Thursday, April 26, 2007

How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

A friend of mine recently called my attention to an unfortunate accident in Washington DC, in which an MTA bus struck, and killed, two pedestrians. The victims, it appears, were crossing the road at a crosswalk, with the proper right of way. Nevertheless, the bus sped through a turn and plowed through them. Ghastly, huh?

A quick Google search of car-on-pedestrian accidents is telling: people get hit by cars a fair bit when crossing intersections. Urban planners are certainly aware of the problem, and try to address it with a variety of tactics: awareness education (for drivers and pedestrians), better signage, clearer lines-of-sight for drivers, lower speed limits, better traffic light timing, and so on.

I was very impressed with one great example of pedestrian-friendly intersection design. At the intersection of King St and Main St in Northampton, MA, there is a quite a lot of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. It's a college town, and there are tons and tons of college kids crossing the street at all hours of the day. It's also a regional commuter route, connecting a number of small cities and towns in western Massachusetts, so there are a lot of cars on the road much of the time.

In a traditional intersection, the pedestrian crosswalk rights-of-way run parallel to the vehicular rights-of-way. When cars can pass through an intersection one way, so to can pedestrian cross in that direction.

At King & Main, however, the system is different. The traffic light operates in a 3-stage pattern: first it allows cars to travel along King; then it allows cars to travel along Main; then it stops all car traffic and permits pedestrians to cross both King and Main simultaneously.

One might think that such a system would be less efficient than a traditional two-stage system. A two-stage system, however, often does not adequately provide for the safety of pedestrians. It is far too easy for a right-turning car to hit a pedestrian, even when that pedestrian indeed has the right of way. By stopping all vehicular traffic, the King & Main system puts pedestrians' safety first.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Practical Ideas for Bus Safety

There's been a fair amount written about the bus shooting in St Paul. The incident prompted a heck of a lot of online discussion, as can be seen on Roadguy's blog. There are 115 comments on this post at the moment (!). Although the seems to be general consensus among those commenters that travel on buses, at least during non-commute hours, is dicey on occasion. The common techniques for pre-empting conflict on the bus are heard again and again: wear your headphones, read a book, don't make eye contact, keep to yourself. Also common are the complaints about unruly teenagers who seem to think that the bus is their personal playground, not to mention a variety of criminal activity.

Commenters have also pointed out that by and large riding the bus is pretty much safe (certainly during commuting hours). They point out that the questionable behavior is more a cultural problem than a criminal one. How, people ask, can we make riding the bus a more civilized affair?

I believe strongly that it is an issue of culture, best addressed not by legal regulation but by active condemnation by all the decent bus riders out there. On the most recent edition of MPR's In The Loop, the host posed the question: "Is it enough to take a stand simply by believing in a thing?" On audience member answered: "No--you have to take action." If we want our buses to be safe places to travel, we have to be willing to speak out en masse when we see people misbehaving.

Of course, that's mighty tough. Unless you know in advance that ten people will stand up with you to face down the situation, you're unlikely to get involved. Certainly I feel the same thing--why should I stick my neck out if I'm going to be out there all alone?

Although it is not terribly practical to stick transit officers on every bus, how about we take a cue from the Mall of America and encourage bus riders to join a volunteer enforcement group? Volunteers would ride the bus as normal, but be officially empowered to take action when a situation arises. They could wear some kind of identifying mark--buttons or hats or something--so people would know whom to approach if there was a problem.

I actually think this idea might work. Neighborhood watch groups, for instance, function in a similar fashion. They are not officers of the peace, per se, but have a functioning relationship with law enforcement and actively seek to play a role in improving the safety and security of their communities.

So who wants to sign up?

Coming on Monday: How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Urban Supply Chains

Seward Coop hosted a promo day for all the area CSA's this past weekend. CSA, in case you didn't know, stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The basic idea is this: rather than get your produce for a regional (or national) grocer drawing from an (inter)national supply chain, you buy a share in a local farm. During the regular growing season (June to October), you get 8-12 lbs of mixed produce (whatever's in season at the moment). It adds up to about $2.50 per pound. Your money helps support the local economy, you eat better (and often organic) produce, and you help the environment by reducing transportation costs associated with bringing goods to market.

This got me thinking about supply chains, urban environments, and energy costs. One of the key arguments in favor of the urban concentration of human beings is that it theoretically reduces transportation costs. In a suburban region without a central nodal point, goods have to be shipped in smaller bundles to more locations (thus using more energy for that transportation). In an urban environment, the higher density translates into fewer nodal points for distribution. Hence, you can ship large parcels of goods to fewer geographic distribution nodes. Urban environments = less transportation costs.

It's a great idea, in theory anyway. Subscribing to (er, buying a share in) a CSA is a good step in that direction. By committing to buying your produce from a local supplier, you ensure that no additional energy is expended bringing in out-of-season goods.

There are, however, a few drawbacks:

(1) Seasonal eating - If you really want to eat out-of-season produce, the only way to do it is to ship it in from some part of the planet where it is in season. If I want strawberries in December, I won't be getting them from Minnesota farms!

(2) Distribution costs - I still need to go to a distribution node to pick up my weekly box of produce. It's not clear to me whether the energy expended by all the private transit automobiles going to and from these distribution nodes adds up significantly.

(3) Limited distribution nodes - Since some CSA's aren't that big, they don't necessarily have convenient distribution points in any given city. Subscribers may in fact drive farther to reach the CSA distribution point than they would driving to a conventional grocery store.

At any rate, I'm willing to give it a shot. Looking for to the asparagus...

Coming this Friday: Practical Ideas for Bus Safety

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Is Dog is a City's Best Friend?

In a previous post, I noted that at Lake Calhoun on a beautiful day the dogs almost outnumbered the people. Ok, so it's an exaggeration, but there are indeed a lot of dogs in this city. My apartment building allows dogs, and not just small ones (up to 70 lbs, in fact!). It's not yet clear to me if this is common practice in Minneapolis. I can tell you that it was very much not common in Cleveland. Back in NE Ohio, you were lucky to find a building that let you have a cat.

So I see a lot of dogs these days. It's quite impressive. I see people walking their dogs, running with their dogs, biking with their dogs, etc. I see small dogs, big dogs, fat dogs, young dogs (puppies! yay puppies!!), friendly dogs, barky dogs, tough dogs, and cute-little-put-it-in-your-pocket toy dogs.

But curiously enough, there is something I don't see around town. You would think that with all these dogs, you would see a lot of this thing. But the mystery object is rarely sighted.

What is this mystery item? You guessed it: dog poop. Minneapolis is doing a damn good job enforcing its litter laws. I have seen almost no dog poop in the city, which is really quite astounding given how many dogs are running around.

Cleanliness is an interesting aspect of city life. It often receives little attention from urban planners, who know full well that humans are perfectly capable of living in squalor and filth for generations without noticing it. Maybe of this planet's great metropolises are indeed dirty places (think New York, Paris, London). I say this without judgment--the aforementioned cities are fantastic places to live. But they are indeed messy places, and dog poop is among their blights.

Somehow, Minneapolis has managed to get the problem under control. Consequently, the city is much more attractive to visitors. Responsible dog ownership and well-enforced litter laws have ensured that dog-citizens have a secure place in the city's life.

Coming this Wednesday: Urban Supply Chains

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Condo Watch: All Luxury, All the Time

I love condo ads. Especially "luxury" condo ads. A real estate developer smells blood (er, money) in the water, hires a marketing firm to put together a demographic survey showing huge latent demand for $300k+ downtown homes, convinces a bank (along with a few select investors) to pony up $50 million, sweet-talks the drooling city into granting 15 year tax abatements, hires lawyers to fight the neighborhood protests, and three to five years later the first bulldozers show up at the construction site. Of course, during this whole process the developer has to convince buyers (er, Rich People) that this latest and greatest condo complex offers the kind of conspicuous (consumptive) consumption, luxurious amenities, and Prime Location that it would be insane not to sign on the dotted pre-construction line.

I love the language of these condo ads. The website for East Bank Mills, across from downtown Minneapolis, tells us the dramatic story of its vision:

The emphasis is on the community. The setting is the river. The place is where the City Began.

We started with the existing community, Marcy Holmes, and used its Master Plan as our guide. Then we traveled the world to add to the design in an attempt to make it the most livable urban community possible.

And the vision of East Bank Mills was born.
A neighborhood along the water that will be a new landmark in the city of Minneapolis.

East Bank Mills will be a walkable, eclectic, urban neighborhood. It will cover almost eight acres with housing for people of all ages and interests. Historic renovations and modern new condominiums. Public spaces. Private retreats. Narrow pedestrian streets with local vendors you know by name.
A public plaza and bridge that draws you to the river and the regional park in your front yard.

History runs through it. The Pillsbury "A" Mill is a National Historic Landmark. The South Mill's water tower, the Pil

I'll admit it: it's a damn good pitch. I do indeed find myself drooling in response to the appeal. Just think of it: local vendors! downtown location! "Eclectic" neighborhood! (What does eclectic even mean in this context? Chinese and Japanese restaurants?) What's not to like? Surely this building will suit my loftstyle lifestyle perfectly!

But wait.... there's a new building coming.... more luxury.... more trendy.... more... urban!

Coming this Monday: Is Dog a City's Best Friend?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Dedicated Lanes for Everyone

Since the weather was unbelievably beautiful this past Sunday, I spent some quality time at Lake Calhoun. It's a beautiful park in southwest Minneapolis, a little over 3 miles in circumference. In good weather, people flock to this park! Today, I saw hundreds and hundreds of park visitors: walkers, joggers, runners, roller-bladers, bikers, teenagers, old (er, senior) folks, couples, families, people pushing strollers, and of course, people walking dogs. The dogs are particularly happy to be there, hunting squirrels and barking "Hello!" at every other dog.

With all these people (and animals) frequenting the park, you might wonder how all this pedestrian and non-motorized (bikes and rollerblades, that is) traffic is managed. The answer is: dedicated lanes! There is one four foot wide lane for bidirectional pedestrian traffic; outside that lane is another single-direction lane for bikers, rollerbladers, and seriously fast runners. Beyond that, there is a bidirectional road for vehicular traffic. It's a pretty impressive operation--with separate lanes for specific kinds of traffic, there is plenty of space for everyone to move at his/her appropriate pace.

This got me thinking: what if we had dedicated lanes for all kinds of traffic everywhere? Imagine I-35W, with concrete medians separating car, bike, stroller, moped, scooter, running, walking, and old-people-with-walkers lanes! To be complete, we should add more lanes for faster-than-car travel, including traditional rail and high-speed rail. I guess if you really wanted to make it complete, you would dedicate the air above the lane in question for air traffic, and run subway lines underneath it. Why should a given road be restricted to a specific mode of travel?

Coming this Friday: All Luxury, All the Time!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

They're Going the Distance.

What's the longest commute you can put up with? According to the last census, the average one-way commute time in America is 24 minutes. In my experience that seems to greatly underestimate how much time Americans really spend commuting. While I've always made it a high priority to keep my commute under 20 minutes, I've been surrounded by people who think nothing of a driving 45 minutes one-way to work. That's an hour-and-a-half in a car every day--yikes!

Moreover, my suspicion that the US Census underestimates the real average commute time is based on the fact that in most metropolitan areas it is totally impossible for a suburbanite to commute into the city in such a short time frame. Since a majority of workers in a metropolitan area usually come from outside the center city, and since suburb-to-center-city commutes are often more than a half-hour, it stands to reason that the average commute time should be higher.

Time is my most precious commodity (except for my jewel-encrusted dagger snagged on EBay!). Spending hours every day cooped up in a car, disconnected from other humans, losing valuable time that could be spent actually doing something fun, strikes me as a crummy way to live. Given how many other people are content with their long commutes, however, I've often wondered if I'm the one taking crazy pills.

The New Yorker has a brief article on the subject (I would post a link, but sadly I couldn't find the article online). It makes a few general points: The main point was that long commutes suck, and lots of people have long commutes. I don't know how they do it.

How long is your commute? If it's really long, how do you keep from going crazy?

Coming this Wednesday: Dedicated Lanes for Everyone!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Loftstyle Lifestyle

I'm getting more and more baffled by the lingo used to apartment buildings. My apartment building advertises itself as "Contemporary Loftstyle Living" (also mentioned on its website: 'A bridge... a river... a historic location"). What does "loftstyle" even mean? Does it mean my apartment is a loft, or only loft-like? Is it evocative of a loft, but not actually a loft? On that note, I'm also bewildered by a few other phrases used in apartment ads:

  • Apartment home. What is the difference between an apartment and an apartment home?

  • Luxury. What counts as luxury? Every new apartment building is apparently a luxury building.

  • Flat. Is this just a Briticism, or does it imply a luxury (see above) apartment?

  • Contemporary. Unless the building has a time warp built-in that transports you into the past upon entry, I think an apartment is implicitly contemporary.

Coming this Monday: They're Going the Distance!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Mass Transit Contributes to Sprawl???

Anti-sprawl advocates often hail affordable mass transit as a great way to cut down on the ever-expanding exurbs and revitalize a center city. If light rail is easily available, the thinking goes, planners won't need to include as much space for parking in their plans. Residents can live without cars, closer to the city, and thus reversal the trend of urban sprawl.

At least, that's the conventional thinking on mass transit and urban sprawl. Consider this, however: if you work for the federal government in Washington DC, you get paid a generous ($100) stipend to cover your mass transit-related costs. Perversely, this compensation actually makes it easier to live outside the center city! Without the public transit perk, a Federal employee might decide it's cheaper to live closer to work (in the city, that is). With the public transit perk, however, a Federal employee is not penalized financially for locating outside the city.

Although the subsidy does indeed encourage use of mass transit (as opposed to auto), it does not necessarily reduce the problem of urban sprawl. Certainly, I'll grant the using rail instead of a personal car helps the environment and allows denser development to take place, but in this instance I'm not convinced that the direct MTA subsidy helps as much as it is intended.

Coming this Friday: My Loftstyle Lifestyle!