Friday, March 30, 2007

Transit and the Pocketbook

As a loyal public transit advocate, I'm always excited to hear about cities that encourage residents to use their mass transportation networks. Even in cities with high quality mass transit systems (New York, Chicago, and DC, for example), private automobile transportation poses a long-term challenge. (To clarify: I'm speaking of non-automobile-based transit systems, such as rail). The reason is primarily economic: automobile transportation systems (including cars themselves and the road networks on which they travel) can be expanded incrementally and, as a result of that incremental improvement, see an immediate benefit. Build a new suburban housing development, lay out a mile or two of road connecting it all together, and whiz-bang! you've got a car-friendly residential neighborhood ready for realtors to pour in.

Mass transit systems, however, require massive economic investment to expand in significant chunks before they become useful. Rail systems, as opposed to bus systems, have fewer stops and significant distance between those stops. Practically speaking, a huge amount of track must be laid before the new construction pays off. Furthermore, since this huge investment is almost entirely paid for by the public, any expansion in the transit system requires a majority public consensus on new expenditures.

The practical result of this economic reality is that it is enormously difficult to expand publically-funded mass transit systems, and markedly easier to expand automobile-based transit infrastructure.

Is there any way to counter this fact? Could mass transit capital improvement budgets be increased? Could we dsincentivize automobile transportation somehow?

Coming this Wednesday: Does mass transit contribute to urban sprawl?

Monday, March 26, 2007

No Paper Cups For Me, Please!

A recent NYTimes article profiled the uber-environmentalist No Impact Couple, a husband and wife living in Manhattan who are trying to live as green-friendly a life as is possible in the Big Apple. This includes not driving, not taking the elevator, only eating food grown in a 250-mile radius of New York, and for that matter only using consumer products produced within that range.

Also, it means telling baristas they prefer to use mugs instead of paper (or Styrofoam) cups. This issue resonates particularly with me, as I've found a number of coffee shops that are very displeased when asked to provide mugs. It is particularly galling to be told that mugs are not available, especially when there are rows and rows of mugs lining the walls. I know at least one person who carries around a travel mug everywhere she goes, politely requesting that drinks be made in it, rather than in a disposable cup.

How common is this experience? Do other people want mugs instead of paper cups, only to be told they're unavailable? Are there any coffee shops committed to serving drinks in mugs?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Signs about Town

I found this sign (pictured above) in Uptown. What the heck is "safety improvement project"? Is it related to "No Bike Riding On Sidewalk"? Or do they just appear on the same metal pole?

Ok, I realize this may seem like a pointless post, but I'm a big stickler for clarity in signage. That's why I like airports so much. In airports, they go sign-crazy. Airport designers are serious about making sure you know where everything is.

In the case cited above, I'm a bit at a loss. There were no other signs nearby to indicate what the safety improvement project is. Certainly, it's possible that the sign implies that by forbidding bike access to the sidewalk improves safety overall. But why, in that case, are there two separate signs? Why not one "No Biking on Sidewalk" sign, and below it (but on the same sign in a smaller font) something like: "Part of Minneapolis' Safety Improvement Project!" ?

I'll have to write to my selectman!

Calhoun Square: Just Another Mall?

Calhoun Square has been in the news a lot recently. The erstwhile trendy urban mall has fallen on hard times: occupancy rates have fallen, and the collapsing market for luxury condos (and rentals) has halted plans for expanding the mall's residential component. Now Calhoun Square is up for sale (big surprise, huh?).

Take a look at the photo above. I snapped that picture yesterday. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, temperate in the mid-60's, and moderately sunny. Uptown, while not packed, was fairly busy with pedestrian traffic. Inside the mall, however, things were quiet. Sure, there were a few people milling about the shops, but overall there was a morgue atmosphere about the place.

Let's face it: experientially speaking, Calhoun Square feels like just another suburban mall. The skylights don't really let in all that much natural light, and the entryways effectively close off outside-the-mall from inside-the-mall. The acoustics are poor: there's a constant dull background rumble of echoed conversations and industrial equipment.

Obviously there are a lot of factors contributing to the decline of Calhoun Square: the tanking condo market, the eventual de-trendification of all neighborhoods, the upscaling of Uptown itself. But I don't think it would be that hard to make this mall a nicer place to spend time: improve the acoustics by replacing highly echo-reflective tiles with some other material. Let in more natural light. Rebuild the main entrance to encourage pedestrian flow in and out of the space. These improvements are easy enough to implement and would vastly improve the look-and-feel of the space.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Study in Light and Dark

I snapped this picture tonight on the campus of the University of Minnesota. The Coffman Student Union, in the daytime, is not a particularly notable building. Sure, it has nice lines and geometric forms, and the presence of students gives it a certain liveliness. And I'll grant you the glass facade is very cool. But at night, the contrast between the brightly lit square windows and the dark night sky is absolutely gorgeous. The building emanates a kind of bursting energy. Outside, it is cold and dark; inside the building, it was warm and bright. That brilliance spills out of the building, projecting its energy into the external dark space. Quite breathtaking! It's amazing how much light--the presence or absence thereof--affects one's experience of a place.

Alley Oop!

I'm always excited to discover a new twist in the vocabulary of road networks. On my way out of Uptown tonight, I somewhat accidentally managed to drive down a very narrow alley. "Hmmm," I wondered, "this is a very weird road. There are no lane markings or addresses; in fact, all the buildings fronting this road appear to be the backs of buildings! Odd!"

Of course, silly me, I was driving down an urban alley. I have indeed read about (and seen pictures of) this type of road, but had rarely encountered in my visits to various cities. (To be fair, I do distinctly remember one such urban alley in Philadelphia--quite cool!). The basic idea is that rather than have driveways and garages take up valuable frontage space on main roads, you move residential vehicular access to a small alley that runs in between roads (and connects directly to the backs of garages and houses). It's really quite an impressive innovation: it permits urban dwellers more direct, private access to their homes, makes it easier to keep a car in the city, and preserves the quality of experience on the urban road itself.

It is this last point--the quality of experience of the urban street--that I want to emphasize. As I've said many times, the central problem (challenge?) facing urban development is what to do about the automobile. Cars are anathema to cities in many ways. They take up huge amounts of space, and require that roads be far wider than is necessary for other forms of transport. Cars also have to be parked somewhere, and that means extra lanes for parking, as well as driveways that add another ten or so feet to lot widths. The practical result is that homes--and the people who live in them--are pushed farther apart from each other. The quality of life of cities is predicated on proximity to one's neighbors! For better or worse, that is what makes cities feel like cities. The feeling of being closely packed in with a multitude of humanity is what makes Chinatown in New York different from Chinatown in Cleveland.

The urban alley makes it possible to build homes (and businesses) more densely, by relocating the car to a separate street. Driveways are now located behind houses, so there is extra room on the main street for buildings and people. Urban alleys show great promise as an urban planning tool to promote dense, urban neighborhoods.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Getting to the Airport

I've spent a lot of time getting to and from airports lately, and it's been very interesting seeing how different highway layouts make airports more or less accessible to the metropolitan region which they serve. The main thing I've noticed (big surprise!) is that centrally located airports are generally easier to get to from a variety of locations than off-in-a-corner airports. To wit:

In Cleveland, the airport is located in the southwest arc of the outer suburban ring. Consequently, it is very accessible to the southwest suburbs, and decently accessible to the city proper (16 mins travel time, according to Google). The eastern suburbs, however, are another matter: Cleveland Heights, University Heights, and Shaker Heights are all over 26 mins from the airport. My experience has borne this out: living on the East Side, it was quite a hassle to get to the airport. Living on the West Side, it was fantastically easy.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, it's a bit different. First of all there are two cities to contend with, and the absence of a Great Lake means there is suburban development in all directions. The airport is located in between and south of the two cities. Since the region has a complete loop beltway, the overall travel time to the airport is not too bad. I have found that while the average travel time to the airport is higher than Cleveland's inner ring, the variation in travel times among Minneapolis' suburbs is lower. Obviously, the towns immediately adjacent to the airport have the shortest travel times. My experience in the Minneapolis region, so far, has shown me that the northern suburbs are by far the most distant, but that otherwise the airport is very easy to get to.

If you're fascinated by this issue and want to read on, here's a chart of travel times to Cleveland's airport and to Minneapolis' airport:


richfield: 10 mins
edina: 12 mins
st louis park: 18 mins
robbinsdale: 28 mins
st anthony: 29 mins
lauderdale: 21 mins
falcon heights: 23 mins
maplewood: 20 mins
woodbury: 21 mins
south saint paul: 16 mins
west saint paul: 13 mins
minneapolis: 17 mins
saint paul: 14 mins


cleveland: 16 mins
lakewood: 13 mins
linndale: 6 mins
brooklyn: 8 mins
brooklyn hts: 13 mins
newburgh hts: 16 mins
maple hts: 19 mins
warrensville hts: 19 mins
shaker hts: 26 mins
university hts: 30 mins
cleveland hts: 30 mins
east cleveland: 26 mins
bratenahl: 20 mins

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Teenagers Are Baaaack.....

He's not Robocop, but the off-duty Westlake cop retained by Borders in Crocker Park is one lean, mean, teenager-rustling machine. The only thing more effective, I imagine, would be a border collie. As I've pointed out in previous posts, teenagers--when clustered together--can be one big mess of trouble. Let's face it: kids are noisy and, if left to their own unsupervised devices, potentially troublesome. In public shopping areas, teenagers often congregate in large numbers and intimidate ordinary adults. Some shopping centers try to ignore the problem, and others (such as Borders in Westlake) tackle it head-on.

Sipping lattes at the Borders cafe last night, I noticed that the background noise level had risen sharply. At the far end of the cafe (near the main entrance), a dozen or so teenagers were hanging out. This comes as little surprise, since there's a movie theatre immediately adjacent to the bookstore, so during the changeover times (7 pm and 9:30pm) there is usually an influx of customers. These kids, unsurprisingly, were yelling a lot and disturbing all of us quiet-minded folk who just wanted to read our magazines and relax.

Within minutes, the cop moseyed over to the group. In a booming, stentorian voice he announced: "GENTLEMAN, TAKE IT OUTSIDE." The effect was immediate--the group left.

For the next half-hour or so, groups of teenagers wandered into the store to hang out, make noise, and most importantly (from the store's perspective) not actually buy anything. The cop was on top of the situation.

To four kids who had commandeered the plusher chairs: "GENTLEMAN, YOU MUST BUY SOMETHING TO SIT. PLEASE LEAVE."

To the kid who tried to argue: "DON'T PLAY GAMES WITH ME."

To the group of six of whom one had bought a coffee: "THAT'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH; PLEASE LEAVE."

All in all, I was very impressed. The cop was stern, commanding, but not mean or threatening. He was forceful in presence, and the kids responded appropriately.

Now that's effective public space security!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Workers Say "Hands Off" to Pork

Will employers let religious devotees bring home the bacon?

According to the Star Tribune, there is a debate among orthodox Somalis as to whether it is appropriate to handle pork products in the course of one's job. For instance, should a cashier be able to scan and bag the bacon that a customer is buying? At least one cashier answered no, asking that a customer scan-and-bag the bacon in question. The incident also provoked a rather lengthy discussion on MNSpeak. This got me thinking: why stop at prohibiting scanning-and-bagging? If you're banned from touching pork for ideological reasons, and plastic packaging doesn't adequately insulate you from the questionable material, then maybe we need more drastic measures...

Let's follow the supply chain backwards to figure out which other jobs this religious interpretation prohibits. Ok, obviously the cashier work is out of the question. What about the stockers? You know, the folks who restock the shelves in the middle of the night when all good folks are asleep in their beds (thanks to the magical glowing butterfly)? If you can't scan bacon, you certainly can't put piles and piles of bacon packages in the cooler. Obviously you can't work as a butcher (!). What about driving the delivery truck that carries the bacon to the store at all? That kind of depends on whether you feel that the steel separating you (in the cab) from the bacon (in the trailer) is sufficient. Who am I to say that this is satisfactory insulation? What if you work in a bank and a client makes money trading pork futures on the Chicago Merc? Is his money tainted? What if you're a pharmacist and your client needs gastrointestinal drugs to calm the effects of eating too much bacon? Are you feeding (pun intended) his habit in contradiction of your avoidance-of-pork? What if you go to school with a classmate whose tuition is paid for by his father, a pig farmer? How far does the taint extend? If there any safe place in which a person can follow this principle?

I'm pretty sure that there is no reasonable way to accommodate this extreme perspective, and that the underlying agenda behind folks who preach it is to encourage the division of radical believers from the rest of the population. Thankfully, we're still in America, a country where we try to learn from each other's different cultures and backgrounds and find ways to get along. At least, I hope so!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

We'll Always Have Minneapolis / St. Paul

I just have a second today to take care of posting, so for the moment I'll pass on an amusing link to y'all. More clever observations on urban life to follow...

Read on...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Wrong Side of the Tracks?

Whenever you move to a new city, one of the first decisions you have to make is where to live. If you do your homework (visit a bunch, try to talk to people who live there, consult real estate and other demographic info) you can hopefully narrow down the list of possible neighborhoods. As with any city--Minneapolis included--one assumes that there is most likely a full range of neighborhoods across the economic spectrum, from the ritzy (the Chauffeurs and Pools set) to the not-so-ritzy (the Street Corner Drug Trade set). Every city has its poor and rich areas, and new residents are usually on the lookout to avoid the former (and occasionally achieve the latter).

In moving to Minneapolis, I was certainly no exception to this pattern: I researched a variety of neighborhoods, and ended up selecting a place very close to downtown. In the course of my research, I kept on hearing about how the north side of the city is particularly down-and-out. At the time, this didn't strike me as notable--I assumed that Minneapolis, like any city, has its poor & dangerous neighborhoods. I took it as conventional wisdom that I should be on the lookout.

A recent discussion on the issue, however, made me stop and think about it. Why do some neighborhoods get a reputation for being dangerous? Is it really just a function of FBI crime statistics, or is the perception of a neighborhoods perhaps a more complex social and political phenomenon? Is North Minneapolis really so sketchy? Many of the comment-ers on the aforementioned thread live in N. Mpls and are very happy there. They admit that the neighborhood has problems, but are pleased to list many of the reasons they like it.

I'm glad that I came across that thread, because it helps newcomers like me remember that the perception, and reputation, of neighborhoods is more complex. To live, or not to live, in a particular neighborhood cannot be determined solely on the basis of its popularized media image.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Personal Security Part II: Reign in the Teenagers!

Who among us has not at least on one occasion faced the threat of an unruly group of teenagers, noisesome in their manner, disruptive in their conduct, and generally tasteless in their garb? Gathered about outside moving picture houses, indoor mall (lifestyle center!) food courts, and sidewalks in front of fast food eateries, these rowdy young adults intimidate passersby, making it impossible for law-abiding citizens to go about their appointed business.

Er, what I mean to say is, isn't it annoying when packs of kids make life difficult when you're just trying to buy some khakis at the Gap? (On sale now, since they'll probably be out of business by the end of the year!) It's especially annoying at malls, where for some reason kids have decided they need to gather. Well, to be fair, suburban American life has eliminated in large part any possibility of communal space for teenagers, so it's hard to fault them for creating it where they can. Nevertheless, unsupervised teenagers can be a real hassle, and it drives away adults remarkably effectively.

Anyway, I guess this was enough of a problem at the Mall of America. The Star Tribune reports that the MOA has an excellent, well-enforced, and effective policy that requires people under 16 to be accompanied by an adult on Friday and Saturday evenings. Emphasis on the "well-enforced". They're really serious about making this policy work. If you can believe the people quoted in the article, most folks are happy about it. Personally, I think it's a great idea!

But let's not forget that teenagers' desire for a gathering space is a legitimate need. In today's America, there is very little public space. This is a particularly acute problem for teenagers. They need places where they can enjoy each other's company without the nanny-like big brother presence of us grownups. Is it sad that malls have become the de facto hangout for kids? I think it is a bit. Can we find any solution for this mess?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Empty Chairs at Empty Townhouses

I've watched the New Urbanist movement grow over the past few years, and it's been a bit scary. Traditional suburbs, filled to the gills with rec centers, quality public schools, McMansions, large back yards, environmentally destructive sewer systems that disturb regional watersheds, car-oriented layouts that discourage non-automobile-based transportation, class- and racially- segregated housing patterns, and an utter lack of public spaces, have decided that they need to get themselves some old timey-time ye olde days of yore downtown. That's right--what our suburb really needs is a town square, complete with a Starbucks, movie theatre, and--God willing--an 80-unit luxury condo building.

But hey, maybe I should go easy on suburbs and the economic development directors who push for New Urbanist downtowns overly dependent on upperclass residents. The fact is, suburbs compete with one another for residents. Residents want high-end municipal services. Suburbs get the most bang-for-the-buck (servicewise, that is) by luring in wealthy residents. And if you can believe national economic trends, those wealthy residents want nothing more than upscale townhouses in the centers of thriving, amenity-rich suburbs.

Ah, but it looks like the pie might be a bit smaller than those ED's thought. The Star Tribune reports that planned condo projects are stalled in many Twin Cities suburbs. Some of the projects have been abandoned, while others have been downscaled to traditional rentals (gasp!) rather than upmarket townhouses & condos. It turns out that the market simply isn't that strong for the kind of housing been planned in the "new" downtowns.

I'm not a real estate agent, so I'm not privy to the exact numbers of which kinds of people want which kinds of housing. But my day-to-day experience tells me that the consumer appetite for housing appears to split cleanly between urbanities, suburbanites, and rural folk (ruralites?). There just aren't that many people who want to live in high-density settings in the middle of medium-density towns. The economic logic isn't there--why pay top dollar for less square feet in a suburb where you could easily have a palace for the same price? In the meantime, urbanites like myself aren't looking for super upscale living; I just want to live in a real urban area, densely populated, diverse in demographics, in a centrally-located building.

What does New Urbanism really promise? An urban life, or a small-time nostalgic downtown? Planners can't seem to make up their minds how to sell the concept. The reason, I think, is that you don't get to have the good parts of the urban life without the bad ones. If you want high-density development, you'll have to accept the economic, class, and racial diversity that come with it.

But I ramble...

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Self-Destructive Logic of Chain Stores

The LATimes hit the nail on the head when it comes to the self-destructive behavior of national chain stores. Focusing in on Starbucks and Krispy Kreme in particular, Daniel Gross explains how the transformation from a regional to a national chain, conducted at a frenzied pace demanded by shareholders, leads to the cheapening of a brand and its eventual fiscal problems. The story goes like this: Regional chain with quality product and strong customer loyalty decides it's time to expand into the national market. The initial expansion is highly successful (since the product is so great!), so it's easy for the chain to secure financing for even faster expansion. Soon enough the chain goes public, giving it access to even more capital for its expansion efforts. Shareholders, however, demand ever greater profits, so the chain starts sacrificing quality in exchange for an efficient supply chain and crappy customer service. Worse still, the regional identity associated with the brand collapses, since the brand is present in all regional markets. As Daniel Gross puts it, "[w]hen a chain becomes of every place, it's no longer of any place." Eventually, the expansion (and the profits associated with it) slows down, and CEO's find themselves in the hot seat.

The urban-centric debate has often framed the chain store issue as independent retail vs. big bad national chain stores. I think that it may be more productive to think about the issue as regional chains vs. national chains. While I'm still a big backer of independent retail, I think it's clear that it is possible for a regional chain to stay committed to quality products and customer service without bankrupting its host region's cultural identity.

What keeps regional chains regional? Which regional chains go national? Why are businesses so keen on growth, rather than stability, in their finances? Are there public policies available to government to promote regional business and discourage nationalization of brands?

Monday, March 05, 2007

On The Importance of Personal Security in Urban Areas

On NPR's Marketplace program today, there was a great segment about the upcoming closure of Minneapolis' downtown Borders. The commentary came from a (former) staff member of the store. According to her, the store was plagued with security problems:

As soon Block E Borders opened, it was infested. Homeless men slept and urinated in the chairs. Gangs listened to rap on headphones, often singing the obscene lyrics out loud. Prostitutes and drug dealers did business in our restrooms. Theft was rampant.

Despite her (and other staffers) pleas to management to hire some security staff, the chief muck-a-mucks of Borders apparently decided it wasn't worth it. Unsurprisingly, sales at the store have declined to the point at which it's not worth it to stay open. Border's PR claims that foot traffic is too slow at that location. Too slow!? Of course it's too slow--who would want to come in to a store with problems like these?

Despite efforts to transform city centers into pleasure palaces of luxury housing and upscale retail, the fact remains that cities (and often their downtowns) house a much more diverse population than traditional suburbs. Believe it or not, that "diverse" population includes people you don't want in your store. And, I should add, the long tradition of quality social and support services in cities make them great places for poor people and criminals to live. Legitimate businesses need to take an active hand in combating these problems. Hiring a security guard is a well-known and effective tool to handle these problems. It's a no-brainer--I can't understand why Borders did not give it a shot (!).