Networks as Connectors and Disconnectors

We often talk about networks providing connection. The World Wide Web is a network that connects people with websites across the world. But interesting word “web”, it is appropriated from a spider’s “web“, which has lots of strands that connect internally and to external supports, and enable the spider to move quickly over space. But the spider “web’s” primary purpose is to tangle up the wayward insect that crosses its path and prevent it from traveling further. That meaning of the word comes from a further word describing woven fabrics, weaving, and tapestry. Weaving of clothes is of course aimed at preventing cold air from reaching the body and provides insulation.

We could look at the word “net”, it is appropriated from a fisherman’s net. “Open textile fabric tied or woven with a mesh for catching fish, birds, or wild animals alive; network; spider web,” also figuratively, “moral or mental snare or trap.” So it too has the connotation of restricting movement rather than facilitating it.

Ther term “grid” comes from griddle, a device for keeping things from falling into the fire (while spreading heat along its elements).

Building frames are types of networks to transmit force between the structure and the earth to provide support. But these supports are rigid and generally prevent going through them, requiring people to go around. Normally this isn’t a big deal in a steel frame building, where the supports take a minimum of space, but in masonry or wood structures, the supports are pretty coterminous with walls, and individuals must find doors for passage. The walls and ceilings themselves, like woven clothing, protect the occupant from the vagaries of the environment.

Modern transport networks have much the same features as a spider’s web. Roadways are designed to facilitate movement for cars while trapping pedestrians who want to cross the street. Cars don’t literally eat pedestrians, but this environment certainly reduces the number of pedestrians, as people who would otherwise walk give up and join the motoring majority. We might say automobility eats walk mode share.

Wired power networks impose their own constraints. High voltage power lines are not to be touched, for instance. But they occupy little space. They do require the clearance of trees, disconnecting the dense bush in places, for the benefit of users of long-distance electricity. Power boxes often interrupt footpaths (needlessly).

Wired communications networks don’t have the same voltages, but still have physical constraints. Boxes for communications need to be accessed, leading to works in the transport network.

The disconnection wrought by communications may be more intangible. For every minute someone is engaged with distant people online (or even colleagues two desks away), they are not engaged with anyone who may be directly in front of them. In person contact has dropped as online has risen. For those not online, their available world is shrinking. I don’t know if this is a problem of the modern world, but it is a feature. Just as automobility enabled further suburbanisation and increasing distances between buildings, worsening the environment for those without a car, the always online world increases the effective physical distance between people, reducing the opportunities for those not on-board with the new technology.

We don’t weep too many tears for those stuck on AOL or Friendster or Orkut or Myspace or Google Plus or the Blogosphere, in a few years this will be Facebook (I hope) and Twitter, and eventually Insta et al., as the Cool Cycle continues its relentless march. The cool kids can’t be caught dead on the same network (wearing the same clothes) with the less cool kids (or their grandparents), and will migrate elsewhere. Being on different networks helps people differentiate their status, but that differentiation is a disconnection, slowing the flow of real ideas and information for the sake of social standing and relative positioning.

Once we have achieved communications saturation, for every increasing network online, producing network externalities for its members, it a world with a fixed time budget, some other physical or virtual social network is shrinking in either membership, attention, or both. Whether we have reached communications saturation is an empirical question, and perhaps brain to brain links will demonstrate how much further we have to go to create a truly social species, but it is feeling pretty saturated to me.

Post-Doc Wanted: Transport Networks at University of Sydney

I am recruiting a Post-Doc at the University of Sydney. The ad is below:

Postdoctoral Research Associate in Transport NetworksUsyd_new_logo

Faculty of Engineering and IT

School of Civil Engineering

Applications are invited for the appointment of one Postdoctoral Research Associate (Level A) in the School of Civil Engineering, within the Faculty of Engineering and IT at the University of Sydney.

The position will support the research and leadership of  School of Civil Engineering in the newly launched Transport Engineering program.

The successful applicant(s) will help build the new research group headed by Professor David Levinson to further the analysis of Transport Networks, understand the relationships between Transport Networks and Land Use, and consider the implications of changing Transport Technologies on optimal Network Structure.

Applicants should hold a PhD in civil engineering or a related field. They should be able to demonstrate high quality research in the area of transport networks, geo-spatial analysis, and econometrics. Demonstrated ability to publish research outcomes in high-quality international journals is also essential. Since the position will require frequent liaising with government and industry, applicants should demonstrate strong communication skills.

Please see the following link or contact me for details.

Link – Postdoctoral Research Associate in Transport Networks Ref 779/0417

Closing date: 11:30 pm 21 May 2017

A personal history and forecast for Modems, or “Is @Comcast the worst company in America?”

Comcast edit

I first saw modems when I was in middle school, learning about computers in summer school, taking courses for geeks, and visiting friends whose parents were programmers and had awesome set ups where the telephone handset was put into a coupler for high speed (110 bits per second) communications with remote mainframes. But my first Apple ][+ did not have a modem, at least not while I was in high school, since there was almost nothing to connect to that I was interested in. We exchanged floppies in school to trade information. I was interested in the Cable TV industry (as an industry more than as a consumer) as well, and I subscribed to CableAge, but connecting computing and CableTV was talked about, but there was no obvious idea of how that work. The CableTV industry expected TV to be interactive (e.g. Qube), and computers were separate things (and in many ways still are)

My first sustained exposure to modems came when I had a co-op job in 1985 at Hayes Microcomputer Products of Norcross Georgia, where I helped assemble and test new products. Back then, Transyt [about which there is almost no evidence online] was thought to be the future of email. Communications was PC to PC. So people would try to send an email to your computer. But if your computer was off, this wouldn’t work. So in addition to the shiny metal modem on the side of your PC, you would have a shiny metal Transyt box stacked above it, which would always be on to receive email communications. The future looked different then. We knew Fiber Optic would be the pipeline of the future of communications. I dreamt of building out the Fiber Optic monopoly serving American homes.

Before I went to Berkeley in 1994, we only had an intra-net at MNCPPC/MCPD for email (and that was new) and calendaring, there was effectively no world wide web, and I used modems from home to log into servers, usually at work. I tested Prodigy, AoL and CompuServe from home but they were insufficiently interesting (and sufficiently slow). When I went to UC Berkeley, I either logged in on-campus, or used dial-up service and a true high-speed (28.8 kbps) modem for my internet service from home. I finally saw the World Wide Web, and given my perspective having dealt with modem communications protocols (kermit, xmodem, ymodem, zmodem to transfer files), it was great that graphically-heavy pages from CERN in Switzerland would render on my own computer with a minimum of fuss. Seemingly simple things like standards were a huge innovation in making the market for what became the world wide web.

I first got Cable Modem service when I lived in Berkeley and @Home became available, probably some time in 1997. High-speed was so much better than dial-up. I could see high-resolution movie previews, like the Phantom Menace, which were awesome in their detail. When I moved to Minneapolis, Cable Modem was not available. I lived near my office the first year, so I did not even have a computer at home. Later I moved my work computer to home (it was my computer), and got a computer at the office and got home internet, but I downgraded to Visi DSL (who are wonderful people dealing with terrible constraints), but when we moved to our current house, we got Time Warner Roadrunner service. Time Warner traded its Minneapolis franchise to Comcast on a very dark day for customer service.

As with everyone else, we rented our cable modem from the cable TV monopoly. At some point in the mid 2000s they became available to purchase, but standards were changing quickly. Finally, on May 9, 2011 I bought my cable modem. Shortly thereafter it arrived, I installed it (with the knowledge and acquiescence of my local Cable TV, who continued to send me bits over the system of tubes we call the Internet). After successful installation of the cable modem that I owned, I returned to the Cable TV company the cable modem box. We know this was acknowledged by the Cable TV company because my bill was reduced.

I should have done this years earlier. At $90.87 it paid for itself in about 11 months of use. If you plan to stay in your residence for at least a year, don’t expect a major technology shift within the next year, and have a minimal amount of technical competency, buy your own cable modem. That they overcharge for Cable Modems is a good business while it lasts, but exploiting your customers is a Customer Service Problem. (Customer Service Problem #1)


At any rate, the ability of customers bring their own devices to networks dates back millennia. People have long brought their own vehicles to publicly owned road networks. There have also been various regulations about things like weights and sizes of vehicles, wheel widths, and so on, to prevent damage to the network. Rail networks are typically organized differently of course, though a few countries are again testing multiple carriers on commonly owned track (the UK). In electrical networks, it has long been understood that people plug their own devices into the grid, via an outlet, to take electricity, and it is more common now that people can actually sell electricity to the grid. While some electrical utilities still will sell or rent you appliances, there is no assumption that the utility owns your appliances.

Since the Carterfone Decision, other customer-owned equipment have been allowed to be connected to the telephone network. Sadly this doesn’t quite apply to the US wireless industry yet. Cable companies however are required to allow you to have your own cable modem.

I recently got a letter telling me I am not being billed for my monthly modem rental (attached). Well of course not, I own my modem. I have never received a letter from the phone company asking me to prove ownership of a handset, or from the electric utility to prove ownership of my stove. (Customer Service Problem #2) [Why was this a letter, and not an email from Comcast to my Comcast account? Who reads mail anymore anyway? I was lucky I actually opened it.] The charitable view is that Comcast must have lost control of its inventory system, since they knew enough to not bill me, and then decided to. The cynical view is they know this, and just want to see how many customers do not notice. Should I ascribe malice or incompetence?

Now we know Comcast has such a bad reputation they have tried to change the name of their cable services to Xfinity (what does that even mean?). (Wouldn’t it have made more sense to keep the Comcast name for the extant Comcast products, and adopt a new overarching name for the holding company that also owns NBC Universal.)

So I called the number on the letter, and explained. I was not sure the guy got it, but he said I wouldn’t be billed. Notably, the phone tree you get when you call the phone number on the letter is not at all helpful, and you have to tell your customer address, name, and Social Security number to the automated phone software, and again to the representative, an infuriating redundancy. (Customer Service Problem #3)

I tweeted it @comcast. Comcast Twitter’s representative responded (her job must be to deal with annoying, irate customers, serving as the smiling face of the Cable Monopolist). She was very nice, but said that while my billing was straightened out, the ownership was not and someone would call me.

He did, and left a message, with a phone number, which I called back, which turned out to be a number that outsiders cannot call. (Customer Service Problem #4)

I called the regular number, (repeat Customer Service Problem #3) and the person who eventually picked up could not deal with it and put me on hold for 9 minutes, before the call was eventually disconnected. (Customer Service Problem #5)

I tweeted it again. Comcast’s Twitter representative apologized and said they would call back.

The person called me back, and said I must fax proof of ownership to a local number Fax # 651 493 5287. Two problems with this sentence: first the word “must”, second the word “fax”. At first I was annoyed, but then I saw the juicy irony. I confirmed that they wanted a fax. I asked about email. The Comcast staff person who must enter this into databases doesn’t take email. (Customer Service Problem #6)

So Comcast, a large Internet Service Provider, that sells email services, and has for over 10 years, does not allow customers to email them, and still uses Faxes. Comcast has not embraced the idea of dogfooding.

I was told “If you don’t want to be charged for the modem you have to do this.” So I have to prove I own something that has been in my house for two and half years on demand. I pointed out most American homes do have email and don’t have fax machines. (Customer Service Problem #7) I pointed out I would mock them on Twitter (which I have done).

Fortunately, I bought the modem via Amazon, which is not a clueless bureaucracy, and they had the record. I printed a PDF, and tried to figure out if there were still free e-fax services. Had I purchased it elsewhere, in the physical world, getting proof of purchase would be much harder. As surely Comcast must know.

There are. I tried one:, which said they were queued up and would send an email to confirm. For whatever reason, this email never arrived, but at least I never paid for it. Figuring that it would be risky to wait, I tried a second:, which did seem to work (in that I got confirmations from them they sent it). So I hope Comcast has received this fax, which I should not have had to send. Comcast has not confirmed by email or phone that it has received this information. (Customer Service Problem #8)

So this is a long-way around of asking: why are we stuck with the Comcast monopoly?

In my neighborhood, CenturyLink (which sounds like a golf-course for a retirement village in Florida, who names these things?) is the local wireline phone carrier. They offer high-speed internet in some neighborhoods. Not mine (I don’t consider 1.5 Mbps high-speed anymore). They have no details on when this will arrive.

There are a few WiMax services in Minneapolis (e.g. Nextera), but bandwidth is only up to 6Mbps, which does not seem fast enough. US Internet is offering fiber optic in a few neighborhoods. Not mine. Satellite internet has ok speed (up to 15 Mbps down, still below cable), but very low caps and slow upload speed and high prices. Google Fiber is just a test case, and not in Minneapolis. The US is notoriously low on the list of internet speeds (31st according to Ookla, but I doubt the methodology is accurate, since there is a lot of selection bias).

For short periods of time, I get speeds on my 4G phone comparable to cable modem, but I don’t know if this sustains, and I cannot use tethering without giving up my unlimited data package from being an early ATT iPhone customer, and I certainly don’t want to pay by the bit if I can avoid it.

Fortunately, 5g is coming, offering higher speed (I have seen both 1 Gbps and 300 Mbps down and up, so who knows until it is closer to deployment, in either case, this is better than Cable companies currently provide, though of course, they could respond), but this is looking to be around 2020. I believe (religiously) this will be the replacement for not only existing wireless communications but also wireline communications, just as phone lines are dying, cable lines are next to be replaced by mobile. Video will have gone from the air (broadcast) to the cable, and back to the air as its primary delivery mechanism. (There is also G.Fast over phone wires promising 500 Mbps within 500 m of fiber node)

Monopolies don’t get better, they get replaced. Cable companies as purveyors of television are already losing market share. I suspect (and certainly hope) Cable companies as the purveyors of high-speed internet will be as obsolete as the telegraph, mail, and dare I say it, FAX machine within a decade. Fortunately, wireless remains a competitive market in the US, Verizon and AT&T won’t be allowed to merge anytime soon (though we know that they will eventually, that’s how networks always go, consolidation is the natural state of mature networks to exploit monopoly power economies of scale). It’s just too bad I have to wait another 6 years before wireless nirvana.

I fully expect Comcast to disrupt or monitor my service, that’s what disgruntled employees at telecom companies or the NSA do, and it is quite clear that Comcast does not have gruntled employees.


Why must I travel, why can’t I tele-conference

Two times in two days last week I was asked to fly to an east coast city for a half-day meeting. The meeting organizers offered to pay my travel expenses. I asked to save the travel money and tele-conference in via some/any web-based video technology. The organizers declined, saying they weren’t set up to do that.

Seriously, you can pay more than a $1000 to bring me in considering airline tickets, hotel, ground transportation, and meals, but you can’t get your act together to have a room with wireline internet, a camera enabled laptop (aren’t they all now), and Skype or FaceTime or Google Hangouts or any of a hundred other services at a marginal monetary outlay of zero and a time outlay of damn close to that?

I hypothesize one source of the problem is the technological backwardness of the governmental/consulting/advocacy/transportation sector. This is a process of mutual causation. Technological backwardness deters the technologically advanced from entering the sector, reinforcing the backwardness. It’s a wonder there are PCs on people’s desks. It’s no wonder we see no progress. I fully anticipate major changes to the transportation sector to come from outside actors, much like the Google self-driving vehicle because of this innovation aversion.

The second source of the problem might be incentives. I hypothesize the meeting organizers budgeted for travel, and not for information technology. They have no incentive not to spend the budget, the money has to get spent.

The third source of the problem is also incentives. My travel time costs them nothing. My video conferencing takes them a few minutes. No matter their few minutes are a lot less time than my travel, they (not me) are spending it.

I realize video-conferences are not quite as high a resolution in audio or video as being present, and in the hands of the incompetent have meeting-disruptive technical difficulties. But they are good enough for the purposes of this kind of conversation, for which conference calls are often used.

It is not that I object to spending your money, or actually want to save you money. I am not noble in this regard. It is that travel is a major hassle, filled with danger and uncertainty. This is often not worth it for me anymore especially for a less than one-day meeting in a city I have seen plenty of times where

I am doing you a favor by being present (you asked me to attend, not vice versa). Moreover, I don’t want to eat another dinner at an east coast airport.

Update: Bill Lindeke suggests: @trnsprttnst perhaps transportation scholars are inherently biased towards transporting things/people

Grids are for squares: Three reasons to consider alternatives to rectilinear street networks

Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.

Just as we have cut the earth into a grid of latitude and longitude (and knowing that each “block” of 1 degree latitude by 1 degree longitude gets smaller and smaller as we approach the poles), we similarly cut our cities and rural areas into a finer mesh from that same grid. Much of this arises from the various large scale ordinance surveys that took places in the Americas, Australia, and India. There are of course grids dating much earlier, to Miletus and Mohenjo Daro among many others. Not all grids are aligned with longitude and latitude, sometimes they align with local landscape features, but most of the modern ones are. (Where grids of different alignments come together, interesting spaces are created). Not all grids are squares, most are more like rectangles.

So why should we have 90-degree rectilinear grids?

The arguments in favor are that it:

  1. simplifies construction and makes it easier to maximize the use of space in buildings,
  2. simplifies real estate by making the life of the surveyor easier,
  3. simplifies intersection management by reducing conflicts compared to a 6-way intersection,
  4. is embedded in existing property rights and so impossible to change.

We in the modern world need not be bound to the primitive tools of the early surveyor, the primitive signal timings of the 1920s traffic engineer, or the primitive construction techniques of early carpenters. And while for existing development we might be locked into existing property rights, for new developments that doesn’t follow.

The arguments against the rectilinear include that it:

  1. is among the least efficient way to connect places from a transportation perspective,
  2. reduces opportunities for interesting architecture,
  3. wastes developable space by overbuilding roads.

There are many designs for non-rectilinear street networks. Ben-Joseph and Gordon (2000) (Hexagonal Planning in Theory and Practice (Journal of Urban Design 5(3) pp.237-265)) summarize a number of the 19th and 20th century designs. Most are simple aesthetic choices, as in Canberra, the planned capital city of Australia, and don’t seem to relate to deeper urban organizational issues.
Rudolf Müller proposed The City of the Future: Hexagonal Building Concept for a New Division. Müller’s plan offsets the 60-degree streets so that they come together in 4-way rather than 6-way intersections (though they are still at 60-degrees and not bent to make 90-degree intersections). This ensures that the cells in the plan are not bisected by roads, and that they are instead hexagonal blocks. This plan loses a lot of areas to ornamental parks in the middle of streets.
The circuity increase associated with a 90-degree rather than 60-degree network is obvious. Circuity (the ratio of Euclidean to Network distance) would be minimized if roads were at 0-degree angles. The downside is that this Euclidean network where everyone traveled in a straight-line would literally “pave the earth“. Leaving aside the downsides for the environment of being so-paved, the more critical trade-off from a transportation perspective is construction costs. More roads are more expensive. So a network design trades-off travel costs accruing over time with the up-front construction and long-term maintenance costs. The optimal network design depends on the land use pattern it aims to serve. (And the land use pattern depends on the network design.) The City of Alonso or Von Thünen, with all jobs downtown merely requires a simple radial network to connect it. A polycentric or fully dispersed (homogeneous) city with everything spread uniformly across space begs for more cross-connections.

Charles Lamb’s City Plan has the streets hexsect the hexagonal cells. In this case, the blocks are really triangles.

There is a large literature on the network design problem. One useful paper: Pierre Melut and Patrick O’Sullivan (1974) A Comparison of Simple Lattice Transport Networks for a Uniform Plain, Geographical Analysis 6(2) pp. 163–173, says:

The objective is to compare construction and transport costs for triangular [60-degree], orthogonal [90-degree], and hexagonal [120-degree] regular lattices as transport networks serving a uniform, unbounded plain. The lattices are standardized so that the average distance from the elementary area to the edge is the same for each. This standardization results in equal construction costs for the three networks; thus, the comparison can be made in terms of route factors [circuity], which favors the triangular lattice over the other two.

Because the circuitous network is less efficient, more network pavement and track and vehicle mileage must be provided to enable the same amount of transportation.

This wastes spaces that could be better allocated to non-transportation purposes.
The lattice itself comprises a single level in a hierarchical system. Selected links in a lattice can be reinforced to make them faster, attracting traffic. This process of reinforcement is natural with investment rules that favor more heavily trafficked routes and explains the hierarchy of roads. If it is based on simple reinforcement of existing links rather than creation of new links, that hierarchy will not affect the topology of the network.

Ask MetaFilter has an interesting thread on Comparing perimeters of arrays of hexagons vs. squares – geometry tiling resolved . A key point is that arranging hexagons into a square-like shape has a higher perimeter than arranging squares into a square-like shape.

__    __    __    __    __
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
Diagram 1. Sample hex map

Jellicle wrote:

I think your problem is this – to minimize the perimeter of n hexagons, when you add each new hexagon to the previously-existing group, you have to add it in such a way that touches the most neighbors possible. You would never add a hexagon that touches only on one face if you could add it somewhere else where it touches two faces or three faces, right? If you look at diagram 1 here (which is hexes in a grid shape), you see several hexes at the four corners which touch only on two faces, while there are areas on the outer surface at the top and bottom where those hexes could be placed where they would touch on three faces instead of two. So simply moving those four corner hexes would reduce the perimeter without changing the surface area.

Yet we know the hexagon is efficient, it replicates the closest packing of circles. (Take a penny, surround it with pennies so that they are all tangent. The central penny touches six others.) Thus following the closest-packing argument, the hexagon as geometrical shape is not sufficient for efficiency, we must also arrange those shapes into an efficient pattern, in this case, something more like the Glinski Chess Board:
Much of the inspiration for thinking about hex-maps comes from the gaming community, where such maps have been used since the 1961, when a Hex map was used for the Avalon Hill game Gettysburg. It has since become a standard that is widely used to represent directions of movement in games.

So, although we talk about “grids” as being necessary for connectivity, we can get even more connectivity if we think about a variety of different geometries. It would be a shame if we got locked into grid geometries for new developments when there are so many alternatives to be had.

See also: Home is Where the Hub Is.

ICA Workshop on Street Networks and Transport


I am on the program committee for the ICA Workshop on Street Networks and Transport:

“Street networks, as one of the oldest infrastructure of transport in the world, play a significant role in modernization, sustainable development, and human daily activities in both ancient and modern times. Although street networks have been well studied in a variety of engineering and scientific disciplines including for instance transport, geography, urban planning, economics and even physics, our understanding of street networks in terms of their structure and dynamics is still very limited to deal with real world problems such as traffic jams, pollution, and human evacuations in case of disaster management. Thanks to the rapid development of geographic information science and related technologies, abundant data of street networks have been collected for better understanding the networks’ behavior, and human activities constrained by the networks. This ICA workshop is intended to gather researchers together to present the state of the art research and studies, in an interdisciplinary setting, on street networks and transport. Suggested topics include, but not limited to as long as they address issues related to street networks and/or transport:

  • Spatial statistics and spatial analysis along networks
  • Topological analysis and space syntax
  • Pattern recognition with street networks
  • Map generalization on street networks Complexity measurement of street networks
  • Human evacuations and simulations
  • Transport modeling based on street networks
  • Geospatial analysis of the OpenStreetMap data

All manuscripts in a length of 6000-7000 words should be in English, single column, single-spaced with figures and tables within the text. The manuscripts in MS Word 2003 format should contain authors’ affiliation and email, abstract (no longer than 200 words), and up to five keywords. To submit, please use EasyChair at

In praise of contiguity |

Cross-posted from In praise of contiguity

“After seeing other places throughout the world, notably Toronto, London, Manhattan, any continental European city, even Washington DC, I believe the problem with making Minneapolis a first rate pedestrian city is the lack of contiguity. There are some really good walkable sections, but they are not connected well (or at all).”

In praise of contiguity

In February of 1999 I visited Minneapolis with my then fiancé to decide whether to take a job at the University of Minnesota. It was Valentine’s Day, and unseasonably warm (high 40s F), and there was snowmelt and piles on the ground, but the streets and sidewalks were not covered. We asked the concierge at the then Radisson Metrodome hotel what was the most interesting neighborhood in Minneapolis, for shopping and walking around. He said Uptown. They had a van that takes people to places around town, and you can call for pickup when you are ready.So they dropped us off somewhere around Hennepin and Lake, and we walked around. We went to Majers and Quinn, and Kitchen Window, and then proceeded to walk up Hennepin towards Downtown. I could see downtown and the Basilica, but could not see how to get there. We migrated to the west side of Hennepin, which I knew was a major street, and figured there must be some way across. We eventually came to the Walker, the mess at Hennepin and Lyndale. It seemed as we could not proceed. After about 15 minutes of wandering about, we found a place to cross. We walked through Loring Park and eventually made it to downtown. We proceeded to walk up Nicollet.We found our way to the Hennepin Avenue bridge, and walked into the what is now the East Hennepin neighborhood. Then it wasn’t much. Surdyk’s, Kramarczyk’s, and a broken down furniture store. You could sense it was gentrifiable, but it was not gentrified. There were no gentry to be found. We hit University, which I knew would take me to the University, and we followed that for a bit over a mile, running into Dinkytown. Dinkytown also was pretty depressed at the time, the bridges over the trenches having recently been replaced, which I am told killed some businesses there. It was nothing nothing like the neighborhoods near where we then lived in Berkeley. We then made our way back to the hotel. My then fiancé compared Minneapolis to her hometown of Fresno (which she escaped). That really bit.After seeing other places throughout the world, notably Toronto, London, Manhattan, any continental European city, even Washington DC, I believe the problem with making Minneapolis a first rate pedestrian city is the lack of contiguity. There are some really good walkable sections, but they are not connected well (or at all).


I will define walkable as a place that I want to walk. For which walking is more than simply going from A to B as fast as possible. This is subjective, but I think I have taste. Some characteristics of walkability:(a) It is in front of well-maintained residential with trees, or

(b) It is in front of street-fronting retail, or

(c) It is along a well-maintained park, and

(d) There is a pedestrian walking path/sidewalk or otherwise pedestrian-dominant transportation corridor

Some characteristics of unwalkability

(a) It is on or crosses a freeway, or

(b) It fronts surface parking, or

(c) It fronts built walls (sides of buildings, stadia, parking ramps, etc.), or

(d) There is no pedestrian-dominant path

Now there are degrees to everything. A one-lot surface parking lot on an otherwise walkable Grand Avenue is not a disaster. But block after block of unmitigated surface parking is a walkability catastrophe.

Within Minneapolis:

I should be able to walk pleasantly from the St. Paul City Line to the Chain of Lakes via University Avenue through Hennepin to Lake Street.

I should be able to walk pleasantly from the St. Paul City Line from the River at Lake Street, all the way down Lake Street.

I should be able to walk from the University of Minnesota Campus to the Lakes via Washington Avenue through the City to Hennepin.

I should be able to walk from Columbia Heights to Richfield along Central, Hennepin, and Lyndale.


I could go on. Instead, I drew a map on Google of some of the most important routes that I should be able to traverse contiguously on foot (feel free to edit, just use a different color). I recognize we don’t have the resources to make every single street in Minneapolis walkable for a long a distance, and frankly some shouldn’t be. We need warehouses, but it’s not worth spending a lot of effort to try to put street-fronting retail in low density industrial areas. But to say we cannot do it everywhere doesn’t mean we can’t do it anywhere. If we organize and coordinate and regulate and deregulate (dare I say “plan”) better, we have the resources to make any (but not every) street walkable.

After drawing said map, I realized it was beginning to resemble the Twin Cities Rapid Transit map. But even that has gaps, lines where there are not streetcars, but there should be pedestrian paths, and lines where there are streetcars, but don’t demand contiguous walkability.


There are multiple causes of this. I don’t think one is the lack of activity. There are enough jobs in downtown Minneapolis that all the streets should be walkable. However, they are concentrated in a few blocks of very tall buildings rather than more blocks of lower buildings. One of the reasons Washington DC is more walkable is the height limit. This creates more blocks with critical mass, and comparatively few blocks of surface parking. I am not advocating the regulation, just pointing out a positive externality of height limits. Of course if there were sufficient demand for block after block of 50 story buildings (Manhattan), a 10-story height limit would be a dumb idea.

Another cause is the success of freeway construction, which disrupted the grid and changed pedestrian oriented land uses to motorist-serving. Air rights over the freeways, freeway caps, could fix that, but the only significant air rights in the Twin Cities are the Twins Stadium and the ABC ramps.

The city is much more grid like than dendritic, which creates opportunities, but this needs to be systematically addressed.

There is of course a Pedestrian Master Plan, but the problem is not simply the sidewalks (though those should be better), it is the land use abutting the sidewalks.

Just as we are concerned about wildlife corridors for animal migration, and greenways for bikes, and continuous limited access freeways for cars, we should ensure there long contiguous walkable sections for pedestrians.

Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them At All Cost (Strictly for the ROI)

WALKABLE Dallas-Fort Worth: Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them At All Cost (Strictly for the ROI):

“A dendritic system is defined by a branching structure that funnels movement in one direction. Whereas a conventional grid provides a multiplicity of routes. The key defining factor is choice. Think about this from where you live and you’re on your way to work or to pick up the kids or to get a gallon of milk. How many routes can you take? What if there is a wreck along the way? How many different modes of travel are quick and convenient?
There is quite a bit of talk about the emergent nature of cities as complex systems, but few really understand the applicability to how we design our cities and the dynamics of the process. What we have to understand is that emergence implies a second level of organization that is largely beyond our control. Why? Because we can only ‘design’ the first level of organization, whether it is a building or a road. Because designers are only one person or group working on one problem. The second order of ‘design’ happens when everybody else decides how to use the system. That can’t be designed en masse, only nudged in certain directions depending upon how well we understand the dynamics of this emergence.”