Nathaniel Hood

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

Posts about Government

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

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood 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.

The Beautiful Inconsistencies of a Grand Avenue

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood 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.

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

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.

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.

jpeg

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.

original

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

two schools

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:

college

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. 

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