This is more of a chart / map (chap or mart?), showing the origin points for mortgages during the decade leading up to the housing boom. It’s a national map, but I zoomed in on the Twin Cities to take this snapshot.
The map also includes race data, which is interesting too. Click here for the full map.
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No, I’m not joking. David Levinson wrote about an often overlooked but important subsidy* given to drivers: the lack of sales tax on gasoline and auto/truck purchases. I’m surprised this hasn’t received more attention given the other distortions that see press. Yes, we pay a motor vehicle sales tax when buying a car, but that is supposed to be a user fee for funding roads (well, 60% of it at least). Yes, we also pay state and federal gas taxes, but again those are user fees (the MN gas tax is 100% dedicated to the Highway User Tax Distribution Fund).
*The word subsidy is often used when no direct subsidy is actually taking place. In this instance, like the mortgage interest deduction or similar policies, the lack of payment acts as a price distortion given lack of exemption for most other goods purchased. It’s not a subsidy per se, but the term works good enough.
We pay sales taxes on windshield wiper fluid, oil, tires, parts, and other necessities to keep our cars moving. We also pay a sales tax on refrigerators, stoves, lights, and thousands of other durable goods (and other not so durable ones) to live a modern life. Cars and gas shouldn’t be any different (in the author’s humble opinion).
Let’s evaluate what this would mean under politically possible scenarios. What do I mean by “politically possible”? Well, it’s very unlikely that we’ll see a statewide increase in total sales tax collected. Not only is the sales tax one of the more regressive taxes around (making it unpopular with liberals), raising taxes (on cars and gas, specifically) would not go over well with conservatives. So, I’ll limit my analysis to revenue-neutral only.
For my analysis, I will be referencing the current gas tax ($0.285/gal, assumed across all gallons sold – an incorrect but rough estimate) and MVST Rate (6.5%), gas tax, general sales tax and MVST revenue collected by the state in 2013, a rough estimate on 2013 average gas price of $3.20/gal taken from here, spending information from the 2013 BLS Consumer Spending report, and number of MN Households. Again, in all scenarios I hold total revenue collected constant, otherwise we’ll get into a debate on if the current amount raised is too high/low and if the programs the money goes to are necessary. Also, when I say “add a sales tax to MVST,” I am proposing keeping the current 6.5% as a user fee (we need a dedicated funding source for roads) and the resulting general sales tax rate would be on top of that.
Scenario 1) We add a sales tax to gasoline and motor vehicle sales, apply a lower rate to all goods.
Scenario 2) We add a sales tax to gasoline sales only, apply a lower rate to all goods. Why? 3 million Minnesota residents live within roughly an hour drive of Wisconsin. If a family only buys a car every 4-5 years, they’ll likely make the trip across the border.
Scenario 3) We add a sales tax to gasoline, motor vehicles, and clothing. I know, taxing clothing seems extremely regressive, since it’s basically a requirement to survive. I’m just testing the waters here to see how the numbers shake out, and since clothing only represents roughly 3-3.5% of household spend for families making less than $40,000 per year. That share is roughly the same as higher income households (making >$70k), who also spend 3.1%. Compare that to groceries, where lower income households spend around 11% of their income, while higher income families spend more like 6-8%.
Scenario 4) We add a sales tax to gasoline and clothing, but forego vehicle sales, apply a lower rate to all goods.
Here’s the outcome:
We see that we can reduce the general burden on the MN sales tax by anywhere between 0.8% and 1.6% with these four scenarios. I’m inclined to suggest Scenario 1 – as a state, we shouldn’t favor the purchase of automobiles over other consumer spending by under-taxing it. Clothing is a pretty small household expenditure (clothing spend in low income households is half that of just gasoline, for example), but pragmatically, this will never fly in a fairly progressive Minnesota (and one where a certain mall will lobby hard to keep visitors coming to buy their wares on the cheap). The net result for an average Minnesota family/individual would be no additional tax burden. If you buy a lot of cars and drive a lot, you will likely pay more in total sales tax. If you own fewer cars and/or drive less, you’ll pay less.
Yes, Wisconsin or North Dakota may say they’re “open for purchase” or something similar, that’s fine. We could make it a requirement to pay the sales tax when registering a vehicle purchased outside the state to avoid this behavior; presumably, nearly all cars bought in Wisconsin acquire new MN titles, no? We used to dedicate a significant chunk of the MVST to the general fund – as recently as 2002, 69.14% was sent to the general fund, with years prior to 1980 seeing none dedicated to transportation. My guess is the DOT and state began realizing that gas taxes alone weren’t covering system maintenance and expansion so they began searching for ways to pay for roads. Fine, keep the MVST as a user fee (though I disagree with using fixed costs like these instead of mileage- or congestion-based ones), but lower the sales tax burden on everything else we all buy.
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Territ Downs is, sadly, a fictional community. This post is looking for the buildings in Minnesota that belong in Territ Downs. Buildings for which a surface parking lot compares favorably. Not simply buildings which are minimal but functional, but buildings which are hostile to the rest of the world. Buildings you wonder how got approved. Post your nominations in the comments.
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Here’s all the content from streets.mn last week carefully seasoned and stuffed into one post:Regional differences
More on the Infrastructure Cost Discussion and Re-Framing the Regional Transportation Debate continue discussion about regional transportation (and the costs of urban and suburban development patterns) which kicked off with a recent Chart of the Day. This should be read along with A Quick Fix for Minneapolis Transit for more discussion of costs and density. MN GOP Beware: Biking and Pedestrian Improvements Have Broad Appeal is less about the GOP and more about showing interest in biking and walking is state-wide and not limited to the (presumably DFL) urban core; commenters question both the title and scare tactics as well as the numbers in the post.Transit
Transit-Oriented Development: Quality Over Quantity considers transit oriented development policy (good), but also how to get development “good enough so that people riding the train want to get off at that station and have a look around” (better). A Quick Fix for Minneapolis Transit follows up on last week’s Transitopolis and suggests improvements for Minneapolis’ dense urban core (with special attention to the #18 Bus).City bikes
A Bike Matters could be called a buying guide for city bikes (where the Dutch omafiets is the ideal); commenters weigh in with more information about specific bike models and features.Minneapolis and St. Paul
Minneapolis Is Hitting the Trifecta of affordable housing, upward mobility, and great bike infrastructure to attract millenials; comments seize on the affordable housing piece including rent control, public vs. private housing, and linking housing to transit. Meanwhile in St. Paul Suggestions for a safer Jefferson Bicycle Boulevard is an open letter to St. Paul Public Works and Mayor Coleman critiquing the current bike boulevard and making specific suggestions (illustrated!) for improvement. Restore the Grid! A Vision for the Center of Downtown Saint Paul advocates for breaking up the SuperBlocks bounded by 6th and 7th Streets and Wabasha and Minnesota Streets to make downtown St. Paul (again) more beautifully walkable, bikable and livable.Greater MN
Duluth, the Urban Time Capsule looks at Duluth’s development pattern and finds a traditionally urban small city. Bike-cation in Northfield looks at bicycling in and through Northfield (and getting tripped up by a stroad).Audiovisual department
Video this week includes two very short videos: Metro Transit – A to B is a cute little broadcast TV ad for the Nextrip/GoTo Card ad and Holy Parking Meters, Batman defies characterization but is worth each and every one of its 17 seconds. And a longer (5 minutes) video about Oulu, Finland, The Winter Cycling Capital of the World, shows us how Oulu’s 30 year commitment to building bike infrastructure (17km of bike lanes per year) and maintaining it (bike paths plowed before streets!) make it a great place to bike (22% mode share) despite cold weather and very short days.
I am grateful for streets.mn this Thanksgiving with its growing group of passionate people who observe their places carefully, work to improve them, and have a great deal of fun while they’re at it. Here’s everything you need for fun winter cycling (including coffee and bagels); have a wonderful holiday week!
A nice Metro Transit Nextrip/GoTo Card ad for television broadcast.
Thanks to Bill Dooley for sharing (on Facebook) this great short video on winter maintenance for bicycle facilities.
The City of Oulu is the cycling capital of Finland and the winter cycling capital of the world. It has one of the most extensive bicycling networks (613 km, 4.3 m/inhab.) in the world, a cycling modal split of 22 % (2009 data) and state of the art winter maintenance levels.
R: No policeman’s going to give the Batmobile a ticket.
B: No matter Robin, this money goes toward building better roads. We must all do our part.
R: Holy taxation, you are right again, Batman.
Here’s a chart from a piece up at Streetsblog that shows which income groups get access to subsidized parking from their workplace via the “parking commuter tax benefit.”
There are two main problems with the kind of parking subsidies that are common in many workplaces. First, they go mostly to the wealthiest groups of people, as this chart shows. Second, they make congestion worse by encouraging people to drive.
…as Streetsblog says:
The result: The country spends $200 billion a year on transportation — much of it on road expansion justified as a congestion reduction tool — while simultaneously encouraging people to make congestion worse by driving downtown during rush hour and parking for free.
Sidewalk Rating: Worthy--> I found my bicycle (I didn’t know I had one) in the same place I must have left it. Which enables me to remark that, crippled though I was, I was no mean cyclist, at that period. This is how I went about it. I fastened my crutches to the cross-bar, on either side, I propped the foot of my stiff leg (I forget which, now they’re both stiff) on the projecting front axle, and I pedaled with the other. It was a chainless bicycle, with a free-wheel, if such a bicycle exists. Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation, I don’t know why. It is a pleasure to meet it again. To describe it at length would be a pleasure. It had a little red horn instead of the bell fashionable in your days. To blow this horn was for me a real pleasure, almost a vice. I will go further and declare that if I were obliged to record, in a roll of honour, those activities which in the course of my interminable existence have given me only a mild pain in the balls, the blowing of a rubber horn—toot!—would figure among the first. (15) [Sam Beckett.] [The steam plume in Downtown Saint Paul.]*** CLICK ON IMaGES FOR LINKS! ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** *** *** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ***
Yesterday I delved a little into the question of whether we’ve really under-funded or under-built roads. Of course the standard reply is that roads still recover more costs than transit, and transit (run by the Met Council) is partially subsidized by drivers (via the motor vehicle sales tax, 40% of which is now dedicated to transit). This is seen as unfair – money that could or should be spent on improving roads, especially as Thrive 2040 looks to curtail further expansion. But our region is not just roads and transit. We rely on many other services provided at a regional level to go about our daily lives, and I think many would be surprised to see how the costs break down for them.Fairness Goes the Other Way, Too
I’ve written before how urban roads receive a hidden subsidy that favors suburban drivers over core city financial health and livability. But that doesn’t pack the punch that bullying on the Met Council as a cash transfer to urban, transit-riding residents does. So what about other services the Met Council provides?
People see empty buses and farebox recovery ratios and can easily conclude “subsidy!”. But people can easily forget about the pipes under our streets and sewage treatment facilities in obscure places cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, maintain, and operate each year.
It might come as a shock to many that Met Council’s Environmental Services (wastewater treatment) annual budget includes a pretty hefty amount of debt.. 43%!
That debt service pays for major capital projects like, you know, repairing and replacing major trunk sewer lines, building new treatment facilities, etc. Yes, some of those lines are in front of core city homes, but we know from research that they cost drastically less to serve:
Denser areas like Minneapolis save anywhere from one third to 50% of the costs of less dense areas typically found in suburban neighborhoods. This is right in line with other research showing roughly 50% cost savings for annual utility costs with marginal increases in average unit density (Tables 3, 6, and 7). Given the flat rate Sewer Availability Charge for new units (regardless of context or cost to serve) and usage fees that relate only to gallons (again, not cost to serve), it’s hard to not conclude there’s a massive cost transfer from the core cities to their suburbs here.
I’m not knocking the Met Council here, but what fiscal conservative would look at a wastewater treatment budget where nearly 50% is retiring debt and feel comfortable with the system of pipes under their street? Ignore the knee-jerk reaction to a hyper-dense, European lifestyle (if that’s not your thing, which is totally fine) for a second. A place like Annecy, France (pictured below) undoubtedly spends less per dwelling unit or per-capita on its streets, roads, water mains, and sewers than a place like Plymouth. You can’t escape geometry.
Let’s imagine we built our own slice of Annecy on, say, the Ford Plant redevelopment site. Would it be fair to charge them the same amount per-dwelling unit as a new single family home in Elko? What about an ADU in Minneapolis? Under the guise of fairness, the Met Council has cross-subsidized low-density land uses on the fringe with less impactful infill and usage rates from more urban areas.
To be clear, I fully support a regional body handling things like transit and sewage treatment. Having each municipality (or even county) run their own transit lines would be insane, as would avoiding cost savings of serving an optimal population per treatment facility with strong coordination. But that doesn’t mean we should say yes to every new interceptor line or treatment facility that costs far more to build and operate. The Met Council should be charging impact fees for new development in-line with impact to the regional system, and usage fees should reflect additional service and ongoing maintenance costs per dwelling unit rather than on a straight gallons-used share.
The same could be said for private utilities like Xcel Energy and Centerpoint Energy, who maintain electric and gas lines in service footprints that spread across our region – their costs are shared among all ratepayers just like the Met Council.
Now, I don’t believe for a second that if we shifted full costs to users that we’d see wholesale abandonment of the suburbs (and no, that’s not my goal). There are plenty of folks out there with enough wealth to weather the charges because they really do prefer a car-oriented lifestyle on larger lots, and that’s fine. But price signals matter. Let’s elevate the regional discussion away from distinct silos of land-use, transportation, and services and move toward charging users the full cost of their lifestyle choices (including transportation, utilities, and externalities).
If you’re a millennial and you’re looking for a job in a new city, you might have read (or want to read) the November 19th article in The Atlantic about “why it’s so hard for millenials to find a place to live and work”. The problem, it seems, is that the cities with the most upward mobility and the highest median incomes are also the cities with the least affordable housing.
Three cities, however, buck that trend: Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, and our own Minneapolis. While I could play booster for Minneapolis (it has the highest median income of those three cities according to a follow-up article on Vox.com) there’s a different angle to this story: Bikes.
Pittsburgh became a national model for rapid bikeway progress this year when they announced, planned, and built their first three protected bike lanes in only four months. The city took the bold move of pushing the process forward–and the result? Over 1000 thank-you letters to the mayor of Pittsburgh from every zip code in the city and a number of surrounding suburbs.
That isn’t to say Pittsburgh hasn’t experienced some “bikelash” as Mayor Bill Peduto cleverly called the push-back from drivers. However, the project started with strong cyclist and business support and it’s reasonable to give time for education of the wider driving public.
Salt Lake City, as opposed to Pittsburgh, has a well-established cycling culture. From the hard-core spandex dudes (and chicks) riding the 8.3 miles of 3472 feet of vertical of Little Cottonwood Canyon (average grade of 9.2% for you climbing junkies) to its 2012 debut of one of the first city DOT bike web pages in the country, Salt Lake has taken a strong, early and successful stance on cycling as a sport and a means of transportation. (Full disclosure: this author spent 17 years in Salt Lake City, loves it, and misses it, even while embracing Saint Paul as her new home.)
And then there’s Minneapolis. I think I can assume most streets.mn readers know a little something about bike infrastructure in Minneapolis. We’ve had a turn ranked as the top bike friendly city in the nation by Bicycling magazine, and we’ve got a current designation by League of American Bicyclists as a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly City.
While Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis aren’t the only bike friendly communities on The Atlantic’s list of hot millennial picks for upward mobility (Denver, San Francisco, New York, I’m looking at you), they’re certainly doing better than some of the other “affordable” metros.
If you’re a regular (or even casual) reader of streets.mn, you’re probably aware of the debate being waged on transportation and land-use policy in the Twin Cities. The Met Council’s Thrive 2040 plan and recent election cycle seemed to magnify the divide (which may or may not be drawn along political lines). MinnPost (via our own Bill Lindeke) covered the eloquently nicknamed CWADS’ (the 5 suburban counties of the MSP area – Carver, Washington, Anoka, Dakota, and Scott) uproar over Thrive 2040’s goals of balancing transportation investments and imposing stricter land-use regulations, particularly around major regional transit investments. Adding fuel to the fire are the Center for the American Experiment voices using scare tactics to rile up the Strib commenters.
At its heart, the frustration from suburban residents and leaders seems to come from a position of unfairness. Statements like “..the plan focuses on transit and non-motorized transportation without paying enough attention to highways and freight, which they count as their lifeblood” and “There’s just a feeling that Thrive is not applied equally throughout the region” (both from the Star Tribune article) underscore this feeling. Bill already covered some structural underpinnings that actually flip this assumption on its head, but I’d like to dig deeper to help re-frame the transportation conversation.Roads, Streets, and Access
The belief that we’ve somehow under-invested in roads and streets baffles my mind. People are surprised when an endless supply of roads, each funneling to the next hierarchical level, ends in congestion – they shouldn’t be. But even if you’re still shocked, the belief that we don’t have enough roads is unfounded.
Lane miles (only within municipal borders to avoid counting rural farm roads) per-capita in suburban counties greatly outweigh the core counties. Even within Hennepin and Ramsey, the core cities have roughly 1/3 fewer lane miles per capita than in-county suburbs.
The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), who gives us fuel for more road building with their Annual Urban Mobility Report (which has been thoroughly debunked as far as I’m concerned), is nevertheless a great repository for metro-level road data reaching back to 1982. When we look at the number of lane miles (which only includes down into freeways and arterials) constructed over the past three decades or so, we see that road building has even outstripped population growth in the Twin Cities:
We should remember that this data set starts after the majority of our regional interstate and highways were constructed. Yes, the final bits of 35E in St Paul and I-394 had yet to be completed, but the early 80s Twin Cities had plenty of suburban space with large lot homes to go around. By estimates we spent over $10 billion in $2011 constructing only freeways and arterials (not including their annual maintenance costs or any municipal streets). We know that this infrastructure isn’t paying for itself anymore. But it certainly has been a boon to drivers:
I mean, I don’t know about anyone else, but that chart on the left looks pretty darn good to me. In fact, our region as a whole ranks fifth in the country for weighted average jobs accessible despite ranking 14th for total number of metro jobs. Someone living at the eastern edge of Chanhassen has as many jobs accessible to them by car in 20 minutes as a person living just south of Lake Street in Uptown does with a 10 minute head start by transit. We could stop building roads and lanes for 20 years and still have nationally competitive car commute times and job access.But the Economy!
And what did all this road-building get us? One of the silver bullets when arguing for more roads is always the economic development potential they bring. Is this even true in the last 30 years? We know at a national level that we’ve seen diminishing returns on the last-mile added for roads from an economic perspective. But what about the roads we built in the Twin Cities, specifically?
Using TTI’s freeway and arterial lane mile data and MSP metro GDP growth scientifically extrapolated from this chart (seriously, if anyone has hard metro GDP historical data, please let me know), I built these charts. The question is: does higher levels of road building lead to greater economic growth in the following years. I used previous 1 year lane mile change and 3, 5, and 10 year GDP change, as well as one test for the previous 5 years of road building. In no case have we seen a significant positive correlation to support our idea that roads = commerce.
The reality is that these roads were built almost exclusively to support a certain suburban lifestyle. We even elected a US congressman who partly campaigned to build more roads so we don’t have to fly a helicopter to work. Those opposed to the Thrive 2040 plan should honestly ask how many times the big, bad, Agenda 21-ers at the Met Council said “no” to a new subdivision, widened arterial, new 6 lane highway, or interstate expansion. When you push hard enough, MnDOT finds the money for a full (untolled) lane on 494. When Lakeville needs a $6 million roundabout to support future growth, they get it.
I’m not going to sit here and justify every single transit project in the hopper – there’s some pretty hefty costs per rider for most of those lines chasing suburban jobs and downtown commuters (though we should at least acknowledge that part of the high cost is baked into the transit-hostile land uses, freeway/arterial flyovers, and other cost escalators thanks to auto-oriented design).
And, we should definitely question why transit seems to fail at recovering operating costs when other parts of the world have proved improvements can be made. But I feel like we could have easily accommodated the roughly 1 million people our metro added since the early 80s all within the 494/694 beltway had we spent $10 billion on rail lines with downtown tunnels and a far better bus systems. Asking that we start to steer the massive ship away from the 60 year status-quo towards something more environmentally and fiscally sustainable seems like a fair goal for a regional planning body.Footnotes
 This estimation was tough since aggregate spending data on metro-specific projects is hard to come by. I used data by roadway type and location in Table 5.6 3-4. This includes right-of-way acquisition, construction, and an estimate of intersection costs added per lane mile. I brought the total cost down for arterials by 25% , and used BLS inflation calculator to bring the cost structure to $2011. I assumed 25% of new lane miles were in built-up areas with the rest being greenfield (outlying). I’m open to hone this model with anyone who has a better method, but I feel the ending number probably isn’t too far off.
A colleague of mine (from a more urban city) recently visited. When he arrived, I offered to show him around and he wanted to see transit-oriented development (TOD). Hmm…. I wanted to impress him, but I was stumped. Despite all our attention as a city and region to TODs, I don’t believe we have any great transit villages right off the platform where we could go that would really resonate with him. There’s Nicollet Mall and Target Field Station, but I wanted him to say, “wow, this is great!,” but I didn’t feel those would produce that response. Maybe I have impossibly high standards (maybe I’m just getting old and codgery), or maybe the Twin Cities is lagging a bit in the TOD quality department. So I took him for a drive along the West River Parkway and to West River Commons, which impressed him. This begs the question what is TOD and how can we do it better?
The City of Minneapolis defines it as “walkable, moderate to high density development served by frequent transit with a mix of housing, retail, and employment choices designed to allow people to live and work with less or no dependence on a personal car.” Hennepin County’s take is similar, and the first criteria they list when prioritizing dollars that support TOD is development that enhances transit usage and increases walkability through good physical design (I like this!). The Met Council’s TOD program is defined almost exactly as Minneapolis’s (not sure who copied the others’ website…). Interestingly, the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (CTOD) goes farther with their mission statement, which says they are “…dedicated to uncovering and deploying the best solutions for integrating community development with transit investments, resulting in an improved quality of life for all….”
Local, county and metro government agencies obviously want TOD. For example, the Met Council quite bluntly wants to “maximize TOD.” This is all well and good, since automobile dependency costs households a lot of money, so therefore TOD is good policy. So it is fairly easy to define, and is essentially a mix of uses near transit, thus easy to quantify. Development and planning professionals tout the thousands of housing units already built near Blue Line transit stations in Minneapolis and Bloomington, and now along the Green Line in St. Paul. Already development has occurred along the Green Line southwest extension, and planning for development along the Blue Line Bottineau extension has begun.
There is no doubt the numbers are substantial. Although development near transit is difficult, it is happening and will continue to do so. I doubt we’ll ever zone or approve enough housing and employment near planned Blue Line and Green Line stations, but that is another matter. The definition of TOD I’d like to add has to do with quality in addition to quantity. Is the development good enough so that people riding the train want to get off at that station and have a look around? Do people who work near the train enjoy getting some fresh air at lunch because the walk is interesting? Do people who live near the train find their walk home a great way to decompress? Can people actually pick up groceries or other shopping on the way to and from the train? It is important that not only development exists near transit as good public policy but that we members of the public actually like spending time in these places. In other words, “an improved quality of life for all,” as CTOD states.
I was drawn to live near light rail the day it opened in 2004, and I’ve been advocating for better quality urban fabric ever since. The results are mixed; some good, some work left to do, and I believe our TOD policies need to demand a little more quality. It’s too bad we are fighting over the alignment of the Southwest corridor route rather than focusing on creating high quality development near those stations. Did you know that St. Louis Park is creating a form-based code to do just that? You should. As part of that process, the visual preference survey is pretty interesting and shows that I’m not the only one who cares about quality. I’ve written previously about how a form-based code improved the design of a TOD in the Bay Area, and I think St. Louis Park is on the right track. Earlier this week Hennepin County approved funding to purchase a six-acre site at the Lake Street Station of the Blue Line for the development of a family services center, 500 housing units and location for the Midtown Farmers Market. As I’ve recently posted, there is room for improvement in the quality of design there. Oaks Station Place can become a national model for TOD if only they could land a restaurant that will make people want to be on that plaza, something that is proving tricky. While the Green Line has proven to be successful among riders and popular for developers, some place-related issues persist, although progress has been made on some of these.
I’ve used the following image in many posts, and I’m using it again because I believe it sets such an excellent example of what a strong transit-oriented development policy focused on quality can achieve. It also reminds me of how much work we have to do here. The bottom line is the quantity of TOD we are producing in the Twin Cities is significant. And while the quality is getting better (we’re on the right “track”), we still have a long way to go, and must stay awake and focused on demanding better places. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball and demand high quality transit-oriented development – places where we want to spend time. You see, that elusive perfect TOD actually does exist, just not in the Twin Cities…yet.
Today’s Chart of the Day contains useful instructions for sitting on a bus. Remember: Don’t be the worst.
BUS RIDERSHAVE A SEAT ONME[Truck. Lexington Parkway, Saint Paul.] PADELFORDPARKINGHERE[Boulevard. West Side Flats, Saint Paul.] NO PARKINGVIOLATORSWILL BE TOAD[Lowertown, Saint Paul.]BICYCLESROLLER BLADESOR SKATE BOARDS[Pillar. Isanti County.]SECRETLURESINSIDE[Pole. Grand Marais.] NOBICYCLESSKATEOBARDSROLLER BLADSONSIDEWALK[Stop sign. Grand Marais.] Please No Pets or Food [Steps. Grand Marais.] THE BEAVER HOUSEIS FOR SALEFor BLDG and LANDMDSE is NEGOTIABLE[Window. Grand Marais.]
[Cedar Riverside.] [Downtown Saint Paul.] [Somewhere with brand new curbs.][Territorial Road area.] [Downtown Saint Paul.] [South Minneapolis.] [Old Town Stockholm.] [Saint Paul probably.]
[Note: this post is best read while listening to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2DFu7oWit0.]
An interesting chart from the Strong Towns blog showing biking rates in Memphis, Tennessee classified by ethnicity.
Race and bicycling is an interesting topic of conversation that happens too rarely, and brings into focus all kinds of often hidden assumptions about transportation, equity, geography, visibility, and feelings of security.
Bikeyface took a bike-cation somewhere near Boston, but could have been visiting Northfield instead. Doesn’t that look like MN Trunk Highway 3 through downtown Northfield?
What would a bike-cation in Northfield look like? There’s a surprising amount to do on a bicycle in Northfield, but navigating through the center of town on a bicycle to reach some of the best bikable bits does look a lot like Bikeyface’s drawing.
Bike-cation in Northfield, Plan A
Stay downtown at the Archer House River Inn. Riding south on Division Street, you can enjoy the shops, restaurants with an easy connection through Riverside Park under the highway to the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge (Peggy Prowe is Northfield’s tireless trail advocate).
Once there, you can ride on the Mill Towns Trail through Sechler Park toward Dundas. In the future, the plan is to connect the Mill Towns Trail to the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail toward Faribault and Mankato and to the Cannon Valley Trail to Red Wing. In the nearer future, after reaching Dundas on the west side of the Cannon River you could return to Northfield on the trail under construction on the east side of the river. Babcock Park could soon see a canoe/kayak launch and other improvements to diversify your active vacation.
Reaching Carleton College is a short (uphill) ride from downtown with connections to rural roads (paved and gravel). Visiting St Olaf College (or the Ole Store Cafe) requires something like the Bikeyface crossing experience at Highway 3 (but Northfield does have beg buttons and, at Second Street, a bike sensor) and a longer uphill climb (but returning to downtown is a breeze!).
You could come to Northfield for bike related events, too. The annual Defeat of Jesse James Days Bike Tour is the longest running and largest one, but the Tour De Save and MN Gravel Championships are based here.Bike-cation Plan B
Stay across MN3 at the Country Inn (only .25 miles from the Archer House). You’re not interested in the historic inn experience, but prefer the amenities at a more contemporary hotel (like the indoor pool, for example) along with the convenient parking for your car (with its bike carrier).
Unfortunately, this hotel is stranded at the corner of two state highways, so while it is very accessible by car, all the bicycle activities noted under Plan A take some additional work. The bike and pedestrian bridge which connects to the east river trail or under Highway 3 to downtown still requires crossing MN19. Reaching downtown (which you could see from your hotel room window) means crossing MN3. The Country Inn is,however, better situated for reaching El Triunfo.So close
Yep, it was so close to being a brilliant vacation. Small towns need safe streets and infrastructure that takes bikes seriously too. It’s good for recreation, transportation, and my vacations tourism. Even if driving is sometimes necessary, it’s always nice to drive less.
Northfield, too, is so close to being a brilliant bike-cation destination. Pieces of brilliance like the work developing the Mill Towns Trail, building the pedestrian bridge, and working to get the bike sensor installed do add up, but sparkling brilliance requires repairing the border vacuum created by MN3 (and to a lesser extent MN19).
There are jurisdictional challenges, certainly, since building and connecting bicycling facilities requires thinking about trails (DNR and the City of Northfield’s parks department), on-street bike facilities (MnDOT, Rice County, and the City of Northfield’s parks and streets departments), economic development (Economic Development Authority, Northfield Downtown Development Corporation, City of Northfield, Chamber of Commerce), streets (MnDOT, Rice and Dakota Counties, City of Northfield).
Plus, there are funding challenges since the different agencies and departments which deal with bicycle improvements also bring different funding streams and decision-making processes. The DNR often works through grant-making, MnDOT funds improvements to state roads and MSA-funding. Rice County funds some kinds of improvements in the City, but not others (like sidewalks). The City of Northfield might pay for improvements as special projects, through the CIP. Private groups could raise money for particular projects, and even the federal government can get involved.
There are many local stakeholders, too. Northfield has trail supporters, off-road cyclists, bike clubs, BikeNorthfield, as well as youth advocates, healthy community campaigners and more. Leadership from these groups along with city elected officials are needed to coordinate support over the time needed to plan and build better ways to crossing the highway. Visitors who bring their bicycles and their dollars can also help.
None of the recent accolades for livability or retirement mention the stroad through the middle of town, and it is still an impediment to walking and cycling. Northfield is already a good place to ride a bike and could be a great bike-cation destination (and even better place to live or retire) in the not too distant future if we could connect the dots.
A version of this post appeared on betseybuckheit.com
In discussions of bicycling for transportation we don’t often give much thought to the bicycle. We talk a lot about laws, facilities to ride bicycles on, and and all of the benefits of bicycling but the lowly bicycle itself gets pretty short shrift. And it shouldn’t. It’s important.
If we want to increase transportation bicycling we need all five of these: 1) safe, comfortable, segregated cycleways, 2) a complete network of cycleways, 3) appropriate bikes, 4) many many bike shops scattered through our communities, and 5) mindshare.
If you don’t have a bike that is comfortable and easy to ride and that works for your daily needs then you’ll likely not ride it very much.
Narrow Minded Bike Shops?
If you go in to many local bike shops to buy a bike they’ll ask a few questions and then usually direct you to a hybrid, road bike, or maybe a beach cruiser. Great for trails and racing, not so great for simple every-day riding like a quick trip to the store or to dinner.
If you visit a bike shop just about anywhere outside of North America they’ll show you their city bikes. Only if you tell them you want to race or do a lot of off-road riding will they suggest anything else. Why else, they reason, would anyone want a bike that’s not so comfortable to ride and with external gears and stuff that requires a fair bit of maintenance, may not work as well when wet or clogged with snow, and splatters greasy gook all over your clothes?
The two experiences are polar opposites. Mostly, the only bikes available in the U.S. are drop bar racing and touring bikes, off-road mountain or cross bikes, or beach cruisers and comfort bikes. But, few of us actually race, tour, ride off-road, or on beaches.
A Good Bike
Likely the most popular bike in the world is a Dutch city bike or some close variation.
These are the most popular bikes for a reason – they work. Every feature has a purpose in making them reliable, easy and comfortable for anyone to ride, able to carry the detritus from a day’s errands, and ridden whenever and in whatever clothes you have on. Armani suit? No problem. Badgley Mishka dress and silk Anne Klein heels? No Problem. (For a bit of daily fashion on two wheels check out Cycle Chic)
They come from the factory with the key accessories you need, all fully integrated, so no having to buy extra stuff and wondering about how well this or that will work. They’re designed and built to serve a purpose, last a lifetime and, best of all, they never go out of style.
Their upright geometry is not only safer since your body is naturally upright and your head is higher and more easily able to see people and cars and what’s going on around you, but also healthier because it vertically aligns your sit bone, back, neck, and head. (Most hybrids, cruisers, leisure bikes, comfort bikes, and pseudo-Dutch bikes like the Electra Amsterdam do not provide this crucial benefit.)
This geometry is critical for people with back or neck problems and for older folk. People who ride upright bikes also develop better and healthier posture when off the bike. This is why so many people can so easily and comfortably ride long distances on Dutch bikes—they’re designed for it. I’ve ridden 70 miles in a day in complete comfort. For more read Dutchness.
The geometry and upright posture also take the weight off of your hands which is more comfortable, eliminates sore hands and arms, and makes it much easier and safer to carry an umbrella if it’s raining or a cappuccino if it’s not.
This is all why they’ve remained relatively unchanged for nearly a century (and why sort-of-a-Dutch-bike or looks-like-an-omafiets aren’t so popular).
Fenders. The full fenders do a terrific job of keeping stuff, wet or dry, off of you.
Spats. Sometimes called a skirt guard or coat guard – those covers along the sides of the rear wheel. Similar to fenders – keeps stuff off of you and keeps stuff you’re carrying or wearing from getting caught in the spokes.
Rear Bumper. The tubes that support the rear fender extend out an extra bit which acts as a bumper.
Fully Enclosed Chain Case. Not just a fender across the top of the chain, but fully enclosed on every side. It keeps the chain and drive system clean and functioning well and keeps oil and grit off of your clothes. Prada? Yep, no problem.
Girlfriend Rack. They’re called that for a reason – you can carry your girlfriend or boyfriend on them. These are solid racks that can handle just about anything you can strap on them. Note the permanently attached straps that are always there and ready.
Lights. Front and rear. Typically the rear light is a ‘stand light’ which just means that it stays on for about 10 minutes after you stop. Some front lights are also stand lights. Note that most European countries do not allow blinking lights as they are believed to distract drivers more than make them aware. (Also, check out the super strong spokes in the picture above).
Dynamo. Batteries and LED lights have come a long way, but batteries still require charging and replacing. A dynamo, in the front hub or against a tire, powers both the front and rear lights. Your lights always work. You never have to worry if you forgot to charge them or bring them along.
Reflectors. Bikes in European and most Asian countries are required to have front and rear reflectors, side-wall reflectors on the tires, and reflectors on the pedals. This combination is believed to work better than blinking lights since drivers immediately recognize them as being a bicycle from any angle. This combination also provides others with a good indication of what direction a rider is heading and if they are turning.
Internal Geared Rear Hub (IGH). Unlike the typical derailleur, everything is fully enclosed and as close to bullet-proof as you can get. Even left outside all year in all kinds of weather it’s not unusual for these to go two or three decades without maintenance (though occasional maintenance isn’t a bad idea). They are much easier to use and shift more reliably than external derailleurs. One huge advantage is that they can be shifted anytime, even when stopped, which comes in very handy when you forget to downshift prior to stopping. They are also much quieter than external derailleurs.
Single, two, and three-speed hubs are available and work well for flat or moderate hills. For some people in the Twin Cities a 7 or 8 -speed may be a better option. For the ultimate in cycling luxury, try the Nuvinci variable speed that I have on my Opafiets.
Internal Roller or Coaster Brakes. Another nod to high reliability in any and all weather. Being internal not only reduces maintenance but keeps them working the same regardless of weather. External rim brakes and disc brakes require more maintenance and don’t work as well in wet or snow.
Many Europeans prefer coaster brakes since that allows them to keep their hands free for carrying lumber, holding their cell phone, or both. A coaster brake also has the advantage of no cables while roller brakes are hand brakes with cables. Options are coaster only, rear coaster plus front roller, or rear and front roller. What you choose is personal preference though folks with weaker hands, seniors in particular, should opt for a coaster brake.
Bell. Another legal requirement of all bikes in Europe. Bells work better (people are less likely to be confused and move left) and are more pleasant than “on your left”.
Ring Lock. Locks the rear wheel so that it can’t roll. Given the weight of these bikes this is usually enough for short stops or when you’re in a cafe and can see your bike from where you’re sitting. For longer security needs a U lock or similar may be good to have.
Steering Stabilizer. A spring that keeps the front wheel from turning easily when parked. Keeps your bike more stable and is especially important for loading stuff on front or rear racks or baskets. Also makes riding more comfortable. A seemingly minor detail that makes a world of difference when it comes to the daily enjoyment of these bikes.
Tire and Wheel Size. The slightly larger tire provides a much smoother ride, especially over bumps and curb cuts. The thinner tires on ‘English’ and other bikes are a bit harsher. The larger studded tires that this accommodates do amazingly well in Minnesota winters.
Schwalbe Marathon Tires. These are perhaps the most durable and comfortable bike tire available. The white strip is reflective.
Powder Coated Paint. Another part of lifetime durability.
Stainless Hardware. Yes, more lifetime durability.
Saddle. A leather Brooks B67 or B67s is the ultimate in upright comfort. And let’s be clear, for comfort, this is a very critical component. Other saddles such as those from Selle Royal work well, too.
Overall design, geometry, and construction. These bikes are designed for both comfort and carrying stuff. Many bikes get squirrelly when you weight them down with wine & cheese for 30 of your closest friends, but not these.
Center Stand. Not as ubiquitous as everything above but quite popular. Particularly useful for loading stuff on front or rear racks since the bike is upright and more stable.
Front Rack / Basket / Box. Often the easiest place for carrying stuff. These can be mounted to the handlebars, front fork, or frame. For heavier loads a frame mount is usually preferable. Beyond that it’s personal preference. The front racks on our Omafiets & Opafiets just slide in so are easily removed when we don’t need them, the rack on the Gr8 (above) is attached with screws so is a little more permanent. A basket or wooden wine crate makes a great addition to these racks.
Interestingly, front baskets and boxes are hugely more popular in Denmark and Sweden than The Netherlands where people prefer a box on their rear rack or panniers.
Personalization. Perhaps the most critical element of all. From custom paint to stickers to flowers.
My personal preference is Workcycles, Azor, and Batavus. Second place is Gazelle, Pashley, Velorbis, and VanMoof. Third is Bobbin and Linus which are more ‘English’ bikes but still fairly good. I think the biggest drawback to English bikes is that they aren’t as stable as Dutch bikes especially when carrying a lot of groceries. What works best for me won’t work for everyone though.
Considering the significant difference in the geometry and ride of a true Dutch style bike vs a Beach Cruiser or Comfort Bike you should ideally ride each for some considerable time before buying. In particular, flat foot and comfort bikes can leave some people with unnecessary joint and muscle pains so some caution here may be warranted.
For more on selecting and buying a city bike scroll about halfway down on this page.
Here are some bikes that are more common outside of North America than in.
Our Bakfiets is one version of a cargo bike. These are very popular for hauling children, groceries, hardware, plants, furniture, wine, cheese, or just about anything you can fit in or on it (including 5 gallons of gas). Though originally intended just for hauling stuff, they’ve become the vehicle of choice for parents who like having their kids up front where they can talk to them and point things out as they go along and kids love riding in them.
Parents outside of the U.S. often prefer to have their children up front whenever they can. This allows for better conversation, children enjoy it more, and they see the world around them better and learn from this.
The variety of trikes and other pedal-powered vehicles outside of North America is quite fascinating (photo courtesy of Henry @ Workcycles).
As cities put more and more restrictions on the types of vehicles allowed in to city centers (and even suburbs) it’s necessary to get creative. This is an e-trike.
 Varsity Bike Shop and Calhoun Bike Shop are somewhat the exceptions. There may be others but I’ve not found them.
Here is my open letter to Saint Paul Public Works and Mayor Coleman.
As a new resident to Saint Paul, I wasn’t present for the leg work and public meetings that went into creating the bicycle boulevards. I have, however, been using them extensively over the last 9 months since moving here. I’m a daily bicycle commuter on Jefferson Avenue, and we chose our house partially due to its close proximity to this bike infrastructure.
Bicycle boulevards [create] an attractive, convenient, and comfortable cycling environment that is welcoming to cyclists of all ages and skill levels. [Bicycle boulevards] allow through movements for cyclists while discouraging similar through trips by nonlocal motorized traffic.
However, the Jefferson Avenue bicycle boulevard leaves very much to be desired. I am routinely harassed, buzzed, yelled at, swerved at, stopped short in front of, etc. while biking on Jefferson by drivers. I’m an experienced bicyclist and assert myself into the lane when necessary and ride as far to the right as practicable.
I believe this constant harassment is because, east of Snelling, east-bound Jefferson functions essentially as an on-ramp for 35E. Randolph Heights elementary is located here and excessive speeding through a school zone is problematic and unsafe. Drivers can easily access 35E from either St Clair or Randolph and the city should fully prioritize Jefferson for safety over driver convenience. I’ve attached Jefferson’s ADT to show the marked drop-off in traffic east of Victoria/35E on-ramp.Again, I realize that Jefferson has a long history and that most city officials and employees want to raise design issues again. But I believe that with a few low cost improvements, we could see non-local traffic discouraged from Jefferson allowing it to serve as a calm safe road for all users, from 8-80 years old.
First example,here is a picture of a more extreme traffic diversion in Berkeley, CA near a busy transit station in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood. This actual bike boulevard has bollards to divert thru-traffic, along with huge painted sharrows that clearly mark the street as bike priority (along with great way-finding signage).While I know this may not sit well with emergency services, it will be the most effective way of diverting traffic off of Jefferson. I’d suggest using Brimhall, Saratoga, or Warwick because the block configuration won’t allow drivers to simply go to the next east/west street and quickly get back to Jefferson. Also, I acknowledge that residents on whichever street is chosen will most likely object to the increase in traffic. I’d argue, however, that once this diversion is known, drivers will adjust by using St Clair or Randolph, as they already should be doing.
The second example is turning block-long stretches into one-ways, which would be much easier to implement, requiring only a few signs. It is also a very local example seen all over the Summit Hill neighborhood. This would leave the roadway clear for emergency vehicles but also accomplish the goal of reducing thru-traffic. As for cycling, it would remain two-way using a contra-flow design similar to 5th Street SE in Minneapolis, that would allow cyclists to continue safely in the opposite direction from traffic. Since the biggest issue, in my opinion, is eastbound AM traffic headed to 35E, the one-way could only allow west-bound traffic and could be placed on any block between Brimhall and Pascal. The one-way signs could include language “except bikes, buses, emergency vehicles”.My third example of a design solution for Jefferson would be to reduce the speed on Jefferson. 30 mph is completely unacceptable for a bike boulebard. In a AAA study, the risk of severe injury decreases from nearly 50% at 30 mph to below 25% at 20 mph.
I understand this may be a state law, but urban areas need to lead the push to change residential streets from 30 mph down to a much more palatable 20 mph. In the meantime, the city should apply for an exception from MNDOT. We could also add speed bumps, as is common in the Union Park area.
Fourth, another area of concern is the stretch where Jefferson becomes Edgcumbe Rd for a block. The planted median is beautiful and adds a lot of character, but keeping the parking along this same stretch greatly limits the space available. I often need to take the full lane in order to not be buzzed or pushed into the parked cars by drivers looking to pass me unsafely. The light at Lexington is extremely long, but drivers still feel the need to speed up this stretch to get into the queue. (This is more of an issue eastbound because there is a slight uphill. Westbound is slightly downhill so I can usually get up to a reasonable speed and merge into traffic around the parked cars. However, when traveling westbound, there is a pinch point where the curb narrows just west of Edgcumbe’s southbound lane.) I have to assert myself into the lane to not get pinched into the curb. Bicycle boulevards, designed for riders of all ages and experience levels, should not require bicyclists to have to assert their rights to the road.
Finally, with $400,000 available for bike lane painting and re-striping from the 8-80 funds, I’d like to see the stretch on Jefferson as it passes over Ayd Mill and under 35E re-striped. There is a large “median” painted and that ROW space could be dedicated to a buffer zone for the bike lanes on both sides. On that note, I’d like to express my gratitude for the green paint on the lanes as they cross the Ayd Mill onramps. If I could, I’d really like to see green paint where the southbound Ayd Mill off-ramp intersects with Jefferson. Drivers often don’t fully stop at that stop sign and roll out into the bike lane.I think the idea of Jefferson is great, we did buy our home very near to it for a reason. But I also think we are so close to making it a true bicycle boulevard, and we should finish what we started. I fully understand that this has been a long hard process, let’s not let it be in vain.