Nathaniel Hood

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

Posts about Transportation

An Open Letter to Katherine Kersten

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: September 22, 2014 - 9:05 AM

Dear Katherine,

Please stop writing the same article over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Being polite Minnesotans, with exceptions being granted to those commenting anonymously on the Star Tribune's website, we have tried rather unwillingly to disregard your repetitive assertions that our regional government agency is akin to George Orwell's 1984.

The assertions in your most recent column ("Met Council's 'Thrive' Plan has a bullying effect") can best be described as click-bait. One day, I would love to address them, but diagnosing the problem and offering alternatives would render this article dry and exhaustively nuanced, and therefore unreadable. I'll leave that task to someone else.

There are real issues in reforming the Metropolitian Council. However, the mud-slinging, or more politely, the constructive-less criticism, harms healthy debate.

I have criticisms too. It would likely serve our region better if our representatives were democratically elected. I believe that local government should have more control over funding and that subsidizing large-scale affordable housing complexes near a highway exit in an exurb is silly. I also believe that we've allocated limited resources towards some rail projects, specifically the Northstar line, that could have been better used elsewhere.

Believe it or not, there is a surprising amount that we can agree upon. We should approach the debate in this manner.

I may be jumping to conclusions, but I think it is fair to say that you've found your base. That being, a group of like-minded souls following you precisely because you'll give them exactly what they want. You write to the blood-thirsty hyenas as if they are caged and starving, and you're tossing them a freshly cut steak.

You also know how to strike a chord with the opposition. You do this by twisting admittedly overused planning industry buzzwords and placing them within quotations. "Sustainability". "Equity". This is how you express mockery onto the subjects without having to address the root issue. These words have, without question, been greenwashed and co-opted. But, when you examine the heart of these concepts, they're things we as a society should genuinely care about; and more importantly, they are neither left nor right.

Transportation and land use are nuanced, and we need to treat them as such. To say light rail is always wrong, or conversely, that never building another road is good, is to not understand urban geography. It is fair to say that masterplanning can never be perfect, but it's unfair to say that our status quo, that being of suburban expansion, has resulted in what the consumer wants. Historically speaking, the free market has not driven the suburban infrastructure and development you claim to support. Ironically, it has been that of massive government intervention at the federal, state, regional and local level.

I don't need to lecture. You already know this. And, when did you fall down that perilous, slippery slope and into the Phil Donohue school of policy making? Such Met Council bashing only makes your most admiring supporters feel good about themselves, but it's unlikely to make much of a dent in the problems we face. A smart person once quipped that.

As someone who would like to see real change at the Metropolitan Council, I would like to politely request that you please start writing critically about it, examining nuances and offering real suggestions. You have a great platform and it'd be a shame to squander such a great opportunity.

Sincerely, -Nate

Nathaniel Hood
St. Paul, MN
Sept. 21, 2014

How To Justify Spending $8m On Something Few Want

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: September 10, 2014 - 8:26 AM

The Met Council is gambling $8.7 million on a project to alleviate pedestrian congestion that might exist in 5 to 10 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

That's like buying flood insurance on the house you have yet to buy.

The below $8.7 million piece of public infrastructure is intended to create a more safe passageway for travelers at the Downtown East station during Vikings home games. It’ll serve west and northbound train passengers and other pedestrians looking to enter a new football stadium. It is deemed this will be an important pedestrian overpass once all four major light rail lines completed.

The Viking Stadiums Bridge to NowhereDownload the Downtown East Plan Met Council PowerPoint here [PDF].

Those reading this should have at least two questions:

  1. How did this come to be a thing?
  2. Why is it all of a sudden getting $8.7 million?

I pay particularly close attention to local projects. I read blogs, forums and newspapers daily. I know and follow local decision-makers on social media, track development proposals, and pay attention to those boring committees few care about. I also work in the industry and talk to other people who work and follow the industry across related professions. It’s fair to say that I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the Twin Cities and the transportation and development needs of the community.

Never once have I heard of this project until a few days ago. And now, out of the blue, we’re dropping $8.7 million on a bridge that’ll be needed 10 days a year starting in 2019.

I wrote a blog post last year titled The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure. It was well received, and is even being used as required reading in an undergrad planning course in California. In the article I theorize as to why we make bad decisions when it comes to receiving other people’s money on transit projects;

It’s the orderly, but dumb system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

The pedestrian bridge is different. It may deal with Federal grants, but is also come from local and regional coffers. Regardless, this project is being pushed forward. According to the Star Tribune,

“The transit agency will likely devote $6 millon from its coffers for the project (this figure could be offset by federal grants), with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (which oversees stadium construction) ponying up $2 million, and the rest coming from bonds issues by the Met Council.”

Before we go any further, I think we need to ask a complex question.

How did we get here?

The new $1 billion Green Line is done and the $1.1 billion Vikings Stadium is underway. They combine to represent over $2 billion of investment. Our local leaders are concerned, as they should be, that these pieces of infrastructure be as perfect as possible.

To quote a former Governor (one who wasn’t a professional wrestler),

“All too often, the human tendency is to compound one big mistake with a series of additional mistakes in the hope that somehow the results will improve. This appears to be the case with the Vikings stadium.”

Politicians are attracted to big, transformitive projects, so it seems only natural that our leaders, who have expelled a great amount of political capital, want to see every inch of it succeed. Even if that means throwing good money after bad.

How We Justify It All

An engineer at the Met Council, likely under much political pressure, noticed something: based on 2019 projections, during peak hours on Minnesota Vikings game days, there will be only a 120 second headway between trains. This will likely not be enough time to manage safe pedestrian crossings. The proposed solution is the bridge.

TopView

Please note the skyway attached to the State-mandated parking structure.

The pedestrian bridge makes some sense. Based on the projections, there will be long lines and delays during this period; and building a bridge for pedestrians certainly isn’t an unreasonable response. The Met Council’s Transportation Committee appears to be interested in the idea.

Let’s look at these assumptions: they assume that there will be two additional light rail lines in full operation, both of which have not yet even been either fully allocated money or constructed. Basically, the Met Council is gambling $8.7 million that there might be a problem in 5 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

To reiterate: Four (4) LRT lines being in operation (Blue, Green, SW & Bottentieu) and that Vikings game attendees hitting a 40% transit mode share. All of things don't currently exist. It also assumes, more importantly, that if there is congestion people will not find an alternative route or change their travel behavior. This isn't to say we can't plan ahead. We should. But, we should be more realistic in our projections and our priorities.

Where Are Our Priorities?

Why did this project get fast-tracked while other smaller, more “everyday” projects never see the light of day? And, when smaller projects get the public’s attention, why do they struggle to find funding? These are merely a question of priorities.

As Nick Magrino (at streets.mn) has asked so often, “why are we embarrassed by the bus?” He writes,

“… I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on.”

A bridge like this seems like such a low priority, especially when we have legitimate transportation needs. For example, THIS is a bus stop on a heavily used transit line near the center of Minneapolis.

It’s not that a pedestrian bridge is a terrible idea. Under the projections, at some point in the future, it seems maybe reasonable. But, why is the Met Council prioritizing and fast-tracking this, whereas things like bike lanes, bus shelters, and potholes get ignored? I say this because you could build 40 miles of protected bike lanes for the same price tag.

Projects can take on a life of their own. There is no traditional process to getting things done. In this pedestrian overpass, you have the right person with the right slideshow presenting it to the right people at the right time. From here, you have the Met Council employees and political-appointed representatives who have monies at their disposal. The proposal, while not perfect, seems reasonable enough. And, we’ve just spent $2 billion on infrastructure, so we need to make it right. The presentation looks good, so why not go for it?

What would your City do with $8.7 million?

Imagine if the City of Minneapolis was given $8.7 million that could only be used on downtown pedestrian and/or transit projects. What would they do? The answer is: not a pedestrian bridge to be used during 10 sports games a year.

So, why are we doing it?

The answer is that we can get money from elsewhere to do the things we don’t need to do. But, when it comes to doing the simple things that we need to do, well, that money isn’t available from elsewhere. The pedestrian bridge is a bad idea (right now) that’s made worse when you think of the countless thousands of more useful public investments we could be making.

The truth is that the people and the City of Minneapolis don't even care about it. It's not on their radar. It's the people who control infrastructure and transportaiton dollars who care about this. If given the opportunity to allocate these dollars elsewhere, it's fair to say thatliterally everyone locally would divert them elsewhere.

Our priorities get skewed and we misallocate resources most when our funding comes from elsewhere. In fact, it is precisely why Minneapolis has the below. All of which the City of Minneapolis will be tearing down in 30 years …

vikingsblahugh

Note: This is also next to a proposed park called "The Yard" that neither the City of Minneapolis nor it's Park Board want to maintain. Yet, somehow it's still a thing.

Eight Steps To Improve Twin Cities Urbanism

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: July 26, 2014 - 11:57 AM

We need to stop building bad places. We don’t need to build Rome or Paris. We just need to stop building Houston.

The following eight rules apply to every major and mid-sized city with no exceptions. If your leaders don’t do these, somebody else’s will. And, you’ll have people asking in 10 years time why you haven’t already done them.

1. Make accessory dwelling units legal

This is the easiest way to add density without adding “density”. This won’t change your city overnight, but it’ll help lay the groundwork for improved urbanism. We need to see a rise in these types of dwellings because they add to affordable housing stock, expand housing options, add tax revenue, and are Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street”. Except in this case, it’s eyes on the alleyway. Read more about accessory dwelling units here.

2. Eliminate parking minimums as soon as possible

There is no bigger detriment to urban centers than parking. It adds costs to private development and drives up rents. Car storage is a terribly inefficient way to allocate land, especially in existing walkable neighborhoods. If you want to make your downtown more livable, the first policy move should be to eliminate (or, reduce if elimination is not politically feasible) all parking requirements.

If you worry about parking (and “congestion”), you might lose great local institutions to the suburbs. I’m looking at you, St. Paul.

3. Four-three conversions of stroads

Most four lane collector roads are ugly, unsafe and do a poor job of moving traffic. They are theworst of all worlds.

These stroads take up a lot of space and don’t allow for either bike lanes or on-street parking. Conversions have been well studied and the results are conclusive. They improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, calm traffic, improve emergency response and have reduced vehicle crash rates (between a low of 17 to a high of 62 percent (source)). When it comes to re-striping roads, four-three conversations are nearly always a solid bet. These are easy sells because they usually don’t effect Level of Service (by the way, which is something cities need to stop caring so much about). Also, take time to use the extra space for on-street parking and bike facilities. 

4. Sell public surface parking lots for $1

Cities and towns are sitting on a gold mine of under-utilized land, specifically public open-surface parking lots. What is open surface parking getting you? The answer is very little.

This is easy: sell them to the highest bidder. Have an auction, start at $1 and sell to the highest bidder. Code the specific site to hit all the urban guidelines fitting of a form based code and require development start within 3 to 5 years. Imagine the benefit to a City like Minneapolis or St. Paul if someone put (just) mediocre mixed-use buildings on each city own surface lot.

5. Better transit, not (necessarily) more transit

Light Rail is awesome. But, it’s also expensive. Let’s start small and improve the transit that we have, precisely bus service. Adding a bus shelter is relatively cheap ($5,000 to $6,000). BRT is also great and relatively affordable. Make these moves first. They are political feasible and improve the lives of people who are currently using transit. This means, making what we have run on time and run faster.

Don’t let great be the enemy of good. Support small incremental improvements to our transit service and don’t wait for the “big and shiny” project. Because, if you’re lucky enough to get Federal funding for a new streetcar or light rail, it’ll be 25 years away  before any improvements happen (take note St. Paul). Read more about improving transit in a cost-effective way here.

6. Allow more beer/wine licenses

Retail is dying a slow death. Every sale on Amazon, Etsy, or Zappos represents one less sale at a brick-and-mortar book store, gift shop or clothing store. These, and a shift of the nature of work, will make filling retail storefronts more difficult. We need to fill frontages. It’s essentially to walkability.

Food is the rational response as it’s not easily outsourced. And, to make margins for these places, they’ll likely need to sell beer and wine. There is a changing cultural dichotomy going on. More expensive local craft beer sales and high-end cocktails are shifting the nature of traditional 60/40 (or 70/30, etc.) beer to food sale requirements. These need to change, too.

If you want to fill your empty storefronts, you’ll need to look beyond retail.

7. Eliminate one way streets

The case against one way streets is already solved. The verdict is in.

Converting streets to two-ways has many benefits. These types of streets, as opposed to one-ways, improve pedestrian and bike safety, improve vehicle navigation and overall safety, lower speeds, and improve the financial health of local businesses (source). Many cities have already converted their one way streets to two ways. Your city should too.

8. Allow the “sharing” economy to be legal

Whether the establishment likes it or not, it’s going to happen. The question is, how will you let it happen? Be smart. Be fair. But for God’s sake, don’t make it illegal (I’m looking at you Miami).

Uber and Lyft aren’t competing against taxis. They’re competing against the cost of owning a car. If these services can remove just a handful of cars (or reduce drunk driving) that should be viewed as an urban benefit. And, AirBNB isn’t competing against hotels (which can be expensive), but it more so about providing options for people to safely rent our there apartments and make extra money to off-set the costs of living in an more high-demand urban settings.

The sharing economy might be hard for many to swallow, but it needs to be legal.

Now, these eight suggestions won’t make your city a success overnight, but they are politically-feasible, small, incremental changes that you can make to help inch your city in the right direction.

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.

nic-bypass

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.

accesspoints

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.

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