Friday, August 21st, 2015

When High Density Is Humane

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So many of the complaints about density seem to revolve around all the supposed negative affects of congestion, as well a general sense of the inhumanity of high density living, which in the popular mind is associated with the proverbial “concrete jungle” and a forest of skycrapers.

I can understand why many people want a house on a big lot. On the other hand, high density living, done right, can be extremely livable, humane, and even uncongested.

When I lived in Chicago I frequently would have people tell me that they couldn’t imagine themselves living in such a big, dense city. They no doubt had impressions of living there shaped by their visit to the Loop and other tourist areas, which are indeed crowded and have attributes of the concrete jungle.

But other than a narrow strip less than half a mile wide along the lakefront, most of Chicago isn’t built like that. Chicago actually has some of the most beautiful, livable streets and neighborhoods in America. Except for a few small areas with so-called WPA streets, its neighborhood streets have full infrastructure with generous sidewalks and parkways full of mature trees. Homeowners often landscape this and their front yard such that it’s like walking through a lavish garden simply to walk down the street. Alleys mean no trash in front and the city has virtually no on-street power lines. It also has full and amazing street lighting on streets and alleys. The building stock is mostly single family homes, 2- and 3-flats, and lowrise apartment buildings. Much of it is like a city in a garden.

My old neighborhood was Lakeview, which has 94,000 people in about 3.2 square miles, or 30,000 people per square mile. Yet its residential streets are quiet, tree-lined, and delightful – a far cry from the concrete jungle. Frankly, they are better than the average street in most Midwest cities.

Today I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This neighborhood is the second most dense in the entire city of New York, with 209,000 people in 1.9 square miles, or 110,000 per square mile – almost four times as dense as Lakeview and 25 times as dense as the city of Portland.

Given this density, you might think it would be a horrific urban nightmare to live in. Yet, it’s incredibly pleasant, bucolic even.

The picture at the top of this post is West 68th St., where I live. It’s a tree lined street of low to mid-rise buildings with mature trees and very little traffic. Contrary to the jackhammers all night long stereotype of New York, it’s very quiet.

Most of the streets in the UWS are similar: tree-lined, quiet, with beautiful low-rise brownstones and such. Here are a couple photos that I believe are both of West 69th.

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I should mention that behind these buildings, while there aren’t alleys, there are often interior courtyards between blocks with open space and greenery.

The avenues feature taller buildings, but while there are some skycrapers, there aren’t really that many. Here’s a stretch of Columbus Ave, with typical commercial-residential mixed use buildings. (The average is probably a bit more intense than this shot).

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Here’s the intersection of 72nd and Broadway, one of the major intersections in the neighborhood. There are some taller buildings and more intense retail, but a number of those buildings are just stunningly beautiful as well.

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West End Ave., one of the major residential avenues, has more mid-rise towers, but mostly beautiful pre-War buildings at around ~12-14 stories, or not much different from Barcelona.

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Central Park West is one of America’s premier streets, with similar sized buildings to WEA, many of them truly landmark designs, that overlook Central Park.

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Speaking of which, I am a five minute walk from Central Park, ten minutes from the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center (LC has more arts and culture going on than all but probably five total metro areas in the US), and about 15 minutes to the Hudson River greenway. There are two subway trunk lines passing through the area. Traffic moves very rapidly on the main avenues, which have synchronized lights, and you can often traverse almost the entire length of the UWS on say Columbus without stopping. The streets have very light traffic mostly except a handful of major crosstowns. The grid design makes navigation a snap. Accident rates are low.

Though not everybody is as close to Lincoln Center as I am, all of the UWS has good access to Central Park, subways, and the Hudson River. Other people are closer to other cultural amenities, such as the Natural History Museum.

While not every aspect of the UWS is positive, I feel very grateful to live here. It’s an extremely humane and pleasant place to live, despite the density. In fact, the main knock most people have on the UWS is that it’s so humane it’s boring.

I think the Upper West Side shows the elements you need to make density, even very high densities, work right, namely:

1. The right built form, with a variegated style of low to mid-rise buildings – not high rise – and lots of quiet, tree lined, side streets, with mostly high quality architecture.

2. Infrastructure, notably the subways.

3. Amenities like Central Park, the Hudson River, and Lincoln Center.

4. Well-functioning public services, especially public safety and sanitation.

The last one is of particular note, as the neighborhood was not as nice as it was today with only the first three. John Podhoretz, who grew up in the area in the 1970s, wrote about what it was like before order was restored. The musical West Side Story is actually set in the far south end of the neighborhood. (Lincoln Center, whatever its merits as a cultural district, was built as an urban renewal effort to get rid of the Puerto Ricans in the area). Central Park wasn’t much of an amenity when it wasn’t safe to go into it.

These obviously take wealth to sustain, but not all of it has to come from the neighborhood. Clearly the superior building stock came from neighborhood wealth, but parks, subways, etc. are paid for on a broader basis. Given the vibrant ethnic neighborhoods that exist today in other parts of the city, I’m sure this could have been a successful, safe working class Puerto Rican neighborhood with today’s public services environment. Of course, once safety and services were addressed, the value of the real estate skyrocketed.

There are some high rises in the UWS, particularly to the south, but these are the exception, not the rule. Yet this is still the second most dense neighborhood in the city with a hard to comprehend density of 110,000 per square mile. I can see why it isn’t for everybody, but I think people would agree that a neighborhood built like Paris or Barcelona (and in fact lower rise than those cities in most places) is hardly a concrete nightmare.

Density, done right, can be supremely humane and livable.

I think the UWS also illustrates the fallacy of too much of today’s urbanist thinking which is all about building tall to increase housing supply. If you can get to 110K density with mid and low rise buildings, skyscrapers just aren’t needed to provide any reasonable amount of density in the United States.

There’s also a lot of talk about supply restrictions. I don’t like historic districts all that much, because I think in practice they are abusive. Much of the UWS is in a historic district. There are any number of stink bomb buildings on the UWS I wouldn’t mind seeing replaced with new development, a few new skyscrapers wouldn’t be a disaster. If the population density even went up, I wouldn’t mind – it might even be good. But at the risk of sounding like a NIMBY, there’s just no way a neighborhood like this should see a massive increase in FAR to enable redevelopment with taller buildings. Turning one of the world’s great neighborhoods into Midtown would be a disaster.

Instead going directly to policies like “let’s just remove DCs height limit,” instead people should be taking a look at very high density neighborhoods like the UWS that function amazingly well and figure out how to adopt the lessons of that to other places.

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation
Cities: Chicago, New York

Friday, August 14th, 2015

A Visit to Kazan

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

St. Petersburg and Moscow are typical destinations in Russia, but if you’re looking for other places to visit, where do you go? I can’t claim to answer that question as I have not fully surveyed the realm, but I did visit the city of Kazan for a day, so want to share a few observations and photos.

Kazan is a city of a bit over a million people about 450 miles east of Moscow (a flight of around 1:20). It’s the capital of the Tatar Republic of the Russian Federation. The Tatars were a nomads of Turkish ethnicity who established an independent kingdom in the region before being conquered by Ivan the Terrible. They are very proud of their unique ethnicity and history, and have obtained a great deal of autonomy (at least as much as exists in Russia). Originally the province was called Tatariya, but they renamed it Tataristan. To locals, the “-stan” suffix suggests strength and independence on par with other fully independent republics in the region. While they can certainly choose whatever name makes them feel most proud, names ending in “-stan” certainly don’t inspire confidence in America. I don’t think they fully understand the negative brand equity in that term, but don’t let the name scare you off. It’s a modern and as far as I can tell perfectly safe city.

In fact, it’s extraordinarily modern and new. There’s been a vast amount of infrastructure investment, much of it done in conjunction with international sporting events. They hosted the 2013 Summer Universiade (an Olympics for students, I gather), and the 2015 World Aquatics Championship was underway while I visited. They’ve got a brand new airport, brand new freeway network, numerous new buildings, etc.

Looking at Kazan in fact, you might get the impression it’s a boomtown. But it’s not a boom of the type you’d find in the US based on private sector growth. Though the region boasts oil and gas reserves and several manufacturing operations, most revenues go to the federal treasury in Moscow, so it would appear that Putin has showered the region was cash and that is the reason for the construction boom. The difference vs. St. Petersburg, which appeared to be starved for money, was evident. Everything in Russia is more or less state directed, and this is no exception.

Having said that, the state could have invested in purely megalomaniacal projects as has happened in some other regional -stans. Instead a lot has gone into core infrastructure. Yes, some of it is tourist oriented, but the neighborhoods infrastructure I saw was in pretty good shape, and my cab driver said that the city had done a ton of upgrades to neighborhoods streets and such too. They also built a short metro system, though apparently it is under-patronized.

Putin has been favoring the region with money in part to highlight and reward what Russians described to me as “good Muslims.” The Tatar region is about 55% Muslim and 45% Russian Orthodox. The split is basically along ethnic lines (though there’s a segment of Tatars that converted to Christianity). The Muslims in the area have long been known for their moderate brand of Sunni practice, and religious relations have been good, including a high degree of intermarriage (or so I’m told). Google tells me there were some extremist attacks in 2012, so I’m not sure what the status of that is, but I personally wouldn’t let it stop me from visiting there.

The locals are really pushing the religious co-existence angle, which makes sense in a world that is looking for examples of Christianity and Islam getting along. That’s a shrewd marketing strategy.

They also have gone beyond the modern and have pushed historic preservation. While no one is going to confuse Kazan for St. Petersburg, they have tried to restore what they have and have focused on obtaining UNESCO certifications. They are also pushing the Tatar cultural angle. There are plenty of elements of regional cuisine and I thought the food was excellent. Of course they would send me to their best places, but since I was only there one day, that didn’t matter. Kazan also has an important university, so has some attributes of a college town. Several famous Russians spent time living in Kazan, including Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

Is Kazan a must-see? No. But if you’re interested in checking out a Russian city other than the big two, it’s definitely worth a visit.

I’ll share a few photos. The one at the top is the main entrance to the Kazan Kremlin. (The term kremlin is an old word meaning “fortress”). Here’s the Russian Orthodox cathedral there:

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

There was originally a mosque in the kremlin that was destroyed when Russians conquered the area. Recently, a new mosque was built on the site to maintain the symbolic religious balance in the area. I think it’s a very nice building.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

They have their own leaning tower.

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The main street leading to the kremlin.

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The kremlin has nice views. There are several rivers and lakes in the area, including the Volga, and plenty of nice vistas.

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Take a nice stroll along the lake.

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Renovated buildings in the old Tatar Quarter

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There’s a bit too much hardscape on that redone street for my taste. But it’s interesting because they took out a streetcar and pedestrianized the street. Apparently the vibrations were causing problems with the old buildings in the area, so they wanted to eliminate all vehicles.

Not sure what this is, but it’s in my Kazan file.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Dittos.

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I’ll wrap up with a bit of transport geekery. Yes, they have a bike share system.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Their new metro system is in the Russian style with lots of marble, etc. The system “M” logo is similar to Moscow but in green (the traditional color of Islam). Instead of Moscow style tap cards they are using plastic tokens.

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A metro station.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Station name signage. I believe the top is Russian and the bottom is the Tatar language, which is also written using the Cyrillic script. Interestingly, for at least while into the Soviet period, Tatar was written using the Latin alphabet, but they were apparently forced to change.

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Signs.

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Here’s a train in the station. These are the exact same trainsets as the new Moscow ones I mentioned by didn’t have a picture of.

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As I said, I was only there a day but was glad I went. It was good to get to see a city further into the Russian interior. Lots of money is being spent there, so I’d expect many further developments in the future.

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Transport in Moscow

Moscow - August 2015

I was in Russia last week and plan to share a few relevant posts from the trip. Since you can easily find better photos of places like the Kremlin than I’ll ever take online, when it comes to Moscow I’m going to focus on more planning and transport items. There’s a lot of other commentary I might make, and if you want to read it, be sure to sign up for my exclusive content by email if you haven’t already, because I may write up further observations on the political scene there.

Writing anything positive about public space and transport in Moscow runs the risk of coming across as seeming to say that “at least Putin makes the trains run on time.” But as he is fully occupied with such critical tasks of state as destroying illicit supplies of Nutella and brie, I doubt he’s bothering himself with such prosaic concerns as transport. Should you be interested, the NYT just ran a good piece on the combination of urban improvement and authoritarianism in Russia’s capital city.

Moscow reminded me a bit of an inverted Buenos Aires. Whereas in BA you get a clear sense that this was once the Paris of South America now well faded, Moscow comes across as a dilapidated city on the rise. You definitely see plenty of run down communist era architecture – the quantity of Corbusian nightmares evident from an aerial view of the city is astonishing – but there are new buildings on the rise and significant evidence of attempts to improve the lived experience of the city.

Moscow is clearly a driving and transit city, not a walking city. Though there is some street life, it’s far lower than comparable high density megacities. But before knocking them too much, keep in mind that Moscow gets bitterly cold in the winter. Even in August the temperature in the afternoon was only the low 70s. Ideal to be sure, but that’s only for a narrow window of the year. Moscow is at 56 degrees north latitude compared to 41 in New York. Moscow is actually further north than every major Canadian city. The sky was already getting light before 4am.

Nevertheless, the outdoor experience there is being enhanced through a number of projects.

Moscow River

The Moscow River flows through the city, passing alongside the Kremlin as you can see in his photograph.

Moscow - August 2015

You see that on both sides it is lined with roads and very narrow sidewalks. It’s not even clear how you would easily get to the riverside on the Kremlin side. A stroll along the bank across from the Kremlin, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and other landmarks should be amazing, but it is not.

There’s apparently a tender underway that would completely redo this for the better. In the meantime, one section of the river called the Krymskaya Embankment has been redone to a slick, albeit somewhat generic design. This has radically transformed the riverfront for the better, and if the rest of the Moscow River upgrade is similar, this will be a huge transformation for the city.

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People enjoying the waterfront.

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Here’s a closeup of the bike lane.

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The numbers and the text in the background give distances to attractions such as Gorky Park.

Neighborhood Streets

In a way similar to the riverbank, there’s been an effort to upgrade neighborhood streets to improve the pedestrian experience. Traditionally, these have had fairly narrow, basic sidewalks. Here’s a typical example:

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And here’s a street that’s been put on a road diet.

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This program is ongoing, as this sign touting forthcoming improvements shows.

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And a picture of the construction in progress.

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There’s also a bike share system.

Moscow - August 2015

Arterial Streets

While there are plenty of smaller, human scaled side streets in Moscow, the arterial roads are mega-wide thoroughfares (“prospekts” in the local parlance) that function as quasi-freeways. Here’s an example that isn’t a perfect photo, but let’s you get the gist of it.

Moscow - August 2015

You’ll see at least six lanes in a single direction. This building is actually decent, but illustrates what you also see along these high capacity arterials, namely a preponderance of horizontally oriented buildings. Even with broken up facades, these are buildings that are most legible at driving speeds, not walking.

You might wonder how people cross these things, and the answer is that they mostly don’t. For these streets, there’s a heavy reliance on pedestrian underpasses for pedestrian safety. (This also reduces the number of stoplights, which allows for long distances of high speed travel even in the center city). Metro entrances also do double-duty as protected passageways through intersections. Here’s an entrance to one such pedestrian underpass along a one way street that appears to be ten lanes wide.

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This might seem inhumane, and it is. But it also functions well. Though I’m told traffic is much lighter in the summer when many vacate the city, there is nothing like the gridlock of a New York, and these roads tended to move pretty good most of the time I was there.

Where there were crosswalks, they featured countdown timers on both the walk and don’t walk cycle.

Moscow - August 2015

That’s not a misprint. Some of these lights have extremely long cycles.

Some arterials have a nicer design. One is the so-called “boulevard ring,” which is one of the many ring roads in Moscow. I think (though can’t promise), this shot is from it. Even if not, it’s representative of its design.

Moscow - August 2015

Moscow Metro

Moscow is famous for its metro system, which is one of the world’s busiest and has lavish station designs. I saw some of these and they are indeed pretty great, though this system should never be applauded without remembering that it was built with gulag labor. Again, I won’t show many pictures of the stations, since my iPhone isn’t the best at low light underground shots. Google is your friend on this.

The metro fare is about a buck. Tap cards are sold at automated kiosks that have English available. Lines are numbered and color coded. Here’s an example of the system signage.

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It’s one train right after the next more or less. Even at 11:30 pm there were three minute headways. The cars are older but function well, and there is wifi, which I’m told works even between stations.

Moscow - August 2015

There are some newer cars that appear to be married pairs with open gangway between the two linked carriages, but not between pairs.

While you can buy a ticket in English, the bulk of the signage is in Russian only. This isn’t a problem for the most part, but I found the remembering station names in the Cyrillic alphabet was a challenge compared with Latin alphabet stations in other foreign countries. I would suggest that the station name be transliterated into Latin script to make the system more friendly to international users. (The rest of the signage is fine as is). Here’s an example:

Moscow - August 2015

If I translate that right, this station is Kropotkinskaya (Kropotkin was a Russian intellectual of the 19th and early 20th centuries). The name is certainly easier to recognize in Latin script for westerners (and probably most others who use English as their international lingua franca). But even in Russian only, you should be able to figure it out how to navigate the system if you pay close attention.

Here’s an example of some transliterated signage. This probably goes above and beyond the call of duty as the numeric indicators suffice.

Moscow - August 2015

Air Travel

Moscow has two main airports, I believe, both at a significant distance from the city center. I flew using Sheremetyevo, which is serviceable if not overly pleasant. You have to pass through security immediately upon entering the terminal, then again when going to the gate area. Even domestic transfers require re-screening and passport checks. (I was told by a local, “Russians love checking passports.”)

The most depressing part of the trip was flying three domestic segments on Aeroflot. When I was younger they had an extremely bad reputation, and flew of a fleet of dodgy Soviet made jets. Today, the planes I flew on were newish A-320s and the service levels exceeded US domestic standards (though that’s a low hurdle to jump). They even still serve food on short haul flights. Quite a role reversal there. Red is still their flight attendant colors, and their hammer and sickle logo is still in use.

High Speed Rail

There are a number of rail routes throughout the country, and while I didn’t make a comprehensive survey, I did ride the high speed “Sapsan” service from St. Petersburg to Moscow. IIRC, the fare was around $55. Though using Siemens trainsets derived from the rolling stock used on Germany’s ICE trains, the max speed was 220 km/h (135 mph), comparable to the Acela. However, unlike the Acela, the Sapsan cruises at 200 km/h or higher most of the trip. The journey takes a bit less than four hours and is a pleasant way to travel.

Here’s a picture of one of the trains I took in St. Petersburg’s Moscow Station.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

An interior shot.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

Conclusion

I hope this gives a bit of a feel for transport in Moscow. The city is obviously spending to try to upgrade its urban environment. Whether physical improvements in Moscow or elsewhere will survive Putin’s authoritarian turn is to be seen, but as the examples of the Moscow subway and many of the historic ruins we visit around the world show, it’s certainly possible for the cruelest of dictatorships to produce magnificent physical artifacts in select places. The success of these regimes should not be judged by that measure.

In closing, I’ll leave translating the following as an exercise for the reader.

Moscow - August 2015

If you are interested, there’s an album of iPhone photos I took available on my Flickr page.

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Moscow

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Think Globally, Disrupt Locally

My latest piece is online in the Los Angeles Times. It’s about how environmental activists are trying to stop fracking and Alberta oil developments by obstructing the ability to export fossil fuels using local control over ports as a lever.

I am generally a strong proponent of local control, but disruption of global commerce, particularly when clearly motivated by non-local concerns, is not something localities should be doing. Interstate commerce, like immigration policy, is a clearly federal policy domain. Policy and regulation for it needs to be set at the federal level. People who don’t want oil drilling in Alaska should take that up with President Obama, who approved it, not the Port of Seattle.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Shell battle highlights a new tactic among environmental activists: Unhappy with policies made in Washington, they’re trying to use local regulations to set national policy. Pressuring cities and other local entities that control many of the nation’s ports, the greens hope to prevent fossil-fuel industries from obtaining permits and thus keep such energy from coming to market. And they’re having some success.

Under tremendous pressure from environmentalists, Portland, Ore., shot down a proposed propane-export terminal. Activist Daphne Wysham boasted that “residents of the Pacific Northwest have begun to mobilize in bold and successful resistance to these fossil fuel exports.”

Oregon greens are elsewhere trying to prevent the export of liquefied natural gas. As Stacey McLaughlin noted approvingly in an Oregonian op-ed, “If they cannot export natural gas, then they will need to cut back on fracking.” Similar battles are raging north of the border, in British Columbia, and on the East Coast. South Portland, Maine, for instance, banned the export of crude oil arriving there via pipeline.

Click through to read the whole thing.

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Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Sustainability, Transportation

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

New York’s Paleolithic Subway Signalling

Second Avenue Sagas pointed me at this new video about the signal replacement project on the New York subway system. The first couple minutes show the fossilized remains the original signaling system that is, amazingly, still for the most part used to control the subways. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

The MTA has a program underway to replace these, but it’s proceeding at snail’s pace. Only the Canarsie Line/L-train is complete, and the Flushing Line/7-train will be finished in 2017, supposedly. It will take five and a half years just to upgrade the western segment of the Queens Blvd Line. At this rate I’ll be long dead before they finish upgrading the whole system. And by that time, the new “state of the art” CBTC signalling system will itself long be past end of life.

It’s very difficult to upgrade NYC’s subways because they are a 24 x 7 x 365 system. The MTA employees do a fantastic job of keeping it going in difficult circumstances. But given the MTAs dubious record on major capital projects in terms of cost and timeline, it’s hard to believe this is the best that can be done.

This also shows why fully funding the MTA capital plan is so important. It’s about dealing with critical upgrades to the existing system to keep things going. If anything, the amount of capital funds devoted to the CBTC signal program should be significantly increased to start upgrading multiple lines in parallel.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: New York

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

How To Justify Spending $8M On Something Nobody Wants by Nathaniel M. Hood

[ Many of you may be familiar with Charles Marohn and the crew over at Strong Towns. They do a great job at tracking some of the fiscal insanity around they way we build transportation. Here’s a 2014 piece by site contributor Nathaniel Hood talking about a questionable pedestrian bridge in Minneapolis. Similar projects exist all over – Aaron. ]

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Council is gambling $8.7 million on a project to alleviate pedestrian congestion that might exist in 5 to 10 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

That’s like buying flood insurance on the house you have yet to buy.

The below $8.7 million piece of public infrastructure is intended to create a more safe passageway for travelers at the Downtown East station during Vikings home games. It’ll serve west and northbound train passengers and other pedestrians looking to enter a new football stadium. It is deemed this will be an important pedestrian overpass once all four major light rail lines completed.

The Viking Stadiums Bridge to Nowhere

Download the Downtown East Plan Met Council PowerPoint here [PDF].

Those reading this should have at least two questions:

  1. How did this come to be a thing?
  2. Why is it all of a sudden getting $8.7 million?

I pay particularly close attention to local projects. I read blogs, forums and newspapers daily. I know and follow local decision-makers on social media, track development proposals, and pay attention to those boring committees few care about. I also work in the industry and talk to other people who work and follow the industry across related professions. It’s fair to say that I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the Twin Cities and the transportation and development needs of the community.

Never once have I heard of this project until a few days ago. And now, out of the blue, we’re dropping $8.7 million on a bridge that’ll be needed 10 days a year starting in 2019.

I wrote a blog post last year titled The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure. It was well received, and is even being used as required reading in an undergrad planning course in California. In the article I theorize as to why we make bad decisions when it comes to receiving other people’s money on transit projects;

It’s the orderly, but dumb system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

The pedestrian bridge is different. It may deal with Federal grants, but is also come from local and regional coffers. Regardless, this project is being pushed forward. According to the Star Tribune,

“The transit agency will likely devote $6 millon from its coffers for the project (this figure could be offset by federal grants), with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (which oversees stadium construction) ponying up $2 million, and the rest coming from bonds issues by the Met Council.”

Before we go any further, I think we need to ask a complex question.

How Did We Get Here?

The new $1 billion Green Line is done and the $1.1 billion Vikings Stadium is underway. They combine to represent over $2 billion of investment. Our local leaders are concerned, as they should be, that these pieces of infrastructure be as perfect as possible.

To quote a former Governor (one who wasn’t a professional wrestler),

“All too often, the human tendency is to compound one big mistake with a series of additional mistakes in the hope that somehow the results will improve. This appears to be the case with the Vikings stadium.”

Politicians are attracted to big, transformitive projects, so it seems only natural that our leaders, who have expelled a great amount of political capital, want to see every inch of it succeed. Even if that means throwing good money after bad.

How We Justify It All

An engineer at the Met Council, likely under much political pressure, noticed something: based on 2019 projections, during peak hours on Minnesota Vikings game days, there will be only a 120 second headway between trains. This will likely not be enough time to manage safe pedestrian crossings. The proposed solution is the bridge.

TopView

Please note the skyway attached to the State-mandated parking structure.

The pedestrian bridge makes some sense. Based on the projections, there will be long lines and delays during this period; and building a bridge for pedestrians certainly isn’t an unreasonable response. The Met Council’s Transportation Committee appears to be interested in the idea.

Let’s look at these assumptions: they assume that there will be two additional light rail lines in full operation, both of which have not yet even been either fully allocated money or constructed. Basically, the Met Council is gambling $8.7 million that there might be a problem in 5 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

To reiterate: Four (4) LRT lines being in operation (Blue, Green, SW & Bottentieu) and that Vikings game attendees hitting a 40% transit mode share. All of things don’t currently exist. It also assumes, more importantly, that if there is congestion people will not find an alternative route or change their travel behavior. This isn’t to say we can’t plan ahead. We should. But, we should be more realistic in our projections and our priorities.

Where Are Our Priorities?

Why did this project get fast-tracked while other smaller, more “everyday” projects never see the light of day? And, when smaller projects get the public’s attention, why do they struggle to find funding? These are merely a question of priorities.

As Nick Magrino (at streets.mn) has asked so often, “why are we embarrassed by the bus?” He writes,

“… I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on.”

A bridge like this seems like such a low priority, especially when we have legitimate transportation needs. For example, THIS is a bus stop on a heavily used transit line near the center of Minneapolis.

It’s not that a pedestrian bridge is a terrible idea. Under the projections, at some point in the future, it seems maybe reasonable. But, why is the Met Council prioritizing and fast-tracking this, whereas things like bike lanes, bus shelters, and potholes get ignored? I say this because you could build 40 miles of protected bike lanes for the same price tag.

Projects can take on a life of their own. There is no traditional process to getting things done. In this pedestrian overpass, you have the right person with the right slideshow presenting it to the right people at the right time. From here, you have the Met Council employees and political-appointed representatives who have monies at their disposal. The proposal, while not perfect, seems reasonable enough. And, we’ve just spent $2 billion on infrastructure, so we need to make it right. The presentation looks good, so why not go for it?

What Would Your City Do With $8.7 Million?

Imagine if the City of Minneapolis was given $8.7 million that could only be used on downtown pedestrian and/or transit projects. What would they do? The answer is: not a pedestrian bridge to be used during 10 sports games a year.

So, why are we doing it?

The answer is that we can get money from elsewhere to do the things we don’t need to do. But, when it comes to doing the simple things that we need to do, well, that money isn’t available from elsewhere. The pedestrian bridge is a bad idea (right now) that’s made worse when you think of the countless thousands of more useful public investments we could be making.

The truth is that the people and the City of Minneapolis don’t even care about it. It’s not on their radar. It’s the people who control infrastructure and transportation dollars who care about this. If given the opportunity to allocate these dollars elsewhere, it’s fair to say that literally everyone locally would divert them elsewhere.

Our priorities get skewed and we misallocate resources most when our funding comes from elsewhere. In fact, it is precisely why Minneapolis has the below. All of which the City of Minneapolis will be tearing down in 30 years …

vikingsblahugh

Note: This is also next to a proposed park called “The Yard” that neither the City of Minneapolis nor it’s Park Board want to maintain. Yet, somehow it’s still a thing.

This post originally appeared in Strong Towns on September 9, 2014. Content licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Comments Off on How To Justify Spending $8M On Something Nobody Wants by Nathaniel M. Hood
Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Minneapolis-St. Paul

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Hooray For the High Bridge

IMG_1714

My latest article is online in City Journal and is a look at the restoration and reopening of the High Bridge in New York City. Part of the original Croton Aqueduct system that first brought plentiful clean water to New York, portions of the High Bridge are the oldest standing bridge in the city. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s worth asking whether, with its $61 million price tag, the High Bridge project was really needed. Strictly speaking, the answer is: No. The structure was in no danger of falling down. And, just a half mile to the north, the Washington Bridge provides a functional, if unpleasant, pedestrian crossing over the Harlem River. Yet, the High Bridge is an important part of New York history and deserves its loving restoration. Spending serious money on outlying neighborhoods that are mostly minority and heavily poor to give their residents a humane environment instead of a minimalistic one shows that New York does care about all its citizens. Great cities don’t just do great things in a sanitized downtown Green Zone for visitors. They create greatness in their workaday neighborhoods, too, with projects that speak not merely to the pragmatic, but to the human spirit. The High Bridge restoration again shows what great commercial success allows a city to do for its citizens.

Click through to read the whole thing.

Here are some additional pictures I took. First, the High Bridge peeking through the trees from the Manhattan heights. You can see both the original stone arch spans and the longer steel arch span.

Looking south:

Embedded seal in the bridge pavement with historical info. There are quite a few of these discussing various aspects of the project.

The neighbors are fans:

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Why Are US Rail Transit Construction Costs So High?

It’s no secret to readers here that US rail transit construction costs are far out of line vs. other countries. David Schleicher, a law professor at Yale, recently co-authored an article examining some potential reasons why. I crossed paths with David last week and recorded this short podcast with him delving into the matter.

If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

A Chicago Model for Global Cities and a New Rhode Island Model For Transit

Last week I linked to an article by Kris Hartley about a Chicago model for global cities. I wasn’t planning to analyze it, but Greg Hinz over at Crain’s did a short writeup, so I decided to share a few thoughts.

Where I’d disagree with Hartley is that I don’t think Chicago is in fact pursuing industry dominance. What’s I’d say is that it’s acting like it already has it. That’s part of the roots of its financial challenges as Chicago’s spending big without the economic base to support it.

Where I agree with Hartley is that industry dominance is only one aspect of global cities. Another crucial part is what economic and other networks a city participates in. I think this network based view is pretty aligned with Sassen too. The idea in Hartley’s piece is that Chicago should identify and cultivate the global networks in which it competes, and build a model based on that. I think Hartley offers a pretty pretty positive take on the city, saying that Chicago doesn’t need to dominate an industry to thrive. In any event, I agree that Chicago should built its own model since it is a different kind of city. Less Big Spend, more networks.

On another topic, Ted Nesi from Providence’s WPRI-TV wrote a two-part online series on the badly botched ridership estimates for the commuter rail extension to Wickford Jct. The first part covers the ridership gap (and how project champion Sen. Jack Reed is still defending this white elephant). The second part is about the high and going losses that will need to be subsidized in perpetuity to keep this thing going. Not only did Rhode Island build an expensive line to a sprawly/ruralish area, it also built a huge parking garage that will cost a ton of money to operate.

Back in 2013 I wrote a piece at Greater City Providence challenging the philosophy of expanding rail to far flung areas where there is no market, and instead said that the state should focus on improving connectivity from Providence and the urbanized north of the state to Boston.

Comments Off on A Chicago Model for Global Cities and a New Rhode Island Model For Transit
Topics: Globalization, Regionalism, Transportation
Cities: Boston, Chicago, Providence

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

More Privatization Pain For the Public in North Carolina

Privatization done right can be a great boon. Done poorly, it can harm the public for decades. We see another example of the latter ongoing in North Carolina (h/t @mihirpshah). The Charlotte Observer reports:

The N.C. Department of Transportation’s contract with a private developer to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 includes a controversial noncompete clause that could hinder plans to build new free lanes on the highway for 50 years.

The clause has long been part of the proposed contract. But it was changed in late 2013 or early 2014 to also include two new free lanes around Lake Norman – an important $431 million project supported by local transportation planners.

Some area officials were surprised that under the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, the developer would likely collect damages if the state added two new general-purpose lanes from Exit 28 to Exit 36 at the lake.

Many of these long term privatization contracts are loaded with “submarine” clauses like non-competes that lurk underwater ready to rise up torpedo the public without warning. Did the people of North Carolina know that they were signing away their right to make public policy for the next 50 years when they did this deal?

What raises serious a red flag is that the clause that incorporated the I-77 added lanes project was added late in the game, which suggests that the current impact were not an accident:

Bill Coxe, a transportation planner with Huntersville, said he doesn’t know who lobbied for the revision. The new language wasn’t part of the draft contract from 2013, but it was added before the final deal was signed in June. “We saw that late in the game,” he said. “We aren’t sure who modified that.”

Mooresville’s representative on an advisory committee that helps make transportation recommendations said she didn’t know about the change to the contract with the developer. Neither did Andrew Grant, a Cornelius assistant town manager who helps shape regional transportation policy.

So many of these deals have less to do with bringing in private capital to finance infrastructure improvements than they do contractually creating a decades long stream of monopoly rents for the contractor.

Chicago got burned when an arbitrator ruled it owed $58 million to the group that leased the city’s lakefront parking garages. The city had promised it would not allow anyone else to build a garage open to the public to compete with the lessee. But it did anyway and they had to pay damages.

Contra the claim in the article that these clauses are necessary to attract investment, simply look around and see that businesses take huge investment risks every single day in markets with no barriers to entry for competitors. You don’t see Walgreens going to city governments and telling them they won’t open a store unless the city promises not to approve a CVS within a two mile radius, for example. We often see retail competitors right across the street from each other

But why invest in the actual marketplace when you can sign a sweetheart deal that grants you a five decade monopoly?

In this case, it appears to be free lanes and toll lanes side by side on the same facility. So there’s some justification for some sort of agreement on the state’s plans for the free lanes. But given that the free lane expansion was already on the books and supported by transportation planners, to have the project de facto killed through a clause slipped into a private contract in a way that does not appear to have been vetted by the public is dubious. If the residents of the area had known the free lane project they were banking on would be basically taken off the table for 50 years, it might have created protests that could potentially derail the contract. So by simply adding a non-compete clause, the state and contractor could do the same thing without stirring up the public until it was too late. It’s all the more reason why there needs to be much, much more scrutiny on the terms of these deals.

Comments Off on More Privatization Pain For the Public in North Carolina
Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Charlotte

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