In defense of skyways

At In defense of skyways

In defense of skyways

Harrogate  32

Crossposted at streets.mnand transportationist.orgPhotos of skyways by author from Sydney (2), Portland (2), Minneapolis (3), Tokyo (1), and Harrogate (1) respectively.

Everyone seems to be hating on Minneapolis’s world-beating skyway network. Sam Newberg is the latest in a recent post at

Is it Time to Remove Those Pesky Skyways? :

“The following post shares a similar argument as an article I wrote four years ago for the Downtown Journal (in Minneapolis). I was chastised at the time and suppose I will be again. However, with the recent opening of a new, $3 million skyway link to better connect the Accenture tower to adjacent blocks, as well as the new Downtown 2025 Plan taking on the “Skyway Paradox,” I was persuaded to bring it up again.
So here goes:

Isn’t it about time to start removing our skyways? A few years ago, Jen Gehl, a notable and well-respected Danish urbanist, was in town for an Urban Land Institute presentation. He noted downtown Minneapolis was “no longer up to the beat” of other world-class winter cities, blaming the skyways for striking a “defensive posture” against nature. Save for perhaps one bitter cold winter week per year, I couldn’t agree more. It doesn’t make sense to spend more than $1 million per skyway to perpetuate this anti-world class defensive posture. Gehl’s comments made it into the Skyway Conundrum section of the recently-released Downtown 2025 Plan, so someone is listening! While the plan doesn’t suggest removal, at least they admit the problem, and that, my friends, is the first step to recovery.”

I don’t go downtown much for a variety of reasons, but pedestrian traffic-starved streets are not that reason. Following the model of Victor Gruen, downtown business interests made a decision in the early 1960s to build skyscrapers and skyways and reinforced that decisions continuously. While I am not convinced building skyscrapers was economically wise, given skyscrapers and an arterial street network on which every street and avenue is an entrance or exit to a radial freeway, skyways are a reasonable way to connect buildings. In economic jargon, while no cars downtown might be a “first-best” solution for pedestrians, we don’t live in that world. Given the world where cars dominate streets, a pedestrian-only level is a viable “second-best” solution.

  • Why should all of the modes interact on all levels. In principle, I like shared space as much as anyone, but I don’t like walking on a sidewalk next to 3 or 4 or 5 lanes of motorized traffic, why should I be confined to a narrow building hugging strip rather than travel on a strictly pedestrian level.
  • Tall buildings should generate sufficient traffic to support retail on both the street level and the internal skyway level. In Planning for Place and Plexus we have a box “Ground Floor Retail Everywhere” which estimated that if all retail trips were home-based, 10 story apartment buildings would be sufficient to generate 1 floor of retail. A similar calculation could be done for non-home based (i.e. work-based) retail trips, and given the higher density of people per square foot in office buildings, should generate similar numbers. Short buildings don’t justify skyways, but tall buildings do.
  • Skyways reduce inter-building transportation costs. This should increase inter-building activity and thus economies of agglomeration. Given the only purpose of cities is to connect people at low cost for some mutual advantage, the better cities connect people, the better off everyone is.

I have coauthored two papersabout their evolution, I encourage you all to read the first: Corbett et al. (2009)Evolution of the second-story city: the Minneapolis Skyway System.
Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design volume 36, pages 711 – 724, which goes into the history of the Minneapolis system.


Could the skyways be better. Of course. Some ideas:

  • First, they can better connect to the street network with staircases or lifts adjacent to the sidewalks.
  • Second, they can follow a more regular topology. More importantly the internal skyway level network inside the buildings themselves could be far more navigable than it is. While it is fine for regular commuters who learn the ins and outs, its medieval labyrinth is horrible for the unfamiliar traveler.
  • Third, perhaps the skyway level should be on the 10th or 20th floor instead of the 2nd (The Petronas Towers at Kuala Lampur puts them at the 41st floor). This would require more coordination, but may be more useful in reducing the total amount of vertical movement required for inter-building personal transportation. It is probably a bit late to retrofit Minneapolis, but should be considered in cities newly adopting skyways.

Skyways are Minneapolis’s Cable Cars, our London Underground or Route-Master Bus, our Venetian Canals. Skyways are the iconic transportation system of Minneapolis. With all else (roads, LRT, etc.) we are copy cats. We need to embrace skyways as such, and not listen to others who want Minneapolis to fit into the conventions of relatively weather-less European cities.

Linklist: January 9, 2012

Betty McCollum @ StarTribune: St. Croix River Crossing is an albatross : “There are as many as 1,170 structurally deficient bridges across Minnesota. You may be one of the estimated 2.4 million Minnesota drivers traveling over these deficient bridges each day. Or maybe it’s your child’s school bus?”

Price Roads A new blog about one of our favorite subjects.

Technically Incorrect @ CNET NewsThe joy of Microsoft’s ‘avoid ghetto’ GPS patent:

“Pedestrians have sometimes felt neglected when it comes to GPS directions.
Indeed, not so long ago, one lady sued Google because the directions its map offered led her (she believed) to be struck by a car.
Now Microsoft has been granted a patent that is designed to make its maps more pedestrian-friendly.
Somehow, this patent has immediately been dubbed the “avoid ghetto” feature.
The gist of it seems to be that Microsoft’s GPS–which will reportedly be inserted into Windows Phones in the future–will use input from more varied and up-to-date sources in order to create suggested routes.”

Marianne Lavelle @ National Geographic (via JM) Better Road Building Paves Way for Energy Savings:

“When considering how cars and trucks generate such a large part of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution, it’s easy to overlook what lies beneath them. But under all that traffic, there are roads. And the paving material itself-the asphalt, concrete, and rock-and how it is placed, have an important impact on the atmosphere.”

Charles Q. Choi @ National Geographic Why Tornadoes Take the Weekends Off in Summer (via AM):

“Tornadoes and hailstorms may take the weekends off during the muggy summer months, according to a new study that reveals new ways human activity can inadvertently sway weather.”

[Hint, it’s a new externality of driving]

The Detailed Concerns of the CA HSR Peer Review Group

Adrian Moore posts: The Detailed Concerns of the CA HSR Peer Review Group:

“Since the Peer Review Group report is curiously still not available on their website (but you can email them for a copy) I thought a summary of their analysis would be useful.  Here, concisely as I can, are the key points, with some commentary.
1. “[I]t is hard to seriously consider a multi-billion dollar Funding Plan that offers no position on whether [the first operating section should be from almost Bakersfield to almost San Jose, or from Fresno to almost LA].”
2. The first section to be built will not be “a very high-speed railway (VHSR)” capable of operating at top speeds.  “Therefore it does not appear to meet the requirements of the enabling State legislation.” “The [first section] will not be electrified, and thus cannot serve as a high-speed test track for the future VHSR rolling stock.”
3. “The only clear remaining basis for the [first section] is that it can serve as a vehicle for the use of Federal money that has specific deadlines.”
4. “The fact that the Funding Plan fails to identify any long term funding commitments is a fundamental flaw in the program.” “The CHSRA has also made it clear there will be no private sector interest in the project until the full public sector role is defined and funded, which means that significant private funding will not be available for many years.”  “The legislature could, of course, rectify this by enacting [a new tax or fee]. Lacking this, the project as it is currently planned is not financially ‘feasible’.”
5. “[W]e do not think that the current description constitutes a ‘feasible’ business model for a number of reasons.” (bullets paraphrase)
The draft business plan relies on ‘illustrative’ concepts not decisions by the CHSRA.
There is no identified funding for the plan presented.
The biggest risk is system integration, but the plan requires all integration to happen very late in the project.
6. “We have repeatedly said that we do not believe that the current approach to project management, with the CHSRA’s staffing, salaries and procurement controlled by California public agency rules, will suffice if the project gets fully underway and the CHSRA has to suddenly manage a construction effort larger than that currently managed by Caltrans.”(emphasis added)
7. “Unfortunately, despite a strong recommendation from this group, the demand forecasts remain an internal product of the CHSRA and its internal peer review panel. The forecasts have not been subjected to external and public review, and many of the internal workings of the model. . . remain unclear.”
8. “Capital cost estimates for the system have been steadily rising in every Business Plan.” “The reasonableness of the capital budgets would be improved by development of a risk-based, cost-loaded construction schedule that makes a more explicit attempt to allow for a broad range of outcomes in cost and schedule.”
9. “[T]he decision to put the entire initial effort into the Central Valley maximizes the risk to the State if no significant funding appears after the initial Federal contributions.”
10. “In our judgment, a finding of feasibility in the Funding Plan would require that the following assumptions be found reasonable:” (bullets paraphrase)
The first section can be completed within budget and on time despite a lack of construction experience, managerial resources, and potential delays from lawsuits.
The $24-$30 billion still needed to connect the first section to either San Jose or San Fernando valley when the state is the only likely source, and is broke.
That the cost once up and running will be on budget, ridership will be close to estimates, and an inexperienced CHSRA can manage all the tricky integration issues.
All these same things will be true of adding the next part of the system, including another $14-$35 billion.
“[O]ur experience with [other HSR projects in the US and around the world] strongly suggest that each of these assumptions alone is slightly optimistic, and taken together, strongly so.””