a “highly selective and equally negative view of land use in the US.”
Of course both statements are true. They also both imply that selectivity undermines my implicit argument in the post – that recent human intervention has reduced the aesthetic value of places. After all, I was only showing one bajillionth of the country, and plus I took all the photos myself using a process of conscious selection (like almost all photographers before me). My agenda was all too clear, and the evidence I brought to bear flawed and inadequate.
This made me ask myself, “what would it look like if I weren’t selective?” I decided to try and find out. I used this random geographic point generator to generate 10 random points within the City of Minneapolis. It helped that the city is basically a rectangle, so inputing its farthest East, West, North and South boundaries didn’t result in any points outside city limits, although it potentially could. Then I dropped down into streetview and took a screenshot of each one.
How does Minneapolis fare under the less withering eye of random selection? Eh, still pretty bad. But better than if I were biking around it in the dead of winter in a bad mood with a camera.
streets.mn readers are encouraged to join the Strong Towns National Gathering’s outdoor movie screening of “Human Scale” at the Piazza on the Mall. Here’s the trailer:
It’s tomorrow, Saturday, Sept. 13 at 8:30 PM. Make sure to bring a coat! Get more information here.
In this 2009 video we see a few parts of downtown Minneapolis used as a street skate scape by Davis Torgerson. It is interesting to see the downtown streets, public spaces, and parking garages with few cars on what is most likely a weekend day. An empty skyway even gets transformed into a temporary skate park and a close encounter with a Metro Transit bus results in a little scare, but no injuries.
Is the presence of skateboarding in a city an indication of good urbanism and inviting design of public places?
People for Bikes and The Green Lane Project have introduced a new promotional tool—Build It For Isabella.
I think that as a promotional and messaging platform Isabella is a great idea. Isabella gets the basic point across in a good and simple way when we’re talking about what kind of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure we should have.
I have three concerns with Isabella though:
- Isabella is 12 years old. That’s fine, but our bikeways should also be designed for 8 year olds, 80 year olds, and a lot of us in between. There is a vast difference in an 8 and 12 year old. A 12 year old can handle a much more complicated world than an 8 year old (or me). Our bikeway system needs to be simple and safe enough for everyone, not just a 12 year old. The Dutch have largely achieved this where it is clear where the bicycle path is and importantly, thanks to sharks teeth, who has right-of-way. Signs and directions are simple and understandable.
- If our bikeways are built for Isabella, why does she need a helmet? I am not anti-helmet but I am against promoting the need for helmets, especially in this context where it implies that even after we’ve built it for Isabella that it will be so dangerous that she needs to wear a helmet. If we build it properly for Isabella then she should have no more need of a helmet than children in The Netherlands.
- Our bikeways should also be built for those wanting to travel (safely) at higher speeds of 15-20 mph and they should be built for disabled folk using mobility scooters or handcycles. Bikeway design should allow for all of these folks and Isabella and her friends to safely share and pass when necessary.
The first two can be solved quite easily by making Isabella 8 or 9 years old and chucking the helmet.
On the last we need to always keep in mind and make sure that it is always abundantly clear to every traffic engineer, planner, politician, and others that our bikeways also need to work for Isabella the attorney riding fast in to work and Isabella the architect who writes for streets.mn and uses a mobility scooter. In short, we need to stop trying to build triangular, square, and octagon wheels that have proven elsewhere not to work and adopt the Dutch CROW Manual for Bicycle Design that provides for a safe and robust system for all users.
Now let’s begin—Is the new bike lane on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul good enough for Isabella to ride to school by herself?
Forget the state seal. For as long as white people have been discovering this place, like rabbits from hats, Minnesota's predominant metaphor has been pulling things from lakes. Never mind that many (most?) fish are stocked by the DNR. Never mind the collapsed fisheries or the invasive carp. It's how we like to think of ourselves, earning our natural bounty.And dating back well into the dawn of the 20th century, you have the politician and the fish. This is the magic of Minnesota, repeated time and again, an annual magic ritual, a tale told at bedtime and election season and in the too-chilly spring.[More here]The image evolves into a presentation, a self-portrait on display. This becomes not only our story, but the story of others, and the relationship evolves through ages, growing older and refreshing itself uneasily, copied again and again until it fades away.And that's how it stayed, the world of lakes and politics. Many years went by, and people were content.And then Gravel came along...You can never fish in the same lake twice. Water flows. Rivers and lakes are all part of an infinite cycling web, connecting every drop of rain to even the deepest ocean.Gravels' pebbled gauntlet rested uneasily in Minnesota's watery heart. The rock, the splash a question rippling out to lap and nag. A forgotten memory haunting dreams like small waves on the shore. The rock sank exactly like a helium balloon does not, and doomed the fishing politician to sleepless ennui.And there was an uneasy silence for many years. Until the 2013 Minneapolis Mayoral election, when one man realized there was one way to find out. Jeffrey Wagner pulled himself out of the lake.Now there is a new idiom. In Minnesota, we pull ourselves from the lake. We are the fish we've been waiting for.
You know the feeling. You hop on local route XYZ, hoping for a somewhat speedy journey to work, home, or play. Maybe today the bus will hit the jackpot. Then the familiar sound comes once every block, a soothing voice speaks the words “Stop Requested.” Sometimes it happens the instant the bus is pulling away from its previous stop. Your inner Hulk flares up. But then! A glimmer of hope – a new block without anyone grasping for the yellow cord! But, somehow the Universe knows. Someone boards at the next stop anyway.
It doesn’t matter if it’s rush hour on the 4 or catching a southbound 6 at 9 PM after a Thursday night Gopher football game (ok, both personal experiences). To make matters worse, you become increasingly aware of how many cars without yielding to your bus trying to re-enter the stream. You curse those exiting when you miss the next green by mere seconds (and sometimes see the same person walk by you out the window!). The whole ordeal certainly contributes to local routes that average well below 10 mph operating speeds. What’s to be done?Background
Let’s get some basics of transit service, passenger behavior, and other items out on the table for those curious.
- A “walk-shed” is the geographic area that transit planners assume a bus/rail/gondola/zeppelin stop or station will draw passengers from. This is typically assumed to be 1/4 mile for bus stops (more on that later)
- A transit service plan requires a tricky balance between operational efficiency and access to adjacent land uses. Spread the stops out too wide and you’re serving fewer people and destinations within a given walk shed (but speeding up service). Place them too closely together and you duplicate coverage areas and increase trip times, but serve more people and businesses.
- In Minneapolis and St Paul, most of our streets (outside the CBDs, some of SE Minneapolis, and perhaps a few other odd neighborhoods) were largely built out as streetcars serviced new neighborhoods (with the main goal of getting those people to each downtown). To minimize number of intersections crossed per mile traveled, the blocks were built as rectangles, twice as long as they are wide. Minneapolis is largely structured north-south and St Paul east-west (following the streetcar routes), but the blocks are the same: 660′ long (1/8 mile) by 330′ wide (1/16th mile). This isn’t abnormal – many neighborhoods of midwestern cities that boomed during the streetcar era share similar block proportions and dimensions.
- Actual walk-sheds depend on the connections that surround a bus stop. Oftentimes the term “radius” is used, but the reality isn’t always a circle. For the purposes of this post, I’ll assume a grid used in Minneapolis, St Paul, and many inner-ring suburbs. It may be less applicable where local routes serve areas without a robust pedestrian network
- People are willing to walk different distances in different places to a bus. We’re also willing to walk different (often longer) distances to rail (or any transit with high perceived level of service). A bus walk shed is typically viewed as 1/4 mile, but cities across North America vary:
Many factors play into this: culture, local climate, daily weather, how pleasant the walk is, how safe the walk is, and how desirable the transit service is you’re walking to. Many European transit systems already recommend urban, local routes use 400-600m spacing (link, page 5) – roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of a mile.
- Similarly, people assign different time costs to different portions of their journey – walking to or from a bus stop and waiting carries 2-3 times the personal cost of in-vehicle travel time. Put simply, people would rather sit on a slower bus but walk/wait less (especially if it’s cold or rainy).
No transit planner worth their chops would be surprised by the information above. In fact, Metro Transit is doing a great job focusing on the arterial BRT program, which implements wider stop spacing (among other huge improvements) on many key urban transit corridors. The average spacing ranges from 0.3 to sometimes above a half a mile, which is too far to justify dropping the existing local routes from the corridors.
But what about those remaining local lines? What about the other (many) routes in our transit system? What if we could speed up their service without spending much from transit’s limited capital and operating budget? What if doing so could allow a bus to run more frequently without adding any operating costs (or new buses)?
Most bus routes today (outside of the CBDs with shorter block faces) have stops every long block (or every second short block) – or every 1/8th mile (660′). I propose we change this to a quarter mile (1,320′) standard. The former is certainly on the low end of most urban municipality standards, while the quarter mile is definitely on the high end (excluding those crazy Europeans, of course):The Positives
While no bus in our system stops every block, every hour of the day (indeed, many low frequency, low rider routes go many blocks without making a stop), we can almost guarantee that consolidating stops will lead to faster run times for the popular ones. Research supports this – with studies showing an increase in bus trip speeds between 5.7 and 10 percent. The same studies show mixed reviews on impact to bus schedule reliability, with one showing no impact and another having a positive impact. This could mean 3-5 minutes saved off a typical transit trip (depending on length, etc).
In addition to improved service by trip time, Metro Transit could use the operational efficiency to improve route frequency. Rough hypothetical example: 10 buses (and drivers, and diesel fuel, etc) are required to run a route every 15 minutes, allowing them to run faster gives options. A 10% improvement in speed could allow Metro Transit to use just 9 buses for the same level of service, OR keep 10 buses operating at better headways – 5 buses an hour is better than 4, right? Thus, transit riders could see improved trip times AND reduced average wait times at stops without Metro Transit spending a dollar more.
Any operational gains that aren’t pumped back into the system through service improvements could instead go into stop amenities. Metro Transit maintains over 10,000 stops, yet as the Star Tribune excellently points out, they struggle to provide basic shelter at hundreds of shelters, many of them in urban locations. Heat, shelters, and better signage all cost money, and this provides a source.The Drawbacks
Obviously, there’s a downside. Consolidating stops means serving fewer people (and businesses) within the same walk shed:
With stops every other block (green dots) and an assumed willing walk distance of 1/4 mile, we certainly leave some areas out that used to be “in” (blue). Furthermore, we add walk distance to a fairly significant chunk of land that was closer to an “every block” stop:
About 14% of the land area that used to be served now has a 2.5 to 5 minute longer walk, and a whopping 36% of the transit’s captive area must walk between 0 and 1/8 mile further (the red line being the most affected) – about 0 to 2.5 minutes.
However, we know that land use patterns have consolidated along the transit’s route over time. More businesses are at the legacy streetcar stops than several blocks away. Apartments, duplexes, row homes, etc are more common along the arterials than several blocks away. A “no GIS database” rough estimate would say 80-90% of riders would see marginal changes in walk distance.
Additionally (and despite the walk/wait time cost discussed earlier), the studies linked above show that ridership held steady after consolidation (Portland) and actually grew (Seattle) despite other system routes seeing ridership decline. I would wager a bet that faster and potentially more reliable service could 1) convince those who must walk further to continue to ride, 2) draw new riders from within the walk shed, and 3) make new (car-lite/free) development near stations more attractive.Conclusion
Stop consolidation could be an extremely inexpensive (they’d still have to go remove those signs, print new schedules, market the changes, etc) means of improving service on every urban bus route. When done in combination with other (slightly more expensive) improvements such as all-door boarding (recently highlighted by Bill), better stop placement, signal preemption (or at least holding a green), we could see much needed improvements to bus speeds for very little cash.
Yes, there are other factors to consider, most important among them being those who an extra 3 minutes walking might truly be a challenge (disabled, elderly, etc). As boomers age this certainly becomes more of a challenge. We should evaluate the capability of Dial-a-Ride services to adequately serve these individuals, perhaps on a pilot route (and I define “adequately” as “equal to or better than current trip times”).
But if you believe the system-wide benefits are too great to ignore, share this with any high-ranking Metro Transit employee or Met Council councilmember you happen to rub elbows with at fancy dinner parties (I jest). OR, you can get serious and make comments on Metro Transit’s Transportation Policy Plan – there’s a hearing on September 17th. Additionally, Metro Transit’s Service Improvement Plan is in development and should be ready for comments in November. Share your thoughts, and use this post as a reference!
[This is part of streets.mn's "transpo convo" series, which aims to be an oral history of getting around the Twin Cities, one person at a time.]
“I love MTC!”George stands at a bus stop on University Avenue on a blustery, 50 degree day, finishing his cigarette. He had been shopping at Wal-Mart.
George exudes a love for life.
“I just bought a pack of lighters, and I knew how much they were going to cost me,” he smiles. He continues to describe the various deals he found on the lighters at Wal-Mart.
George has spent his 59 years of life in Saint Paul.
“I was born right down the street there,” George points towards the location where the Midway Hospital stood.
“I’ve had two cars in my life and I don’t miss them since MTC came into my life,” George says.
George has a card that allows him to ride transit for reduced fare. “For seventy-five cents, I can ride anywhere and with transfers, any time of the day.”
The Green Line passed while he was standing at the bus stop.
“There’s the train to Minneapolis, the Green Line,” he points. “I’ve never been on the train. I don’t trust it. I’ve heard it breaks down. Maybe someday I’ll go there and find out how to use it. I have heard it’s faster.”
George lives at the bottom of the Ramsey Hill. He mainly sticks to the bus routes on University and Grand Avenues.
“I always say ‘hello’ to the bus driver,” George says.
“Sometimes, when the transfer is about to expire, or has just expired, you can still go just a little ways on it,” he adds, pointing out a nice feature of riding the bus and knowing the driver.
In all of his years riding buses, he has only seen three or four buses break down. “They call for another bus and one comes right away, within ten minutes.”
George’s rides fairly frequent routes, so he doesn’t usually wait long for a bus. He also doesn’t use the bus for socializing. “I mainly keep to myself.”
However, George notes that buses are nice “because they have heat when it’s cold and air conditioning when it’s hot outside.
“If I didn’t have the bus, I’d have to walk everywhere. I don’t bike because I’m too old to do that. I love MTC. I’m very active and they get me everywhere I need to go– to shopping, school, relatives, and church,” George beams.
By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Driverless cars. The Internet of autos. Drones on traffic patrol. Spatial analytics and behavioral economics.
The strange list above offers just a taste of the latest technological efforts to tame soul-sapping road congestion. Highway authorities everywhere are focusing on such fixes because laying more pavement is cost-prohibitive as well as self-defeating as more driving is induced. Whether the same problem crops up with technical management of traffic remains to be seen.
But depending on whose methodology you believe, tech advances from ramp meters to priced congestion lanes have already smoothed out traffic in the Twin Cities area.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation calculated a 7 percent drop in the region's freeway tieups last year, based on how much of the 758-mile system experienced persistent slowdowns below 45 miles per hour. That metric dropped from 21.4 percent in 2012 to 19.9 percent in 2013, the agency reported, despite a metro population increase of 40,000. On the other hand, the 2013 INRIX National Traffic Scorecard Annual Report, measuring different things over wider places and times, found overall metro traffic up 17 percent and congestion delays 14 percent greater.
Both of these studies, by the way, depend on technology: MNDOT's roadway detectors on 90 percent of the system, supplemented by field observations; INRIX's global positioning system data. The Holy Grail, though, is scientific wizardry that works so well there's no congestion left to measure. Here's a rundown of developments toward that goal, plus warnings about potential complications:
The idea here is not only that your car wouldn't need your help to navigate traffic, but also that its wireless connection with everything else on the road could maximize safe and efficient use of limited right-of-way. "The rise of the connected car ... is the coming together of communications technologies, information systems and safety devices to provide vehicles with an increasing level of sophistication and automation," the Economist noted.
This futuristic vision may be closer than we've imagined. GM just announced that in only two years it will introduce a new "Super Cruise" Cadillac that leaves most of the driving to itself. At about the same time, all Cadillac CTS models will get vehicle-to-vehicle transmitters and receivers. "But GM says it's working on a system to make sure drivers still pay attention," according to the Associated Press report.
Good thing that, although assuring watchfulness by the human seated behind the dashboard (if there's no steering wheel anymore) may be a tougher challenge than deploying the fancy cybernetics. It's important, however, because of at least two problems, one fiscal, the other technical.
Internet of cars
Unlike in the 1960s, when Congress funded the Pentagon's work that led to the Internet, federal officials have all but ruled out paying for, building or operating a wireless system linking vehicles together. "Due to the current fiscal environment, it does not seem plausible," the U.S. Department of Transportation wrote last month, according to Automotive News.
The trade journal said "that leaves a big cloud of uncertainty over the future of vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communications technology," although a consortium of at least eight major American, German, Japanese and South Korea automakers has been working on it for the past decade. "DOT officials have endorsed V2V as a huge leap forward in auto safety, but they are looking for someone else to manage the network, which they expect will cost about $60 million annually to maintain."
On a national scale, or even compared with Google's revenues, $60 million is small potatoes, but a greater obstacle is the threat of liability if something goes wrong and crashes occur. Anyone who doubts that possibility should remember the glitches that plagued the Affordable Health Care Act's state and federal web sites and the serial breaches of corporations' customer data.
Clearly, there's a threat of hacker mischief to practically any computerized system. University of Michigan researchers recently showed how easy it was to get into wirelessly networked traffic signals via at least three technological weaknesses. In some places, non-scholarly hackers have posted rogue warnings —Caution: Zombies ahead!—on electronic highway message boards. While such vulnerabilities might only draw a laugh or let a geek hit all the green lights on his way home, a terrorist could cause real mayhem by penetrating a V2V network.
"Running the network would be fiendishly complicated, requiring the government to constantly remain one step ahead of hackers and potential privacy breaches," Thilo Koslowski, a connected-car analyst at Gartner Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., told Auto News. "I don't think the government wants to take on the burden of ensuring the high reliability of this network."
While all this gets settled, a couple other tech solutions for traffic are in the works:
Drones over Atlanta
Georgia Tech researchers commissioned by the state's DOT "came up with more than 40 tasks" drones could help with, including vehicle counts, traffic management, congestion analysis, speed enforcement and even bridge inspections, according to the McClatchy News Service. The holdup is federal planning and rulemaking to address issues of safety and privacy that may be years from completion.
A company called Urban Engines "uses spatial analysis to create a digital replica of a city's transportation system and helps cities implement incentives based on behavioral economics that reward commuters for shifting their travel away from peak times," according to the journal Government Technology. For example, giving lottery tickets away in a pilot project in Bangalore, India, reduced peak congestion 17 percent. The firm has also crunched data for cities as far-flung as Sao Paolo, Singapore and Washington, D.C.
With all its pitfalls, technology, high or low, may still offer the likeliest solutions to traffic jams. In Minnesota, MNPass lanes, intelligent lane control signs and variable speed limits "are helping fight congestion," University of Minnesota traffic researcher John Hourdos told MPR News.
He added, however, that the best way to bust traffic jams is by increasing public transit use. Conservatives resist this common-sense solution, but building bus and rail infrastructure and service into realistic alternatives to driving can do even more than technology to reduce the costs and frustrations of congestion.
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