Bicycling directions: Google Maps vs. Cyclopath

When Google Maps launched bicycling directions, it was seen as a boon to the bicycling community nationwide. Finally, cyclists could see directions based on roads and trails, instead of being routed by the Googles on to highways and freeways. Speculation about the directions—that it would encourage more people to bike and even might influence city planning—abounds. People from Seattle to Portland to San Francisco to New York to Boston started throwing around reviews (mixed, actually; the service still feels very beta-y) about the new feature. It’s great that Google has released this product, but it feels like it might not be ready for prime time.

Around the same time as the feature launched, the first proofs of Bicycling Magazine’s annual ranking of cities for cycling came out, and there was a new #1. The newly crowned Minneapolitans (and their Saint Paulite brethren) were not as excited about the Google Maps cycling directions. Why? Because for quite some time, they’ve had their own version: Cyclopath.

Cyclopath was developed by, what’s best to call them, a bunch of bicyclist-geeks. Long before Google entered the marketplace, Cyclopath had developed, first as a project at the University of Minnesota and then as a “Geo-wiki” (part of it is to study of Recommender Systems, and even the behavioral science behind route finding). It was developed in 2008 and released to the public in the summer of that year, more than a year and a half before Google developed their nationwide network. It’s gone through several releases  and now incorporates users opinions of various roads. While Google depends on a very analytic approach, Cyclopath provides more subjective data for users, which it seems, is more useful in the long run.

Plus which, Cyclopath’s data—since it was first uploaded—is consistently updated by its users. Find a road which has been closed? You can close it. Has a road been repaved or has it become incredibly potholed by a winter of freezing? Change its bikeability. Need to add a road? Add it in. Want to write about a long traffic light or a weird lane merge? That can be added in, easily. Google’s still in beta; Cyclopath is humming along.

In comes Google. Cyclopath likes it well enough, and doesn’t really see it as a threat, since they think they are better. In reality, they are two different approaches to the same problem: how do you get from Point A to Point B (as long as, in the case of Cyclopath, you’re in the Twin Cities). So, which is better? Let’s go through a few differences.

Quality of Route

This is the big one, let’s get to it right off. Cyclopath, with years of experience and input, rarely routes you inefficiently (you can change its algorithm, too, see below). Google Maps, on the other hand, has enough mistakes (it’s missing, for example, the Sabo Bridge and will route you on an Interstate ramp) that it’s a bit of a pain to use. But it’s not so much these glaring omissions—it’s the turns that are missing, often turns you can make in a car (try, for example, to make a left turn from Cleveland Avenue in Saint Paul to Mississippi River Boulevard)—which result in convoluted directions. And if you put in a ZIP code and Google happens to located it on an interstate, forget about non-car directions (even the car directions are bollixed up). Until these issues are fixed—and I know of half a dozen in Minneapolis and Saint Paul alone, so there have got to be hundreds nationwide—Cyclopath wins, hands down. I’m sure in cities which went from zero biking directions to Google, it’s great, but they have a way to go to catch up with Cyclopath.

Flexibility of Route Search

When you search for a route in Google maps, you get several options: by car, by transit, walking or bicycling. Within bike directions, however, you have no options. There’s no way to avoid hills, or weight bike paths higher. They have gone on about their great algorithm, but there’s no way to know exactly how it works. The algorithm is what the algorithm is. In Cyclopath, you have choices. (see right) If you want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, you can choose to minimize distance. For a nicer, but potentially longer ride, choose, bikeability. And you can then assign penalties or bonuses to your routes for customization.

The one aspect of route flexibility where Google wins is in the post-search environment. With Cyclopath, you usually get a good route, but if you want to change it to, say, add a waypoint (often to get it to follow a certain road or trail) it won’t let you. You have to create a new route. Of course, Cyclopath can display multiple routes at once; Google can not.

Non-cycling Data

Cyclopath sounds great, but isn’t it just a glorified bike map with directions? Nope. While Google has added a lot of secondary data, Cyclopath more than keeps up. Google has more background layers, and draws on its wide search database to show photos and webcams and georeferenced Wikipedia articles and other such sundries which clutter the map. Cyclopath has a toggle for satellite imagery (the “P” key) which loads faster. In addition, Cyclopath has a plethora of local businesses and buildings tagged, some of which have very pertinent information added (such as “bike racks on north side” or “bathrooms on lower level”). In addition, Cyclopath has future trail alignments shown as being “closed” which Google omits.

Fixing data

If you want to fix data in Cyclopath—if you find a street which is closed (even temporarily, for construction) or a new bike lane or anything else which is missing, sign up, sign up, and edit away. There’s been little vandalism (a Star Tribune article from 2008 didn’t foresee any) and editing is encouraged to keep the map’s data up-to-date. The map is relatively easy to edit (although the onus is on users to assure that the network is configured correctly). In Google? Well, there is a link to email suggestions to Google. I have—more than once—and gotten an email that they are working on it. But it still gives wonky directions for those routes. And the ability to add data and comment on the quality of roads is, well, amazing functionality.


Google Maps’ UI is a thing of beauty. Going from the clunky pre-Gmaps interfaces (yes, Mapquest, we’re looking at you, at least until pretty recently) to Google Maps, back in the day, was eye-opening. Zooming, scrolling and navigating were made far simple in Google Maps, and while it may be resting on its laurels, everyone else is just catching up. Cyclopath is a different animal, and while its main interface seems a slight bit clunkier than Google Maps (no, you can’t double click to zoom and recenter) it’s very well designed for a local, bicycling website, especially one which has editing capabilities and a community feel mixed in.

The Name

No one knows what to call Google Maps bicycling directions beta. “Google Maps Bike Directions”? “Google Bike?” Everything seems, well, clunky. Cyclopath has a great ring to it.

Geographic Range and expandability

Okay, here Google wins. Google Maps bicycling (or, um, whatever) is nationwide. Cyclopath is in the Twin Cities (one of which is the top cycling city in the country). Could Cyclopath be exported? Maybe. Its creators claim that it would take a month of tech work from a rather qualified person, and that there’d still be logistical issues (or, as they put it, “unknown unknowns”).

Implications for bicycling as a whole

Google Maps may actually stymie the development of Cyclopath-like websites in other cities—who may be content with their Mountain View bicycle overlords. While Google has created a respectable product, it does little to incorporate the huge knowledge base of cyclists around the country. Road users don’t so much care whether a street surface is concrete or asphalt, and how wide the lanes are. Cyclists do—and ceding the authority to Google by default may not be in the best interest for bicycling. Hopefully both services will thrive, and Google will become more suited towards biking. In the short term, Google Maps bike directions are good for cycling. In the long term, it has the potential to be a back-burner project for Google, but one which is just useful enough that enterprising individuals don’t continue to innovate with products and services like Cyclopath.

The Verdict?

Right now, if you’re in the Twin Cities, skip Google Maps. Cyclopath will give you better directions, and may even entice you to become part of the community. And any changes you make won’t come with a ticket number.

Site, situation and planning: Target Field

Game three at Target Field, looking east.

I managed to catch one of the games in the first series at Target Field in Minneapolis this week (my Red Sox were in town) and although the Sox lost, it was great to see a new stadium. It was actually the second in a week—I was at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City last weekend for a Sox game (nice ballpark, in the ‘burbs surrounded by a sea of parking, and I didn’t have time to explore KC)—and it was very interesting to see how the park is sited, and how people are adapting to the new experience, both inside and out.

From a baseball perspective, it’s fun to see how people like the inside. I was born and raised on Fenway, and the Metrodome was, um, atrocious. After a Sox loss there, I was depressed. Watching my team get shellacked on Thursday, having skipped out of work, with the sun beating down and the cool breeze blowing, well, it was nice. There are some cute features (the two baseball players—Minnie and Paul—shaking hands across the river when a home run is hit or the game is won), the usual odd angles of a new ballpark, and no baggie in right field. And the view of the skyline is a great touch. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly good replacement for what was a perfectly poor excuse for a baseball stadium.

But this isn’t a baseball blog.

The geographic term “site and situation” is usually applied to whole cities or settlements, but it can really be used to describe the location of nearly any geographic feature. And with 40,000 people, Target Field (or any baseball stadium) can be described as a small city for three (or, in a Red Sox-Yankees game, four and a half) hours at a time. Basically, the site is physical characteristics of, in this case, the stadium. Situation is how it interfaces with what is around it; how it connects to other buildings, roads and transit.

Of all the arenas cities build to glorify their teams (or their selves), baseball parks generally see the most traffic. A football stadium may seat 70,000, but it only sees 10 games a year. Even with other events, such a stadium is hard-pressed to break a million fans. (There’s a good reason football stadiums are often, and maybe should be, built away from downtowns: their demand for parking does not mesh well with surrounding land uses, and moving that many people in and out can strain all but the best-equipped transit systems.) Indoor arenas, even when the combine basketball and hockey, sell out shy of 20,000, and there are only about 80 games a season. That’s 1.6 million. Add in some other shows, and you can break two million. (The Staples Center in LA, with two basketball tenants, may see more fans, although I can’t imagine Clippers games sell out.)

But baseball parks? They usually seat at least 40,000 (most new parks are around this figure). And they have 81 home dates a year. Throw in a few concerts, and you can bring more than three million fans in each year. From an economic development standpoint, baseball stadia are probably the best generator of people in sheer numbers. Even if they don’t have anything beyond baseball, they still bring in more visitors than any other arena.

Of course, the Metrodome didn’t do much for its surroundings. Much as it was 28 years ago, it is surrounded by, well, mostly by parking lots—a suburban stadium in the middle of a city (or, at least, a tangle of highway ramps). Target Field, for many reasons, may not suffer quite the same fate.

Target Field’s Site

Target field sits on a not-quite square plot of land on the northern fringe of Downtown Minneapolis. The street grid in Downtown is oriented to the Mississippi river, which flows five blocks to the site’s east. South of Hennepin, the grid is shifted slightly, but where the ballpark is located, the streets run almost perfectly 45˚ off of the cardinal directions (i.e. NE-SW and NW-SE). Before the ball park was constructed, there was a ditch between 2nd Avenue N and where 4th Avenue N would run. The southeastern half was taken up with the exit ramps of Interstate 394; the rest was a parking lot until it reaches the railroad tracks. The stadium is built above the former parking lot, with a pavilion extending above the railroad tracks.

The park is oriented due east—that is, the batter is looking straight at the rising sun and the pitcher throws the ball to the west. To fit the field in the confined location, the stadium needed to be oriented in a cardinal direction, and baseball stadiums are best located to the northeast. Baseball games are rarely played at sunrise, and this allows for the smallest chance that the sun will be in a player’s eyes. (Although there are two baseball stadia which are oriented due west—and they sometimes have to suspend play at sundown.) With baseball games starting in the afternoon (with one exception, the 11:05 a.m. start for the Patriots Day game in Boston), some parks face south of east, and some due north, but most face northeast. Here’s a great diagram of all the ballparks. And, in case you were wondering, this orientation is set forth as “desirable” in Major League Baseballs rules (1.04).

There’s another major reason for the orientation of the ballpark, but we’ll explore that in the situation discussion. Other than the fact that the stadium is built on stilts over a highway and a railroad (and, in the future, a bike path), there’s not much else exciting about the ballpark’s site, since it is basically reclaimed land (discussions of sites for cities often go on for much longer, incorporating terrain, water sources, deep harbors, rail corridors and the like). Basically, it’s a rather cramped city block in Minneapolis.

Target Field’s easterly orientation gives is a grand view of the Minneapolis skyline; it should be even better at night.

Target Field’s Situation

The situation of the ballpark—how it interfaces with the rest of the city—is much more interesting. The orientation, which is a site feature, is, perhaps, more importantly, part of the park’s situation. The reason that the park was sited facing east instead of north is the proximity of Minneapolis’s skyline—the highest buildings between Chicago and Seattle—sits to the southeast of the field. A northerly facing diamond would have nothing in view beyond the stadium’s walls. With the east-facing ballpark, several 800-foot-tall buildings loom less than half a mile above the field (and, yes, you can see in from the higher floors of some of them).

In fact, Target Field is significantly closer to the center of Downtown Minneapolis (we’ll define it as the IDS Center) than the Metrodome. As the crow flies, the nearest gate to Target Field is about a quarter mile from Nicollet. The Metrodome is more than twice that distance. There is quite a bit less surface parking around Target Field, too. Minneapolis has a lot of parking downtown, and, for the most part, these spaces are empty nights and weekends—which is precisely when they are needed for baseball. The Metrodome was almost completely surrounded by surface parking, while Target Field has only a few nearby surface lots.

This lack of surface parking is going to have several interesting effects on the parking market. First, the land near the Metrodome will lose much of its value for parking as the parking for the Twins and Vikings will be disaggregated. The Twins drew 2.4 million fans in 2009, many of whom parked in these surface lots. While Vikings fans will need somewhere to park, there are only about 600,000 Vikings fans, one fifth of the pre-2010 total. If the real estate market picks up in Downtown Minneapolis (one of the few under-construction buildings in the city is on a former parking lot near the Dome), these lots—especially the ones a bit further from the Dome—will net less cash from parking revenue, and thus be more likely to be sold for development.

Around Target Field, the parking situation is a bit more developed. Minneapolis has a many car commuters, and, thus, a lot of parking structures (and some surface parking). The Central Business District is strong enough that it is not infiltrated by surface parking, although there is a good deal on the flanks. The city operates three “ramps” (as parking garages are called here), called the ABC Ramps, which surround the field, have direct freeway access, and about 7,000 parking spaces (assuming 2.5 passengers per car, that’s half the stadium). There are, of course, dozens of other garages downtown, and even some surface parking. With the Target Center (home of the basketball Timberwolves—the hockey Wild play in Saint Paul) and several theaters nearby, the events parking market is rather well established, and there may not be a need to claim more land for parking. However, the few surface parking lots nearby will become more valuable as parking, which may hamper redevelopment efforts in the neighborhood, unless the ballpark increases their value as developed land.

The Twins, who originally played at suburban Metropolitan Stadium (now the Mall of America) have decreased nearby surface parking with each move. Their original ballpark was similar to Kauffman or Miller Park in Milwaukee—everyone drives, and many tailgate. Thirty years later, they are now playing in a very urban-feeling environment.

Target Field is also accessible by transit, and these connections are well publicized by the team and city, which hope to limit the volume of traffic around the stadium on game days. Amongst stadia with transit connections, there are actually few which are located as centrally on a transit system as Target Stadium, or at least as it has the potential to be. Stadia require quite a bit of land and, recently, quite a bit of parking, which are not generally compatible with the centers of transit systems. If you look at older ballparks (or former locations)—Fenway, Wrigley, Yankee Stadium, Shibe and Baker Park (in Philadelphia), Comiskey, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds—they are generally on transit lines, and far from the nexus of the transit system. Even in cities with new stadiums, like AT&T Park in San Francisco or the ballpark in Washington, D.C., the parks are generally not near main transit stations. In cities with major transit systems, land near major centers are just too damn valuable for a block of grass and stands which are only used 250 hours each year.

In other words, most baseball stadia require a transfer. They’re not near commuter rail terminal stations. They were built where there was cheap, vacant land, which, for older stadia, was usually a few miles out from the middle of the city. In Boston, this means that thousands jam the trolleys to Kenmore (when this coincides with the end of rush hour, for a 7:00 game, the trains are jammed). In New York, the two lines which serve the Stadium—the IRT Jerome Avenue Line (4) and the IND Concourse Line (B, D)—easily reach crush capacity, especially the over-capacity Lexington IRT which is already way beyond capacity (which is why they’re building the Second Avenue Subway), and the L to Addison in Chicago gets pretty full up to Wrigley.

Minneapolis has one rather-well used transit line, which was extended a stop to serve the stadium. The light rail vehicles on the line are rather large, with a crush capacity of more than 200, meaning a two-car train can carry nearly 500 passengers. Right now, the stadium is at the end of the line, meaning that fans can pour in to empty trains, and as long as the end of the game doesn’t conflict with rush hour (any weekday day games begin at noon, likely in the hopes the game will end before the height of the evening rush) and the trains should be able to clear passengers out before the rush. For 7:00 games, baseball fans will be traveling against rush hour, which is desirable. On evenings and weekends, the trains are relatively empty—the line is rather commuter-oriented—so they an be mostly devoted to game traffic. And the line was designed to stop adjacent to the stadium to allow for ease of boarding and alighting. There are no stairs, escalators or treks to the station. Many bus routes also pass nearby or terminate near the stadium.

In addition to the light rail, a new commuter rail service serves Minneapolis and stops below the stadium.  The 500 fans it can carry is small potatoes compared with the light rail (which can carry that many every few minutes) and it won’t even serve every game (it buys trackage rights from a very well-traveled section of one of the BNSF’s main transcontinental routes). However, it has large parking lots in the suburbs and special fares for ballgames, and appeared to be well-used this past week.

The line for the light rail was long, but orderly. Still, the boarding process needs to be streamlined.

There are definitely some kinks to work out. At the Metrodome, 4000 of the average of 30,000 fans came by train. Target Field seats 40,000 and should be sold out most of the season, and parking is harder and more costly; it’s presumable that upwards of 6000 fans will ride the light rail to the stadium. On Thursday, the line after the game was several hundred people long (but very orderly, as opposed to what happens in Boston or New York; it probably also meant that it was slower and that the maximum nuber of people were not filling the cars). MetroTransit had staff on hand, but did not have the vehicular capacity. In Boston, where the main sticking point is line capacity, the MBTA runs full rush-hour service before and after Red Sox games on the Green Line, and usually stores several cars in the Kenmore Loop, allowing them to run several trains outbound, one after the next, to deal with the post-game rush. Here, the line could support three car trains at three minute headways—700 people 20 times an hour—but was not utilized to that level.

MetroTransit needs to take heed. They have stub tracks beyond the station, and should have as many trains stored there as they can. With 300m of double-track, they should be able to have 10 cars—for 2500 people—stored there, although with two-car trains, only 8 cars for 2000 people may be feasible. They should then run these at three-to-five minute headways for the first half hour after the game. Additional cars stored just south of Downtown at the maintenance facility should be sent as quickly as possible, with boarding on both tracks. With the ability to run three-car trains, this would be a capacity of 8400 to 14000 per hour, more than enough to clear out the stadium traffic in 30 minutes after a game.

In the future, Target Field could become one of the most transit-centered ballparks in the country. Plans are moving forward to build the Central Corridor (to Saint Paul, 2014), and long range plans have these two lines, which will terminate at Target Field (thus doubling capacity through downtown), interlining through downtown with the Southwest Corridor (2015) and the Bottineau Transitway (to the northwest). With 7.5 minute headways (the current rush hour headways on the Hiawatha Line), 32 trains, each carrying up to 500 to 700 passengers, could pass Target Field each hour, carrying 16,000 to 22,000 passengers—more than enough capacity for the ballpark, and a capacity rivaling the transit capabilities of Fenway and Wrigley.

With ample parking in place and the possibility of increased transit service, Target Field may do a better job of drawing nearby development than the Metrodome. The Dome is in a no-mans land. It is surrounded by parking on all sides, and by freeways in two directions. Once transit showed up in 2004, its days as a baseball stadium were all but numbered. Target Field helps connect Downtown Minneapolis to the North Loop, a hodgepodge of new lofts, hip restaurants, and still-operational warehouses. It has a bit of parking, but most of this is a good distance from the ballpark, much further than the huge ramps nearby (thus, its value as parking won’t increase dramatically with the new ballpark). There is a rather obtrusive highway offramp between the stadium and the North Loop; however, if it were dismantled, would yield a plethora of developable land with half a mile of the Mississippi River, Downtown, transit and bicycle facilities. It is also slated to have a line of Minneapolis’s proposed streetcar network pass through it. The North Loop could benefit greatly from being linked to downtown by the park, which bridges the former two-block-wide trench between the neighborhood and the downtown with rather wide pedestrian concourses, and be further developed as a transit-oriented, mixed-use neighborhood, where there are currently underutilized light industrial plots or warehouses within a mile of downtown.

Finally, with Minneapolis currently the top bicycling city in the country, I’d be remiss to not mention the stadium’s situation regarding cycling. And walking. As far as walkability, the ballpark is a few blocks from Hennepin and, while not connected to the Skyway system (which are used more in the winter than summer) it is better connected by sidewalks and by the new pavilion built between the ballpark and the Target Center.

Ten minutes before game time (and ten minutes before the sun came out), the bike racks at the field were full, even though it had rained lightly in the morning. Several other similar racks line the stadium walls.

As for cycling, Minneapolis probably has more people who bicycle to baseball games than any other city. The bike racks at the Metrodome, which was actually located near more bike trails than Target Field, were always well used, but they were tucked away on one side of the building, away from most of the trails. The field is surrounded by bike racks (map [pdf]), including racks which line the northwest promenade of the field—built over the railroad tracks—and when I visited this week, they were all packed. Perhaps the Twins need to install some more.

In addition, the Cedar Lake Bike trail, which extends in to downtown from the southwest, is being extended under the ballpark. It will connect the bike trail along the Mississippi River to the stadium, and allow grade-separated bike access to the stadium, avoiding foot and car traffic. With these improvements, the bike facilities near Target Field will be unparalleled in the major leagues. (And, no, when I was living a similar distance from the ballpark in Boston, I never even thought of biking to Fenway.)

With easy transit options (a bus straight from my house; a nice bike ride along the river) and a lovely field I do want to see at night, I’ll be back.

When streets were streets

About a week ago, Infrastructurist posted about the various materials used for sidewalks. The consensus is that concrete is cheap and functional if not very environmentally friendly (both in its construction and its low permeability). Of course, in Paris, the streets are cobbled, which is beautiful, if a bit jarring to drivers and cyclists (although perhaps better than potholed asphalt).
Now, in America, except in a few instances (historic districts, or places where rich people gather, or both), streets are pavement. In some cases, concrete. Pavement is good when it’s good, but when it’s bad, it’s real bad. In other words, asphalt seems to have a wide range of conditions: new asphalt is silky smooth, but it doesn’t last in good shape. For a while it’s tolerable, until there’s a year with a lot of freeze-thaw cycles and gaps, gashes, frost heaves and, yes, potholes take over.
And that’s where we are in the Twin Cities. We’ve had an about-normal winter, but it’s been marked by a decent amount of warmer and colder temperatures. And snow. And plows. Minneapolis had enough snow accumulated that they had to ban parking on one side of narrow streets to allow traffic to flow, and all over there are huge gaping holes in the streets. And that’s meant we get to see what lies beneath.
Here’s the middle of the intersection of University Avenue and Vandalia Street in Saint Paul. University was once the main thoroughfare between Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and while most traffic now takes the paralleling I-94, it is home to buses and will, in a few years, be home to the Central Corridor Light Rail. Of course, University had a streetcar line, which was very well patronized (the buses still run at 10-plus minute headways, with limited service at rush hours) until it was closed in favor of buses in the early 1950s. 
But 55 years later, the streetcar tracks, at least, are making a (re)appearance. The Google Street View from a couple years ago shows solid pavement at the corner of Vandalia and University. However, Vandalia is the route to the interstate for many trucks serving the nearby industrial area, as well as going to a large BNSF multi-modal facility, and the corner sees a lot of heavy traffic. So with the current winter, the pavement has been torn up pretty well.
It’s actually not bad to drive on—the holes are wide enough that they aren’t all that deep (the sides generally slope) but so much pavement is gone that you can see the streetcar tracks as well as the pavement. And it’s really quite interesting. First of all, for such a wide road, the streetcar tracks really take up a small amount of room. The image above shows that the tracks are contained in a lane-and-a-half of a turn lane and median (no comment on how ugly the University streetscape is), and there are two lanes of traffic and a wide parking lane on either side.
But second, it gives us a really good idea of what streets used to look like. Here’s a closer-up look at the exposed section. The rail on the left is the southern rail of the eastbound track, the rail visible to the right is the southern rail of the westbound track. So, between the tracks were (are) gray cobblestones, and on the outside red brick. There isn’t much color film from the time, but it seems that University, with red and gray stone and silver, steel rails would be almost elegant (some trees would be nice as well). Now, with gray, gray and more gray, it’s quite drab.
Apparently bricks and cobbles don’t hold up well to heavy truck traffic, although this section seems to be doing just fine. Apparently bricks and cobbles were used along streetcar routes because they could be more easily picked up and laid down when track work was necessary. Of course, there’s a possibly apocryphal tale that Melbourne, Australia’s trams were saved when, in the ’50s, the tracks were set in concrete, so that ripping them up would be prohibitive (in the US they were mostly just paved over). The union’s intransigence there—they required two-man operation on buses, and streetcars had conductors until the 1990s, when their removal caused a crippling strike (long story short: government says “one person tram operation”, union says “no” and runs trams without collecting fares, government plans to cut power to the system, union drives trams on to streets in city center, where they sit for a month)—was probably more to blame.
When Lake Street was rebuilt in Minneapolis in 2005, the street below was in similar shape—shoddy asphalt over a firm streetcar base. Since it was not just repaved, it was dug up completely, and Twin Citians flocked to scavenge bricks from below. University, which is wider and longer than Lake Street, should be a field day for anyone who wants a new, free patio or walk—it will be fully rebuilt for the light rail line (yes, they’ve studied it, and they can’t just reuse the tracks already there).
But, why not build streets out of these materials again? The upside to pavement is that, for a while, you have a really nice road. But in the long run? You have ruts, dips and potholes. Another layer of pavement is a panacea; cracks almost always form where there were cracks before (it’s easy to find old streetcar tracks—they’re wherever there are parallel cracks running down the road). Bricks and cobbles are attractive and permeable. Water filters through, which is better for the environment. As long as there’s no heavy truck or bus traffic, they’re fine. If something goes wrong, it’s easy to make small repairs which actually last (as opposed to patches which tear out during the next thaw). And for cyclists, constant cobbles are almost better than old pavement with huge potholes and ruts, even if you have a good bunny hop.
I’m not saying it’s the way to go for every street, but in certain cases—especially if there are streetcars involved, red bricks and granite pavers may be the way to go. And in many cases, they may be lurking just below the surface already.

Apparently, there are folks whose schedules don’t fit Northstar

Last week, I wrote about how late night commuter service helps rush hour trips. The main contention is that for anyone who doesn’t have a very stable 8-4 or 9-5 job, the Northstar Line is not a viable option, and how this is actually the case for many other commuter rail systems in the country.

One of these prospective riders wrote about it in the Star Tribune. We seem to agree. Her worry is, however, that if ridership is muted, it will never be able to expand north or to change its schedule. The politics and logistics of adding trips are very tricky, but it seems that having a later evening trip or two (8 p.m. and 11 p.m.) would provide a safety net allowing many more commuters on the late trains. A sweeper bus or two would work as a preliminary measure (there is currently one bus which leaves at 7:00 and only serves some stations). If not, well, it means more cars on the road, and fewer riders on the rails.

The Northstar Line, and how late night service helps rush hour ridership

A shorter version of this was originally posted as a comment on The Transport Politic.

One problem with Northstar, and most new systems, is that by running only at rush hour they are aimed strictly at the 8-4 / 9-5 crowd. Anyone who ever has to stay later at their job can’t take the train, or wind up a very costly ($80-120) mile cab ride from home. In order to plug a deficit, the MBTA proposed cutting service after 7 p.m. in Boston and there was a ton of outcry. People basically said “having late trains, even ones running every two hours, allows me to take the train every day. If you cut those trains, I have to drive.” So there’s a whole market which is ignored by limiting transit to commute hours only.

Of course, Boston and other legacy commuter systems (New York, Philly, some of DC, Chicago and San Francisco) have existing trackage rights or own their track outright, so don’t have to worry about freight rail’s demands. (The Northstar Line shares track with a major BNSF transcon route which sees about 50 freight trains a day.) Of the non-legacy systems, only Miami-West Palm Beach, Utah, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Connecticut’s Shore Line East provide any sort of evening service.

This evening service, while not well patronized, helps more people take transit. While there are no definitive numbers, let’s make a some assumptions/educated guesses for cities with full-schedule commuter rail. Eighty percent of transit ridership is during traditional rush hours: in by 9, out between 3:30 and 6:30. Ten percent is on midday services, and ten percent on evening services. It seems that you could cut these services, and lose only 20% of your ridership while eliminating 40% of the trains. However, it’s not this simple.

One of the reasons people don’t ride transit is because of their families. A frequent issue brought up by many potential riders is “what happens if my kid gets sick and I need to pick them up at at school?” (Nevermind that this is an infrequent enough occurrence that the money saved on gas and parking would more than cover a cab fare twice a year.) But, it’s a valid concern, especially for systems where suburban transit quits from 9 to 3. Even with hourly or every-two-hour service, it provides some safety net. If your kid gets sick you’ll be able to get there at some point in before the school day is out.

The other reason people eschew transit in underserved cities is the “what happens if I have to stay late?” question. As mentioned, in the the legacy commuter rail cities, if you have to stay late, you’ll get home. You might not be able to walk down to the station and get on a train which runs every twenty minutes like at rush hour, but if you have to stay until 7:00 you’ll at least get home in time to say the proverbial good night to the kids. The late trains provide a sort of safety net—for people who have to occasionally and unexpectedly stay late, it allows to them to come to work without a car and know that they’ll get home. For a lot of employees, this makes the difference between taking the train to work and driving.

So let’s go back to the 80-20 rush hour–non-rush split. For people who might sometimes have to work late, probably 95% of their trips are during rush hour—ten or twelve times a year they have to stay late at work. So, out of a hypothetical 100 riders, 95 of are crowding trains at rush hour, and 5 are taking trains later on. However, if you cut the late service, you not only lose the five people on these relatively uncrowded services, but the 95 on the earlier trains, too. So you can’t cut evening trains and expect to retain your full peak ridership.

There is another element to running late-night service: it allows people who work downtown to stay downtown. Many American cities has 9-5 downtowns: they empty out at night and seem desolate. This is mainly because there is not the critical mass of people to populate the streets and go to restaurants and shows. In a city like Minneapolis, which has a rather high transit mode-split but little late night service, people who want to stay out late, if they are from the suburbs, are forced to drive. Minneapolis has a good number of services downtown, from a full-scale Macys (originally Daytons) to a full-scale Target, as well as baseball and basketball arenas, as well as the Guthrie Theater and Orchestra Hall. Providing later service would allow people to take transit in in the morning and stay downtown to avail themselves of the amenities which are not available in the suburbs.

One means to this end might be shorter trains or, in the very long run, electrification of commuter runs. The Trinity Railway Express between Dallas and Fort Worth uses old Budd RDCs for some off-peak trips, which are more efficient for transporting smaller numbers of passengers. With locomotive-hauled services (or motor-hauled electric services) there is little incentive to shorten trains, as uncoupling a few cars decreases efficiency very little. (This is why off-peak trains in Boston, for example, often operate full-length trains with only two or three cars open.) With DMUs or EMUs, there is a significant energy-use savings with shorter trains.

In the long run, the plan is to run service from Minneapolis to Saint Cloud. While criticisms of the first phase of this project may be apt, it will make much more sense if there are trains running to the proper end of the line there. It would be more of a cross between intercity rail and a commuter service, and would probably necessitate midday and evening trips (these could be run every three hours in each direction with only one train set and crew). Saint Cloud is home to 60,000 people, has a local bus system, and, possibly most importantly, has a 20,000 student state university, with most of the students undergrads, and many from the Twin Cities. The campus is about 1/2 mile from the potential station site, adjacent to downtown, and bus lines currently connect the two.

So while the first phase is probably not cost effective, the overall project—with passenger rail service between two cities’ downtowns at highway-competitive speeds—may be quite a bit more useful to quite a few more riders.

The Central Corridor: a primer

One of my long-term projects, and when I say long term I mean long term, is to photograph the Central Corridor—between Minneapolis and Saint Paul—block by block, at various stages during its construction. I’ll post some of the photos here, although I assume that the whole avenue will be something along the lines of 150 photographs, and I’ll probably host those separately. I’m waiting on a wider-angle lens (24mm) which will let me more easily convey the street, especially considering its width in Saint Paul. It is my hope that, once the project is completed, photos can be taken from the same spots in the future for a before-and-after effect.

But before we dive in to a look at the Central Corridor—as it now stands—it would be helpful to have a quick (ha) primer on its history and some of the controversy towards bring fixed-guideway transit back to University. It helps to go all the way back to the founding of the Twin Cities. The area was inhabited by the Mdewakanton, a band of Dakota, before western settlement, which began in earnest in the early 1800s (there were traders and explorers before then, but none stayed). Fort Snelling was set up on the bluff overlooking the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, and still stands, but settlement never concentrated there. Instead, two urban centers developed, each with a different purpose. Saint Paul was built at a bend in the Mississippi and was the northernmost port on the river—north of Saint Paul the river enters a deep-walled gorge and a 50-foot waterfall—not conducive to navigation. With steamboats as the main transportation mode of the early- and mid-1800s, the city prospered.

Minneapolis, too, did quite well. While Saint Paul was the northernmost (or, perhaps, westernmost) connection to the east, Minneapolis became, in a way, the easternmost connection to the west, because it had something almost no other city in the Midwest had: water power. Between the Appalachians and the Rockies, there are many large rivers branching off from the Mississippi (in addition to the big river itself), many named after states: the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and others. Most of these, however, ply the plains, and, if they fall in elevation do so gradually. Not so for the Mississippi north of Saint Paul. After running in a wide, flat valley for its length, the old glacial outflows which provide that valley—the Saint Croix and Minnesota—diverge and the current main river climbs up through the gorge. Originally, the river fell over a ledge of limestone near the current confluence, and slowly crept north, eroding a few feet each year. This was stopped by the damming and control of the falls in the 1860s, although not for navigation—but for 111 vertical feet of water power. From across the growing wheat fields of the west, grain was shipped to Minneapolis to be milled and shipped east—where else was there available power?

(As an aside, it is often said that Saint Paul is the westernmost Eastern city and Minneapolis is the easternmost Western city. Saint Paul has narrower streets and is hemmed in by topography; most neighborhoods are up on hills. Minneapolis, on the other hand, is above the river, and spreads out across the plains. Perhaps this is a manifestation of from where the cities drew their influence.)

The Twin Cities are separated by about ten miles, and once railroads came in, there were services between the cities, the Short Line was built to help facilitate commuter-type services between the cities. However, while railroads have continued to play important roles in the Twin Cities’ economy even to this day (although less so than in the past), short distance passenger rail has not—the cities never developed commuter rail type services; those were supplied by streetcars. In 1890, the first “interurban” (so-called because it went served both Minneapolis and Saint Paul; it did not resemble a typical interurban) opened along University Avenue. The streetcars put the railroads out of the short-haul business between the cities, and within a few years the Twin Cities had a fully-built streetcar system service most main streets every fifteen minutes—or less. On University (and several other main lines) rush hour service was almost constant.

Low in-city density, little competition from mainline railroads, and relatively little crossover between the two cities (which generally had separate streetcar lines each focused on the downtown), however, meant that there was never impetus to built higher-speed or higher-capacity transportation. With the infatuation with buses of the 1950s, the Twin Cities were quick to rip up the streetcar lines, even where patronage was still high on some lines. Yes, the were shenanigans with proxy battles and speculation about the involvement of General Motors, but even if they lines had continued in private ownership, there was little to keep them from being torn out, like most other cities in the country. The only cities to keep their streetcars had major obstacles in the way of running buses: Boston and Philadelphia had tunnels through their central cities which would not accommodate buses (and nearly all of Boston’s existing lines run on private medians), San Francisco had several tunnels and private rights of way on existing lines, the Saint Charles Line in New Orleans runs in a streets median (or “Neutral Ground”) and Pittsburgh has streetcar tunnels. In every other city in the country—and there were hundreds—the streetcars disappeared. There’s little reason to expect that the Twin Cities, looking at street rebuilds in the time of rubber tires, would have behaved any differently, even without the goons who made it the first major city to switch to buses.

Speculation aside, it would be fifty years until rail transit ran again. The Central Corridor, mostly on University, was the obvious choice for the first corridor, from both a macro-political and planning standpoint. Politically, the line serves Saint Paul, the capitol, the University of Minnesota, and Downtown Minneapolis. Planning, it serves a major transportation corridor with inefficient bus service, high ridership, and the ability to spur more development. Logistically, the line from Minneapolis to the Mall of America, via the airport, was a bit easier to build, on a cancelled expressway right-of-way. And after years of planning and machinations, it was.

Between the two downtowns, however, there is still only bus service. There are three options: the 16 runs every ten minutes, all day, every day. It is very, very slow. There are stops every block, and since it traverses low-to-middle income, dense neighborhoods, it often winds up stopping every block, often for only one or two passengers. Most of the day, the trip—little more than ten miles—takes more than an hour. There is no signal priority, no lane priority, and the bus is far too slow to attract ridership from anyone in a hurry. A second option, which runs mostly at rush hour, is the 50, which stops every half mile or so and runs about 15 minutes faster than the 16. Then there’s the 94, which runs express between the downtowns (with one stop at Snelling Avenue) every fifteen minutes along I-94, which is a few blocks south of University. However, it poorly serves the corridor itself, and is not immune to the rush hour congestion which builds going in to each downtown, often as early as 3:00 p.m.

In other words, there’s no fast, reliable transit connection along University between the Downtowns. The buses are crowded and slow. Despite frequent service, the avenue has a lot of land use poorly suited to its location between several of the major employment centers of the area. Closer to the University, it has been more built up, with some good, dense condo developments, but there are still huge tracts of light industry, unused surface parking lots, big box and strip malls and (mostly) abandoned car dealerships. Thus, it is primed for redevelopment, and, with the coming of fixed rail, will likely (hopefully) change dramatically, once the light rail can provide frequent service to both downtowns. The run time is scheduled to be 39 minutes, much of which will be spent navigating downtowns. Outside the downtowns, nowhere will be more than 30 minutes from either downtown, or the University, any time of day. It will be very accessible. And it will like transform the area dramatically. That’s why I want to photograph it before it all starts.

Next: The Central Corridor: controversy (or: “why is this taking so long?!”)

The saga of the Snelling Median

Over several years, a median has been proposed on Snelling Avenue in Saint Paul, to calm traffic and aide pedestrians. A long saga may soon be coming to fruition, although the local city councilmember is holding up the process. In several parts, here is the story.

A. An anecdote
B. Background and history
C. Current conditions
D. Crossing the street
E. The Grand Avenue median
F. Bring the median to Snelling
G. Project status.

Snelling and Grand, the north end of the proposed median.

A. An anecdote

Last August, I walked from my house two blocks east, planning to attend the opening of a new athletic facility at my alma mater. There is one barrier between my house and the college, a quarter of a mile west: Snelling Avenue.

I walked down to Snelling, and—well—I’ll let my archived chat (cleaned up a bit) from that evening tell the story:

… I got to Snelling, which is four lanes wide and I did my usual walk out in the crosswalk and start waving my arms and pointing at the crosswalk as the idiotic traffic goes by completely neglecting crosswalks (I swear people are worse about stopping at crosswalks here than in Boston).

Finally, a guy in a minivan in the nearest lane stops and I slowly walk out in front of him as he glares at me. Then the car in the next lane slows down, honks at me, and speeds up.

I cross behind it and go on my way, but these cars aren’t done. The guy in the van flips me off, and then goes to bang an U-ey to come back and yell at me (Minnesotans bottle up their anger and let it out when they are driving.)—Except, the other car was in his blind spot, so he turned RIGHT IN TO IT!

No one was hurt, but the drivers were mad at me (even though the accident happened 100 feet down the road from the crosswalk). The woman in the car ran across four lanes of traffic—not in a crosswalk, mind you— and started screaming at me. I told her that it was a crosswalk and I had right of way.

Her response: “But it’s rush hour. You can’t go walking across busy streets at Rush Hour” and then claims that her mother, who was driving, is from Arizona, where the laws are different (they aren’t). The other guy also told me that, sure, maybe there is a law about pedestrians having the right of way, but it’s rush hour—they had conferred and this was their best defense. Obviously it is okay to break the law at certain times of day. (“I’m sorry officer, but I’m allowed to carry around half a kilo of cocaine at night, right?”)

The woman wanted me to stay until the cops came so they could give me a ticket … I said I highly doubted that I’d get a ticket. The cop came, and they rushed up to him. “And a pedestrian—” they stammered, but he cut them off.

“Someone was struck? Where are they.”

“I’m right here, officer, I’m fine,” I said. He sort of told them to go away and then told me that I certainly do have the right of way, rush hour or not.

The Goodrich crosswalk where the above incident was triggered. The cars actually collided about 100 feet to the north (right) of this picture.

B. Background and history

Snelling Avenue is a main north-south road in Saint Paul, and lies about three miles west of Downtown and a mile and a half east of the Mississippi, running down the center of a lobe of land around which the river curves. It was undeveloped until the early 1900s when several streetcar lines running from downtown ran west, and one of two “crosstown” lines (the other being on Lake Street in Minneapolis) was built on Snelling. Because of its location and streetcar history, it was built relatively wide—sixty to seventy-five feet—for its entire length from Ford Parkway to Como Avenue, plus parking in most areas. When the streetcar tracks came out, Snelling became a major north-south artery—it is designated as Minnesota State Highway 51—and given four lanes of traffic plus parking.

However, it was never designed to be a freeway and serves neighborhoods which, despite the Twin Cities’ reliance on the automobile, are still rather walkable. Nearly all of the construction along and near Snelling is pre-war, and most of it is still in existence. The avenue itself is lined with a mixture of single- and multi-family housing, a few apartment blocks and commercial development. While a few sections have been given over to surface parking and strip malls, most development is still built flush with the sidewalk, and the majority of the storefronts date from the 1920s or before, often with housing above. The route is still served by a bus line, the 84, which is designated as a “high frequency route” and has 15-minute headways every day but Sunday.

Still, despite the development along the street, the wide, straight nature gives it a resemblance to many of the four lane “streets” which grace the suburbs and have 45 or 50 mph speed limits. And, for a variety of reasons, it receives quite a bit of traffic which ostensibly does not orignate or terminate along the street. The local neighborhoods have, thus far, been successful in keeping Ayd Mill Road (I will, in the future, post about Ayd Mill) from being completed to connect Interstates 35E and 94, so quite a bit of traffic crossing the Mississippi on 35E chooses Snelling to travel north to the Midway and I-94. In addition, since I-35E is not open to trucks north of the river, many big rigs use Snelling to go north. And because these drivers often have navigated wide, fast roads they often don’t heed the 30 mph speed limit on Snelling. Enforcement is relatively good—more often than not a patrol car sits at the end of Goodrich Avenue, midway between Saint Clair and Grand Avenues, looking for speeders (although not drivers failing to yield right-of-way, it seems), and usually does not have to wait long. Still, traffic, especially at rush hour, is rather frenetic.

C. Current conditions

Between Saint Clair and Summit Avenues, Snelling is bounded on the west by Macalester College. From Saint Clair to Grand, about 0.4 miles, there are no lights and no cross-streets—all of the streets end at Snelling. Thus, along this section of road, there is little to keep traffic from moving slowly. The college generally opens away from Snelling on to quads, and while the street is well-landscaped, there are not uses which interact with the street. On the east side of the street, it is generally bounded by houses which face on to the cross-streets. It feels like a road that should have a faster speed limit than 30.

However, it is highly trafficked by pedestrians as well as cars. It carries the aforementioned 84 bus route plus an express route at rush hours to Minneapolis (the 144). And while most Macalester freshmen and sophomores do live in on-campus dorms, most upperclassmen do not. During the school year, there is a steady stream of pedestrian traffic from rental properties in the neighborhood to the east to the college and back, several times a day. None of this is a problem—the college interacts surprisingly well with the neighborhood (there are isolated incidents, and some resentment of student housing causing the decay of some property, but real estate values are quite high in the area). Added together, there are thousands of trips across Snelling every day in addition to the thousands of trips along the street.

D. Crossing the street

The crosswalk south of Lincoln

Herein lies the problem: it’s not easy to cross the street. Often at crosswalks, both marked and unmarked, one lane of traffic will stop for a pedestrian. However, walking in front of a stopped vehicle is nothing short of a death wish: traffic often passes stopped cars oblivious to pedestrians and statute at speed, making it absolutely necessary for pedestrians to check other lanes when crossing. With four lanes of traffic, waiting for traffic to stop in all lanes is often a cumbersome task, leading to irritation of both the crossing party and law-abiding motorists who have to wait for their less-lawful peers.

And then, as illustrated by the anecdote at the top of this post, there are those motorists who believe that they are somehow exempt from the law, and don’t find it necessary to look for or stop for motorists. While no one, to my knowledge, has been seriously injured or killed crossing Snelling, it is a proverbial accident waiting to happen. And a couple of motorists this past summer had some time with their cars in the shop because of their failure to obey the law. Perhaps, during that time, they had to walk as well.

E. The Grand Avenue median

Just west of Snelling, Grand Avenue bisects the Macalester College campus. Originally, Grand terminated at the campus, which ran north to Summit, but was extended west in 1890 to accommodate the streetcars. Grand is one of the major commercial corridors in Saint Paul, and both east and west of the college are blocks of stores. Grand is slightly wider than most of the east-west streetcar streets in Saint Paul (Randolph, Saint Clair, Selby, Minnehaha) and today sports, along most of its length, two lanes of traffic, a turn lane (despite the general absence of driveways along the street) and parking on both sides. Through the college, however, the parking lanes were eliminated and the turn lane became a striped median. Traffic didn’t zoom through campus, with a traffic light at the east end and a commercial corridor to the west, but was still able to make some speed through the campus without parked cars or storefronts.

The Grand Avenue median. Much nicer than yellow striping on asphalt.

The issue was less the traffic and more the fact that this portion of Grand Avenue divides the academic buildings and dining hall at Macalester from most of the housing. Thus, approximately 1000 students daily cross Grand for classes, meals and to go to the library. On any given day are likely more feet than tires on the avenue. And for decades, the students generally crossed the street at three intersecting sidewalks between Snelling and Macalester avenues. The median was first proposed in the fall of 2002, at a time when students periodically painted crosswalks across the street, which would then be blacked out by police. (Despite current signs which state that pedestrians do not have the right of way, the crossings would appear to be “unmarked crosswalks,” extensions of sidewalks across the roadway.)

The spring of 2003 brought the beginning of experimentation, with a chain-link fence erected in order to funnel students to one crossing, but the fence was taken down repeatedly by students (not that I know any of the culprits or anything). Subsequent surveys showed that students felt safer crossing in the temporary medians which were erected. Designs changed over the next few years; parking spaces which had been planned were eliminated, and the communited supported the median as well. It was erected in late 2004 and has beautified the street, created a better environment for pedestrians and not had any major ill effects.

F. Bringing a median to Snelling

View this map larger in a new window
Map of the area of the Snelling median

The median on Grand was not very controversial. The only abutter was the college, the center of the street was already striped as a median, and no businesses were impacted. The college footed most of the construction bill and the street is safer today for all. On Snelling, the median would be quite a bit longer and involve dozen of abutters and several cross streets. Furthermore, since Snelling is a state highway, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is involved. In other words, there is a much greater opportunity for dissent.

The median is being spearheaded by the Macalester High Winds Fund, Macalester’s community liason and real estate management. The Mac-Groveland community has also been heavily involved in the process. The community has generally been in favor, but not completely. The pros are generally rather obvious (calmer traffic, easier crossings, &c.) but the cons are a bit harder to figure, but still somewhat important to examine. According to several articles, they break down to:

• The potential loss of parking, especially near Grand and the new athletic facility
• Increased congestion related to slower traffic
• The elimination of left-turning traffic on to two streets (Sargent, Fairmont, Lincoln is currently one way and on to which turns are not allowed), and the subsequent addition of traffic to some streets (Goodrich and Osceola)
• Loss of access to some businesses, notably Lincoln Commons between Lincoln and Grand
• Narrower areas for bikers
• No pull-offs for buses

There are other concerns, but these are the most well-founded—the others are raised by citizens going on about the spoiled brats who dare to cross Snelling or residents who refer to Snelling as a highway (which it, historically, is not).

First, parking. Parking is a very frequent planning concern and probably one of the most unheralded (since it is not at all “sexy”), even in neighborhoods such as Mac-Groveland where parking is ample and generally free. Along Snelling, there are three distinct parking issues. The first is near Saint Clair. Here, some street parking would disappear, but its impact would be minimal. The stores along Snelling north of Saint Clair have parking behind, and on the west side the street borders the Macalester stadium, which is rarely a driver of major traffic. During events which do create traffic, the street parking fills rather quickly and then spills on to neighboring streets, but, again, this does not occur frequently.

Between Sargent and Lincoln, parking is rarely an issue. On the west side of the street, it is bordered by college buildings which do not drive huge amounts of traffic or, if they do, provide ample parking. The on-street spaces which might be eliminated are already minimized by bus stops and loading zones, so at most a few cars would spill on to the east-west streets, which, except during events at the athletic facility, have ample parking. The new athletic facility lots provide more parking than the ones which were replaced, even though it serves the same sized community. Except during events, it is rarely full. The church across the street has a large parking lot which is also underutilized.

The main concern is north of Lincoln. Here, street parking is rather heavily used for local businesses, especially at the end of rush hour. While businesses do provide their own parking (Lincoln Commons is a very small strip-mall) it is sometimes not adequate in the evening. However, the number of street spots available is minimal. North of Lincoln Commons is a bus stop and turn lane, and parking is prohibited. South of it, there are several driveways which preclude parking. Five spots, at most, would be eliminated which directly serve these businesses, and the lack of these spaces may ease congestion entering and exiting the lot.

This segues well in to the next issue: the elimination of left turns in to Lincoln Commons. Lincoln Commons is a four-store (a Kinkos-Fedex, a coffee shop, a hair salon and a fish store) urban-strip mall development. Unlike some parts of Snelling (notably the Cheapo Discs north of Summit, which has a parking lot far larger than necessitated) it is not set back far from the street and the parking is minimal and well-landscaped. Lincoln Commons is on the west side of the avenue, and while Lincoln Avenue, at the south end of the block, is one-way towards Snelling, Lincoln can be entered and exited to the southbound side of Snelling. There is a minimal turn lane from these lanes, which allows traffic to access the complex without tying up Snelling while waiting for the northbound lanes to clear. However, the rigmarole to access the complex seems quite dangerous—sitting in the middle of a busy street with cars passing by on both sides in opposite directions. In fact, it does not meet current safety protocols and would likely be eliminated by the Department of Transportation in upcoming years. It is also not particularly pedestrian-friendly, with traffic turning from thirty or forty feet and often gunning across the sidewalk in an attempt to clear small breaks in traffic.

The left turn “lane” in to Lincoln Commons.

The proposed median would cut off the southbound lanes of Snelling from Lincoln Commons, meaning that it could only be accessed and enterd from the northbound lanes. The concern amongst the businesses is that this will necessitate a longer procedure for southbound customers. Instead of a left in to the parking lot and a left out, they’ll be forced to make a U-turn in to the northbound lanes, a right turn in to the lot, a right out of it, and another U-turn at Grand, or a combination of turns to return to Snelling southbound. These will add time, but they will also require much less risky maneuvers, namely nixing the double mid-block left turns across the Northbound lanes of Snelling. It will help pedestrians as well, as cars will only come from one direction, and won’t have to worry about opposing traffic and pedestrians. It is not a perfect situation—it will probably have a minor effect on these businesses (especially the fish store, which is often visited by commuters for a short time to pick up dinner during evening rush hour)—but also not one which will effect the businesses to the extent that they will see a major negative impact in sales.

In fact, in the long term, it may help. If the neighborhood is more walkable—that is, if Snelling is no longer perceived as a barrier—they will expand their market for customers who do not drive. In fact, if the procedure for parking involves four moves (U-turn, right turn, right turn, U-turn) instead of two, it may entice some local residents to walk or bike, rather than driving. Consider, for instance, two potential markets. The first lives several minutes drive from Lincoln Commons, or pass the complex as part of a longer commute. They are coming to the stores there for a specific service they can not find closer to home, and driving is likely their only means of transportation. For these customers, the median may add one minute to a fifteen minute trip, an insignificant change. They’ll still come, and they’ll still drive.

The other market is made up of nearby residents, who may live only two or three minutes’ drive away, comparable to a walk of five or ten minutes. Most notably, I am thinking of residents who live west of Macalester. For these customers, adding a minute to their drive time would be an increase of 20-25%, making it significantly longer. However, their walking time would remain the same, and may even be shorter, and certainly more pleasant. For this customer base, the complex would be further in terms of driving time, but perhaps closer overall. And pedestrians do not require parking spaces.

There is also the concern that eliminating left turns on to and off of some streets will result in an increase in traffic on others. This is not a major issue because these streets only serve the immediate neighborhoods—all through traffic follows Grand or Saint Clair which lack stop signs. Traffic on these streets is quite minimal, with no more than a few dozen cars each hour. Doubling the traffic on any street would not be noticeable—they’d still be quiet, residential streets. In addition, with some turns blocked off, traffic would be more likely to utilize the north-south streets to access Grand and Saint Clair, and subsequently Snelling. Traffic patterns will change, and traffic may become more concentrated, but the number of cars involved are low enough that it will be a nonissue.

The Snelling “raceway.” Note the lack of any parking lane markings, making the street seem even wider than it is.

The next issue, congestion related to slower traffic is, in my opinion, a very minor concern. The main issue with more congestion is for those who consider Snelling to be a trunk highway. It is not. It is a city street, and for a variety of reasons, has a lot of traffic. Still, it is not congested. Traffic counts on the street are approximately 25,000 per day, which is not particularly high for a four-lane road. It is rare for traffic to have to sit at lights for more than one light cycle, and between intersections, traffic moves too quickly if anything. If anything, traffic calming would ease congestion. Instead of jackrabbit starts and braking for red lights from 40 mph to zero, it would allow for smoother traffic flow. The amount of congestion on such a street is not dictated by the speed of the traffic, but by traffic lights and turning vehicles. Reducing turns would do far more to ease congestion than reducing speed would to create it.

The median will mainly change conditions for motorists and pedestrians, but will also effect cyclists and transit riders. There is some concern that the narrowing of the street from five lanes (or even seven, if the parking lanes are included) to four will create a hardship for bikers, who will no longer have a wide, and often empty, parking lane in which to seek refuge. There are two reasons why the new design may actually benefit cyclists. The first is that it will better define the uses of the street, on which there is currently no delineation be the travel lanes and parking lanes. While bike lanes are not in the current design, it is possible they could be demarcated at a later date. The second is that biking on Snelling is currently rather horrid. If the avenue becomes more like Lexington Parkway, the north-south street a mile east, it will be superior to the current conditions.

Finally, the buses which ply Snelling four (or more) times per hour will no longer have stops in which to pull off at minor cross streets. This, too, is a minor issue. First of all, most bus ridership is concentrated at Grand and Saint Clair, where there are bus shelters and benches, as opposed to signposts. So buses usually stop for only a few seconds. Secondly, buses waste quite a bit of time pulling off the travel lane to pick up passengers and then having to attempt to merge back in, where drivers only sometimes yield right of way. And since Snelling will still have multiple lanes in each direction, traffic will be able to pass buses if they need to stop for longer periods of time.

G. Project status

The High Winds Fund at Macalester has been instrumental in securing funds for the Snelling median, which has received the approval of the neighborhood council as well. In addition to state funding, an appropriation of $475,000 was received from Congress, since it was federal legislation which made Snelling the de facto route for truck which might otherwise use I-35E. However, to received the state funds, and probably the federal funding, the project must start by June 30.

The ducks are all in line, except for one: The local councilmember, Pat Harris, has long been opposed to the project. The Lincoln Commons landlord has been unhappy about the perceived lack of business (which, as discussed, may not even be the case) and wanted the median to start south of his complex—negating the effect of the median where the plurality of accidents have occurred, and cutting off the possibility of state money. It will come down to a few days and community participation as to whether the median will come to fruition—or get caught up in local politics. If it does, it will be to the detriment of thousands of pedestrians in a supposedly walkable neighborhood.

Finally, like it or not, this is a shovel-ready stimulus project. Assuming we can agree that on its merits it is at least palatable, it will bring in jobs to the community. Can we afford not to do something like that?

Bike 1, Car 0

When we left the Nook on Tuesday, my housemate and his girlfriend got in to their car and I straddled my bike. As we sat at the first traffic light, I realised that I needed my headlamp was in my bag, so I fumbled for it and put it on. As I did, he yelled out the open window “get a car, hippie!” I took this as an invitation to race.

I knew I’d have a tailwind and that if the lights behaved I had a chance. I roared down Hamline, almost keeping pace with traffic at 28 mph. At Saint Clair, I rolled to his left to take a left as he waited for the light to change, tapping his windows as I rode by. He yelled the name of a baseball player we’d been trying to remember (Nick Swisher, a current Yankee mentioned in Moneyball, which he is reading) and, with no traffic at 10:30, I hung the left and made for home.

One stop sign later, I rolled to a stop at our corner, pumping my fist as I did so as he was still half a block away from home. The moral of the story: cars may have some advantages over bikes, but they are not necessarily always faster.

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Upper Midwest High Speed Rail

(This post was originally written as a comment on Richard Florida’s Blog at The Atlantic in response to a comment about what new markets would be opened with a high speed rail link from the Twin Cities to Chicago)

Time-competitive rail service from Minneapolis to Chicago would transform the market dramatically. Currently there are three main options:

* By car, which is 400 miles each way and takes seven hours, without traffic. With traffic, it’s quite a bit longer. The cost is dependent on gas prices, but if you are going to Chicago you have to worry about parking, and tolls

*By train/bus, which takes about the same time as driving. By bus, it’s seven hours in a airplane-legroom seat (hell on wheels); by train it’s more spacious and more expensive

* By plane, which is pretty quick (1:20 in the air plus an hour-or-so on each end) but has extremely variable costs. Since Southwest is flying the route and demand is low, tickets with advanced purchase are currently about $100 roundtrip. Last summer, however, when only Northwest, American and United were “competing,” tickets cost on the order of $400. And without 14 days advanced notice, tickets on the route are over $200 even now.

In other words, travel by air is relatively fast but has a very variable costs, and is quite dependent on fuel prices. Travel by road or rail is cheaper, but the time cost of at least half a day makes it very unattractive. There is currently no middle ground–a relatively fast service which has relatively low prices and does not have draconian fees for booking at the last minute. This is one market which currently does not exist.

The other markets which do not currently exist are for intermediate city pairs. The most logical route (despite what various Minnesota politicians continue to argue) is via Saint Paul, Rochester (Mayo Clinic), Winona (Winona State Univ.), La Crosse (Univ. Wisconsin campus), Madison and Milwaukee. Looking at it in a similar manner to a recent post on this blog:

Route, Gmaps driving time, distance, 155 mph HSR time, daily flights
Saint Paul – Chicago via Milwaukee,     7:05, 422 miles,     HSR: 2:43,     Flights: 50,
Saint Paul – Chicago direct Chicago – Madison,     6:33, 401 miles,     HSR: 2:35,
Saint Paul – Rochester,     1:33, 78 miles,     HSR: 0:30,     Flights: 6*,
Saint Paul – Winona,     2:21, 113 miles,     HSR: 0:44,
Saint Paul – La Crosse,     2:42, 150 miles,     HSR: 0:58,     Flights: 6*,
Saint Paul – Madison,     4:22, 262 miles,     HSR: 1:41,     Flights: 5,
Saint Paul – Milwaukee,     5:19, 328 miles,     HSR: 2:07,     Flights: 17,
Rochester – Madison,     3:30, 211 miles,     HSR: 1:22,
Rochester – Chicago,     5:41, 350 miles,     HSR: 2:15,     Flights: 6,
La Crosse – Madison,     2:30, 143 miles,     HSR: 0:55,
Madison – Milwaukee,     1:25, 79 miles,     HSR: 0:31,     Flights: 4*,
Madison – Chicago,     2:34, 147 miles,     HSR: 0:57,     Flights: 11*,
Milwaukee – Chicago,     1:42, 92 miles,     HSR: 0:36,     Flights: 12*

I threw in daily flights as an afterthought, and it’s not all it might seem to be, since both Minneapolis (Northwest) and Chicago (United, American, Southwest) are hubs. So a lot of people on those flights are going somewhere else and just making the first leg of their trip. I put an asterisk (*) where it seemed most of the flyers were in this group; flights where it wouldn’t make sense to fly for such a short leg. Some of these routes, particularly Madison to Milwaukee, could easily be replaced by rail service if it existed (Milwaukee has an airport train station). In fact, I was once on a Midwest flight which had a cracked windshield and we needed a new plane, so they pulled one off the Milwaukee-Madison route and, presumably, put the passengers in a couple of cabs to Madison.

Routing some trains via O’Hare could potentially eliminate a lot of short, inefficient feeder plane trips, which the airlines might actually want to drop. You can already buy a plane ticket and travel portions on TGV or even Amtrak (anywhere between New Haven and Wilmington to Newark, for example). If you’re on Continental flight 94XX, you’re on a train.

The other market this opens are the various intermediate markets along the route (and similar markets exist along other routes, for sure). First of all, several cities become suburbs. Rochester (home of the esteemed Mayo Clinic) and Winona (two colleges) become suburbs of the Twin Cities, and the Mayo Clinic becomes a quick trip from Saint Paul or Minneapolis. On the other end of the line, Madison and Milwaukee become suburbs of each other, and both become suburbs of Chicago.

La Crosse would be a bit more than an hour from the Twin Cities and Chicago, wuoldn’t quite be a suburb of either, but its location in between the two could be quite advantageous. The same can be said for Madison, which would be less than two hours from the Twin Cities. Each city would be linked with several major Creative Class-type economies (Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis).

Finally, some other intermediate trips link rather interesting pairs. Milwaukee-Madison-La Cross link three of the campuses of the University of Wisconsin. Rochester, which is currently an hour, by road, from Winona and La Crosse, would be linked in less than half that time. And Winona and La Crosse, now a 45 minute drive (with no real public transport) would be a 15 minute trip by train.