Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why living in the core matters

This is a follow up post to a TC Streets for People entry I posted a few days ago about the housing and transportation affordability index. A very quick glimpse shows that those individuals who live with in the city limits are better off when it comes to affordability for housing and transportation.

This is how CNT defines affordability:

H+T has been developed as a more complete measure of affordability beyond the standard method of assessing only Housing Costs. By taking into account both the cost of housing as well as the cost of transportation associated with the location of the home, H+T provides a more complete understanding of affordability. Dividing these costs by Representative Regional Incomes illustrates the Cost Burden placed on a Typical Household by H+T expenses. While housing alone is traditionally deemed affordable when consuming no more than 30% of income, CNT has defined an affordable range for H+T as the combined costs consuming no more than 45% of income.

As the maps clearly demonstrate the urban core is well below the 45% (yellow) threshold. When I look at my neighborhood stats we are at 32% for both H + T . For those that know the Twin Cities it looks like only the really well to do neighborhoods, no surprise, are beyond the 45% (dark blue) threshold due to housing costs. The moral of the story here is that living in an affordable neighborhood with close and accessible transit makes for a an affordable home in regards to housing and transit.

This second set of maps shows the difference between transit ridership percentages and travel time to work. Yes, you guessed it, the closer in you live to downtown the higher the transit ridership (dark green) and shorter the commute (yellow). We are talking easily understood stats here that are clear as day when illustrated with these maps.

So if you live outside the city core your are more than likely paying more than 45% of your income for housing and transportation. Then you are loosing valuable time because your commute is over half an hour. This brings me to my main point.

MOVE TO THE CITY. Minneapolis and St. Paul happen to be a great options for families. We have good schools (in relative terms), yards for the kids to play in, garages for those cars to sit in, culture and arts, and some great natural amenities. Yes, while your work might be in the wrong direction, but in an urban cores we need to create a critical mass again of workers in both downtowns (I assure you that they can both use more companies and jobs) we can then start to demand and build the transportation infrastructure that will meet the needs of the new work force for the next 50-100 years. We have a good start, but we need more than one North Star line and one LRT line. We need serious investment.

If the 35W bridge collapse proved anything, it proves that we can get things done fast and efficient when we put our minds to it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Twin Cities housing starts down, but good news

MPR had this segment on the other day that explains why our slow housing development in the Twin Cities is actually one of our strengths. The argument goes that since we have not build for the sake of building in the Twin Cities, it has actually helped with the future projects.

Only 9 percent of the region's new housing permits were issued in the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and only 19 percent in so called developed or close in suburbs -- places like St. Louis Park and Roseville.

Rick Packer said the EPA smart growth numbers for Minneapolis and St. Paul don't tell the whole story. Packer is a former Coon Rapids city planner, a former member of the Metropolitan Council and as a businessman he's spent more than 25 years buying land for suburban housing developments.

Packer argues one reason the housing numbers appear to be low is the two cities have managed to avoid the worst ravages of urban blight that hollowed out some other American cities over the past 40 years creating big swatches of land ripe for redevelopment.

It seems the Twin Cities are bit better off because we avoided the boom and bust model that so many cities have experienced with the current housing bubble. While the suburbs did continue to grow, the cities at least seem to be on a more steady stream in regards to housing production. I guess more good news it with the current foreclosures I am sure we will see more rehabs than we will with new construction starts.

Note: I just looked at the raw data and the region as a whole is pretty flat. The big difference is that 60% + of housing starts are in the 1st ring suburbs, which actually means that we are not continuing to sprawl, while only 8% of starts were in urban fringe.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Portland's sidewalk management plan

Sidewalk Management Draft Plan from Mayor Sam Adams on Vimeo.

Portland's new sidewalk management plan is silly. Here are just a few of my observations:

1 - Portland's pedestrian traffic is way too low to justify such a plan
2 - Deal with homeless and panhandlers through law enforcement
3 - sidewalks are meant for all different types of uses, This means no strolling or window shopping
4 - For a progressive city like Portland this would be a major step backwards
5 - This is over planning our public spaces

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Baby Steps

So Austin finally has got it's first LRT line, but it seems the jury is out on this low budget and low rider starter line. Unlike many other cities that try and hit a home run the first time out (with the hopes of wide acceptance and future expansion) it seems Austin has taken the very safe route. Is that really wrong?

According to this article the Metrorail is going to be a huge failure. Yes, it only has one car and runs on freight lines (we know about that here in MPLS with the North Star Line), and only has one track for most of the line. I would agree that the odds are stacked against this first line, but that doesn't mean we should give up hope. I really like the approach this commenter took:

Let me start by saying I believe America should go back to rail as the major mode of transportation for both products and passengers. In saying that, what’s wrong with trying something on a smaller scale first? It cost less money and you still get an understanding of how popular or unpopular it is with citizens. It’s like a child saying he wants mango ice cream supersized but he has never tried it. As a parent I would ask for a sample size first, which would be less expensive, and if he likes it then I would buy the bigger version. I also believe, in some cases, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. If efficiency is the problem you’re having okay, but if you think building transit lines on a much grander scale will work you’re wrong. In the end if bigger doesn’t work you’ve just cost tax payers hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. It sounds just like big government making tax payers fit the bill for grand projects that could have started out on a smaller scale first.

So did Austin play it too safe with this first line or will it create enough excitement for more LRT and street cars down the road?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Denver, CO

I have been missing in action since I took a much needed trip to Denver and Boulder. I have heard the stories about just how sprawled this region is, and for the most part it lived up to that reputation. I would also say that Denver is a thriving, diverse, and pretty interesting city. Boulder on the other hand felt like an over planned and over budget sorta town that only the rich seem to afford. It was also lacking a real connection to the campus as well.

My biggest disappointment was the need for a car. While I like to usually try and huff it on public transit and foot when I visit places, sometimes against my better judgement, this trip to Denver and Boulder was not going to make that a realistic option. While they do have a good bus system and LRT, it still seemed that the region lacked good public transit in the form of commuter trains and more LRT lines.

This region does seem to be well grounded, have thriving cities, and a great natural landscape. I see a bright future for the Denver region and hope to visit again down the road, but next time, no car. I will add that both Denver and Boulder have great on street parking limits and payment options. It really worked for getting a spot, but not keeping your car their all day, so turn over was high and finding a spot not too difficult.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Google Maps - Blazing a new trail

Will google maps new feature which gives you bike routes be a good thing in the long run? I ran my route the day they made the announcement and for the most part it was OK. It was not the one I take daily, but would have been good if I had not idea how to get from home to work.

What I am really concerned about will the power of google maps ultimately become a tool, much like models for traffic planners, where we loose the qualitative data and aspect of what we are trying to do. Yes, Google Maps will give you a route, but is it really the best route? Many bike commuters have usually figured out routes, short cuts, fast and slow streets with a trial and error approach. If we simply rely on a mapping tool are we not loosing something in the long run of why and how we bike commute in the first place?

From the Pioneer Press article:

Adam Bezdicek had just moved into a house in Columbia Heights and needed to figure out a bicycling route to work, but Web-mapping services failed him. So he plotted his route the hard way.

"I planned this out by driving and biking around," said Bezdicek, a project manager at a company just north of downtown Minneapolis. "It was a lot of trial and error, looking at which roads weren't loaded with potholes or didn't feel unsafe."

Last week, when Google added a biking-directions option to its popular Google Maps service, he decided to give the Web one more chance. Google nailed it. Bezdicek said the route it gave him was "almost identical" to the one he had created manually.

"It gave me one different turn but then came back onto the same route," he said. "I was surprised. It would have been nice to have this earlier."

The new bike-directions service, available for about 150 cities as of last week, is classic geeky Google. The Silicon Valley company spent months pooling bike-route data from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and other sources, and then put its massive computing power to work.

This is not to say that this bike feature on google maps won't be valuable, but it seems a little to GPS for me at this point and I worry about larger consequences it may pose down the road. I guess I'll just have to wait and see how this will play out.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Model City?

This NY Times article profiles Michael Paul Smith who has created Elgin Park, a made up town of models that never made it past 1964. What I find interesting about the slide show is the emphasis on the automobile and how little has changed in all that time.

Michael Paul Smith builds scale models to house some of the model cars in his collection. His photographs of the models depict Elgin Park, an imaginary melting pot of a steel mill town where the calendar stopped in 1964.

You can check out the slide show here. While Mr. Smith is building this to showcase the cars it does seem interesting just how much we haven't incorporated other forms of transit into our daily lives. For the most part, most of us are still slaves to our cars, even if we wanted to change that the current infrastructure and environment make it almost impossible. Our love obsession with the cars continues on.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

21 Top Time-Saving Cities

I am a sucker for lists, just in case you haven't figured that out yet. When Real Simple posted this list about the 21 time-saving cities I had to click on the link and see what they came up with. It might be no surprise to see most of the cities on this list, but I am intrigued if we used this data and then listed the cities by cost of living. I am sure Seattle, Boston, NYC, and others would drop down the list pretty fast, but it was encouraging to see Minneapolis (my home currently), Pittsburgh, and Philly on the list. These cities don't usually come to mind as the good places to live in the more general public (they lack the sexy media coverage), but the secret may be out since they have some great advantages with a reasonable cost of living.

Here are some of the cities profiled:

2. Portland, Oregon

Time-saving score: 21.5
Population: 557,706

It’s no hassle getting around this town, whether by bike or on the nation’s fourth-largest light-rail system. There are few airport delays, and speedy emergency services translate to one of the highest cardiac-arrest survival rates. And finding lunch is easy, with about 450 gourmet food carts around the city. “I could hit 100 carts in an hour,” says Brett Burmeister, who runs “It takes less than five minutes to get a cheap, amazing lunch.”

Getting around: 4.5
Health and safety: 4.5
Information and technology: 4
Green time-savers: 4.5
Lifestyle: 4

8. Pittsburgh

Time-saving score: 18
Population: 310,037

Pittsburgh’s public-transit system is large for a city of its size, including three bus-only highways, making for a zippy trip to work. And who knew Steelers fans were such big readers? The city is in the top five for bookstores per capita.

Getting around: 3.5
Health and safety: 4
Information and technology: 4
Green time-savers: 4
Lifestyle: 2.5

16. (Tie) Cleveland

Time-saving score: 14
Population: 433,748

With the number two on-time airport in our survey and one of the shortest commutes (just 23.5 minutes), Cleveland scores additional points for its free downtown trolley and large number of farmers’ markets.

Getting around: 3
Health and safety: 3.5
Information and technology: 3
Green time-savers: 3.5
Lifestyle: 1

Is this list way off base or do you think they got it right? Sometimes it is the little things that make all the difference.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Taming the Car

Over at Planetizen Tim Halbur, Managing Editor, has this great post which is an excerpt from the architect Victor Gruen. I like this part:

To realize the abnormality of this situation, one need only try to visualize for a moment a convention of plumbers dictating to architects the entire construction industry how buildings should be designed, inside and out, in order to a) increase the employment opportunities in the plumbing fixtures industry, and b) facilitate their installation.

They would dictate that every room in every building must have a bathtub, water closet and three washstands -- otherwise unemployment in the appliance industry may result -- and that plumbing pipes of all types must no longer be forced into positions where they are hidden in walls and ceilings, but should be permitted to run any odd way, diagonally, vertically, or horizontally, through living rooms or offices. This demand would be rationalized as the facilitation of water and sewage traffic, as demanded by our era of technology. Every protest against these measures would them be ridiculed as reactionary -- or, worse, as "idealistic" -- and an attempt to turn the wheels of history backwards.

It is not hard to recognize, from this fictitious plumbing-convention story, that the traffic planners really do not behave too differently. They, too, demand as gospel the proposition that more and more automobiles should be manufactured, as otherwise the automotive appliance industry might be underemployed, and they most definitely insist that their plumbing pipes crisscross the public living rooms and working rooms of our cities. Anybody who opposes their views is characterized as either "an ivory tower planner," "a reactionary out of step with the miracles of technology," or an outright imbecile.

I think the plumber analogy works really well, but yet traffic engineers have dictated too much of how we use our landscape and that needs to fundamentally change.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Does it make sense to reduce car lanes for the benefit of bikes?

This was the question of the day posed by MPR earlier this week. Well I think the answer is obvious, but some good conversation happened in the comments section. Here are some quotes:

The bicycle is a much more healthy, lower cost, sustainable mode of transport than the automobile and should be promoted. A comprehensive transit system that works with bikes would make a much more livable, healthy, sustainable city. Most people, especially those in their cars, don't realize what we've given up for the automobile.

Yes. We have an opportunity to address issues relating to public health, creating community, and improving infrastructure for all modes of transportation by supporting more bike lanes. I would also add that we need to make sure we address the maintenance of these improvements from plowing and upkeep, to safety and enforcement.

On that note, if it comes between money for light rail and money for bike lanes, I vote light rail.

So, all the plumbers, carpet cleaners, couriers, and UPS/Fedx drivers not to mention all the semi-trucks that deliver food to grocery stores, paint to hardware stores, clothing to clothing stores won't be able to do their job as efficient thus driving up costs of everything we buy. Its a feel good measure.

Does it make sense to reduce car lanes for the benefit of bikes? I like to think of it as much broader than the "benefit" of bikes - but more aptly the benefits of us all. Actively creating alternate transportation options for the residents of Minneapolis is a smart and forward thinking move. I think this expansion will ultimately be viewed as a great achievement, much in the same way the Minneapolis Parks System is viewed.

Does it really or are we being too short sighted and not taking the bigger picture into account?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bike Sharing in MPLS: No bixi for me

This article in the southwest journal of Minneapolis does a good job of talking about the past mistakes of other bike sharing programs, but it misses one critical question. Should Minneapolis encourage bike sharing at all in the first place?

I say NO. I hate to be a downer but I just don't understand why the US is even considering bike share programs. While Minneapolis can boost the second highest ridership per capita (the highest in winter months) this still equates to less than 2.5% of the total population. So this begs the question who is this program for? Why institute a program that lacks the necessary infrastructure?

The biggest problem are those most likely to use the program are the individuals (I know many of them) that are already daily commuters and own a stable of bikes. Yes, this bike share might help out in a pinch, but our numbers are too little to sustain such a program.

Second, is the perceptions that the general public has in general if using bikes as transportation. Biking makes you sweaty, biking is dangerous, and biking is simply for those people who can't own a car. While I really do love the Twin Cities, our population is not multi-modal (unless you include walking to your car). While this is changing, this is going to take decades to accomplish.

Third, the bike infrastructure in downtown is severely lacking to make biking, and even the share program, even look remotely appealing. While the Twin Cities does have some wonderful facilities, our down towns are lacking in serious bike space on our roads. A network of cycle tracks, lanes, paths, and blvds are needed to make such a program be a success.

Finally, we need to look at the bigger picture. I am not saying bike sharing is not a great program that can and will work, but our timing is way off. We need a better system for people to get around our region so that we can change travel behaviors and make biking a real option for people. Until biking is an option, what is the point of a bike share system for a public that frankly doesn't want or need it. Also, an epic failure now will only hinder future efforts when all that is needed is in place.

You can get all the info about the program here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

$1 homes

Detroit is in trouble and has been for some time now. $1 homes are not the way that this city is going to make a small climb back to its former glory. While this is a very top down approach, Detroit needs to get its density back. Yes, this means that raising entire blocks and clustering the housing should be a new approach. Let's get the folks closer together, share the infrastructure, and improve the mass transit system. For the land, it seems Detroit is well on its way to urban farming and feeding themselves.

Once again I am troubled by the cheap homes (that need serious capital to be livable) seems to mean housing for artists. I am not under the impression that this can't play some role in Detroit's future, but it can only be one very small piece to a much larger plan.

Here is a quote from this Guardian article:

Some might say Jon Brumit overpaid when he stumped up $100 (£65) for a whole house. Drive through Detroit neighbourhoods once clogged with the cars that made the city the envy of America and there are homes to be had for a single dollar.

You find these houses among boarded-up, burnt-out and rotting buildings lining deserted streets, places where the population is shrinking so fast entire blocks are being demolished to make way for urban farms.

"I was living in Chicago and a friend told me that houses in Detroit could be had for $500," said Brumit, a financially strapped artist who thought he had little prospect of owning his own property. "I said if you hear of anything just a little cheaper let me know. Within a week he emails me a photo of a house for $100. I thought that's just crazy. Why not? It's a way to cut our expenses way down and kind of open up a lot of time for creative projects because we're not working to pay the rent."

Houses on sale for a few dollars are something of an urban legend in the US on the back of the mortgage crisis that drove millions of people from their homes. But in Detroit it is no myth.

My experience here in the Twin Cities has proven to me that even a dollar house is usually not worth it. The foreclosure crisis and years of neglect have made many of these home financially unfeasible to rehab because the costs exceed the cost to build new. While I am usually the last person who wants to see homes torn down, Detroit has some hard decision to make moving forward.

Monday, March 8, 2010

MOA: The Mall of America

For those of you who don't know the Mall of America is here in Minnesota. It has become a regional, national, and international destination. In the Twin Cities region, like it or not, it has become a destination. With 4.2 million square feet you would think that we would have figured out to take full advantage of the mall's success.

The Mall of America has to be one of the largest public/private spaces in the country. It does connect to LRT and buses, but has also become an automobile storage facility. Currently the mall supplies over 20,000 parking spaces and the built environment around the mall reflects this. Rather than challenge the mall and its parking space issue, why not take advantage of this destination to create a friendlier, healthier, and more diverse environment for all. The mall can be challenged to created a better mixed-use plan for the larger area.

I propose outdoor recreational areas, walking paths, and better bike facilities. Why not even throw a mix-used development in the plan. With its close proximity to the airport and Health Partners it could provide work force housing where people would only be a few LRT stops away from work and home.

The Mall of America can be a further success by embracing the surrounding area and tying in what happens inside the mall to what is happening outside. Is this a crazy idea, just might be, but what I do know is the MOA isn't going anywhere, anytime soon, so let's make it a positive anchor in the region.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Breaking the Law, Breaking the Law

As a daily bike commuter I will admit that I break the law. While this issue rears its ugly head in the cycling community and other transportation networks we still don't see the real issue at hand.

I break the law because the current system is set up for one mode of transportation: the private car.

The renegades are out in force rolling through stop signs and red lights across the nation. You had better put the car in the garage and keep the kids inside, or at least this is what the media would have you believe when it comes to cyclists. We are car hating nuts and that is why we ride our bikes. As with every group some cyclists are reckless, no doubt about it. Let's look at the facts for a moment.

People killed by cars: 37,261 (2008 numbers)

People killed by cyclists: Not enough to record (let me know if you find a reliable source)

This NY Times article and study prove it all. Cyclists = Danger. My concern is that we are trying to put a square peg in the circle. The current infrastructure, design, and laws are not set up for cyclists or pedestrians. We are trying to work within a system that simply does not see us as relevant. If you don't believe me, dust of that 10 speed hanging in your garage and ride your bike to work, school, or the store tomorrow. It will be an eye opening experience for sure.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Smart Growth isn't FREE

Development of any kind always comes with a price tag. Even good development, smart growth, can actually cost quite a bit. Smart growth also has another kink in the chain because it also has to do with timing. Smart growth needs to happen early and often, yes, the usually means money before concrete plans for any development are in place.

For instance- I run a community development corporation in St. Paul and we are working on a corridor that is going to lead into one of the new light rail stations. Now, for about a year now I have been trying to secure funds for a smart growth plan for this corridor so it can take advantage of the opportunities and challenges that are going to be presented with the new LRT line and station. My requests to date have fallen on deaf ears.

My fear is that we are going to wait too long and private developers are going to move in and the community with be on the defensive, instead of the offensive, which is where we want to be. This process, planning, and work all takes money. Smart growth plans are great, but who is going to fund this planning five years out?

From the Washing Examiner article:

A lack of money is hobbling local governments' plans to transform their towns from sprawling cul-de-sac suburbs into dense urban centers. "The future of this region lies in creating walkable, livable communities," said Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "Our country is broke, our local governments are broke and we need to make much better decisions about our investments."

Instead of clash for clunkers how about cash for communities, it has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Denver's Regional Transportation Plans on Hold

Denver had achieved what few metro regions can: a transportation plan and buy in for increased taxes to build that plan. Most know regional transportation planning is extremely difficult when you are trying to get all the different players to cooperate and then agree on a way to pay for. Unfortunately the down turn in the economy has basically stalled the entire project and some lines now might never get built.

From this Economist article:

IN 2004 Denver became a public-transport planner’s dream. The sprawling western metropolis approved a $4.7 billion project, known as FasTracks, which aimed to add six new light and commuter railway lines along with 18 miles (29km) of bus lanes across the metropolitan area, all to be built by 2017. Thirty-two regional mayors backed the plan and residents agreed to help pay for it with a 0.4% sales tax, topped up with federal grant money. At the time, John Hickenlooper, Denver’s mayor, said that “the whole community came together in the region at a level that we’ve never seen before.”

Nerves are starting to fray. Critics argue that RTD’s revenue projections were flawed and that it lacks the capacity to build several lines at once. Towns and businesses north of Denver are angry that a northbound rail line is scheduled to be one of the last completed, arguing that it may never be built even though their residents pay an equal share of the sales tax.

Like many western cities, Denver is in desperate need of more public transport. Its metropolitan area has grown by half a million residents since 2000, and the population is predicted to increase from 2.7m in 2005 to 4.3m by 2035. Years of highway-driven sprawl have stretched the city and its suburbs across more than 700 square miles (up from 530 as recently as 1995), meaning that few people live close to work. The average commute is expected almost to double by 2035, adding to the time wasted snarled in traffic.

We need to find new ways to pay for transit other than our local tax base. In difficult times, such as these, when transit improvements are usually needed the most, cities are barely getting by. Let's hope that the Denver region can think outside the box and find other sources of capital.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Walkable Suburb

While Rockville seems to be a success by many measures for a walkable pedestrian friendly suburb parking still plagues the town center. Merchants struggle with lack of shoppers and have (per the usual) decided the parking is the key issue. Parking usually is an issue, but retail experts have illustrated that parking is only one minor reason people stay away.

From the Washington Post article:

Rockville Town Square is two blocks from a Metro station, but merchants said many customers drive there. Suburban shoppers accustomed to free parking have balked at paying for garage parking, merchants said.

Rockville officials reduced garage rates and offered free parking during the winter holiday season. Town Square merchants also agreed to hand out fliers at the Shady Grove and Rockville Metro stations, advertising $60-a-month commuter parking in the town center garages. The hope is that those commuters might shop or eat on their way to and from work, even if it means they contribute to traffic congestion.

Seth Harry, founder of a Columbia-based urban design firm, said the willingness of area residents to drive to Rockville Town Square shows that "people crave the experience to park and walk around. . . . People want to be somewhere. There's a 'there' there. That's an experience people don't always get in suburbia."

I doubt the real issue is parking but more that people want a more authentic experience. It takes years and decades to create the most desirable neighborhoods in cities, so when developers create the mix-used planned communities they should realize it will also take years for it to gain its grip and become the "spot" to be.