Nathaniel Hood

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

Posts about Society

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.”

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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.

 

Hanging Mankato's History

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: December 26, 2012 - 6:43 PM

There is a memorial service down the street in honor of the 38 Dakotans executed during the Dakotan Conflict as I sit here at a bagel shop in downtown Mankato. There are a good number of people in attendance and police are directing traffic. You can read about it here.

The largest mass execution in United States’ history happened here. It’s been 150 years and there is going to be a new monument. It’s a 20 foot scroll with 38 names located across the street from the execution. A public library and a few statues sit on the actual execution site while a bridge leaves the site in its shadow.

The monument is an island. You can check out the Google Streetview here.

Riverfront Drive, a major arterial road, cuts on the north side of the site. All the decorative lights and flower planters in the world won’t help improve the joy of walking along Riverfront Drive, which hasn’t been connected to the Minnesota River in 5 decades. It should be called Concrete Wall Front Road. The new statue, along with the statue of the now-locally vanished American Bison, is wedged between this busy road, an industrial railroad track and a concrete retaining wall protecting the City of Mankato from a 200 year floods and from good, scenic views.

The monument is an island, and it’s practically located under a bridge. It’s not exactly hidden, but it certainly doesn’t have a prominent location or good civic location.

Unless you knew the local history, you’d never know it was an execution site. Maybe that’s intentional? By virtual of its location, it is a “drive by” statue. Ninety-nine point nine percent of people will experience the monument by automobile. I bring this up because I think it effects how we relate to our history.

I lived in Edinburgh – a city with an exciting (but tremendously violent) history. It’s hard to walk a few hundred yards without seeing an execution site, unmarked grave or an advertisement for a haunted catacombs tour (where countless anonymous black plague victims were tossed). These tragedies are part of Edinburgh’s history – and they are embraced. And by the way, this brief paragraph doesn’t even begin to describe the historical atrocities that occurred in and around Edinburgh’s city walls.

I can’t say whether or not the Scottish people are embarrassed by these tragedies, but I can say that they have embraced them. It’s not just Edinburgh, but violent histories have been accepted so much that they even play into the realm of marketing of place. There is a pub across the street from a public execution site in Edinburgh that, as the marketed history goes, gave a free pint to the soon-to-be executed. The execution block still stands, as does the pub. The last public execution there was on the site: June 21st, 1864 (FYI: the Mankato Mass execution: December 16th, 1862).

The difference is that those hung in Edinburgh’s public square were likely criminal, to what severity I do not know. Mankato’s victims, while many may not have been innocent, were victims of a much wider and complex set of scenarios (Listen to the This American Life episode titled, “Little War on the Prairie”). Minnesota doesn’t have a long history, so maybe that makes tragedies things stick out? Of course, what community wants their claim to fame to be “Home of the Largest Mass Execution in United States History”?

History is written by the victorious. In the United States, we have a history of tearing down our history – just look at our built environment. I feel that holds true more often than not, but destructing the Dakotan Conflict execution is seemingly more difficult. We acknowledge that it happened, but we don’t fully embrace it. We’ve built monuments to the event, but we place them practically under bridges.

Best of 2012 @ Streets.MN

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: December 20, 2012 - 1:00 AM

The best of 2012 - Local Urban & Transportation Style! You voted. We wrote it all up.

The first couple 'best of' have already been posted:

It's not every day you get such a specific 'best of' opportunity. I wrote on New Urbanism's Excelsior and Grand and it's victory as the best simulacrum of Main Street.

That isn’t to say Excelsior and Grand isn’t without criticism, but it’s the best we’ve got. In fact, it’s hard to take other Twin Cities New Urbanist projects seriously. Arbor Lakes? No real residential. West End? Same problem, but with too much parking and it’s half-empty. Burnsville’s Heart of the City? I’m really happy they are trying. Woodbury Lakes? You can’t be serious?

I had this college summer internship that paid me too much money to basically drive aimlessly around the metro. Coming from a small town and moving directly to an walkable, urban-university setting, this internship was the first chance I had to experience suburbia. I’d drive from suburban office complex to strip mall to industrial park, and repeat. One day pre-ubiquitous GPS systems, I remember coming off Highway 100 while coming down from one of Blaine’s excruciatingly depressing industrial parks. I made a wrong turn and somehow bumped into Exclesior & Grand.

I remember thinking it was a mirage, an oasis in the suburban desert. This place couldn’t be real?

There are a few elements that put Excelsior and Grand ahead of the competition. The location is aided by its proximity to Minneapolis. That, and it’s surrounded by a partial traditional street grid. The strip malls nearby are old by strip mall standards, but they look quaint relics of the bygone years when compared to the expansive Power Center Strip Malls of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a way, Excelsior and Grand is still surrounded by suburbia, but a humble suburbia in its first generation. The type of suburbia that still had some traditional patterns and acknowledged that Minneapolis, the big city, actually existed.

Excelsior and Grand is not an island (a criticism I have with all the other NU projects on the list). It’s connected to the neighborhood to the south and the few apartment / condo buildings to the north. As long as those walking are willing to brave Excelsior Blvd. The pedestrian connections aren’t that bad and walking within is a pretty pleasant experience. The project doesn’t feel too out of place either – it’s as if it is less than 10 years old, but already part of the neighborhood.

The retail currently occupying Excelsior and Grand is doing well. My only complaint is that the businesses are boring (CVS, Panera Bread, Starbucks, etc.). This isn’t a bad thing for most people. Eventually, as rents and markets change, businesses will come and go. That’s part of how a these things operate and I’m confident the Panera Breads of the world won’t stay forever. I’m just glad that we’ve got a place with good bones – even if the shops are bland.

If you're looking to see the rest of the "best of" series - you can find it here on Streets.MN.

Live in a Shipping Container?

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: December 7, 2012 - 1:23 PM

I’ll concede that shipping container housing can be cool. I write this because I took a bit of flack on my previous piece about shipping containers. I wanted to take some time to offer some rebuttals (and a correction - that correction being that I wrongfully labeled the Detroit project as affordable housing. It isn’t. It is market rate. It was a mistake).

I used Tornado Towers as my storyline. I wish I was a better writer and maybe then I could have given a more passionate argument against shipping container housing by bringing it all together. Needless to say, I can’t fault people for commenting on that aspect of the piece.

For the record – I was not arguing against providing affordable housing, I was advocating that it should be quality housing and that we should not “experiment on the poor” like we’ve done so many times in the arena of public housing (e.g.: no more towers in the park). People in need of affordable housing aren’t looking for high-design.

For the most part, shipping container housing has been a luxury for the wealthy. There are more examples of second-homes on the beach/ in the woods than that of a primary residence. It appears to be a burgeoning architectural trend under the label of sustainability.

Before I go any further, I want to concede that there are definitely situations where shipping containers may be useful – such as temporary housing in areas affected by disasters. I have also been informed that they work well in desert climates as military housing on bases. These are fine uses for shipping containers. My main complaint is that, for affordable housing or otherwise, they will ultimately fail and become eyesores.

Here’s the brief rundown on why we should be skeptical of shipping container housing …

  • They are ugly and will ultimately not be loved. The design will not stand the test of time and we are only a decade away from these places being either abandoned or destroyed.
  • They aren’t much cheaper than typical housing. You can build a normal, standard, average, normal brick apartment building (that will last for a century) for about 5 percent more.
  • Environmentally, there isn’t much benefit. Retrofitting shipping containers to make them fit for human habitat takes a lot of energy. Containers are laced with countless hazardous chemicals and getting rid of those is a nasty process.
  • Vast majority proposals I’ve seen are nothing more than a "Tower in the Park" idea reincarnate. Only this time it might be worse – stacked shipping containers in the park.

Shipping container housing, minus the re-use element, as a means of urban development is a “same stuff, different day” scenario (e.g.: Tornado Towers). It failed in the past and will surely fail again in the future.

 

 

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Shipping Container Housing is a Terrible Idea

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: December 1, 2012 - 12:58 PM

I bumped into an article on how Detroit will join some European nations and build America’s first shipping container building. It got me thinking: shipping container housing is a terrible idea. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Why? Because it’s the “same shit, different day” and “experiment on the poor” urban planning faux-avant garde-ism that has failed so miserably in the past. Let me explain.

It’s a trailer park in the sky, a testament to bad taste. - The Free Lance-Star (out of Fredericksburg, Virginia), April 22, 1994

The AP wire picked up on the story and newspapers around the country ran with it: the City of Mankato was going to buy one of America’s ugliest buildings – four stories of stacked trailers – and tear it down.

It was 1995 and the Valley View Apartments or as I knew them, Tornado Towers,  were in the process of being demolished.

The day was memorable. I remember driving up in my Mom’s minivan as the bulldozers razed the site. My father drove up shortly thereafter, snapped some photos from inside his new Buick LeSabre and drove away with a $160,000 check from the City of Mankato (to this day, my dad still has the photos and a newspaper article framed in his office).

The name Tornado Towers, from my understanding, is an ironic testament to what can best be described as good luck. Before the building’s original owners went into default sometime in the mid-1980s, a tornado came through town and leveled nearby buildings and farm fields. One building remained: the stacked trailers (who’da thunk it, right? – as if the stacked trailer homes held together loosely by concrete pillars wouldn’t have been the first to go?).

I spent a good part of my childhood at Tornado Towers helping out as only a child could. In other words, my parents didn’t want to pay for a babysitter, so my brothers and I would pick up small pieces of trash while trying not to get in the way, break something, get hurt or all the above.

I don’t have many memories of the place. My dad recruited a few college basketball players to live there and I remember thinking as a child that one of them was the tallest man alive. There was the Hmong family that tied a goat to their trailer on the ground floor. That got a few complaints. Going up and down the staircase was scary and the elevator never worked (the empty shaft eventually turned into storage space). That’s about it.

The heating bills were astronomical, but it was tolerable since rent went for around $250 per month. In 9th grade science class, years after the tear down, our eccentric teacher handed students a book on heat loss in buildings. The thermal imaging of the building was one big red block. The Tornado Towers was used as a worst-case example.

Tornado Towers was originally an “experiment on the poor” system of public housing units. The idea of the late 1970s, when it was built, was to have cheap, mass-produced subsidized housing that could be moved at the owner’s will. For example, you’d get a trailer, eventually buy it from whomever, own it and move it to another location if you earned enough money to do so. That never worked out, and eventually the place found itself in mortgage default. Next, my father bought them … under my mother’s name (as he tells the story, the bank was offering anything short of giving it away and my mom must have had a better credit score at the time).

Tornado Towers turned around – not visually, but financially – the units were rented to college students and immigrants. It was close to the college and offered affordable housing. The place ceased being government-subsidized housing and turned into good old fashioned affordable housing – mostly by virtue of its ugliness and poor insulation [it was eventually replaced by something almost equally as ugly].

The place was hardly utopia, but was rich with culture and social diversity. The place was dumpy and borderline unsanitary – but never unsafe (it always passed health, safety and any other inspection strategically thrown its way in the City’s apparent attempt to get it condemned). The buildings looked terrible, but operated well.

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Image from WellHome.com

Shipping containers are the new stacked trailer homes. We should avoid building them at all costs. It is, as many like to say, same shit, different day.

It’s not that we shouldn’t build affordable housing – it’s that we shouldn’t build experimental affordable housing to fit the needs of a few green, trendy, idealistic populations who won’t be living there. The desire to recycle these unwanted containers is noble, but doesn’t lend itself to being as green as a building that can be built and stand its ground for hundreds of years.

It’s not always cost-effective either. Containers need to be converted to habitable places, apparently there are a lot of really bad chemicals involved, and moving shipping containers between locations doesn’t isn’t cheap either.

While I have fond, nostalgic memories of Tornado Towers, it was an unsightly and unfortunate place that could only attract poor students and poorer immigrants. It was built in the late 1970s and less than 15 years later, the townspeople were begging to have it torn down. There was so much pressure to get rid of it that the City Council approved buying the property for a third more than its market value just to tear it down.

The shipping container model is really no different: it’s the push for cheap, mass-produced housing that pawns itself off as an affordable, yet stylish and cool, housing option. They are still sold to the public as mobile units. The problem with this model breaks down quickly as the only people willing to live in these quarters are poor themselves, and those who dwell in them view them as merely a stepping stone to a better place. In some ways, shipping container housing is actually worse than stacking trailers – at least trailers are originally designed with humans in mind, not shipping mass-produced items across thousands of miles of ocean.

Shipping container housing may make some sense in impoverished areas, like the favelas of Rio de Jeneirio, or as shelters after disasters in Haiti. They should not, however, be assembled to meet the needs of the first-world poor. We should view these are nothing more than a passing novelty – especially in areas like the Midwest. Real estate in Detroit is already affordable, and it’s confusing that small, cramped shipping container units would be viewed as a better alternative than just building brick buildings (according to one source, shipping containers save only 5 to 10 percent on construction costs).

Growing up, I was embarrassed about my direct relationship to Tornado Towers (and how they were apparently ranked as one of America’s 10 ugliest buildings - relatives in Arizona sent us newspaper clippings from their local paper). Now, I embrace Tornado Towers for three reasons:

  1. I’m glad I got to experience a localized version of urban planning history first-hand, the good and the bad;
  2. the City paid my father enough to clear any debts, launch his own business and do well enough to help support our family, and;
  3. I can hopefully pass this message along enough times to stop, halt or delay any ridiculous shipping container project that may come up

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