Monday, September 24, 2007

Life on the Farm

(Sorry I've been AWOL for a week; the semester started so life's a bit busy!)

I had the good fortune to head down to the CSA (Harmony Valley farm in southwest Wisconsin) this past weekend. Like all trips "outstate", it starts by making me want to cast off my urban existence and live and work in the fields. Then, after a day or so, I find myself longing for the (admittedly cliche) Sunday New York Times, a lobster omelet, and a jazz trio at the cafe near Nye's. (Supposedly the neighborhood is called "Near Northeast", although I haven't really heard it enter into common usage).

As always, however, trips to the farm remind me of the complex and amazing nature of modern civilization's supply chains. Recall that urban centers are possible only because vast supply chains for delivering food and energy exist. For the vast part of human history, resource production was essentially local (or regional). Energy itself is remarkably difficult to transport. Until the discovery of electricity (and electrical transmission), the vast majority of energy was transmitted by water power. Energy, in fact, was more commonly distributed as fuel (potential energy, that is).

But I digress. The farm is quite an operation. It takes a heck of a lot of training in chemistry to understand what goes into running a successful organic farming operation. I myself do not have this training. I am very pleased, however, that others do and are willing to grow excellent food and sell it to city folk like me. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend visiting any farm that you commonly buy from at the grocery store. It's really impressive to follow the supply chain backwards to the point of production.

We're used to buying consumer goods in individual quantities (except, I imagine, for Sam's Club shoppers!). We buy produce a few pounds at a time. We buy packs of gum. We buy individual cars. We buy a table and four chairs. We get used to thinking of produced goods in terms of individual units. But goods are generally not produced that way at all. Go visit the farm, and gaze upon hundreds (or thousands) or tomato plants. I assure you, there are vastly more tomatoes than you could ever imagine eating. While you're at it, pick a few and eat them off the vine directly, still warm from the sun. While refrigeration may have made it possible to ship asparagus overnight from Chile, nothing beats eating veggies direct.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

And You Thought I Was Done With Transit!

To review, the first major step in revamping the city (and laying the groundwork for rapid transit!) is promoting community corridors wherever possible. The are numerous such roads in the cities right now, but there can (and should!) be more.

To achieve this, we need to start blocking off intersections. To see an example, go drive down Kasota Ave, just east of 15th Ave NE. You'll see that it runs for a good half-mile at 35 mph, and although there are easily a half-dozen residential roads that could intersect it, those roads are in fact closed off from Kasota itself.

This has the practical effect of (1) better insulating the residential neighborhoods from through traffic, and (2) turning Kasota into an arterial road.

I suggest we start examining all the road patterns in the city to identify where this pattern can be implemented. Obviously, I'm mostly familiar with my neighborhood (Marcy-Holmes and UMinn). What other roads are good contenders from this treatment?

The First Step: More Corridors

The first step in laying the groundwork for a rapid transit system is to improve the number, configuration, and quality of secondary arterial roads ("arterials"). Also referred to as "community corridors" (see Marcy-Holmes neighborhood plan), these are roads that meet the following criteria:

(1) Unchanged speed limit of at least 30mph for long (multi-mile) stretches

(2) Intersections occurring at most once per half-mile

(3) The preferred mode of intersection prioritizes traffic already on the arterial

(4) Little if any street-side parking

Such roads already exist to some extent throughout the metro area. Though they are not highways, they make travel across the region much more viable and efficient.

So the first step is simply improving and extending the reach of arterials across the region. That is, we need to improve the non-highway skeletal transportation infrastructure for the Twin Cities. This will have immediate benefits for the existing modes of transportation, and will be particularly helpful for the existing bus-based transit system, since it will allow buses to maintain higher average speeds and improve crosstown trip efficiency.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Transit and Density

Yesterday, I posted an initial foray into my Amazing Plans for Rapid Transit in the Twin Cities. To be fair, it wasn't given any such title, though. At any rate, I'm thinking through what it would take to get a real rapid transit system in place here in Minneapolis (and St. Paul). By rapid transit, I mean a system that travels at least 30 mph on average, and whose stops average less than 20 seconds.

An astute reader pointed out to me that the Twin Cities may very well not have sufficient population density to support such a system. Chicago, my favorite go-to city for practical and not crazy-expensive rapid transit, has a population density of around 11,000 people-per-square-mile. Minneapolis has less: around 6900 people-per-square-mile.

This is indeed a significant difference. Minneapolis has roughly 62% of Chicago's population density. Is this enough to support a rapid transit system? How many people do you need in one place to make it economically viable?

Clearly I'm not an expert on the field. But it seems possible. The Twin Cities have several distinct and high-population employment centers: downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul, and UMinn campus to name a few. Its suburbs are nearby, have low to moderate population density, and ring the metropolitan region completely. Surely, even a commuter-based system should be viable.

Think about it this way: do you drive in from the suburbs to work in the city? If you do, ask yourself whether you can imagine more buses (or, gasp, trains!) running along the major highway routes (694, 394, 94, 35E, 35W, etc.). Given how much passenger car traffic is present on those highways, surely there is sufficient demand for park-and-ride rapid transit into the cities.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Mass Transit: The Plan

I'm sure it's no secret by now that I'm a fan of (mass) transit. I've lived in (as well as visited) a number of cities with excellent transportation networks, and I'm convinced that the benefits of quality transit systems outweigh their problems. Paris, New York, Chicago, DC, London, and Taipei all have excellent transit systems. The people who use them are not somehow genetically different from all of us. They are not born with a special gene that makes them capable of using buses / trains / subways. They are normal people who make use of transportation infrastructure available to them.

As a new resident of Minneapolis, I would love to see a first-rate Paris-style subway system put in place. If I had a spare $10 billion, I would gladly invest it in a gigantic capital construction project to dig subway tunnels all over the city. Subways would be great: they're efficient, fast, reliable, and since they're underground they're less susceptible to the problems of weather. As you may have heard, it gets a bit chilly here in Minnesota during winter.

Sadly, I'm forced to conclude the political willpower necessary to raise sufficient construction funds for such a project is impossible. To build political support for a $10 billion bond measure would take decades of grassroots efforts, working at the neighborhood, municipal, county, state, and federal level. Maybe by the time I have grandchildren we'll have enough political support to actually build a subway system.

Faced with this reality, I'm forced to contemplate an incremental approach to building quality transit. How can we move, step-by-step, bit-by-bit, rail-by-rail, towards a viable transit policy? What improvements and changes are possible in the short run that advance us towards a full-scale high-quality mass transit system?

I'll be posting more on this subject, and would love to hear your input on the urban planning & political requirements to make this happen.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

So Blue, Not on the Blue Line

Awhile back, I wrote about what happens to transportation patterns when transportation arteries are (temporarily or permanently) closed off. The motivating example, in this case, was the closure of the Pittsburgh's outbound highway leading east. The major observation, not surprisingly, is that traffic really sucks when you close down a highway.

I spent some time in Chicago recently, a city that has the glorious distinction of being one of the few American cities with really great transit systems. Like most such cities (New York being a notable exception), Chicago's elevated train is a hub-and-spoke system. Downtown (the Loop) is the hub, and the train lines extend outwards therefrom.

The blue line runs northwest from downtown all the way to O'Hare airport. CTA is currently doing quite a bit of work on the blue line, and on the weekend that I visited a significant portion of the line was unavailable. Practically speaking, this means that I could not simply fly in to O'Hare, hop on the train, and travel downtown to my hotel. Quite frustrating, I must say! One of the great advantages of visiting cities like Chicago is being able to travel exclusively by transit.

A few urban thinker asked recently how we can mitigate the effects of disabled transportation infrastructure. I've given a lot of thought to it, and my answer is (unfortunately) simple and a bit sad: there's not much we can do. Usage patterns of infrastructure are clear: people use infrastructure as much as humanly possible. When you disable a portion of infrastructure (like the I-35W bridge over the MIssissippi), the practical result is chaos and frustration.

I still love Chicago, however. The construction on the blue line will be finished soon, and I'll be back.