Nathaniel Hood

Nathaniel Hood is a transportation planner and blogger living in St. Paul. He writes for Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

Posts about Physical infrastructure

Where Not To Build A School

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: July 6, 2014 - 12:22 PM

We need an entirely different approach to where we locate schools and how we build them. Our current model – notably in small and mid-sized towns – is that of the destruction of our neighborhood schools in favor of the suburban campus model.

The campus model is a burden on our system: built on an inhuman scale, unwalkable by design, with a disregard to long-term operational costs and devaluing our existing neighborhoods.

An example is happening in my hometown of Mankato, MN. If the school district decides to go through with their new plans, they should immediately start applying for a Safe Routes to School grant. They’re going to need it.

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The blue square on the bottom left is Mankato’s new school; right on the corner of US Highway 22 and County Road 83. The yellow squares are soybeans that may become Mankato’s newest low-density residential neighborhood. This should be cause for concern, beyond that of its speculative nature, and I can speak from experience.

After years of walking to and from Roosevelt Elementary, a classic neighborhood school, I was suddenly relegated to catching the bus or begging my parents to zip me off to the new middle school at the edge of town. It didn’t help that the school’s architecture doubled as a minimum security prison. I remember hating this.

Teenage years are awkward, and being shuttled off to a low-slung building surrounded by soybeans doesn’t help. It took away one of the few freedoms young teenagers have:transportation. I went from walking to school to being reliant upon others, specifically my parents. But, it was mostly a burden on my parents. For elementary, if I needed a ride on a cold day, it was a nice short drive – not miles across town.

The large campus model standard is built on such a large scale that it’s hard to put into perspective how inefficient they are as a land use. Mankato’s new middle school covers 65 acres. So, I created some maps to help visualize.

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Here’s how Mankato’s two existing high schools fit:

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Both fit comfortably, along with four parking lots, two football fields, full-sized tracks, and a baseball and softball field. Let’s take it a step further:

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Over 85 percent of the entire campus of Minnesota State University, with an enrollment of 15,000 plus students, can fit into the site (with room to spare).

The campus model size is unnecessary and wasteful considering Mankato has plenty of available space in existing neighborhoods nearby the former middle school. Site constraints were apparently so tough, this far-out parcel was the only option. Good to know, just in case Mankato wants to comfortably fit four Target Fields (with a capacity 158,016 people) onto the site one day.

It’s widely accepted that many schools built in the last 20 years were deliberately designed to discourage walking. What’s puzzling is that more people weren’t concerned about this? The freedom to roam was one of the most rewarding experiences of growing up. It teaches us not only navigational skills, but personal responsibility. Children need to experience this.

It might be forgivable if student walkers were overlooked, or just an afterthought. That’s not the case. They were specifically considered and the general consensus was to ignore them. It was a conscious decision to save money on initial land costs.

Being smart with limited resources can go a long way. What do you think it’ll cost the district now that it’ll have to provide a bus option for every single middle-school kid on the sprawling east side? Imagine the cost reductions of having 25% to 50% of students within walking distance. Not to mention the savings of having our children share outdoor faculty or our faculty sharing parking lots; both of which are currently over-supplied (If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend checking out: “Subsidizing Inefficiency”).

We must consider alternatives because not even the most fearless 13 year old boy would trek thissidewalk-less highway intersection (the new site has an impressively low “2″ Walk Score).

Let’s stop and reevaluate. Let’s assess what’s really important in our community. Building an over-sized school on over-sized road on an over-sized parcel strikes me as irresponsible. We need to return to a neighborhood model. We need to find the locations that don’t need a Safe Routes to School grants and build there. The places we are collectively building are places that our children hate. They’re inhuman, disregard our existing neighborhoods, cost us more money and unnecessarily burden parents.

Let’s make a change. 

Minneapolis: Embrace 21st Century Transportation Options

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: March 6, 2014 - 9:12 PM

Minneapolis is almost one step closer to joining the 21st century. After months of dragging its feet, it should opt to do the inevitable: allow Lyft drivers to pick-up people within its borders. Well, the City is in the progress of making that happen.

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It was 2004. I remember looking in awe at the price tag of college textbooks: $100 for an introductory of macroeconomics textbook? I begrudgingly bought the book – a used copy no less – from the college bookstore and proceeded to use it (maybe) a dozen times throughout the semester. At the semester’s end, I brought it to book buy-backs only to find they’d upgraded to a new edition and weren’t buying back copies.

Shit. I remember feeling cheated. Like, the system was rigged.

Upon the recommendation of a friend (thanks Adam!), I decided to check out Amazon.com. I listed the book and sold it for like $75. I didn’t make money on the deal, but it was better than the alternative. Eventually I started selling my old textbooks.  When that wasn’t enough, my friend and I noticed the college bookstore would discard literally hundreds of “outdated” textbooks each month on a table with a sign that read, “free books.”

We’d grab our backpacks and laundry baskets, fill them up and list everything on Amazon. The college provided free packing materials at the time, so our cost was virtually nothing. I made around $3,500 the first semester and a couple thousand the following semester before the University started donating to Books for Africa.

To this day, I still sell books on Amazon. While my margins aren’t as big as they once were, I still capture value from something that I would never have prior to Amazon. The downside to all of this is that me – and countless hundreds of thousands like me – are putting stores out of business.

Technology disrupted the traditional marketplace. Cities can regulate against change, but here’s the catch: they can’t be ignored for long.

Lyft. Uber. Sidecar. Airbnb. These are technological disruptions to the status quo that cities are struggling to handle. While other reasons are often cited, this delay often comes down to money, and who gets it. For example; car services; while cities don’t balance a budget on taxi cab fees or taxes, the revenue they generate is not insignificant. When it comes to App-based ride-sharing services, cities like Minneapolis (or Seattle and even Paris) get little in the way of revenue.

Getting started in the taxi business can be expensive. In Seattle, getting started will cost you at least $50,000 for a license. In New York City, a “medallion” can run upwards of $1 million. The cost in Minneapolis is more sane, but the number of taxi licenses are limited. At best,  it’s protectionism by keeping the old guard propped up under the disguise of safety  At worst, it creates scarcity and a monopoly develops. [Note: If anyone in the process is getting pinched, it's likely taxi drivers who are subject to regulations and an out-dated "medallion" system. They aren't paid well, need to jump through all sorts of loops, have a dangerous job and little job security].

I can’t remember the last time I was happy about taking a taxi. If your cab shows up, the experience usually goes like this: it shows up late, the backseat is messy, the ride costs too much, the driver won’t take a credit card and insists his machine is broken and doesn’t have proper change.

I’ve used Lyft a handful of times, and it is, hands down, a superior service. It’s more reliable, more affordable and more comfortable. Unless given no other alternatives, I will likely never take a taxi again.

In many regards, Lyft is doing what Amazon did in the mid 2000s: it creates harm to the establishment for the benefit of the masses. Taxi cab drivers will need to either adapt or risk having to find a new job. The upside is that a lot of people like me can make $200 on a Friday shuttling people around. The downside is that people with full-time jobs in that industry are without one. It’s benefit to the many with little regard for the few.

These new services aren’t going to solve our transportation woes, but they are another tool in the toolkit. If a weekly Lyft ride helps just ten people ditch their own car, then I say it’s probably worth it.

Airbnb is in the same. While I haven’t had many negative experiences staying in hotels, they get expensive after a few days. If you need a place for 4 or 5 days, hotel price tag can add up. I was in Louisville last October, stayed in a loft with a few others for an extended weekend and my bill was a $110. That’s not bad. It was as nice as a Holiday Inn, but $250 cheaper.

The tax implication: the City of Louisville gets nothing. If I stayed at the Holiday Inn, they’d be getting a lot more (hospitality taxes are usually high – upwards of 13 percent). Louisville got nothing, but a person willing share a spacious loft gets $660 for an extended weekend. That helps cover the mortgage, homeowner association fees, etc. There’s some benefit there, but from the prescriptive of local government, it’s very indirect.

Here is the technological disruption that is occurring: direct vs. indirect economic benefit.

Every book I’ve sold on Amazon is a book that would otherwise have been sold elsewhere. Instead of someone buying it at a bricks-and-mortar establishment that provides jobs and pays taxes, they’ve chosen to save a little and put $10 in my pocket. It’s a system that has drastically effected a small number of people, but marginally benefited a great number of people.

The response isn’t to ignore, but to embrace. Update the city code, and in the meantime,  also make sure taxi drivers aren’t being pinched in the process. Make Lyft, Uber and Sidecar viable, but also make it easy to be a traditional taxi cab driver. If this happens, there is a space in the marketplace for everyone.

The Bypass of Commerce

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: November 26, 2013 - 9:39 PM

Let me start off with a question: Do Nicollet or Courtland need bypasses?

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We have a cultural misunderstanding about the economic benefits of mobility.

There is no better example than the State of Minnesota’s new $300 million “Corridors of Commerce” program designed to foster “economic growth with transportation investments.” This is a noble goal and it’s worked well in the past, so why not keep it up?

First, we built highways that connected places that were never before directly connected. This was an enormous benefit to rural populations and opened up to more marketplaces. Towns that were once a 5 hour journey apart turned into an easy 1 hour trip. There is no question that this created an economic benefit.

But, we’ve continued building and expanding this roadway system to much diminishing return. The Corridors of Commerce project is just another example of this misapplication of limited transportation dollars. The most glaring example is the Highway 14 Nicollet Bypass.

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The proposed $15 to $25 million Nicollet Bypass

Nicollet is a small town of approximately 1,000 people situated 15 miles outside of the region’s center, Mankato. The proposed $15 to $25 million four lane divided bypass and entrance ramp will replace the two lane highway (with center turn-lane) that runs along the town’s southern edge.

There are three justifications given for this project;

1) Improves safety
2) Enhances mobility for commercial traffic
3) One step closer to a regional goal of a 4-lane highway between New Ulm and Rochester

Let’s examine each justification to see if there can be another alternative.

Does it improve safety?

Here is where our misunderstanding of mobility comes in. We are aiming to improve safety by building a new. expensive highway at the edge of town without examining why the original highway was dangerous in the first place.

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There are nine highway access points. Six are privately-owned driveways (red) and three are intersections (blue)

There are nine access points where collisions are likely to occur along the 1.1 mile corridor. Three intersections connect to local roadways and six are driveways to private entities, include a taxidermy and self storage business, trailer park and a gas station (low ROI land uses). This roadway combines fast moving through-traffic with slow, turning local vehicles.

If safety was truly the priority it is claimed to be, the rational response would be to reduce speeds from 35 mph to 20 mph, close (or seriously limit) access to the six driveways, and realign the most dangerous intersection (TH99 in northwest) to allow a less abrupt merge. This would cost virtually nothing in comparison to the proposed $15 to $25 million project.

Does it enhance mobility?

When determining the cost-benefit of a project, we place emphasis on improved mobility, or in other words: time savings. Time is important, but how important? The existing speed limit is 35 mph and the expansion will be 65 mph (conforming to speed limits of other divided highways). According to my calculations, the project will have a travel time savings of nearly 1 minute.

Speed Limit (MPH) Distance (miles) Travel Time Time Difference (+/- 35 mph)
20 1.1 3m 18s  + 85 seconds
25 1.1 2m 38s + 45 seconds
30 1.1 2m 12s + 19 seconds
35* 1.1 1m 53s 0
45 1.1 1m 28s - 25 seconds
55 1.1 1m 19s - 34 seconds
65 1.1 1m 0s - 53 seconds

 

Fostering commerce is important, but it is difficult to make a convincing argument that one minute in travel time savings justifies such an expenditure for less than 7,000 vehicles traveling through on any given day weekday [MnDOT Traffic Data].

Does it move towards a goal of a regional 4-lane highway?

No. We have it all backwards.

As for right now, why would you create a two-lane highway that turns into a four-lane highway for a 1.1 mile stretch as it passes through a town just so it can turn back into to a two-lane highway? If having a regional 4-lane highway is your goal, then the money could be better spent doing the opposite. The goal should be to first create a four-lane highway outside of towns and then reduce size and speed while traversing through towns.

This 1.1 mile new bypass has the same cost as expanding 15 miles of existing highway in four lanes between Mankato and Nicollet.

The need for Highway 14 enhancements has been a regional concern since the early 1990s. It’s been long known as a dangerous corridor where speeding is prevalent, where there are limited opportunities for passing and where there are countless access points and intersections that can be dominated by slow-moving farm equipment.  Hence, I do not question the need for Highway 14 safety improvements, including the adding of passing lanes along with improved forgiving design elements along rural stretches.

We have a cultural misunderstanding about the economic benefits of mobility. Constructing new roadways to bypass small towns at tremendous costs won’t improve safety as the old highway stretches are often left in the same unsafe state. Meaning, local vehicles will continue to use the unsafe roadway. Not to mention, there will be a stretch of auto-oriented businesses on the old highway which will be abandoned and rebuilt closer to the bypass. I do not mourn the loss of a Super America gas station, but I do question the value of it closing down one location just to re-open a half mile down the road.

These one-time State transfer payments like Corridors of Commerce seem to go to the most wasteful projects. The DOTs are unwilling to fund these out of their dedicated revenue streams, primairly because they are no top-priority projects, so these are reliant upon political justifications and quick transfer payments.

One-time 2011-2 Transpoortation and Economic Development (TED) Grants from the State went to similar projects, like the fourth interchange ramp in Perham, Minnesota.

perham1

Perham is a small town in central Minnesota that is getting a new interchange that will support an estimated 240 jobs. TED will be providing $3.5 million of the $6.7 million project. This project might make sense if the town didn’t already have 3 interchanges leading to the same highway.

perham2

These are the types of investments that do little or nothing to boost economic vitality in local small towns or distant communities. And, the kicker, it’s not going to speed up traffic or make us any safer.

Will the Nicollet Bypass project generate wealth? Will Perham ever add the economic juice that town needs? Will these projects ever pay for themselves or create a genuine societal or economic benefit? If the State of Minnesota, for whatever reason, were to ever ‘turnback’ the highway, would the County or Town of Nicollet be able to maintain?

Hopefully these considerations are conducted prior to the authorization of spending millions of dollars to bypass Courtland (pop. 611) [MnDOT], which has yet to receive funding, and the countless other projects that divert limited resources to low returning projects.

“What will speed up that change is an understanding of the fact that our transportation investments are not creating wealth, they are destroying it. Now I’m not talking about just the investments where the old Target store at the old interchange is induced to move into the new Target store at the new interchange four miles up the road. I mean almost all of our highway spending. It costs more to build and maintain than it generates in returns and, therefore, will only continue so long as we have the capacity and the desire to delude ourselves.” - Chuck Marohn, Paved with Good Intentions

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What is the Value of Closing a Street?

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: November 9, 2013 - 12:46 PM

We need to move beyond Open Streets.

Open Streets closes down auto-oriented streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul along major corridors and opens them up to pedestrians, cyclists, strollers and skaters. The transformation is astonishingly beautiful. But, when the streets turn back into uninhabitable congested roadway the following day I’m left asking myself “What’s the point?”

Herein lies a problem with tactical urbanism and Ciclovía-styled events. They must go beyond the event and aim for a greater good. Open Streets must be a tactic in a broader strategy, and merely raising awareness may not be enough to accomplish their mission of enhancing healthy living, local business, sustainable transportation and civic pride.

I mean no disrespect to Open Streets. They’re an excellent organization and I support them 100 percent. But, amongst all their other much needed work, there needs to be collaboration on behalf of the cities beyond just permitting it. They need to join forces to help make these needed infrastructure adjustments the other 364 days of the year. 

We have one of the best examples in our own backyard: Milwaukee Avenue.

Milwaukee Avenue South by Franklin Avenue

Milwaukee Avenue Historic District runs for 2 blocks in South Minneapolis and is composed of small homes built for lower-income residents between 1880 and 1890 on quarter-sized lots. Deterioration occured throughout the second World War and preservationists in the 1970s helped save the homes and turn the street into a park. Today, Milwaukee Avenue is a magical place (especially after a fresh snow).

Closed streets have livablity, but what does that mean? It’s a soft, open-ended concept that doesn’t mean much. I wanted to see if the livability of a closed street created any monetary return. I took Milwaukee Avenue and compared the property values against a similar nearby street open to vehicle traffic.

mil26th

There are no perfect equivalents when comparing complex urban environments. Here are important notes about the comparison:

  • The homes along Milwaukee Avenue are small compared to their neighbors, but have better architectural character.
  • The homes on 26th Avenue were likely built for middle-class residents, whereas Milwaukee Avenue homes were built for the city’s lower class.
  • Commercial properties on the corner of each street at the intersection of Franklin Avenue were excluded.
  • 26th Avenue South included three (3) tax-exempt properties owned by Hennpein County. In an effort to be fair, since no value is assessed on public record, I assigned each property the mean value of all other properties ($209,986).

Here is what I discovered:

  • Milwaukee Avenue has 47 properties with an average value of $223,647 with an overall market rate taxable value of $10,511,400.
  • 26th Avenue  has 38 properties with an average value of $209,986 with an approximate market rate taxable value of $7,979,458.

In this comparison, the closed street has a total taxable value of $2,531,942 more than its neighborhood (approximately 31 percent). Again, I’d like to put this into perspective: Milwaukee Avenue has smaller lots, smaller homes and was originally built as affordable housing. This means the City of Minneapolis takes in about $43,043 more in property tax revenue per year on these two blocks.

There are wide streets all over Minneapolis that have limited functionality in our grid network. Upon repaving and/or reconstructing, we need to  really examine whether or not we actually need these streets for vehicles, especially if the homes have adequate alleyway access.

This is where Open Streets comes back into the equation. How can they (and we) help sell this idea of a closed street as a permanent fixture for creating a permanent and tangible community value? I don’t believe that Open Street events are just “feel-good projects”, they are real economic development if transitioned into infrastructure. Imagine the value that could be created by the City of Minneapolis if they were to replicate the success of Milwaukee Avenue?

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Note: If you support creating more vibrant, healthy places, consider donating to Open Streets Minneapolis.

Highland Park: Maintain Your Business District

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: September 14, 2013 - 9:36 AM

If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart.

My neighborhood is lobbying the City for $1 million in streetscape redesign money to match $4 million promised by our business district. At some level, this is a reasonable public-private partnership; businesses provide 80 percent of the funding and the city covers the rest. Yet, there is another side to this otherwise agreeable story.

The neighborhood has been arguing that our streetscape is falling apart and it needs to be fixed. They've been making this plea for a couple years. Maintenance is expensive, or so it goes, and it'd be just better if we tore it all out and built something new.

Here's what it looks like today:

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Bricks are missing. Retaining walls are sloping. The area is starting to age (well, it's almost 30 years old!).

Something has bothered me about the not-so-old bricked streetscape and the business district's complaint: there's nothing wrong that can't be fixed with a little duct tape and TLC. All of the neighborhood's minor chips and dents could be solved with about $5,000 of brick, mortar and the labor cost of an underemployed bricklayer.

But, if fixing what we have takes such little effort, why aren't we doing it? And why are we spending $5 million to boot!?! And, why should we trust someone with a new, more expensive streetscape if they aren't even responsible enough to minimally maintain the basics of what they currently have?

Let me give you a few examples:

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Ten bricks have fallen off, but no one has even bothered to pick the weeds?

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A tree has been removed, yet instead of re-planting a tree (total cost: $250 - $400), we let the soil collect weeds?

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A patch of weeds? How about some grass, a bench and a bike rack?

IMG_3573

Here's the level of disregard: I noticed the condition (left) had been poor for a couple weeks. I decided to get on my knees and get to work. Two minutes later I had rearranged the bricks (right). It's not a perfect, but it looks 10 times better (and it took literally two minutes). In weeks, not a soul who worked for the business or the city government thought to do something.

These are not streetscapes in front of marginal businesses. This is Highland Park in St. Paul. The photos were taken outside of a high-end yoga studio, boutique medical clinic, Barnes & Noble, upscale gift shop, popular book store and a busy sub shop. So, what gives?

The best analogy is that you buy a new house in 1985. For 28 years, you do nothing. Now, it's 2013 and the roof leaks water, the kitchen is out-dated and the basement is moldy. It's in a state of disrepair and you tear it down!

This, of course, is ridiculous. You wouldn't do that! The second the roof started to leak, you'd fix it. When the stove stopped working, you'd replace it. When the basement got musty, you'd clean it and buy a dehumidifier. Now, why aren't we doing this with local community infrastructure?

This is exactly what is happening with my local business district, and likely, yours too. The problem is that people involved assume it's someone else's responsibility. It's a byproduct of the top-down approach. The business district can contend it's the city's fault while the city claims the business district has it backwards. The real is answer that it's not clear. Nobody appears to know what's going on, so by default, no one does anything.

This model takes the constant "eyes on the street" to handle small issues away from locals, or at least, confuses them about what to do. The $5 million project is a big windfall that takes little effort on behalf of the businesses besides a financial contribution. They provide the money and the city rebuilds the sidewalks. Yet, constantly tending to bricks, picking weeds and planting flowers; well, that takes effort (but little money). It's the type of effort that can only be handled by the locals, those who experience and interact with the space on a daily basis.

We've bypassed the maintenance and defaulted to the "built it brand-spanking-new then leave it alone for 20 years and then say it's falling apart and we need a new one" policy. This is how we treat public infrastructure in the United States, be it a water main, public park, sports stadium or pedestrian mall.

There is one place that has a not-so-crumbling bricked planter. It's outside a wine and cheese shop and eye clinic. They've given the street some duct tape and it looks like this:

IMG_3559

Not bad. It's the same bricked planter as everywhere else in the neighborhood. It's missing a few bricks, but pieced together and has some flowers. Flowers aren't cheap, but their small investment makes the streetscape better by many times over. If nothing else, while walking past, one gets the impression that the business, and the people who run it, care about the neighborhood.

St. Paul giving $1 million to Highland Park to improve the streetscape is akin to watching your teenager beat up the old Buick and then deciding to buy him a new car because the old car is in such bad shape (that, and there are about 1 million better ways to spend $1 million locally).

The heart of the matter is that this isn't the way we should treat shared infrastructure. We need to constantly be on the lookout at the most local level and constantly care for its health. If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart. And it'll cost us a lot more money to fix it back up.

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