Automobilism

The 1.2 mile blue line of cultural and financial destruction

The 1.2 mile blue line of cultural and financial destruction

One bad decision can haunt a municipality for decades.

This 1.2 mile blue line represents one of the biggest urban planning blunders in Mankato history. In fact, it probably represents upwards of a $1 billion in extra cost to the City of Mankato and taxpayers over its short 20 year existence. The line is the shortest route that connects Mankato’s Madison East Mall (built late 1960s) to the newer River Hills Mall (built early 1990s).

Instead of expanding the existing mall and using existing infrastructure in the (still) vacant land surrounding the Madison East Mall, the decision was made to sprawl out the town an extra 1.2 miles. How much financially better off would the town be if it didn’t build the additional roadways, exit ramps, water and sewerage pipes and electric lines?
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Union Depot Pedestrian Plaza? Or Converted Driveway?

Union Depot Driveway during preliminary construction

The Union Depot which is undergoing a major renovation and transformation back into a transit hub, with the construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail. The way in which people will be arriving to the Depot will soon begin to shift from vehicles to mass transit (predominantly light rail) Read more >

The New Minneapolis Plan

The Minneapolis Downtown Council recently released "Intersections" a plan for Downtown Minneapolis. I had nothing to do with this plan, and so am free to comment. The plan is organized according to 10 major initiatives for 2025 Read more >

What is the Constituency of a Local Land-Use Decision?

In the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, a local entrepreneur put together a proposal to develop a surface parking lot into a 5-story condo building with retail space on the ground floor. The location is a commercial node in an affluent Minneapolis neighborhood that was first developed along a streetcar line in the early 20th century.

But some residents of the neighborhood aren't taking too kindly to the prospect of change to their beloved neighborhood retail corner... Read more >

Rondo and I-94 vs. Central Corridor LRT

View Urban renewal in the I-94 corridor in a larger map

There are two buildings near the corner of Rice Street and University Avenue in Saint Paul that are the only remnants of a huge neighborhood bulldozed for urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 94.

Anyone who has followed the Central Corridor light-rail project has heard of Saint Paul's old Rondo neighborhood and how that community was displaced in the 1950s. The story goes that businesses and homes were torn down in the corridor between St. Anthony Avenue and Rondo Avenue (now mostly known as Concordia Avenue) in order to make way for the Interstate. The spectre of Rondo has weighed heavily on planners and transit advocates who don't want to see past mistakes repeated along the Central Corridor line. However, it's clear that many people involved have been unaware of the truly massive scale of what happened in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, did you know that all of the land in the map above had been leveled in the 1950s?

Many buildings outside of that zone were also taken down, but typically in a more fine-grained manner, one or two at a time. But Rondo got painted with a broad brush and saw block upon block torn down. Read more >

The turning lane to nowhere

What happens when the engineers designing our rural highways simply apply standards without bothering to consider the context of the space? Sadly, a more pertinent question would be the opposite: what would happen if they did bother to look outside of their right-of-way?

The following video was shot in Northern Minnesota about four miles outside of Grand Rapids. The mindless waste of money it so clearly depicts is endemic in a transportaion funding system that is rewarded for moving cars, not creating valuable places.

Next time someone talks to you about a society that is living beyond its means, be reminded of this.

Video compliments of SID.tv -- See It Differently television -- coming in 2012 from Strong Towns.

Really Narrow Streets: A Missing Element in Twin Cities Urban Design

Even the narrowest of Twin Cities streets are pretty wide. With few exceptions, streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul tend to range in width from 30 to 60 feet, curb to curb. Including sidewalks and boulevards, the width stretches to a ballpark range of 40 to 70 feet. Streets get even wider when you move into the "stroad" territory of suburban and semi-rural commercial strips. An average neighborhood street in Minneapolis may not seem wide in the context of an average American city, but compared to the "really narrow streets" of traditional cities in Europe and Asia they are gigantic: 

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Bad Urbanist - Episode I

Why am I feeling so guilty?

It’s cold. It’s blusterly. It’s nasty weather. Not quite Minnesota cold; not yet, anyway. No frostbite setting in before I’ve made it down the driveway. My knees still function. Nevertheless, it’s ugly enough out here that my wife has put on her I’m-just-barely-putting-up-with-my-husband face. She is not happy about this... Read more >

A mile away from Bailey Elementary, a possible solution

The roundabout at Bailey Road and Radio Drive in Woodbury.

When I first came across this image of a roundabout with dedicated tunnels for bikes and pedestrians, I thought I had somehow wandered onto David Hembrow's blog about cycling in the Netherlands, but no, it turns out this is an image of an American roundabout.  A Minnesotan roundabout. A Woodburian roundabout.

A roundabout in Woodbury?  With two lanes, bike paths, and tunnels?  Yep.

A few weeks ago, Mike Spack linked to an online presentation by Joe Gustafson of Washington County Public Works that covered the project.  It's the first fully two-lane roundabout in the state, so the county used it to experiment a bit and collected extra data about its performance—hence the reason for the presentation.

However, the main thing that jumped at me was the roundabout's location: It's at the intersection of Radio Drive and Bailey Road.  You might remember Bailey Road from news stories earlier this year about Gordon Bailey Elementary School.  It became a cause célèbre for Minnesota urbanists after it was reported that of the 620 students, none of them walked or rode bicycles to school.

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A 55-mph speed limit at an elementary school?

Now, I don't want to sound like a ratchety old fart talking about walking in eight-foot snowdrifts uphill both ways, but I did grow up in the southeastern Minnesota town of Byron, where kids within the city limits were (at the time) required to make their own way to and from school—whether it was by walking, biking, or getting a ride from a family member.  I mostly walked, but did ride my bike or get rides on occasion.  One of the main roads to my elementary school had a speed limit of 15 miles per hour, while others were normally 30 but restricted to 20 mph when students were present.

Because I grew up with a school on a slow street, I'm always amazed to see schools such as Bailey placed next to 55-mph suburban arterials.  Unfortunately, it has been a common practice in the United States for the past few decades.

Roads such as this can be deadly for students.  For me, this reality  came into stark relief when I was in high school—a student in nearby Kasson was killed crossing the 40-mph Mantorville Avenue (Minnesota State Highway 57) near that city's high school. He was hit fast enough to be lifted out of his shoes—the mental image of empty sneakers marking a crash victim's last footsteps is something that always sticks with me.

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Gordon Bailey Elementary's main entrance to the west side parking lot.

Due to my own experiences, I'm inclined to think that parents and kids feel unsafe crossing Bailey Road, and that's why every student gets driven or bused to school.  In the original reporting on the subject, parents gave a variety of reasons for driving their children, but the school's location still sticks out like a sore thumb.

So, how do you make this road—out on the edge of the urban boundary—feel safe?  Ideally, I'd like to see schools located in town centers, like the elementary I grew up with.  Built up near the edge of streets that are designed to be slow, even if the slow area only lasts a block or so.

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The school's closest intersection, a 4-way stop at Bailey Road and Woodlane Drive.

But here, we're dealing with an established facility that's on roads that are made for high speed.  Reducing the speed limit might help, but a road lined on one side by farmland is unlikely to be driven slowly.  Wide open spaces encourage wide open throttles, so a reduced speed limit would likely be ignored.

In this case, it seems the best option is to completely separate pedestrian traffic from the road, allowing people to get from one side to the other without having to wait for cars to pass or stop.

Tunnels or bridges across the road are the way to accomplish that.  Expensive solutions, but worth the money because they will save lives.  Certainly criticism would follow any such proposals, but critics should also recognize that they are usually remedies to problems that never should have existed in the first place.  Unwalkable locations bring latent costs with them, and building special grade-separated walkways just makes those hidden costs visible.

Schools should be built in walkable places, period.  They are engines of community, and should be treated as such.