Minneapolis – St. Paul

Quote of the week: bike-bus conflicts

On the inevitable problem of curb bike lanes interacting with bus stops:

Generally, transit advocates are also bike advocates, but with regular on-street bike lanes, this conflict point becomes an unavoidable ally-versus-ally battle … As a bicyclist, I am constantly on the lookout for oncoming buses even when I’m in a bike lane. As a transit rider, the mere seconds delay to wait for a biker can cause my bus to miss a traffic signal, which can cause me to miss my transfer, which can cause me to arrive 15 minutes late to work on the day where a coworker brought in Mel-O-Glaze Donuts, which can then cause me to be donut-less for the whole morning. Like, I said, none of this is good.

Chris Iverson at the Minneapolis blog streets.mn

This came across my email just as I'd finished a meeting about a bike vs bus lane problem on Auckland's Karangahape Road.  The interaction of curb-running bicycles and bus stops is a problem on every continent and island, because it's a geometry problem.

And that means, chill!  Obviously, we push back on anyone who says that either bikes or buses are "just more important" than the other; that's just tribalism.  But then you accept the difficulty and the unsatisfactoriness of any compromise, including the one Chris proposes, the "floating bus stop" shown here in an image from the NACTO Street Design Guidelines:


This works fine as long as the bus stop isn't busy, but of course there are likely to be lots of pedestrians crossing the bike lane at the times when the bus is stopped there, so a cyclist's odds of actually passing a stopped bus on the curb side may be limited.  I also prefer "table" or shared space solutions for the bike lane that alert the cyclist to yield to peds in this situation.  

Is it perfect?  No, but there isn't a perfect solution.  We know that geometrically, so: chill!

mitigating construction impacts through placemaking in St Paul (video)

Any large transportation infrastructure project involves the temporary inconvenience of construction. While a new rail line or viaduct might be a lasting asset for a city, and one that continues to be useful for decades to come, short term impacts can prove disastrous for people involved in commercial activity around the construction zone, and disruptive to neighborhood residents. In some cases, business owners have even been driven to legal action by this issue. Part of the problem is that for the duration of construction, inconvience, noise, and rubble can come to define perception of the corridor where work is being done. 

5VDEYtLHowever, disruption can also be an opportunity. In St. Paul, a local nonprofit called Springboard for the Arts led an initiative ("Irrigate") to try to respond to the construction of the Central Corridor Green Line and support local businesses and neighborhoods through a placemaking approach. Irrigate provided hundreds of artists with training and funding to do small projects in neighborhoods along the corridor in collaboration with business owners and neighborhood groups. This grant-funded program was specifically oriented towards improving business and neighborhood viability.

Here's their video:


A program like this can help to mitigate construction impacts through direct financial stimulus to artists, indirect support for businesses through those artists' projects, and a high level of media visibility that can change the conversation or perception about a place. Irrigate's goal was for the story of the Central Corridor to be about arts, thriving businesses, and healthy neighborhoods, not the inconvenience of being in a construction zone. 

As a City of St. Paul policy director puts it in an independent audit of the program:

While the City of Saint Paul tried feverishly to garner positive coverage for the benefits of transit that the Central Corridor would bring to the community, their positive message was consistently diluted in the media by negative stories about the impact of construction. As Irrigate projects began popping up along the Corridor in unexpected ways, the disruption of the many small projects quickly had a surprising impact. The magic of art started a different conversation, something that couldn’t have been predicted  but was such a blessing. Irrigate’s public process engaging artists from the community to support local  businesses provided a nimble and creative way to influence the narrative and change community  perceptions of the value of community development. Irrigate’s approach taught the public sector that  sometimes it’s alright to let go of the bureaucratic process to allow for a more organic process of  community engagement.

Here, "placemaking" doesn't mean a bench or a mural; those are tactics. With Irrigate, placemaking was sustained investment in this corridor over a period of years, supporting hundreds of projects. 

Apparently, Irrigate has been successful enough for Springboard to create a toolkit to duplicate the progam elsewhere; according to one piece, it's already in use in Cleveland and Mesa, Arizona. Transit agencies could learn a lot from this example when laying the groundwork for their projects. While the work that Springboard did here is probably outside of the capabilities of most if not all agencies, building connections to foster this type of action prior to a big project could prove to be a prudent investment.

Image: Springboard for the Arts

quote of the week: the neglected american bus

In the six cases examined, we conducted off the record interviews with public officials, general managers, and thought leaders in each region. One of the consistent themes that emerged was that the bus systems and bus passengers were an afterthought. In every region – Chicago, New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and the Bay Area – rail was the primary focus of virtually everyone we interviewed. We also found that maps of the regional transit networks tellingly either included a jumbled mess of bus routes behind a clean rail network, or ignored bus altogether.

It is likely this bias toward rail has very little to do with governance. But it does have a negative impact on transit delivery, particularly from a customer point of view. The vast majority of transit riders in the United States are on buses, so it would make sense to devote more resources and attention to them compared to rail riders, rather than less. Also, improvements to the bus network are likely to be less expensive than new rail expansions, and would be likely to yield substantially more net benefit per dollar. Yet while every region we visited had a new rail expansion either in planning or under construction, outside of New York none of the regions had any plans for regional bus networks, reorganization of existing bus systems, or major expansions of bus rapid transit (BRT).

Joshua Schank, President CEO,
Eno Center for Transportation
"The Case of the Neglected Bus"

I've certainly noticed, in my own work, that the aggressive, agency-wide commitment to building a complete access-maximizing transit system is stronger in cities that don't have much rail, or where rail is in early stages of development, as in Houston.  Key tools for total network legibility, such as Frequent Network branding, also seem to be spreading much more effectively in the midsized transit authorities than in the gigantic ones.

A while back I had a brief chat with a major airline CEO at an event.  He asked me: "So what's the future of transit.  It's rail, isn't it?"  I wanted to say: "So what's the future of aviation?  It's all intercontinental jumbo jets, isn't it?  

Or is it about people feeling free to go places?  In that case, the future of aviation is a network, where many types of vehicle have an essential role.  

quote of the week II: illusions of walkability


We are stuck in a narrative of a city being great and fabulous and walkable because it appears so (i.e. those sidewalks look pretty and nice, and I would walk down them if I felt like it and wasn’t driving to the store right now), not because it actually is.

— An unsigned but must-read post by PRAIRIEFORM

 The city of reference in the post is Minneapolis, but the point is a much broader and more nuanced one.



request for information: routine closures of transit streets

P1010359 Most cities that I know have one or more major downtown streets where parades and other major civic celebrations tend to occur.  San Francisco's Market Street, Chicago's State Street (pictured), and New York's Fifth Avenue are obvious examples.

These same cities, if they value transit, often want this same street to be the core of their transit system, because they want transit to deliver customers to the "front door" of the city.

So it's normal to see huge, complex reroutings of transit service when one of the civic events is happening.  The legibility problems of this shift are accepted because they happen only a few times a year.

Vancouver, however, does something different, and I want to verify how unusual it is.  Vancouver's core downtown transit street, Granville Mall, is closed to buses (and all vehicles) every weekend eveningSpecifically:

On Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Holidays and the day before a Holiday, buses will run along Granville each day until 9pm, then switch to the re-route, travelling northbound on Seymour and southbound on Howe. The re-routes will stay in place until the close of service.

So many of Vancouver's most important street-running transit lines (mostly trolley buses in this case) shift from one downtown street to another at 9pm on almost half of all days.  So the process of explaining and remembering where to find the bus is complicated all the time, which is quite different from finding the street closed for a very rare parade.

What North American cities do this routinely with their main transit street?  Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis is the only example that comes to my mind, but its role in the transit network is much less important than Granville's.

To be clear, I'm not interested in reopening the Granville Mall debate, where many advocated closing the street to buses entirely.  I am interested in the precedent as it might apply to other important transit streets, in Vancouver or elsewhere.

minneapolis-st. paul: let’s name our network!

The Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is taking customer suggestions on how to name their rapid transit network, which until now has consisted only of a single rail line, the Hiawatha between Minneapolis and Bloomington via MSP airport.  They are now adding Bus Rapid Transit and, in 2014, the Central light rail line.  So they're starting to think about the whole system, and what to call it.

This is one of those moments when two competing impulses tend to diverge.

  • The longing for something that says "new and exciting and transformative!"
  • The desire to convey exactly the opposite, that although it's new, this thing is a permanent, reliable, and an intrinsic part of the city.  This message actually benefits from a branding that's a bit, well, boring

I lean toward the latter message.  I've seen plenty of systems with sexy marketing but incoherent information, so I tend to say that clear information is the best marketing

If you want "new and exciting and transformative," check out Boulder, Colorado, which has excellent transit, and where most of the bus lines have names like Hop, Jump, and Bound.  They seem to be happy with it, and that's great.  But I'm relieved to see that this impulse isn't becoming the norm.  To me, things that like to hop, jump, and bound don't seem especially reliable; these names are asking me to entrust my commute to a bunch of hyperactive rabbits.  They're trying to get my attention, which basic infrastructure doesn't do.  And transit's role is really established only when people think of it as basic infrastructure.

Obviously, there are early stages in transit development where you do need to get people's attention.  So cute names can have a place — on new shuttle buses, for example, that are trying to get a foothold in car-dependent suburbs.  But in the Twin Cities we're talking about naming the basic rapid transit infrastructure that will be the backbone of the entire system.  By the time such expensive projects get built, you usually already have people's attention.

So I hope that after an excellent outreach process, with lots of great suggestions, they pick a name like "Twin Cities Rapid" or "the Metro."  Even Los Angeles — a city built on industries that sell excitement, enchantment, and novelty — calls its transit system Metro, and its elements Metro Rail, Metro Rapid etc.  Boring.  But you can count on it.

email of the week: thinking pedestrian thoughts

DSCF5316 Is it useful to talk about "pedestrians" as a group the way we often talk about cyclists or transit riders?  All these category terms are problematic, as I discussed here.  Riordan Frost of Minnesota 2020 asks:

A recent article in a local paper and its connection to one of your previous blog posts has inspired me to write to you. The article is “Thinking Pedestrian Thoughts”, and it covers the recent adoption of a ‘pedestrian plan’ by Edina, which is an inner-ring suburb of the Twin Cities [of Minneapolis and St. Paul]. One of the points made in the article is that people don’t really advocate for themselves as pedestrians. This made me think of a post that you wrote back in October, which was entitled “should I call myself a ‘transit-rider’?” and discussed labels given to people using certain modes of transportation. In the post, you quote Michael Druker, who advocates for switching from ‘cyclist’ to ‘people cycling’ and from ‘pedestrian’ to ‘people walking’.

You agreed with him, but pointed out that these new terms were cumbersome, and you would probably still opt for the shorter terms in your writing. I write blogs and articles for MN2020, and I feel the same way. I understand the importance of what language we choose, and I try to be conscious of it in my writing, but I have a need for brevity and I have an editor. There is a more significant question apart from brevity, however: how do we avoid labels (which may carry negative connotations and/or stereotypes) while advocating for improvements of certain modes? …

Is it possible to cut down on lumping people into categories and still have effective advocacy for certain modes, like better crosswalks or more bike lanes? The cycling community is pretty well established in the blogosphere, which sometimes contributes to their ["cyclist"] label and its connotations, but pedestrians have no blogs or personalities specifically tailored to them – mostly because we are … all pedestrians at some point in the day, and there is nothing terribly distinctive about walking. I n a perfect world, we would just design our environments for all modes of transportation that people use, with people (not cyclists vs. motorists vs. pedestrians) in mind.   This doesn’t seem terribly viable, however.  What are your thoughts on this?

I think that the potential for organized activism and fellow-feeling is easier among a group of people who all wield the same tool, because tools are such powerful symbols.  Think about the role of the hammer and sickle — archetypal tools of manufacturing and agriculture, respectively — in the imagery of Soviet communism, for example.

The possession of the tool, and the knowledge of how to use it, becomes a feature by which a group defines itself and sets itself in opposition to other interests.

If you don't think this still happens, look at all the clubs and forums for people who own and cherish a particular tool — a Linux-powered computer, say, or a certain musical instrument.  If you read an online forum about such possessions, you'll see the practical work of exchanging troubleshooting tips also builds a community in which people love hearing each other's stories about life with the cherished tool.

So this is another thing that's going on behind the obsessive attachment to transit technologies.  People who love aerial gondolas or whatever can now network worldwide with every city that runs one, compare notes about each other's problems and achievements, and thus form a global community based on love of that particular tool.  Psychologically, it's just like a club of guys who all own a particular kind of car, or computer, or electric guitar, or whatever.

Pedestrians don't have that.  So I doubt we'll ever see a pedestrians-rights movement that has anything like the shape and force of the cycling movement.  Nor do we need to, really, because the best urban planning thought today is all about the primacy of the pedestrian. 

Ultimately, the strongest case for "pedestrian rights" is that we are all pedestrians.  Even the guy who loves his Porsche has to walk across parking lots, and can thus see the value of having protected paths between rows of cars instead of having to walk in the lot's roadways where a car can back into you.  Even he has a sense of what makes a shopping center or major downtown pleasant or unpleasant to walk in.  Maybe he's even broken down on the freeway and thus experienced what those places are like when you're out of your car.  So it's not hard to make anyone understand a pedestrian issue on analogy to the walking that everyone has to do.  That's how you win these arguments, I think.

Minneapolis: Unlocking Downtown with Transit Malls

Are the streets of your downtown all too similar to each other, all full of lots of cars and maybe a few trucks and buses?  Do the differences between parallel streets, in commercial character and pedestrian life, seem feeble compared to the mass of identical traffic lanes that dominate the visual impression?   Often, the most efficient downtown network designs, and the best urban design outcomes, result from making parallel streets more different from each other, more specialized around different functions.  Streetcars (trams) used to drive such specialization, and sometimes still do, but elsewhere cities need to find their way back to that logic, with or without streetcars.  One of the first big American successes in this direction was the Portland transit mall, which opened in 1977.  There, two of the most central streets in downtown were given over primarily to transit, while parallel streets one block over were devoted mainly to cars. Continue Reading →