Nathaniel Hood

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

Here's why money won't fix our transportation system

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Government, Physical infrastructure, Road and highway construction Updated: February 23, 2015 - 9:38 AM

As legislatures reconvened these past two months, there has been an active lobbying effort to boost transportation funding across the country. Countless newspapers, magazine, and television programs have dedicated time and space to covering the plea for more money, including a high-profile 60 Minutes segment that didn't include a single dissenting opinion.

The general consensus in the mainstream media has been that we need more funds in order to have a "21st Century" transportation system. If we don't, our bridges will collapse. That, and we won't be able to compete globally (what does this even mean?).

The opposition's opinion can't be summed up as easily. It goes something more like this: "It's complicated." The nuanced opinion challenges the underlying assumption as to what makes a good transportation investment. In other words, more money alone won't fix the system, and it might actually make it worse.

But, what does this look like? Well, it looks like this ...

Perham is a quintessential small town in central Minnesota with fewer than 3,000 people. It's a sleepy community with a traditional Main Street and surrounded by lakes. If it's not the basis for fictional Lake Wobegon, it might as well be.

It recently received a "Transportation and Economic Development" grant to build a new $6.7 million interchange. The State pitches in $3.5 million and the local government covers the rest ($3.2 million). This project might make sense if the town didn't already have three interchanges leading to the same highway. As if a fourth interchange is just what this town needs to catapult its economy into the 21st century.

What you're looking at is not unique.

In fact, I selected it because it is average. And, it's exactly the type of transportation infrastructure that our current system is looking to fund more of. But more importantly, it's not just this project - it's the countless hundreds like it.

You've heard the broken record that we can't afford to fix our crumbling roads? Well, projects like these are the reason why. It's an unneeded piece of infrastructure that diverts funds from maintaining what we have. A recent report by Smart Growth America outlined this systemic problem; States have dedicated 57% of their transportation revenues to new projects.

As Angie Schmidt of Streetsblog brilliantly opined in "More Money Won't Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don't Change How It's Spent";

But throwing more money at the problem overlooks the fatal flaw in American transportation infrastructure policy: The system is set up to funnel the vast majority of spending through state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm.

The reason our bridges are crumbling is because we've made the conscious decision not to repair them. Instead, we've chosen to build new things (more specifically, mostly roads). And now, we're tasking the same people who created the problem to help get us out of it?

The status quo will claim there isn't money to bring existing bridges up to today's standard, yet will simultaneously spend $25 million to save 7,000 vehicles a day 53 seconds on a commute (see here) and drop $680 million on an environmentally-compromising bridge to cornfields in Wisconsin (see here).

The Perham infrastructure expansion highlights another key issue: the expansion of a road that hasn't had significant increases in traffic volume in nearly 15 years. In 1998, it had approximately 5,000 vehicles a day. In 2012, that number was 5,300 [MnDOT]. For a comparison, the neighborhood street adjacent my house (with sidewalks, on-street parking and a tree-lined median) carries over 9,000 vehicles a day.

Vehicle traffic in Perham mirrors the population growth, which added around 400 residents between 2000 and 2010. This number is significant in the sense that it hasn't decreased - much like many other rural towns - but it isn't a booming community that would justify transportation infrastructure projects.

In fact, a report from the Center for American Progress found that 50% of roads likely aren't carrying enough traffic to cover their maintenance expenses (see also Streetsblog). I have a good feeling that Perham is one of these places. Of course, this isn't to say we should have disinvestment in communities (we shouldn't), but we need to acknowledge that if we're going to support these places, more highway infrastructure is not the way to do it.

More money for transportation won't fix the system, and it won't help places like Perham. Places like Perham need something else. So, why do we do it? Because it worked in the past? We don't know what else to do? I think it's the latter.

Recommened reading: One Lonely Stroad.

Then and now: Minneapolis' big urban transformation

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Physical infrastructure Updated: February 17, 2015 - 8:47 PM

Minneapolis has undergone a tremendous amount of urban growth in the past seven years. And, for all the complaints constructive-criticism that exists (head-nod to streets.mn), it should be noted that Minneapolis has truly transformed into a better, more dynamic urban place.

Google Streetview has opened up its archives (dating back to 2007 in the Twin Cities) and we can see the transformations at the ground level. While Streetview doesn’t completely capture the change, it’s a good place to start.

Here’s a look at a few of Minneapolis’ success stories.

Washington Avenue through the University of Minnesota campus, has made the most drastic change; from a road choked with cars to a pedestrian-friendly transit mall. What were once small buildings are now six-story apartment buildings.

wash1

Next, is the Mill City District on 2nd near the Guthire Theater. If you could rewind time to 2005, this would look even more drastic. I use to tailgate for Minnesota Twins games on what is now Gold Medal Park. At that time, it was an open surface asphalt parking lot littered with broken beer bottles.

millcity1

Uptown may have had the greatest population increase. It has successfully transformed industry land and under-utilized empty space into apartments along the Greenway.

lakeigrard

greenway1

You don’t have to look far to see other urban transformations, such as Park & PortlandUniversity AvenueCentral Ave in NENorth Loop, and  behind Target Field. It’s good to see Minneapolis is moving in the right direction …

The Beautiful Inconsistencies of a Grand Avenue

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Society, Government, Physical infrastructure Updated: January 27, 2015 - 11:52 PM
beautychaosst
Grand Avenue: Diversity and chaos can help create beautiful, walkable streetscapes

Gerber Jewelers is a small business situated on one of St. Paul's most desirable streets and it's trying to extend its storefront to the sidewalk.

"Gerber Jewelers' bid to extend the front of its building at 945 Grand Ave. to the sidewalk has been rebuffed. On a 7-0 vote ... St. Paul City Council rejected owner Rafic Chechori's appeal and upheld the Board of Zoning Appeals' previous denial of a setback." - The Highland Villager, Jan. 21, 2015

The Council is upholding a requirement that the front-yard setback from the property line be 25 feet. Dave Thune, out-going Ward 2 Council Member, said "granting the variance would have set a bad precedent and would have encouraged other property owners to extend their buildings to the sidewalk as well, destroying the residential character of Grand."*

This is a bad decision and the entire Grand Avenue plan needs to be revisited to acknowledge the real urban character of the street, improve walkability, to help local businesses, and improve the City's overall tax base.

The problem with the City Council's decision, and the zoning code in general, is that it's trying to impose a character that doesn't exist (and shouldn't exist).

Grand Avenue is not a street with a residential character. For starters, literally every building on this particular 900 Block is either commercial or mixed use (residential + retail). This includes the building immediately to the Gerber's left with a 0ft (zero) setback.

gerberts jewerly setback
Gerber Jewelry was denied the right to look like it's neighbor immediately to its west.

Grand Avenue can be chaotic and disorganized, but unquestionably beautiful. This is the character of a city! This is the character of Grand Avenue. No two blocks are alike, and this is something that should continue. In fact, there is nothing more consistent about Grand Avenue setbacks than that they are entirely inconsistent.

It is not uncommon to see a single family house, next to a 4plex-turned-cooking-store, next to a two story office/burrito/real-estate/pastry/yoga/hair-salon - and all of them have different setbacks! This is the Grand Avenue norm.

house, cooks, com
Nothing is more consistent about Grand Ave. setbacks than the fact that they are inconsistent.

Gerber's block on Grand Avenue includes everything from a gas station, dance studio, sandwich shop, quality dining with sidewalk patio seating, a cigar shop in a house, a small frozen yogurt shop on the sidewalk, and more than a handful of other small businesses.

These small, unique spaces are one of the reasons that Grand Ave has a disproportionately high percentage of local businesses. It is precisely these types of businesses that we want to thrive as they are more likely to use local services (such as marketing, legal, accounting, etc.) and more of their profit stays within the community. This is precisely the type of incremental growth we should be trying to encourage.

There are few things more important for creating walkable spaces than giving people something to experience at the sidewalk level. The social value of a storefront is too important to pass up, and rejecting Gerber's application is an unfortunate error in judgement.

This decision is also costing the city money. The adjacent building abuts the sidewalk similar to the new proposal and pays nearly 2.3x times more in property taxes ($31,130 vs. $13,919).** This alone is a drop in the bucket, but when you consider the long-term ramifications it can have some costs.

The entire Grand Avenue plan needs to be revisited, and we need to take into consideration the viewpoints of people other than the Summit Hill Associations. We need to acknowledge the real urban character of the street, improve walkability through more sidewalk storefront, to help neighborhood businesses grow to improve our local economy, and improve the City's overall tax base.

__

* Quote is not a direct quote, but a summary of Thune's quote taken from The Highland Villager, Jan. 21, 2015.
**
 It's fair to say a similar new addition would yield similar results. However, you never know since valuations are based off a number of factors, such as building materials, etc.
*** Related ReadingAnthropologie: A Storefront Not Worthy of Grand Ave.

The Rise and Fall of Sonic the Hedgehog (and Sega)

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Video games Updated: December 7, 2014 - 1:27 PM

For a brand to thrive, it needs to constantly reinvent itself. Sega isn’t doing that and the once unstoppable hedgehog has been diminished to mere nostalgia.

The icon that helped launch Sega ahead of Nintendo during the Console Wars has been relegated to second-class superhero status from an overabundance of sub-par appearances and reckless business practices. As a staple of my childhood, I find this disconcerting.

Originally released in 1991, the inaugural Sonic the Hedgehog had unique gameplay, previously unseen graphics, and fast gameplay. Experiencing Sonic in the early 1990s was akin to the previous generation watching color television for the first time. This was the Launchpad of an iconic brand.

Sega followed up with an impressive sequel that gave most players their first-glimpse at the 3D gaming world through expertly-designed bonus stages. This feat should not be understated. Quality games (and a skilled marketing team) helped bring Sega from a market share of less than 10 percent to the dominate player in the industry.

Sonic ended the 16-bit era with a bright future despite some forgettable spin-off flops, such as Sonic Spinball (Sonic + Pinball = Disappointment). As Sega would soon learn, one failed spin-off is fine, but multiple failed spin-offs is not.

Sega’s mismanagement during the 32-bit era created doubts about the company, including the business decision to release a new console (Saturn) without a title of its hottest intellectual property (Sonic). Doubts amplified as Sega faced increased competition from Sony’s Playstation.

The decision to release Saturn (and then immediately pull the plug) was a move that likely cost Sega billions of dollars. There was a four year period between 1996 and 1999 with no major titles. Imagine this timeframe in the mid of a young gamer: going from eight to 12 without the creation of brand nostalgic. In the minds of these kids, Sonic is irrelevant.

This absence of Sonic during this period allowed Nintendo to dominate, and Mario 64 and Pokémon helped create a near monopoly on this age group while Sony converted mature gamers onto their platform (one of those gamers was me, and I still remain largely loyal to Playstation).

For better and for worse, Dreamcast got the jump on the next generation with the clever “9/9/99” campaign. They had learned from their mistakes and released the new console with their flagship franchise (Sonic Adventure). In 1999, you had Sonic Adventure and everything else. Sonic was back! The game was a hit and was a much needed breath of fresh air for Sega fans.

Yet, it wasn’t enough. Despite a successful launch and masterful Sonic games, the Dreamcast couldn’t compete with Playstation 2. Sega soon abandoned the console market to become a software company. Since the demise of Sega’s console business, the Sonic brand has been a collection of mostly misses. It’s an unfortunate truth that Sonic has been damaged to such a degree the gamers approach new releases with caution, not excitement.

When Sonic does best, it’s through nostalgia-aimed releases like Generations. But new versions of the franchise have failed to revive the brand. One journalist hinted that Sonic 06' was one of the worst games of the year and the re-branding that resulted in Sonic Boom: Rise of the Lyric had people scratching their heads. Both appeared to be rushed to market at the expense of gameplay. Continually releasing an unrefined product is a good way to kill a franchise.

Sonic now operates primarily in the nostalgic realm. There are still hardcore fans, but without a landmark release like Sonic Adventure, there isn't much hope for the revitalization of the Sonic brand. A business can run on nostalgia only for so long.

The question is: How can Sega appease the nostalgic fan base while moving the franchise into the future?

This is the question Sega will need to answer if Sonic is going to be around for another 20 years. Sega appears to be making the smart move of tackling the youth market dominated by Nintendo. This is a crucial age group to capture from a marketing perspective. The problem with this approach though is that Sega is challenging Nintendo's market share while still being reliant upon them to release their games on Nintendo consoles.

Sega's faults have been that they've been absent when competition was strongest and over-eager to release inferior products when unnecessary. I want to see Sonic thrive for another 20 years. To do so, Sega will need to drastically improve the quality of flagship Sonic games, aggressively target emerging gamers, and find a way to control their distribution (e.g.: not being reliant on Nintendo).

A First-Timer Plays Dungeons & Dragons

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Games, Society Updated: November 3, 2014 - 9:39 PM

Has there ever been a better time to be a nerd? No, probably not. So, I wanted to dive in deeper ...

My first adventure into ultimately nerdery has left me with one resounding conclusion: if you have never played Dungeons and Dragons, whatever you think you know, forget it. You are wrong. It's not the broad common assumption supported by mainstream media and it's certainly not the Simpson's Comic Book guy.

It's something else.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game I have been anxious to play for quite sometime, but up until recently, I never had that special someone to introduce me. After what felt like a decade, my friend Chris invited to join his group. I finally had my date. Wednesday night. 7pm. Roseville. Fantasy Flight Games Event Center.

On Facebook, a friend suggested I pick up a bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos, Twizzlers and some Mountain Dew. These were surely the needed rations. With giddy delight, I texted a photo of the junk food to my Dungeons and Dragons playing friend. It was only a few seconds later that I was alerted that "Sadly you can't bring that into FFG :( ".

It is at this point that I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was walking into. Is Dungeons and Dragons even possible without Mountain Dew?

It hit me. I experienced something I hadn't in the longest time: unreasonable teenage angst. As if I was going on a first date. I even mentally beat myself up over what I should wear. It was prom night and I was unprepared and unsure of myself. I could do nothing but drive north on Snelling Avenue and sip Mountain Dew in anticipation.

The FFG Event Center shattered any preconceived notions I had as it more closely resembles a post-modernist downtown hotel than your high school friend's parent's basement. Which, frankly, was both disappointing and relieving. I quickly grabbed a coffee at the cafe and my friend picked up a Surly on-tap before the game (yes, local craft beer is available).

I was a halfling rouge teamed up with an elf and two dwarfs. It was an unbalanced team consisting of two rookies, a mid-career professional and an experienced veteran. And the ruthless Dungeon Master? A friendly dude named Brian.

After a quick explanation of the rules, we were off. The first mission: get a dragon egg from a barn.

Okay - this is where I'm going to lose a few people. I agree. Getting a dragon egg from a barn doesn't exactly sound epic. I was along for the ride, even if the whole deal seemed shady. I distrust anyone, fictional or otherwise, willing to exchange money for a dragon egg in a barn. It worked out beautifully though and it was a great beginners story to learn a few tricks and strategies.

For our successful completion (oh! we dropped a few bad dudes in the process), we were granted 200 gold coins by a man I can only assume was going to use that dragon egg for nefarious purposes. Regardless, we got our coin and traversed into something a little more frightening: a goblin cave.

An crying woman's family had been kidnapped at their now-ransacked farm outside of town (advice to humans living in the world of DnD: buy Goblin Insurance).

Here's where the real fun began. So, two dwarves, an elf, and a rogue halfling walk into a goblin cave. We head into the cave and it's at this point, maybe an hour and a half into the game, that I get it. I decide to take two items and use my imagination (lantern + flask of oil) and toss all of them into the cave. The result was a medieval Molotov cocktail with a side of chaos. One fried goblin later, we're inside and rescuing some humans. Success!

Two missions down, literally thousands to go ...

What's astonishing about Dungeons and Dragons is the learning curve. It's easy to get started, but the game can get insanely complex. It's your job to use your best improvisational skills within the boundaries of the game. It's about asking questions, improvising, and moving within a loose framework. It creates this beautiful platform where you can play the same series of events 10 times and never have the same outcome. It's a table top game with near infinite possibilities.

What did you do last Wednesday?

I helped rescue some humans, drop some evil goblins, bought a dragon egg, and made a few friends in the process. Heroes in our own minds. Nerds in the minds of others. But who cares? There's never been a better time to be a nerd.

If you haven't played Dungeons and Dragons, I think you really should. Grab a coffee (or Surly on-tap) and join us each Wednesday in Roseville's FFG at 7pm. If you have the courage to show up, I can guarantee you'll have a great time.

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