Case in point: Bus stops. For many people unfamiliar with local transit, the bus system at a glance can be quite intimidating.
University of Minnesota professor David Levinson has written extensively and recently at Streets.MN about what he has dubbed the "sorry state of bus stop signs" in the Twin Cities. Levinson argues that bus signs in the region provide too little information, particularly compared to other transit-friendly cities.
“If you go to most bus stops in the city of Minneapolis, the bus stop sign says 'bus stop,'" Levinson said in an interview this fall. "Which is I guess better than not having a sign at all. But if you go to another city where they care about transit, the bus stop signs provide a lot of information about where the buses are going, when they run, what the schedule is."
The basic "bus stop" sign is being upgraded to include unique stop identifier numbers (to track arrivals on a smartphone) and a Metro Transit phone number. Some higher-frequency poles and shelters include route numbers, route descriptions, stop numbers and timetables. Fewer feature a basic map of the bus route, as is often the case in New York (left) and Chicago.
The ease-of-use of the city's bus system is important, since city officials are preparing to invest $60 million into a $200 million streetcar line partly to attract higher transit ridership. Streetcars run about the same speed as buses (page 7), but supporters argue they are more reliable and generate more economic development.
Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland said extra information is included at stops with the most ridership. About 900 of the more than 2,700 Metro Transit stops in Minneapolis contain information beyond "bus stop," he said.
“In places, there are a majority of bus stops throughout the region that are just a 'bus stop' sign," Siqveland said. "But that doesn’t mean that’s where the customers are using the stops."
In his blog post, Levinson lists in order his priorities for what he thinks should be included at bus stops: station name, routes served, destinations that can be reached, frequency, hours of service, schedule, way to flag the bus, map of routes serving the stop, map of neighborhood around the stop, and several others improvements. Many of these are featured on Seattle's new signs (below).
Siqveland noted that at transit centers, park and ride locations, rail stations, Marq2 (on Marquette Avenue) and on Nicollet Mall, stops feature much of the information Levinson is seeking.
He said that they have prioritized providing more information online since 2010, based on feedback from customers. People new to the bus system can plan a trip on Metro Transit’s website, check real-time departure information on their phone with Next Trip, or use third-party tools like Google Maps and OMG Transit to navigate. Much of it assumes people have ready access to smartphones, however.
Advanced research is important for using transit, Siqveland says. "If I’m going to drive somewhere new, I don’t get in my car and pull out of my driveway and expect that the street signs will – on their own – help me navigate there," he said.
Route maps are perhaps the least common feature on bus signs in Minneapolis. At many heavily trafficked Hennepin Avenue shelters, for example, the information is limited to route descriptions and timetables (right). Siqveland said a "couple hundred" of Metro Transit's shelters across their network include them (example below from South Minneapolis).
Maps of the entire system are featured at newer major transit hubs like the Chicago-Lake Transit Center. The Uptown Transit Center will soon be upgraded to include system maps and real-time arrival information, Siqveland said.
There are about 885 shelters in Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to a recent city staff report. Siqveland said many of the shelters (about 330, based on the staff report) are owned by CBS Outdoor, which offers limited space for transit information. When they have space in Metro Transit-owned shelters, they prioritize schedules and then add maps if there is room, he said.
A study cited by Levinson shows that signage and stop improvements are among the most cost-effective improvements to improve bus ridership (page 10). Annual reports from Metro Transit show that core urban route ridership increased .7 percent in 2010, 3.9 percent in 2011 and remained flat in 2012.
"How hard would it be to put maps of the routes in the shelters?" asked one commenter.
"The transit system here is actually pretty good (and I live in Edinburgh with an excellent bus system) but the signs outside of downtown are horrid. Little to no information and not helpful at all. I think you'd have much improved ridership and ease of use if some basic info (route numbers, schedule) was provided at every stop, not just downtown," wrote another commenter.
People on Twitter also reacted enthusiastically when shown New York signage:
Officials from Crown Hydro LLC, the company looking to build a hydropower plant at St. Anthony Falls, acknowledged in an informational meeting Tuesday that their project could effectively create a dry spillway during some nights of the year when the flow on Mississippi River would be minimal.
Anita Tabb, commissioner for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which has fought the hydro proposal for more than a decade, called that a "scary" prospect and was one of dozens of residents and local officials at the meeting who faulted Crown Hydro for not being fully open about the potential impacts of its project.
"You're not making any friends," she said.
Rich Greenlee, an engineer for the project, tried to assure questioners that two tunnels could be built for the plant without undermining the Stone Arch Bridge, and that vibration from construction and eventual operations would be hardly noticeable.
However, Richard Savelkoul, an attorney for the project, repeatedly said he had few other details to offer questioners -- even the project's potential cost and Crown Hydro's financial stability -- because the project is being redesigned and its federal license application amended. That left most of the roughly 50 people at the meeting, dubious when they arrived, frustrated and angry. One riverfront resident drew applause when, more than an hour into the meeting, he said, "We should all leave." But few did.
A few praised the attempt for being a renewable energy producer. It would sell power to Xcel Energy and be partly financed by a state renewable energy fund. But others pointed out that Xcel and another company produce hydro power at two other sites along the downtown stretch of the river, and that water diverted to the Crown Hydro plant would be water that's not available to other proposed water-related redevelopment projects along the river.
Parks officials reiterated that the falls is now a key aesthetic feature in an area where, according to park board president John Erwin, $300 million of public money in recent decades has sparked $1.9 billion in private investment.
"Will people want to look at a dry piece of concrete?" Erwin asked. "I don't think so."
A long delayed, controversial plan to build an underground hydroelectric power plant near the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapoliswill go before the public again Tuesday, with a significant change.
Several previous proposals have not gotten past the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which has owned the land near the bridge where Crown Hydro LLC wants to install water intakes, below-ground turbines and tunnels to carry water away.
But the latest proposal would move the project 150 feet east, toward the Mississippi River itself, onto U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land.
That doesn’t mean it’s ready to be built, though. The Army Corps has indicated to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is the approving agency, that it has a range of concerns about the potential impact of the project on the lock and dam itself, and on boaters.
Nan Bischoff, FERC’s coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Paul District, noted that the power plant would have to shut down whenever the lock — which is sometimes filled or drained for a single canoe passing up or downstream — is letting a boat through. That would have to be part of any agreement approving the power plant, she said.
The Park Board continues to hold a lever, said Commissioner Liz Wielinski, in the form of a permanent easement through the land above where the project’s outlet pipes would be located.
Crown Hydro submitted a preliminary application for a federal license in 1991 and received it in 1999. The FERC has told the company that its new proposal is so significantly different that it requires extensive overhaul.
The company’s informational meeting Tuesday is part of that process. It's scheduled for 3:30 p.m. in Pohlad Hall at the Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall.
Since Crown Hydro’s first proposal, the riverfront area along downtown has been transformed from hung-over industrial land to a spectacular urban showcase of housing and entertainment as well as historic and recreational amenities. In the past, critics of the Crown Hydro proposal have said it could jeopardize the central riverfront area and that taking more water from the river could dry up the falls during hot summers.
Another hydroelectric generator was built in recent years just downstream at the Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam. Wielinski noted that it does not use tunnels. There are currently about 30 hydropower generators on rivers in Minnesota, operated by utilities, cities, counties and private companies such as paper mills.
The conservative Freedom Foundation of Minnesota is calling on Gov. Mark Dayton to propose a change in state public employee labor law to require that mediated talks be open.
The foundation stated: "The minutiae of collective bargaining negotiations may seem unlikely to provide riveting drama, but the stakes are very high for parents, students, taxpayers, and the public education system."
The matter hasn't been on Dayton's radar and it currently doesn't have a position on the issue, said Bob Hume, Dayton's deputy chief of staff. Prospects for such a proposal would appear doubtful in a DFL-controlled Legislature. State mediators have closed mediation sessions since at least 1984, according to Josh Tilsen, the state commissioner of mediation services.
The state's Public Employment Labor Relation Act requires that labor contract negotiations for public employees be held in public, except that mediated sessions may be closed at the discretion of the mediation commissioner. The bureau supplies mediators to try to help employers and the unions representing their workers to reach agreement in reaching contracts or resolving grievances.
The bureau's policy under governors of three parties has been to close public employer negotiations after the entry of a mediator. Tilsen said he feels that makes it easier to reach agreement because there is less posturing to the public. Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson criticized the union's mediation request after about a dozen public face-to-face sessions with district negotiators. Federation President Lynn Nordgren said she believes that a mediator helps both sides make progress faster.
But foundation Vice President Jonathan Blake calls that argument condescending and said that under the same rationale, all negotiations would be closed.
The closure of negotiations has frustrated those who style themselves school reformers, who want to be able to follow district proposals to change the teacher contract, and minority advocates who want to see changes aimed at reducing the racial achievement gap. They argue that the union wants to be outside public srutiny when it resists district proposals for contract changes.
The district is proposing to create new partnership schools, where there's more teacher leadership and more flexibility in exchange for accountability. It also wants to be able to fill openings earlier to hire the best outside candidates, and to offer incentives to teachers to go to and remain at low-performing schools, where teachers often have less experience.
(Photo: Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.)
With a cost that nearly tripled from conception to opening day, the Lowry Avenue Bridge may be a little rich for some folks' blood at $104 million, but it's drawing praise from one industry publication.
Roads and Bridges magazine named the crossing that opened last year as one of the top 10 new bridges nationally. The Illinois-based publication, which uses engineering difficulty as its prime criterion, labeled the span over the Mississippi River eye-catching.
The magazine noted the bridge's long-lasting, color-shifting LED lights and an underground sand filter to treat water running off the bridge as notable features, along with fitting it into a tight footprint.
The bridge has built for Hennepin County and reopened a crossing that was closed due to a shifting pier in 2008, and demolished a year later.
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