Motivational Poster #2

Inspired by this column.

Sidewalk Mailbox #6: High-speed One-ways are like Watering Your Garden with a Firehose

Here's a very lovely letter I just received:

Hi Bill,

I'm hoping you wouldn't mind helping me understand some City of Minneapolis street layouts/designs. The questions I have are regarding the bike lanes on 26th and 28th streets in Minneapolis. More info is here:

First and foremost, I want to say I support bike lanes. However, I think they're a tricky subject because most bikers do as they please on the roads and give a bad rap to all bikers. That being said, unfortunately, it only takes a few bad apples to ruin for everyone and create a stigma that bikers are a huge PITA. I fully support bike lanes but I'm fairly confident they can be implemented a lot better and make things more efficient for both bikers and vehicles.
I frequently use 26th and 28th streets because they're one ways and quick to get across town for my work - I work for a charitable gambling organization in Minneapolis whose main revenue source is pulltab sales at different bars so going from bar to bar is a big part of my time.

A few days ago, I was on one of the streets mentioned above and noticed that it is now 2 lanes instead of 3 - one full lane of traffic being devoted to a bike lane. This was during rush hour and traffic was backed up and it was backed up for at least a half mile (Hiawatha to ~Chicago). I noticed that once the road went back to 3 lanes (the original configuration), traffic suddenly flowed at a greater pace.

I'm having a hard time understanding why the city/planners/public works department takes a lane of automobile traffic away and dedicates it to bikes only. I was under the impression that streets were intended for cars. The amount of cars on a road vastly outnumbers bikes, so why are bikes taking lanes away from cars?

Consider this analogy: You have a container of water that holds 100 liters. It drains at a rate of 10 liters/minute but filling with water at a rate of 15 liters/minute. What's going to happen to in 20 minutes? The water will overflow. This is what's happening on those streets. You have streets that were meant to handle so much traffic and now there's even less room for that traffic so it backs up. Why would anyone consider this something viable?

We know the planet is warming because of CO2. Does anyone pay attention to that fact? It certainly doesn't seem that way to me. Why do bikes need to travel on 26th and 28th streets when 1 block North or South will accomplish the same thing? Are bike lanes put on busy streets so bikers don't have to stop for stop signs or cross busy streets as frequently? The amount of energy required to move a vehicle is much greater than a bike.

Adding bike lanes is complicated, but it seems that planners just put them wherever without considering all factors. Another good example is Portland and Park Avenues running from Minnehaha Creek to Downtown. Portland used to be 3 or 4 lanes and now it's only 2. And the speed limit was reduced from 35 to 30! A double whammy there!
I'm hoping you can provide a little insight into why bike lanes are added to somewhat busy streets. I really do not understand why bikes need to be on the same roads as vehicles. When bikes and vehicles collide, there's usually damage to the bike and sometimes the rider. If bike lanes were on less busy streets, would that eliminate a majority of accidents? Granted, you can't force bikers to ride on certain streets but vehicles will almost always follow the quickest route (I.E. using 26th or 28th instead of 27th or 29th).

Impressionable Pulltab

Dear Impressionable,

Thanks for your thoughtful letter, particularly since it contains an analogy which I like a great deal. And first off, let me say that I'm a big fan of the actual physical pulltab industry, the ones where you pull a tab with your thumb and then stack the expired tabs into strange configurations. (It's these electronic pulltabs which are giving bars a bad name, and don't get me started on the gas station lottery.)

[My well-watered garden plot on the West Side.]
And fluid dynamics are interesting indeed! I was biking home last night with a friend and she wanted to stop by her community garden, which was on the way. At one point she asked me, "Can you go over to the hose and turn the water on?"

It took me a while to find it in the dark, but I did. and (lefty-loosey) uncranked the spigot.

"Woah, can you turn it down a bit?" She shouted back to me. So I turned the knob a bit to the right. She was holding the other end of the hose, and trying to water her flowers and beans.

"A bit more," she shouted, and I dialed it back just a bit.

"Is that OK?" I asked?

"Perfect," she said, and for the next five minutes she watered her three raised garden beds. She loves gardening, and later she said, "I feel so much better when I can come water the plants. They've perked up. Now they're all set for some great growing tomorrow."

[Stills from Arteries of New York City, 1941.]
You are certainly right about your "container of water" metaphor, as far as it goes. If our big goal as a city was to keep the most water flowing, then designing streets to maximize volume would be the obvious solution.

And in fact, that's how traffic engineers have traditionally thought of traffic, as cars circulating like blood through corporeal arteries. Just like cholesterol clogging arteries, congestion was seen as inherent vice. A lot of money, public space, and social resources were spent on unclogging our streets to maximizing the "flow" of cars.

But the problem is that cities aren't the hoses, they're the gardens. Just like you don't want to water your tomatoes with a firehose, you don't want to maximize traffic flow in a neighborhood. We need to stop focusing on the water, and start focusing on the plants. How much water do they need to grow? At what rate? Are we flooding them?

In the analogy, the garden is the city. Neighborhoods, sidewalks, streets, and even dive bars with pulltabs require more than just a stream of cars passing by their doorstep. The require public spaces for socializing. They require people to be able to easily stop, park, and cross the street. They require access to ways of getting around that aren't cars, so that after a you win at pulltabs and blow all your money on rounds of drinks for the house, you don't have to drive home drunk because you can catch the bus. And cities thrive when the flowing traffic is at a safe level, both for people in cars and for those on foot.

As I've written before, 26th and 28th have long been some of the most dangerous streets in Minneapolis. Their design dates back to the pre-freeway era, and worked well for the problem they were trying to solve. But the speedy convenience for South Minneapolis drivers comes at a high cost. For example, after a bicyclist named Jessica Hanson was killed on 28th Street, I pointed out how it was the #1 most dangerous street for bike crashes in the city. This isn't to mention the fact that the current high-speed one-way configuration is also dangerous for car drivers. (Here's a 2009 video showing the aftermath of one such accident.)

[From the 2013 Minneapolis Bike Crash Report.]
A while back, I dated a girl who lived in a first-floor apartment whose windows looked out directly onto 26th Street. Even when we were in her apartment, you could still hear (and feel) the traffic rushing by at 40 miles per hour. 26th and 28th are unpleasant places to spend time, and the feeling of danger permeates the neighborhoods on both sides of these roads.

In the big picture, the protected bike lanes are a dramatic positive change for both 26th and 28th, for people in and out of cars. In exchange for a decrease in speeds and a bit longer stacking times (noticeable mostly at rush hour), there is a much safer street with fewer accidents. As a bonus, the new design also creates a good bike route on Minneapolis' most dangerous street for bicyclists. And as one-way streets, they remain the best east-west routes through South Minneapolis, regardless of how many lanes there are.

The simple fact is that high-speed roads destroy walkable cities. It's like watering your garden with a firehose. Fixing these streets is long overdue, and I'm confident that South Minneapolis will flower.


PS. I'm interested in how the pulltab business works. Maybe we can chat about that sometime!

[Today's 26th Street: a much safer design for cars and people, slightly diminished capacity.]


TC Sidewalks Live!: Old Streetcar to Wildwood Tour this Sunday

Seeing a map of Twin Cities' historic streetcar network goes a long way toward explaining the urban geography of the city. Most of the existing commercial corrdors, those places with the historic density, mixed-use nodes, and interesting old buildings are along the old streetcar lines. Even though the streetcars were all ripped up, burned down, and defunded over 50 years ago, there's a way in which they're still alive today.

[The streetcar map on the wall of Minneapolis Central Library.]

Some of the streetcar routes are pretty straightfoward. Others (like the old route through Minneapolis's) are crooked and confusing. Most have become bus routes, but a few of them have completely disappeared.

[The route in question.]
The old route to Willernie, White Bear Lake, and Stillwater is one of the latter. Together with Mark Brauer, a long-time East Side Saint Paul bicyclist, retired Mn-DOT planner, and amateur urban geographer*, we'll be tracing the old route of the Wildwood streetcar as best we can.

It'll be an adventure. Some parts of the route are completely gone. In other places, you'll be able to find it. And waiting at the end will be Willernie, a crazy East Metro town that used to be an amusement park and still feels like its at the the end of a long drive up to the cabin.
  • What: Bike ride to Willernie, along the old Stillwater streetcar line
  • When: Sunday August 2nd at 11:00AM. Shoudld take 2-3 hours, probably more depending on stops
  • Where: Meet at the corner of Payne and Edgerton, across from Yarusso's
  • How long: 25 miles round trip
  • How much: Free! (Or buy Mark or me a beer.)

Willernie is fascinating all by itself. Last summer, Andy Sturdevant, Steven Lang, and myself toured through it. Here's a bit from Andy's column:

Like so many Twin Cities neighborhoods — St. Paul’s Union Park, Lake Minnetonka’s Excelsior, the stretch of Longfellow once known as Wonderland — Willernie owes its odd footprint to an amusement park. Wildwood Amusement Park, another of the cities’ many trolley parks built to lure city dwellers out to the end of the lines for recreation, sat on the site from 1889 through the 1930s.

I've been looking forward to this ride for a while. If you're free Sunday, join in and explore the streetcar of your imagination.

PLEASE NOTE: The ride's pacing will be leisurely. I am not a speed demon and neither is Mark, who has an upright handlebar type bicycle. It'll be a relaxing ride befitting the pace of a streetcar and the idea of Wildwood bourgeois leisure.

[Wildwood spirits.]

[Willernie stop sign.]

[Willernie back roads.]

[Do you even know what this means?]

[Willernie main street.]

* As if there was any other kind.


Reading the Highland Villager #135

[Villagers perch a few miles past the top of the High Bridge.]
[Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. That's why I'm reading the Highland Villager. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free.]  


Headline: Coleman puts Midway site in play for major league soccer; Mayor invites MLS to tour 34.5 acres at University-Snelling
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A bunch of really rich people from West of Minneapolis want to build soccer stadium in Minneapolis but are looking at Saint Paul anyway, and the mayor and others are enthusiastic.  The most talked-about spot is owned by Metro Transit, is right next to the freeway and Snelling Avenue [which is pretty much a freeway] and has been a parking lot for decades. There are thoughts that the stadium will "jump-start" development of the old [almost unwalkable] strip mall on the rest of the site. Article references the $31M gap in parking structures that were preventing development on the site in a study released last year. The Chamber of Commerce is also excited. Mayor says "It's too early to talk about financing." There is talk of TIF money being used, but there is a limit on the city's TIF capacity and others would like to use it for the Ford redevelopment. Article includes quote from neighborhood group about the "proposal moving too quickly [to allow] meaningful discussion." Neighbors want limits on parking. [Good! That's a big key to whether this plan will work for the city or not.]

Headline: New home design standards posed for approval; reduced height and lot coverage limits in store for new Highland, Mac-Grove homes
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city council is set to approve new limits on the size of "teardowns" in the most affluent part of the city. Some neighbors want a moratorium on teardowns. [I'm of the opinion that these standards won't really solve the problem that some people would like it to solve; developers will keep doing that they've been doing, which has everything to do with real estate markets, capitalism, and private property and historical trends around home size.] Article includes details about lot size coverage and height restrictions. [Also concerning is having separate zoning codes for wealthier vs. less affluent parts of the city.]

Headline: Coming home to Fort Snelling; veterans are moving into 58 new housing units on Upper Post
Author: Kevin Driscoll

Short short version: Cool historic buildings by Fort Snelling owned by the Veterans Administration are going to have people (veterans) living in them. [Seems great.]

Headline: High Bridge scheduled to close for redecking in 2017
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A bridge [by my house] will get a new driving surface and be closed while its under construction. [I can only hope that Mn-DOT will do something to make Smith Avenue more pedestrian friendly while this is going on! It's almost impossible to cross the street and bumpouts would go a long way to fixing that problem.] Article includes quote from neighbor who wants stairs "added back" to the bridge to connect the West 7th area to the dog park and riverfront. [That would be crazy expensive, but interesting that they'd existed in the past. Also, it would be really cool if they could maintain bike/ped access during construction.]

Headline: Jobs, housing at redeveloped Fort site discussed on July 22
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There will be jobs and housing at the old truck factory.

Headline: St. Paul accepts $6M grant for new facility for homeless
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The new Dorothy Day homeless shelter sill get a grant.

Headline: Financing for new Davern Hill sidewalk approved by council
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A really hilly street in Highland that has never had a sidewalk even though tons of people walk on it is finally getting a sidewalk even though it's not "historic" for people not to walk in places where they might be hit by cars. Also some other streets. The HPC voted against the sidewalk. [I agree with HPC about lots of things but when it means putting people in danger, I just don't get it at all.]

Headline: City Council awards STAR funds to four area projects
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Two projects on long-vacant lots in Selby Avenue, a noodle restaurant in Lowertown, and a café on Grand Avenue will get city grants to improve their buildings.

Headline: Bonds approved for addition to Recording Arts High School
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A high school on University Avenue will get some city money.

Headline: Target Express rolls out; downsized store opens July 22 in Highland Village
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A small Target is where a Barnes and Noble used to be. Both had parking lots for people to store their cars while they shop.

Headline: Johnson Bros. withdraws Shepard Road apartments plan; new ideas, new partners sought for 19-acre project
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A developer who had wanted to build a building with apartments by West 7th, Shepard Road, and the river is not interested anymore after the city, led by neighbohroods, told them they couldn't build it six-stories tall. They're looking for new ideas, but nobody knows how long it will take.

Headline: STAR funds fill $57,500 gap in Marshall median financing
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: [In a long-running saga] the city has found some sales tax money to fund a median in the middle of a street with businesses along it where lots of people try to cross the street. The city had had a grant from Macalester but the money was taken away when the project added a turn lane for a liquor store.

Headline: Support grows for return of West End's Stone Saloon
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A really old building is being rehabbed and will eventually become a brewery.

Headline: Zoning Committee splits over plan for new Grand condo;Commissioners are OK with rezoning single-family lot but not needed variances
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Planning Commission's Zoning Committee voted to not approve tearing down a single family house to replace it with an apartment building. [In the full Commission, the plan was rejected on an 8-6 vote. The building was a pretty close to the same size as the 1920s apartment buidlings on either side of it, only with underground parking.] Article includes details about exact lot coverage percentages. The neighborhood group did not like the proposal, saying it was "out of scale" and because of "parking issues." [Is it hard to park near Grand Avenue?]

Headline: Controversial lot split clears way for new Fairmount Ave. home
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A woman wants to remove her swimming pool and build a handicapped-accessible house there instead of selling it to someone and having them tear down everything and build two houses. The Board of Zoning Appeals approved the lot split on a 4-3 vote. Article includes quote from neighbor: "Like everyone else, I have been dismayed at the overbuilding in our neighborhood." [Like everyone else, I don't own a car.]

Headline: Low turnout offers little direction for Riverview transit line
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The county wants to build some sort of transit line down the West 7th Street corridor only nobody knows where and nobody seems to care enough at this point to even come to public meetings about it. Article includes map with many many lines on it. [Sometimes you gotta just jump into the pool.] Article includes quote from neighbor: "People may be jaded because this has been discussed for so long."


Public Character #3: Wally Wonka, who sells ice cream in Victorian garb from his multi-colored ice cream trike

The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to full his function --although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts. his main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people.

-Jane Jacobs, "The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact."
[Wally Wonka selling an ice cream sandwich.]
On Tuesday afternoons in the summertime you can usually find Wally Wonka at the top of Ramsey Hill, parked underneath his umbrella attached to his multi-colored ice cream bike. He'll gladly sell you an ice cream bar, give your dog a treat, make a balloon animal, or simply chat about the weather, sartorial arts, or Saint Paul goings on.

Twin City Sidewalks (TCS): Tell me about that bike? What’s your name?

Wally Wonka (WW): I go by "Wally Wonka." There are two of these trikes, they’re called Dreamcycles. [Rings bell.] It’s an old fashioned Good Humor trike made in New Jersey. I just fancied it up with duct tape and paint and whatnot.

TCS: So, they’re designed for this?

WW: Yeah they’ve kind of gone out of fashion. Especially around here. Just me and my son do it here. There’s someone in Minneapolis that does an Italian ice cart, but that’s a little bit different. This is my job, I’ve been doing it one-and-a-half years.

TCS: Yeah I’ve seen you around. You usually dress in this Victorian manner.

WW: Yep. Hymie’s Haberdashery makes all our clothes for us.

TCS: I like that place. That’s where I get my haircut.

WW: It's an incredible place. Actually for my son’s 13th birthday I took him there for his first hot shave. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I had guys show up and share anecdotes about manhood on his 13th birthday. 

TCS: That’s cool. 

WW: Honestly the idea came from something on Leave It To Beaver. Wally was feeling like he wasn’t being treated like a man, and Ward took him and gave him a shave in front of all of his buddies, so he could look like a man in front of his buddies. So I did it. Hymie’s is great.But I left my full time job a year and a half ago, this is all I do now.

TCS: What other corners do you like going to?

WW: I’m in Maddux Park on Mondays. 

TCS: Where’s that? 

[Turks rejecting dog bacon.]
WW: It's over by Macalester, on Macalester and Palace. And I usually do special events. That’s what pays the most.

[Two women walk up Summit Avenue, one with a dog.]

Dog bacon?

[Dog rejects the dog bacon.] 

TCS: Nice dog. What’s her name again?

Woman with dog: Turks. She used to have a partner in crime called Caicos. Turks and Caicos.

WW: She’s a doll.

Woman with dog: Yeah. She really is. Thank you.

TCS: See you. Thanks for the ice cream.

WW: Appreciate you stopping. [To a guy getting out of a truck.] Need a little ice cream?
[Wally Wonka and his ice cream trike.]