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

Lowertown’s Parking Challenge!

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: March 12, 2013 - 7:46 PM

This map sparked a few disparaging tweets, including a small #twitterwar with a City Council member. As it turns out, people get riled up about parking. It is as if they feel they are entitled to parking and the benefits thereafter.

lower-park

These blue spaces represent off-street surface parking lots and parking garages; but do not highlight on-street or underground parking. Also, they represent only, to the best of my knowledge, available public parking. There are a few more small parking lots but Google Maps limited me to 75 shapes per map.

I bring this up because there’s a debate going on in Lowertown about removing up to 22 on-street parking spaces to expand a sidewalk to accommodate outdoor dining. If you think that 22 spots is a mere drop in the bucket, you’d be right. I went out to prove it.

The Lowertown Parking Challenge

[YouTube: Lowertown Parking Challenge - St. Paul]

The rules were simple:

  • Drive to Lowertown
  • Take the same route everyday
  • Park as close as possible to Mears Park
  • Park for free

Findings of the “Challenge”:

  • Furthest distance: 600 feet of Mears Park everyday between the hours of 5:30 to 7:30pm
  • Closest distance: During three of the trips I found a spot directly on the park
  • Cost: I never once paid for parking
  • Shortest time spent finding a spot: 2 minutes and 15 seconds
  • Longest time spent finding a spot: 3 minutes and 41 seconds

This is not an academic study. I merely sought out to prove that, under current conditions, a person can drive into Lowertown and park with relative ease and do it for free. I also wanted to mention that I’m keenly aware of the limitations of this challenge (e.g.; time of day, work week, etc.).

Lowertown is arguably the most successful area of downtown St. Paul. Coincidentally, although it has a lot of parking, it still has noticeably less parking than everywhere else. I do not think that is a coincidence. That being said, I think there is something to say about on-street parking.

The opposition to the sidewalk expansion isn’t without a good argument; “Some downtown residents have said that parking lanes act as a buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians on the sidewalk and that removing those lanes could be a safety hazard.” [Pioneer Press]. This is a good argument straight out of the Jeff Speck Walkable City Playbook. It’s true. Cars can create a great pedestrian buffer zone.

In my mind, this whole debate is moot and has leapfrogged into the realm of ridiculous, including an implied comparison of the construction of Interstate 94 through downtown and the destruction of a historic neighborhood to that of a one-block sidewalk expansion proposal. The sidewalk proposal was also rejected by the Historic Preservation Committee, confusingly so I might add. Why is the moot? Because the real culprit isn’t parking or cafes, and it shouldn’t be viewed under just those two lenses.

This debate about city life (parking vs. cafes) has a uniquely American bend. I say this because we are ignoring the role that the street plays in this debate. Why does a street through the heart of our downtown need to have two through-lanes? Why can’t we impede upon the traffic flow?

ThruLanes

We have all of this space for an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 cars per day [MnDOT]. While it’s not downtown’s sleepiest road, it certainly doesn’t have a lot of traffic compared to other areas that many would consider successful commercial, residential and retail streets. For example, this stretch of street has about 1,000 to 2,000 fewer cars than (smaller) Selby Avenue.

One of the failures of St. Paul is that it’s refused to let go of one-way coupling streets; a move that would be likely lauded by planners and citizens alike (with St Peter St. and Wabasha St. being possible exceptions). St. Paul is still being held hostage by out-of-date auto-oriented transportation planning. And worse yet, it’s so ingrained in our psyche that a situation like sidewalk cafes and parking comes into our public dialogue and we don’t even consider that one-way couplings and our tenacity for traffic flow might be our biggest impediment to a successful downtown. Instead, we pit on-street parking versus cafe seating. Little do we consider that, if we were to slightly impede peak traffic flow, that we could actually have both.

St. Paul: Lowertown doesn't have a parking problem

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: February 23, 2013 - 12:17 PM

Lowertown in St. Paul doesn’t have a parking problem. I take that back. It does have a parking problem – there’s too much of it.

lower park

Here’s a snapshot of downtown St. Paul. These blue spaces represent off-street surface parking lots and parking garages; but do not highlight on-street or underground parking. Also, they represent only, to the best of my knowledge, available public parking. There are a few more small parking lots but Google Maps limited me to 75 shapes per map.

I bring this up because there’s a debate going on in Lowertown about removing up to 22 on-street parking spaces to expand a sidewalk to accommodate outdoor dining.

“The proposed sidewalk expansion would remove 21 or 22 parking spots from either side of the street, allowing sidewalk cafes near the Barrio, Bulldog and Bin Wine Bar restaurants or future bars. Building owners Dave Brooks and Jim Crockarell have embraced the plan and would pay for the sidewalk widening through assessments …”Pioneer Press [1/3/13]

If you think that 22 spots is a mere drop in the bucket, you’d be right.

Grid.mn brings up that “It seems remarkable that business owners not only want less parking, but are willing to pay $300,000 to do it.” This is true. The most important thing to note is that it seems like a change in attitude, at least from the business stand-point, of how city life should operate.

The opposition to the sidewalk expansion isn’t without a good argument; “Some downtown residents have said that parking lanes act as a buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians on the sidewalk and that removing those lanes could be a safety hazard.” [Pioneer Press]. This is a good argument straight out of the Jeff Speck Walkable City Playbook. It’s true. Cars can create a great pedestrian buffer zone.

In my mind, this whole debate is moot and has leapfrogged into the realm of ridiculous, including an implied comparison of the construction of Interstate 94 through downtown and the destruction of a historic neighborhood to that of a one-block sidewalk expansion proposal. The sidewalk proposal was also rejected by the Historic Preservation Committee, confusingly so I might add. What’sWhy is the moot? Because the real culprit isn’t parking or cafes, and it shouldn’t be viewed under just those two lenses.

This debate about city life (parking vs. cafes) has a uniquely American bend. I say this because we are ignoring the role that the street plays in this debate. Why does a street through the heart of our downtown need to have two through-lanes? Why can’t we impede upon the traffic flow?

ThruLanes

We have all of this space for an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 cars per day [MnDOT]. While it’s not downtown’s sleepiest road, it certainly doesn’t have a lot of traffic compared to other areas that many would consider successful commercial, residential and retail streets. For example, this stretch of street has about 1,000 to 2,000 fewer cars than (smaller) Selby Avenue.

One of the failures of St. Paul is that it’s refused to let go of one-way coupling streets; a move that would be likely lauded by planners and citizens alike (with St Peter St. and Wabasha St. being possible exceptions). St. Paul is still being held hostage by out-of-date auto-oriented transportation planning. And worse yet, it’s so ingrained in our psyche that a situation like sidewalk cafes and parking comes into our public dialogue and we don’t even consider that one-way couplings and our tenacity for traffic flow might be our biggest impediment to a successful downtown. Instead, we pit on-street parking versus cafe seating. Little do we consider that, if we were to slightly impede peak traffic flow, that we could actually have both.

I Love Rice Park

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: February 13, 2013 - 10:56 AM

 

Rice Park is a perfect urban park.

pan

There’s never a bad time of year in Rice Park. In the winter, it illuminates and warms up downtown. In the summer, it has beautiful tree cover. In the fall, you can enjoy the changing colors of the leaves against the beautiful backdrop of the St. Paul Hotel, Central Library and Landmark Center. In the spring, you can walk around and snap photos of Peanuts characters or measure yourself up against the stature of St. Paul favorite writer/alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Rice Park is a beautiful island surrounded by equally beautiful local landmarks. It feels almost European.

The park is historic. In fact, the park is a few years older than the State of Minnesota. And, one of its amazing attributes is that it’s changed over time in that sort of beautiful urban adaptability type of way. It was first used to dry laundry and graze animals. A fountain and bandstand were added in the 1870s and electric lights in the 1880s [source]. Now, it’s a pleasant outdoor room with activities, ice sculptures, an occasional hockey rink and kitschy, yet-interesting and well-done statues.

Rice Park is a park, but it’s also an outdoor room surrounded by some of St. Paul’s most distinctive architecture.

The Landmark Center

land

The St. Paul Hotel & Lawson Commons

hotel

The Ordway Center for Performing Arts

ord

St. Paul Central Library

central

Ice Hockey Rink

hoc

Rice Park is magical. I love it. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Streets.MN is doing an "I Love" series for Valentine's Day Week. To see what other people love; visit Streets.MN.

St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis (and that’s a good thing)

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: January 21, 2013 - 11:25 PM

If you were to read the City of St. Paul’s legislative wish list, you’d see a list of big projects such as:

  • $14 million to improve the Children’s Museum
  • $7 million for parking and transportation improvements at Como Park
  • $32 million loan forgiveness tied to the Xcel Energy Center (in an effort to not pay down debt, but still collect a special sales tax revenue increase to fund a professional hockey practice rink across the street)

Last year the City asked for $25 million for a new baseball stadium in Lowertown, and they got it.

The odd thing about these projects is that they aren’t what the average resident of St. Paul really cares about. It appears as if these funding requests are typically large ticket items aimed at attracting people from outside St. Paul to come visit.

Most of these projects are part of this senseless game of “let’s compete with Minneapolis.”

Newsflash: St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis, and the residents of St. Paul are content with that.

Too often I read a quote in a local newspaper that sounds something like, “Minneapolis got this, so it’s only fair that we get this too.” So, Minneapolis gets the Vikings Stadium. That means it’s only fair that St. Paul gets money for the Saints. Minneapolis gets Target Center renovation cash, so we have to improve the Xcel Center. The list could go on …

I don’t know if those asking for money know this, but the people of St. Paul don’t really care that it’s not Minneapolis. In fact, we wish that city leaders would stop trying to be the big city and just concentrate on the things that make St. Paul great.

I live in St. Paul because I like St. Paul.

I like the neighborhoods and the tree-lined streets. I like the Groveland Tap and Grand Avenue. I love the slower pace of life, the cheaper rents and about a thousand other things. I like that I have the keys to my neighbor’s house, you know, just in case. I like that when I leave my trash bin out that my neighbor will bring it back and place it in my backyard. Yes, these things occur in Minneapolis neighborhoods too, but I have experienced them in my neighborhood in St. Paul.

Sure, I’d like to buy cupcakes on Grand Avenue and have a few more bike lanes, but I can get by without them. No place is going to be perfect.

The easiest way to make life better in St. Paul would be to listen to its residents. The city would find that most suggestions are small, reasonable and affordable. I was having this conversation with my girlfriend and I asked her “What could be done to make St. Paul a better place?”

Right away, off the top of her head, she responded with two great suggestions:

  • The need for a mid-range grocery store in our neighborhood, and to
  • Connect the Sam Morgan Regional Bike Trail (that runs along the Mississippi) with the Bruce Vento Trail (that heads towards White Bear Lake and Stillwater).

Both of these ideas would benefit thousands of people and are really cheap (or, at least cheaper than a baseball stadium and the Children’s Museum expansion). The mid-range grocery store would certainly help me. In Highland Park, we’ve got high-end and low-end. Mississippi Market, Kowlaski’s and Lund’s are great, but they break the bank. Then we’ve got Cooper’s Super Value. It’s cheap, but good luck finding fresh fruit. And bridging the disconnect between the two bike trails would entail nothing more than adding a mile or two of bike lanes and some better wayfinding signage. Simple.

I asked myself the same question. I want a place within walking distance to grab a beer that isn’t Tiff’s and I think it’d be great if we could make West 7th Street into something other than a busy collector road. Also, it’d be nice if we got some protected bus shelters.

I asked my neighbor. His suggestion was even more basic: add sidewalks along Davern Street Hill and Edgecumbe Road so the kids who have to walk up the hill to high school don’t have to walk in the street.

That’s it! That’s what people actually want: a sidewalk, bike trail, neighborhood pub and an affordable grocery store.

Okay, before you write something in the comment section, I want to say: Yes, I’ve used a very small sample size. I recognize this. The St. Paul demographic that I know would be those living south of I-94 and those without children. I’m sure if I asked this question to some parents or anyone living anywhere in St. Paul, they’d tell me something about their neighborhood, their public school and possibly something about crime.

The point I want to get across is that people want things that are small and localized. They want the proverbial pothole fixed, and while they may enjoy the occasional visit to the Science Museum and possibly a Wild game or two, that’s not what they really care about. That’s not what makes them want to live in St. Paul.

If St. Paul does the small things right, then I think the big things, like sports stadiums and science museums will fall into place.

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Bored? Follow me on Twitter at @Nathaniel1983. Also - stop by Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

Do types of roads cause more accidents?

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: January 9, 2013 - 10:05 AM

The word “Stroad” has officially made it into the Urban Dictionary.

“Noun. Portmanteau of “street” and “road”: it describes a street, er, road, built for high speed, but with multiple access points. Excessive width is a common feature. A common feature in suburbia, especially along commercial strips. Unsafe at any speed, their extreme width and straightness paradoxically induces speeding. Somewhat more neutral than synonymous traffic sewer.”

___

Driving a car is dangerous. In fact, it’s probably one of the most dangerous activities in your day. If you’re in a collision, you run the risk of death, injury or best case scenario, property damage and increased insurance rates. Many view this as an inevitable, albeit acceptable, consequence to modern life. And that is probably true. While it’d be naive to think design alone could reduce accidents, it can help.

What makes a street safe?

I think there are a lot of elements. The design is the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s followed by speed and traffic volume. I was curious to know how the stroad held up against other alternatives. To do this, I turned to my usual test lab: my hometown of Mankato. I examined Minnesota Department of Transportation crash data & AADT (average daily traffic volume) data in an admittedly non-scientific study.

Aerial1

I selected seven different road segments with comparable volumes and extracted crash data from 2009, 2010 and 2011. I picked the three most recent years available. I selected four stroads, two traditional downtown streets and a medium volume road connecting the west side of town with the university neighborhoods.

The below road segments are ranked by crash ratio. The more dangerous roads are listed on top.

 

Location Road Type Daily Volume # of Crashes Crashes per Day Crash Ratio
Madison Ave (Victory to Hwy 22) Stroad 16,300 165 0.15 9.24447E-06
2nd St (Warren to Main St) Traditional Street 6,500 58 0.05 8.14893E-06
Bassett Dr (Madison to Hwy 22) Stroad 6,000 34 0.03 5.17504E-06
Madison Ave (Dane to Victory) Stroad 22,300 71 0.06 2.90763E-06
Adams St (Victory to Hwy 22) Stroad 11,000 30 0.03 2.49066E-06
Stolzman Rd (Stadium to Blue Earth) Road 11,800 20 0.02 1.54787E-06
Riverfront (Bridge to Madison) Traditional Street 19,100 28 0.03

[Note: This is not a scientific study. I used MnDOT CMAT and MnDOT ADT data. Speed limits on each road range from 35 to 45 miles per hour. There were zero fatalities on these roads. Most crashes were not alcohol related.]

The most dangerous road is Madison Avenue. This is Mankato’s Epic Stroad. It has 16,300 vehicles per day and 165 crashes. Compare this to Mankato’s traditional street, now a downtown thoroughfare, that has 19,100 vehicles per day and a mere 28 crashes over the same three year period.

Madison_victory-22

This stretch of Madison Avenue has 14 access points within less than a mile stretch. This number alone wouldn’t be bad if the access points were traditional intersections. In the past year, Strong Towns has pointed to how these access points causes congestion. And studies have shown that these formless, high-volume arterials may also be a root cause of accidents [see Safe Urban Form and Safe Streets, Liveable Streets by Eric Dumbaugh & Robert Rae].

riverfront bridge to madison image

Contrast Madison Avenue to Riverfront Drive. Riverfront Drive is a high-volume stretch of road through Mankato’s first downtown (now marketed as “Old Town”). Make no mistake, Riverfront Drive carries a lot of vehicles. In fact, it carries more vehicles than Madison Avenue with fewer lanes and fewer crashes. It also has on-street parking, sidewalks, street trees and the buildings address the street [Important Note: This segment of town is actually fairly unpleasant. There are lots of vehicles, truck traffic, some existing industrial activity, the buildings aren’t typically well-kept and there seems to be a high rate of business turnover – but, as urban planners say, it has great bones.

Stroads aren’t always less safe. Second Street in downtown and Bassett Drive both have around 6,000 vehicles per day, but Second Street has nearly double the crashes. Of course, maybe that’s because my mom has been padding the stats (Sorry Mom! I love you, but I had to post that).

2nd stImagine

When it comes to crash statistics, 2nd Street performs poorly. It ranks behind three other local stroads, including the road behind the Wal-Mart (I have no explanation for why this is the case). Bassett Drive is a collector that connects all things suburban–auto dealerships, both failed and successful big and small boxes, misplaced townhouses, gas stations and parking lots.

bassett_image

Bassett Drive is excessively wide and acts primarily as a way to funnel vehicles elsewhere. Yes, it’s safer than 2nd Street (as are two other stroads examined), but what good is it if the street doesn’t add any real value to the community?

Do stroads cause more accidents?

Academic research seems to indicates they do. In my brief Mankato-oriented research, with the exception of 2nd Street, stroads had higher crash ratios than traditional streets. Admittedly, my figures may be too simplistic. Crashes vary in severity, and being that there were few fatal crashes on Mankato roads, I wasn’t able to get a good gauge on the real danger of the selected roads (that’s a good thing by the way). As a society, fatal crashes are what we care about. Whether we like to admit it or not, as long as it doesn’t slow down our commute we really don’t care if someone gets into a minor, non-serious fender bender. These accidents cause minor economic damage, but they don’t yield protestors demanding something be changed.

Safety alone isn’t the best metric of how a street is doing. Don’t get me wrong, transportation safety is absolutely important. Yet, it can’t be an end in and of itself. I’m confident that everyone reading this would rather have a town full of crash-prone Second Street’s than any of the statistically safer stroads.

I mentioned above that while it’d be naive to think design alone could reduce accidents, it can help. But it’s not just the design of the road, it’s the design of the community, the buildings and the people. Now, we can’t afford to go around and retrofit our stroads. What we can do to stroads is simple, and again, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand this.

  • Reduce speeds on stroads
  • Add on-street parking wherever possible
  • Re-stripe stroads to reduce excess capacity

It’s that simple and I guarantee it’ll work. Also, don’t text and drive.

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FYI: You can read this on Strong Towns! Also, follow me on Twitter @Nathaniel1983.

 

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