Friday, February 26, 2010

Midtown Greenway Minneapolis

Katie Hatt sits down with Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin for a discussion about the Midtown Greenway Project and the Midtown Exchange in Minneapolis.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Most and Least Affordable Cities

I always love these lists. It is never a surprise what makes the list for the most and least affordable cities. Are we learning anything new about ourselves? The Midwest for years continues to lose jobs which has created affordable cities, but they lack the economies of the most expensive cities. The real question is how do we merge the two so that affordable cities can have a stronger job base while the more expensive cities make it more affordable for people to stay?

Here is the list of the top five most and least affordable:

Indianapolis, IN
Detroit, MI
Dayton, OH
Youngstown, OH
Akron, OH

San Francisco, CA
Honolulu, HI
Santa Ana, CA
Los Angeles, CA

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Was Jane Jacobs Wrong?

Jane Jacobs had grown into what she was fighting against: orthodoxy. Today planners, developers, architects, and basically anyone who has read the book has quoted Jane Jacobs to justify the project or goal that they wanted to get done. Jane Jacobs is now used to implement the things she was trying to fight against. But did she paint a picture that was to idealistic and didn't take into account gentrification, displacement, and other urban concerns? The real question: when does a neighborhood become too successful?

Sharon Zukin believes that Jane might have been on the wrong path all along. From this NY Times article:

But if Ms. Jacobs is much hailed as an urban prophet, Ms. Zukin is a heretic on her canonization. She views Ms. Jacobs as a passionate and prescient writer, but also one who failed to reckon with steroidal gentrification and the pervasive hunger of the upper middle class for ever more homogenous neighborhoods.

The pattern in places like Williamsburg and Atlantic Yards, Ms. Zukin said, is dreary and inexorable: Middle-class “pioneers” buy brownstones and row houses. City officials rezone to allow luxury towers, which swell the value of the brownstones. And banks and real estate companies unleash a river of capital, flushing out the people who gave the neighborhoods character.

Ms. Jacobs viewed cities as self-regulating organisms, and placed her faith in local residents. But Ms. Zukin argues that without more aggressive government regulation of rents and zoning, neighborhoods will keep getting more stratified.

The new gentrification is upon us:

There’s the Magnolia Bakery, where perpetual lines snake out the door not so much because of its excellent cupcakes as because of its appearance on “Sex and the City.” There’s Marc Jacobs, where the lines are no less endless. A Ralph Lauren, a Madden, and a children’s store with the most adorable petite $250 pants. Ms. Zukin sighed.

“It’s another Madison Avenue, or the Short Hills mall,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Really, did we need that?”

One might shrug off her lament as a song soaked in nostalgia. But Ms. Zukin draws on new scholarship suggesting that this is not the old gentrification, the house-by-house accretion familiar to Ms. Jacobs. What happens now, she said, is powerful and breathtakingly fast — a product of upper-middle-class aesthetics, and newspapers, magazines and blogs that compete to find new “destination neighborhoods.”

Is Jane Jacobs wrong or has the world changed since she wrote her ground breaking book? I would say that it might be a bit of both, but who could have predicted what is happening today 40 or 50 years ago.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Drive Thrus Take hit in down economy

This was an interesting article in the Star Tribune the other day. According to the article the breakfast industry (drive thru fast food) has been thriving in the past decade because workers are in a rush to get to work and grab something fast. The result had been major chains opening the doors quite early. It seems this uptick is done:

Breakfast sales had grown at a ravenous pace during the boom years as busy workers scarfed down sausage biscuits and other fare on the way to the office, fueling a $57 billion business and accounting for as much as a quarter of sales at some fast-food chains. Chains opened earlier and expanded their morning menus to accommodate the traffic as lunch and dinner sales flat-lined.

But as the jobless rate hit 26-year highs, fewer people headed to work, and even those who did worried about their spending. So they poured bowls of cereal at home or simply slept in, putting breakfast on the back burner.

What I thought was interesting was how these hard economic times for the most part seem to be changing our behaviors in a good way. For example this alone means Mom and Dad are home longer, have quality time in the morning with each other and kids, are eating better (hopefully), and maybe enjoying a few extra minutes to themselves. Then it got me thinking even more. With fewer dollars what else goes by the way side?

Let's see - living closer to work, reducing the use of private automobile (maybe even a 1 car household), wiser spending on food, increased importance on quality and not quantity, and better understanding of how this all works together. So this article gives me hope that people can see how land use, transportation, education, health, wealth, housing, and quality of life are really intertwined and all this from not using the drive thru anymore.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Freeway Expansion: Moving in the Wrong Direction

It seems that we have learned very little from the last fifty years of planning. The Twin Cities region is going to put precedence on a freeway expansion project above other statewide projects because of the economic development potential. Yet, this is how the future development is described in this MPR article:

St. Paul, Minn. — Despite a lack of state funds, officials in northwestern Hennepin County are pushing for a new freeway interchange they say would unleash development and create jobs.Political support for the would-be Interstate 94 interchange near Dayton and Rogers may end up placing it ahead of other projects state transportation officials deem worthier.

With no exit near Dayton and Rogers on I-94, traffic zooms right past on what is one of the region's fast growing corridors, much to the dismay of some local elected officials. The land is filled with thousands of acres of farm fields, wetlands and woods with lots of space for homes and businesses.

Dayton Mayor Doug Anderson said adding an interchange here will unlock development.

We have emptying suburbs because of the housing and economic crisis. Even the Twin Cities are suffering their fair share of the problem, but yet undeveloped land out of the city center is our target for more housing. I must be missing something because this seems to be the type of project we don't want at this time or in the near future. The region needs to concentrate on what it is we have and how to retain it. We need to get politics out of planning.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Electric cars will not save us

Will electric cars make our lives better and save the environment? The electric car has become the new silver bullet in America that will solve our transportation and energy issues. We are still missing the big picture. Wasted infrastructure that currently is in place and the new infrastructure that needs to be put in place for electric cars to be a viable option.

Cars are Cars and a battery pack is not going to change the design and unhealthy environments are auto dependency has created. We need to move towards a real multi-modal lifestyle, where the electric car is only option of many that a individual could use.

From the NY Times:
Dan Sperling, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, estimated that a typical electric car battery would cost the automaker $12,000, and a 240-volt charging unit would cost a household at least $1,500.

Without huge subsidies, “the reality is, these electric vehicles are not going to sweep the industry and become a major share of the market for a very long time,” Mr. Sperling said.

Do we need to continue to subsidize cars even if they are running on electricity instead of gas? I say we pass.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


While the East coast and Mid-Atlantic have been hit hard with snow, we are lucky enough in the Twin Cities to have the snow fall, and with our cold temperatures, never melts. The result this winter has had the ups and downs, but one advantage is snowcalming. Basically so much snow accumulates on the streets it pretty much turns all the streets into very narrow streets where only one car can pass at a time. This results in people moving slowly and much safer environment for pedestrians and cyclists.

While you might think these streets are bad to ride on, they do clear up nice for cyclists, but the width pretty much stays the same. MPR had this story:

All the snow is also causing headaches in Minneapolis. City officials created a video to publicize the rules regarding the parking ban that was instituted last week for the first time in nearly a decade, which restricts parking to one side of some streets until early April.

The video shows a big red fire truck barely squeezing between parked cars on a residential block. Alex Jackson, Minneapolis fire chief, faces the camera and says "vehicles parked on the even side of non-snow emergency streets can be ticketed and towed, in an effort to make these streets easier to navigate for fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles."

Living in the tundra does have its advantages at times.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

PDX passes the bike plan

I think this is big news in the planning world. Sam Adams, Mayor of Portland, proves that planning for bikes is and should be a process that gets done. The plan was approved by the city council and got a hefty pot of money to get things started.

While still finalizing funding details, Portland’s City Council on Thursday unanimously passed a measure that could spend as much as $613 million over 20 years on new bike paths and other bicycling infrastructure needs.

The vote included approval for Portland Mayor Sam Adams’ suggestion for a $20 million “kickstart” that would come from savings on Bureau of Environmental Services programs and expenditures for the city’s Big Pipe project that are being phased out as the project wraps up. Adams also said he can find savings in lower bids from contractors during the current slow economic climate.

It is great the plan is passed, but currently has some real dollars behind it as well. Too often legislation gets passed, plans are approved, and great ideas explored. They then sit on the shelf at the planning office because no real capital had been allocated to actually make them a reality. It is great to see the $20 million starting pot established. You can read more about the new plan here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Snow Emergency = Less Parking

Minneapolis snow emergency once again proves that we don't need all that on-street parking. Currently in effect this emergency bans parking on one side of the street on non-emergency routes.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Three more stations

Press conference about the three stations added to the Central Corridor LRT line. Hopefully a mitigation fund for small businesses will be next.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Central Corridor lawsuits

It should be no surprise that the largest transit project in Minnesota has caused multiple lawsuits to be filed. What is disappointing is that two of our beloved institutions have taken this as an opportunity to fill the coffers. MPR and the University of Minnesota have both decided that lawsuits are the way to go about mitigation for claims that can easily be resolved. Why resolve them when you have the chance to get millions out of the deal.

On the other hand, the Rondo neighborhood (who remember I-94 plowing through the neighborhood) have some real concerns about the impact on their neighborhoods. The group who has the most at stake are the small businesses that line University Avenue and make that corridor what it is today. Without these businesses central corridor would be a pipe dream.

The Pioneer Press understands all the players and has this to say:

And could public transportation have a better friend in the media than MPR? Why, the very collective nature of the train is right up their ideological alley, except, well, not if they actually have to see it or hear it or feel it rumble. Their studios are too delicate, we are told, and the prospect of one of their pitchmen having to start over on an ad for biscuits or T-shirts or CDs or memberships or whatever they are begging for around the clock is enough to make them stamp their feet and demand accommodation.

At the other end of the line, the researchers at the University of Minnesota are worried the trains will rattle their test tubes or slosh something out of a mortar. God knows what they are up to.

And in the middle are the underdog small-business proprietors on University Avenue who quite likely will see their efforts to make an honest buck get trampled. These people should have been more careful whom they voted for. You have white people with gleaming smiles at both ends of the corridor and a generally mixed ethnic bag of people in the middle trying to chase what is left of the American dream. They have sued, too, and they'd better get theirs. The old Rondo neighborhood took it on the chin the first time for I-94. This time around, under the umbrella of the NAACP, neighborhood groups argue that the line violates environmental justice laws, which is another way of saying that those who want windmills don't care who gets disrupted by them, just so it isn't them.

MPR and the U have taken away what really needs to be addressed, the thrivability of small businesses before, during, and after construction of the light rail. While not all the business want the LRT, it would make the most sense to work with them now to make sure those that want to stay and thrive, can.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Re-examining the Big Box

Ian Sacs over at Planetizen has some great ideas on how we can make those big box stores, and the parking lots that front them, more usable in the future. He sees the current commercial downturn as a way to rethink the redevelopment of the box store.

The idea is simple. On major arterials and highways violently parsed with endless curb-cuts where roadway capacity is high but congestion persists, shopping centers can be scheduled for a facelift by eating away at some of that “peak event” parking typically required by zoning codes along the parking lot perimeter. Usually, the edges along the highway are lined with de minimus sidewalks and various forms of sad landscaping and grass polygons. Replace these borders with two-floor retail and office combinations so that the swath of remaining parking spaces are effectively screened from the street by something more human;namely, people walking in and out of offices, shops, and restaurants along a sidewalk. Keep the driveways, keep the majority of parking, and keep the monster big box stores on the far end of the property. That would be step one.

Step two is a re-think of the big box structure itself so that the property can simultaneously add rateable property and utilize the mixed-use, shared parking argument to justify no increase – or a slight decrease – in overall parking spaces and traffic. To do this, build on top of the existing warehouse shell with residential units such as apartments and condominiums up to three or four more levels, or mix that with some office space on the second level. Use the rear of the buildings as alleyways for maintenance, trash collection, moving, vestibules with breezeways slicing through sections of big box monoliths, elevators to the upper levels, and some short-term visitor parking clear of the shopping activities up front. Throw in some landscaping in the parking lot and build out those original pitiful sidewalks abutting the storefront so that space is available for outdoor restaurant and cafe seating, and the property transforms into something more like a little village.

I really like the approach of creating the feel of downtowns, but still keeping the current site as is for the most part. It is a new infill technique that will bring things back to a human scale. Could you imagine if this works, those giant 6 lane roads could become major multi-modal corridors. I hope Mr. Sacs keeps the good ideas coming.

Monday, February 8, 2010

$600 million bike plan

Portland's Mayor Sam Adams wants a $600 million bike plan to be implemented for 2030. While knee jerk reactions are the norm, this article makes some great points:

The 2030 Portland Bicycle Plan, envisioning a future when 25 percent of trips are made by bike, is expected to coast to approval when it goes before the City Council on Thursday. It's easy to green-light America's most ambitious investment in bicycling when it would be funded down the road. But according to city transportation officials, the plan to build 681 miles of new bikeways over the next 20 years will eventually cost $613 million.

By comparison, the MAX Green Line cost $575 million, and all transportation projects in the metro area add up to about $630 million a year. Portland Mayor Sam Adams doesn't flinch at the estimated cost. He talks of making neighborhoods more livable, transportation more affordable and reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. "Can we do those things without this bike plan?" Adams said. "I think it would be very difficult."

More than $600 million for bicycle improvements "is definitely a big number and I appreciate that," Geller said. "But in transportation dollars, it goes a long way." By contrast, he said, "It would build only about 12 miles of urban freeway."

An extensive bike network that can get people using bikes up to 25% or 12 miles of freeway, hard choice for sure.

Friday, February 5, 2010

No High Speed Rail for MN

Well Minnesota got a small chunk of the federal dollars to move forward with high speed rail planning from the Twin Cities to Chicago, I find it hard, that this planned line will still be a 5-6 hour trip.

That means you could fly or drive faster. While I think this line would be great, I do fear that moving at the pace of Amtrak trains will not make it a real viable option for travel between the two regions. Some how before we have even built the lines the high speed factor has been removed. Yes, it will travel at 100 MPH at times, but it seems obvious that will not be the norm because of the travel time involved. It is about 400 miles between the two regions and some simple math equations tell you that these trains will be running at less than 100 MPH for a large portion of the trip.

The Strib has this article explaining the recent news:

Minnesota got a little money to help it make up its mind. To be fair, Minnesota doesn't get to decide on its own which route trains will take from the Twin Cities to Madison on their way to Chicago. But the $600,000 grant, part of more than $8 billion in high-speed rail funds given out as national stimulus spending, should help the region pick a route by the end of summer, said Daniel Krom, director of passenger rail for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Midwest governors, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have lobbied hard for funding for the Twin Cities-Chicago line, which Krom said will take travelers between the two metro areas in 5 to 5 1/2 hours.

I really hope that a line that can get to speeds of 200 MPH is looked at to make this a shorter trip, cause otherwise I am not sure this will ever see the light of day.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bike Sharing on the Up and Up

Cities like Boston, Minneapolis, and Denver are introducing a new way to get around: bike share. But these programs aren't just a ride in the park. Andrea Bernstein reports from Marketplace.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Electric Bikes: a Future Alternative

Bikes are a great mode of transportation. But can they meet most of our needs: yes and no. While the bike provides excellent transit for most urban dwellers, we do forget that not everybody is able to ride a bike for various reasons. The electric bike is closing that gap making it a viable alternative for those that might have to pass on just the leg powered version of our two wheel wonder.

From the NY Times:
Half a world away, in San Francisco, the president of that city’s board of supervisors, David Chiu, uses an electric bike to get to meetings without sweating through his suit.

And in the Netherlands, Jessy Wijzenbeek-Voet recently rode an electric bicycle on a long trip that, at 71, she would not have been able to make on a standard bike.

Detroit may be introducing electric car designs and China may be pushing forward with a big expansion of its highways and trains. But people like Mr. Jiang, Ms. Wijzenbeek-Voet and Mr. Chiu — as well as delivery workers in New York, postal employees in Germany and commuters from Canada to Japan — are among the millions taking part in a more accidental transportation upheaval.

It began in China, where an estimated 120 million electric bicycles now hum along the roads, up from a few thousand in the 1990s. They are replacing traditional bikes and motorcycles at a rapid clip and, in many cases, allowing people to put off the switch to cars.

While I wouldn't want the electric bike movement to hurt the good old standard bike, it is great that an alternative exists to getting a car for those that might need some help or travel long distances.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Architecture in context

The NY Times has this great article about Iwan Baan who is a photographer that takes architecture projects, but puts them in context.

Just five years after he took up architectural photography, Mr. Baan is “remaking the genre,” said Charles Renfro, a partner in Diller Scofidio & Renfro, for whom he has photographed projects like the High Line and the renovated Lincoln Center. For decades magazine editors, developers and architects themselves favored a static style of photography that framed buildings as pristine objects. Mr. Baan’s work, while still showing architecture in flattering lights and from carefully chosen angles, does away with the old feeling of chilly perfection. In its place he offers untidiness, of the kind that comes from real people moving though buildings and real cities massing around them.

Check out the slide show here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Too many roads in Minnesota

As many of you know, who have been following my blog, I relocated over a year ago to the Twin Cities. I will say it was a great decision and I haven't regretted it at all. Transportation planning, in the Twin Cities, the region, and the state is something of a mystery to me. We have way too many roads and way too many expressways in the Twin Cities region and state. During rush hour the expressway gets congested and it is actually safer and faster to take the regular roads. That seems to be a major indication that something isn't working right.

In many ways some of the expressways function very well for those that need to commute from farther distances (yes, we love our sprawl), but one thing has been bothering me since I moved: Minnesota simply has too many road for it's population. Think about it for a second. MN's population hovers around 6 million. The problem is population wise we are number 21 on the list and our metro region is only 3.1 million, almost the entire population of Chicago. Why is it that we have the 5th largest network of roads?

So this story from MPR struck a cord with me the other morning:

For more than 60 years Minnesotan's interested in new roads and bridges have operated on a generally safe assumption. Make your case, wait your turn, maybe five, ten or even twenty years, and eventually the state will smile on your project and it will be built.

The result is Minnesota has the country's fifth largest network of roads - 152,000 miles - with more than 25,000 bridges.

As long as ten years ago, and much more intensely the past two years, the new reality dawned. There isn't enough money to build everything on everybody's list of transportation needs.

More seriously, there isn't even enough money to maintain everything that's been built.
Wow, not sure how this anomaly in the upper Midwest happened. We have less population in the entire state than some of our largest cities, but Minnesota ranks 5th for the most roads.

Metropolitan council director of transportation services Arlene McCarthy said meeting everyone's needs would require a big gas increase.

"Some of our estimates indicate if we were to do that it would be equivalent to a $2 increase in gas tax, which I think most people would agree is unrealistic," McCarthy said.

A shortage of money for transportation will likely influence one of the state's most pervasive trends. Cheap gas and good roads have allowed people to live nearly anywhere they want.

My other issue is they refer to this as transportation = more roads. MPR and Minnesota need to join the rest of the world, not necessarily the US, in what is a transportation revolution. BRT, heavy rail, light rail, high speed rail, street cars, and serious bike networks seem to be the way other countries are dealing with the transportation problem, not moaning that the funds aren't there for projects that should not even been approved in the first place some 20 years ago.