The Surprisingly Not Terrible Urban Interface of McDonald’s in Alexandria, NSW

Recently I berated a hotel in Shanghai for not welcoming pedestrians from a corner. I have since come across a McDonald’s, shown in the images, which makes an effort to welcome pedestrians from the adjacent intersection, with an opening at the corner, and a clearly delineated and non-circuitous pedestrian path across the driveway to the otherwise typical and un-urban store configuration.

I don’t know the history, I imagine  there was once a typical corner hotel/pub that for whatever reason (abandonment, fire, changing market) became a McDonald’s site. The planners insisted on maintaining the semblance of urbanity at the corner, and this was the compromise. One day there will be a real building again. Until that day, I have seen far worse.

 

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Main Street – St. Peter, Minnesota

St. Peter, Minnesota is the county seat of Nicollet County, and home to over 11,000 people. While a bit less than twice the size of Glencoe, more than twice the size of Le Sueur and five times as large as Gaylord, that understates its significance.

This clock in St. Peter is accurate as many 4 times per day.
This clock in St. Peter is accurate as many 4 times per day.

Unlike Le Sueur, Highway 169, which north of town is essentially a freeway, remains Main Street in St. Peter, which makes this one of the busiest Main Streets in Minnesota. Most of that is through traffic, but buildings grow up along roads with the hope the free advertising of road presence attracts some through travelers to divert, and leads to more mind share among those who don’t stop this time, and might in the future. The cost of this is more delay to through travelers who do not stop.

Great efforts have been made in recent years (thanks to the Stimulus bill) to maintain the walkability of this street while ensuring traffic is not delayed too much. Unlike most other Main Streets, there is actually some private economic development activity to construct infill buildings. West of the road, where most of the population lies, is doing much better than the east side.

St. Peter Thrift Store (east side of Highway 169)
St. Peter Thrift Store (east side of Highway 169)

Just based on the logic of the situation, one assumes there is a plan to construct a St. Peter bypass on Highway 169. Actually checking, there is a US 169 Corridor Coalition, which is pushing this (it is endorsed by the City). The status of this is “fictional highways” on one road forum, so nowhere near ready, and given the recent work on Highway 169 through the town itself, probably farther into the future. But as with every line on the map, no “no” is permanent.

St. Peter Armory, For Lease
St. Peter Armory, For Lease

It is the home to Gustavus Adolphus College, atop the hills with a nice view over the Minnesota River Valley. It is farther from Main Street than similar colleges in Northfield, and so doesn’t have quite the level of interaction urbanists might want.

Godfather's Pizza made small town America, and Herman Cain.
Godfather’s Pizza made small town America, and Herman Cain.

Aesthetically, while it is not quite there with Faribault or Owatonna, it is getting close.

I will quote wikipedia on might-have-beens [note [citation needed]]:

In 1857, an attempt was made to move the Territory of Minnesota’s capital from St. Paul to St. Peter. Gov. Gorman owned the land on which the bill’s sponsors wanted to build the new capitol building, and at one point had been heard saying, “If the capitol remains in Saint Paul, the territory is worth millions, and I have nothing.” At the time, St. Peter – a city in the central region of the territory – was seen as more accessible to the far-flung territorial legislators than St. Paul, which was in the extreme eastern portion of the territory, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. A bill was passed in both houses of the Territorial Legislature and was awaiting Governor Gorman’s signature. The chairman of the Territorial Council’s Enrolled Bills Committee, Joseph J. Rolette of Pembina, took the bill and hid in a St. Paul hotel, drinking and playing cards with some friends as the City Police looked fruitlessly for him, until the end of the legislative session, too late for the bill to be signed.[citation needed]Rolette came into the chamber just as the session ended. One might say that the bill was an attempt to “rob Paul to pay Peter.” Today, St. Paul is the second largest city in the state (second only to neighboring Minneapolis), while St. Peter is a relatively small rural town.

 

Nicollet Hotel - St. Peter
Nicollet Hotel – St. Peter

So of the state’s most important early institutions: Stillwater got the prison, Minneapolis got the University, St. Paul got the capital, and St. Peter got the Asylum.

Main Street - St. Peter (looking west)
Main Street – St. Peter (looking west)

 

[Map]

More photos on Flickr.

Cross-posted on streets.mn.

Main Street – Gaylord, Minnesota

Our second stop on the 2014 Minnesota County Seats tour, after Glencoe, is the nearby town of Gaylord, county seat of Sibley County. It won the prize of County Seat after a dispute with Henderson, near the eastern edge of the County.

 

Gaylord, MN Water Tower
Gaylord, MN Water Tower
2014-11-02 at 11-14-41
Bank (1904) Now Miller Law Office

 

 

With a population of 2300, it is just under half the same size as its northern peer, Glencoe. It sets abreast Titlow Lake, as can be seen on this map. As with Glencoe, it is bisected by Highway 22, while the official “Main Street” is Highway 19.

A Court House
A Court House

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As with all such county seats, it has a water tower, a court house, a hardware store, a bank turned into a law office, some nice detailed architecture, some of which was ruined by later generations, a post office,  gas stations, roads that are too wide for the traffic, ample parking. This one has a solar powered stop sign with warning lights at the vertices of the octagon (which are reportedly safer).

Electric stop sign
Electric stop sign

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heinke Building
Heinke Building

 

 

The retail block in downtown Gaylord: Jimmy's  Pizza, Edward Jones Investments, Goldsmith Eye Care
The retail block in downtown Gaylord: Jimmy’s Pizza, Edward Jones Investments, Goldsmith Eye Care

More photos are available on Flickr.

Cross-posted on streets.mn.

Creating Transitopolis

The City vs. Country mismatch (where we plan for transportation systems seemingly independent of the context: city or country (suburb)) is especially relevant in metropolitan areas constructing expensive medium and high capacity transit lines to presently undeveloped places, or (re-)constructing and widening freeways in the midst of core cities.

If we are building a city, that means focusing resources closer to the center than the edges, since that is where more of the growth will be.

So the question arises in Minnesota: Are we building a city in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region or not?

Some would argue the region is already a city. Clearly the downtowns and some nearby areas resemble cities. But much if not most of the population lives in single family homes with a yard. Not there is anything wrong with that, but that yard increases spacing between neighbors, lowers densities, and makes it harder to operate a successful transit system in the automobile era.

The decisions we make regarding transportation investment rest on what our collective vision is for this place. If we are building a city, going “all in” on transit is a lot more sensible than if we are not, and a lot more sensible than half-measures. If we are not, going even partly in on fixed rail transit is fairly pointless.

The evidence to date is fairly mixed. The region is growing at about 1 percent or so per year in population. That is a bit under 30,000 people or so per year. (Investing in transit will not put a measurable dent on this, as it is hard to imagine it either increasing or decreasing the birth or death rate noticeably or significantly affecting migration patterns).

Where are those people going? Most of them are not being added to the center. If all of them were added to Minneapolis and St. Paul proper, the populations of the core cities would rise from 667,000 in 2010 to about 950,000 in 2020. If more than half of them were added to the core cities, their population would be around 810,000. Current forecasts suggest the population of the core will be closer to 732,000. In other words, well more than half (around 80%) of the region’s growth remains outside the core cities, and not terribly urban. While the center is projected to grow at a faster rate than the edges, it is not growing faster in absolute numbers.

This region collectively much more resembles Broadacre City than Greenwich Village, and probably more Broadacre City than even Welwyn Garden City or Letchworth. While the density at the edges after development must (by definition) be higher than before development, the average experienced density (e.g. the population-weighted density) may continue to fall as the region expands.

In this dispersed suburban landscape, point-to-point transportation predominates.

In the not-quite-a-city urban areas, point-to-point transportation still predominates.

It is only in full-fledged dense cities (the level of density required depends on income, technology, and other factors), and dense cities that sustain, that full-fledged dense (fixed route, fixed infrastructure) transit is warranted. Loosely, the transit-city threshold is on the order of 10,000 persons per square mile, sustained over some region. This implies a Minneapolis population of 540,000 and a St. Paul population of 520,000. While those numbers are achievable in principle, they require significant changes in market demand and reduction in supply constraints to achieve. If it were to be achieved, still under 1/3 of the region would be in the transit city. The remainder would be the country, or its suburban simulacrum.

Certainly, some parts of the core cities already sustain this density, and there is no requirement that all of the core city achieves the density, just that a sufficiently large part does. Most doesn’t.

For the Metropolitan area, fixing the total space, this threshold implies a population of 63 million, or relaxing the space but fixing the  population, a shrinkage to a developed area of 345 square miles. I would consider either outcome highly unlikely.

The car-free lifestyle is sufficiently uncommon that the local newspaper does a feature on it.

In less dense cities, less transit is warranted. But if the transit is insufficiently dense (in space (coverage) and time (frequency)), anyone with a choice will anchor to the on-demand, point-to-point mode, which will be sufficiently faster to outweigh any additional expense

 

Creating Transitopolis: the Transit City

Positive (and Negative) Feedbacks in Transportation
Positive (and Negative) Feedbacks in Transportation

Building the transit city (Transit-opolis) requires most of  the region’s central city residents (20% today) to willingly abandon the automobile in the first place: creating an environment where car ownership can be voluntarily foregone because it is to the benefit of all concerned not to own the car. The more transit users there are, the better the transit service is, in a virtuous cycle. (And of course, the fewer transit users there are, the worse the service, in a vicious cycle).

This implies focusing transit investments in the central cities, and not diffusing scarce capital like peanut butter across the region.

Why can’t we have the best of both worlds? There are a variety of interim or transitional strategies

  1. Park and ride lots accessed by private car may serve  the center-working/surburban-living suburbanite, which transfer the worker to a radial transit route. This serves a small fraction of workers, since most people don’t work downtown, where these radial services terminate, and the frequencies are typically not high enough (especially mid-day) to rely on for anyone with irregularity in their life.
  2. Single Car households  with multiple workers splits the difference, where presumably at least one of the workers does not use a car for travel to work, or the two workers carpool to the same location. This is certainly the most common hybrid case.
  3. Weekend Car households  in which the work trip is conducted by walking, biking, or transit, and the car is used for the weekend and special trips.
  4. Car sharing (on-demand car rental) allows the car-less transit user to have a car when needed for the less frequent trips. Taxis (and so-called ride-sharing services) serve a similar function.

These attempts at melding can serve specific niches and are potential transitional steps to the transit city, in that it is more likely to give up a car for some trips than all trips, or portions of trips than all of the trip. They are not however the end state.

 

 Like Clue, Pick your ending

Ending

My own prediction is that we are not in fact building a transit city. The densities that will emerge in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the next 20 or 30 years are insufficient to support a transit-based city for a majority of residents of even the core cities. (And, simultaneously and not coincidentally, the transit investments are insufficient to support a city where most people are car-less).

Pale Probiscidea
Pale Probiscidea

This explains my pessimism about the use of expensive (high fixed cost) city transit tools now. The right decision if you are certain you are building a transit city (or already live in one) is different from the decision if you are not.

While it is argued that never making the investments will ensure the transit city does not emerge, we can continuously ratchet up, rather than doing it in enormous steps. Not investing now does not mean never investing. “No” is reversible (in other words, “no” does not mean “no”).

On the other hand, “yes” is irreversible for a long time. But making the investment does not guarantee the transit city will emerge, plenty of cities, including our own, have invested in rail without seeing accompanying development, leaving an enormous pale proboscidea in its place.

Alternative Ending

My own prediction is that the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are on a path towards Transitopolis. The necessary population densities to support transit are within striking distance, especially in Minneapolis, and the leadership of both cities is keen on achieving that. The big question is whether the demand for higher density housing is there in the cities, and with changing demographics, preferences, and technologies, the demand for suburban lifestyle is diminishing relative to that for urban living. Most people won’t spend their entire lives in either suburban harmony or at an urban tempo, but rather migrate between the two over the years.

The investments in the cities to support transit at a level that most people can avoid the car for most trips are still too low to make this work, there is a marked lack of ambition on the part of regional transportation officials to serve the transit cities they are building with actual rapid transit. This dysfunction has several causes, not the least of which is the leadership of planning organizations that don’t use the modes they manage, which we can attribute to the strange politics of regional organizations.

How will driverless cars reshape Twin Cities?

James Warden at Finance and Commerce summarizes my session at the Autonomous Vehicles conference last Friday in How will driverless cars reshape Twin Cities? [paywall].

The downtown should become denser as driverless cars become more widespread, said David Levinson, a University of Minnesota professor and chair in transportation engineering for the university’s Department of Civil Engineering.

But residents outside the downtown will also choose to live farther away from the core because driverless technology will make their commutes more efficient and they’ll be able to do something besides driving during the commute.

“We know that the more people have to think about their trips, the more they overestimate the time they are actually taking,” Levinson said. “So if they don’t think about their trips, they’re going to tend to underestimate how much time they’re taking and they’ll be more willing to be traveling.”

City vs. Country

City Mouse and Country Mouse
City Mouse and Country Mouse

One of the many dysfunctions in transportation and land use planning is our collective inability to recognize the difference between city and country.

It’s really not that hard. In the country  distances between buildings are large, while in the city they are short. In land use jargon, densities are lower in the country than the city.

SPONTANEOUS ACCESS: REFLEXIONS ON DESIGNING CITIES AND TRANSPORT by David Levinson
SPONTANEOUS ACCESS: REFLEXIONS ON DESIGNING CITIES AND TRANSPORT by David Levinson

The most useful form of transportation varies between city and country.

In the country, individual, point-to-point, on-demand service (foot, horse, bike, car) saves a great deal of time over feasible shared, scheduled, fixed-route services (transit). That time savings offsets the individual cost savings from sharing a vehicle with other passengers.

In the city, shared transit services are on the whole less expensive to the user and society than individual services. The small increase in time is offset by cost savings from sharing. The greater density allows more frequent service and more direct service nearer the traveler’s trip end points.

Idealizations

In idealized low-density places like Wright’s Broadacre “City”, local transportation was clearly individuated, to the point it appears everyone has a private gyrocopter.

Howard's Garden City (1902)
Howard’s Garden City (1902)

In Howard’s Garden “City”, individual transportation was used to get around town, and to the inter-municipal railway.

In Jacobs’s New York City and Toronto, walking was used to access transit for longer distance urban and inter-urban travel, while the car was not especially welcome.

From both a transportation and land use perspective, each of these works on its own terms (assuming gyrocopters actually work).

Greenwich Village, New York (wikipedia)
Greenwich Village, New York (wikipedia)
Wright's Broadacre City (1934)
Wright’s Broadacre City (1932)

Stable points

Green Routemaster Bus serving suburban and exurban London
Green Routemaster “Country Bus” the kind that used to serve suburban and exurban London

 

Routemaster Bus (from wikipedia)
Red Routemaster “City Bus” (from wikipedia)

In short, in the current technological environment, there are two stable points: one where a sufficient number of people have abandoned their personal cars and use transit daily that transit is sustainable with high frequency and ubiquity; and one where people keep their cars and use transit on special occasions (to go downtown or the State Fair for entertainment, e.g.).

Once the car is owned, the marginal cost of the additional trip to most destinations (since free parking is found for something like 99% of all destinations in the US, gas prices and taxes are low, and we don’t have road pricing) is sufficiently low it outweighs the combination of low costs of shared transit vehicles with higher travel times.

A metropolitan area is large enough to contain multitudes. There can be a center where people can live car-less because the transit (or walking or biking) is good enough for daily city-based work and non-work trips, and a countrified-edge where people can live transit-less, since living and working in the suburbs is seldom a market transit can well serve (except as an accidental spillover where people are lucky or skilled enough to have home and work aligned on the same radial transit line).

The Road to Vision Zero Has Some Bumps In It | NY City Lens

Elena Boffetta writes in NY City Lens The Road to Vision Zero Has Some Bumps In It

Speed humps are proposed in Sunnyside. I note there are alternatives.

David Levinson, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota, said speed humps are not the most efficient way to slow down traffic, as drivers get used to them and tend to speed after passing one, or just avoid them by using alternate routes.

Levinson said speed humps are only one part of a measure called traffic calming, which is a change in the infrastructure and environment of the roads to slow down traffic and make the streets safer for bikers and pedestrians. He said there are other more effective forms of traffic calming.

“Other solutions would be putting trees on the side of the road, changing the pavement material, putting on-street parking,” Levinson said. “A very good one is to narrow the streets intersections. If the intersection is narrow the sidewalk is extended and there is a change in the environment, so cars need to go slower because they are driving through a narrower region.”

He said speed humps also create difficulties for fire trucks, garbage removal vehicles, and snowplows. He said one solution to lower speeds and fewer accidents in residential areas would be to follow the woonerf movement in use in the Netherlands, a system of “living streets” where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over motorists.

How constraints drive growth

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

A city is a positive feedback loop in space.
Why locate anywhere but to be near something or far from something? Cities offer opportunities to be near lots of things (people), and as cities exist, those things must be of value to the people who locate there. By locating, people add to the “stuff” others can reach.
Accessibility is a measure of nearness to things (people), e.g. how much stuff you can reach in x minutes time. Which stuff matters and how much time is acceptable depend on individual preferences, but these can be measured and observed. An area with higher density enables you to reach more stuff in less time because it is physically closer, even if the network is slower (you can move less distance per unit time), provided the density increases at a rate faster than slowness increases.
Some cities are physically constrained, notably San Francisco (a peninsula) and Manhattan and most of New York (islands). In fact, the five densest cities in the US (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Chicago) all have some significant physical constraints (island, peninsula/bay, mountains/ocean, island/mountains, lake) hemming them in. Not surprisingly, these are among the most expensive cities in which to live. This indicates that the location is especially valuable, because of the accessibility benefits it provides.
Perhaps it is the constraint itself which creates value. Because of the constraint, more people and firms are bidding for scarce space (since the non-scarce non-central available space has a much higher transportation cost (across the bay, off the island, in more distant suburbs) driving up rents. As a consequence, developers build at higher density in the core city, increasing accessibility. Because of the higher density, there is higher accessibility, creating value for residents and businesses, leading to even higher rents. Location has positive spillovers.
A city is a positive feedback loop in space. Spatial constraints accelerate the loop.

A success we should build on

The London Green Belt has been in place since just before World War II when Patrick Abercrombie’s study recommended establishing a ring around the city which would remain unsuburbanized (one hesitates to say undeveloped, as farms are there). Now with the housing shortage, people are again suggesting the Green Belt is “a success we should build on”:

Build on the green belt, and build now-Comment-Columnists-Minette Marrin-TimesOnline
.
Back in the day, the solution was to build new towns outside the Green Belt. Gordon Brown is proposing more of these. Towns like Welwyn and Letchworth were built as Garden Cities by Ebenezer Howard, and, but, by design are relatively small (on the order of 33,000 residents for Letchworth, 55,000 for Welwyn Garden City). From my visits, they seem excellent places to live, though the scale may be slightly off outside the town center (the residential density is a bit low, creating excessive walking distances).
Stevenge, (population 80,000) a post-war new town, (built on a much older town) is very much like Columbia, with large elements of Radburn, many pedestrian tunnels to access the town center and train station. There are also traffic roundabouts everywhere, so cars need not stop at signals. I felt like I grew up here.
Milton Keynes (population 185,000) on the other hand is much larger, but terribly overscaled, with large gaps between the residential and downtown areas. This creates opportunites for infill, but in the meantime there is an excessive amount of surface parking in the town center. Unlike the other towns I named above, the shopping mall (the largest single level mall in the world?) is disconnected from the train station.
Despite its imperfections, this model of new towns has a number of advantages over just adding another suburb in the Green Belt. They provide (or at least can provide) a coherent center and place. By increasing “surface area” they reduce the distance between people and the countryside. Every development in the Green Belt makes existing Londers that much farther from the country.
Now, one might suggest if the Green Belt is to be preserved, it should be done the right way, by buying the land (or development rights), rather than by fiat or regulations. This certainly seems a better way of controlling the use of land if property rights are to be respected. But the point here isn’t about the mechanics of how land should be preserved, but about what constitutes a better urban form
A) A giant unbroken conurbation where rings of development are fully contiguous
OR
B) A large conurbation with satellite cities.
The latter, while it might increase average distance to the center, decreases distance to the edge. It also provides more variety and differentiation of the bundle of attributes that we call property.
Perhaps the market should decide, but the market fails in providing numerous public goods (access to the countryside being an example), as some things are very difficult to establish easily enforceable rights for.