The Cat Training / Driver Training Metaphor

[Eighth in the highly unpopular "metaphor series." See also: New OrleansBicycling/DancingVikings stadium/Star Wars, bikes/guns, gas/pop, NIMBY/Amtrak, and soup/housing.]

[The guilty party.]
The other day, my cat peed in my sandal again. This happens about once every six months and each time I curse loudly and then begin cleaning up. I scrub the sandal with baking soda and soap and leave it out in the sun to dry. 

The one thing I don’t do is yell at my cat. 

(I think I did it once, years ago, when catching her in the act. She ran away of course, but she kept peeing.)

Yelling at the cat is pretty much the most useless possible reaction to the situation. It accomplishes nothing because cats do not speak english, nor do they comprehend human communication. Talking to your cat is a meaningless gesture*.

Instead, the only effective response to a cat peeing in the house is environmental. Re-double your efforts to keep the cat box clean and tidy. Keep things off the floor. Scrub and desensitize the affected areas of the house, using special anti-cat smell compounds available at any pet or hardware store. The only thing that works is to change and control the environment.

Here's the metaphor: this situation is exactly the same with car drivers. 

Yes, cats are just like car drivers.

For the most part, enforcement efforts (e.g. “stop for me”), safety campaigns on billboards, or televised PSAs are about as effective as yelling at your cat. When confronted with bad behavior, the vast majority of the problem — something like 90% — is environmental. Car drivers, just like cats, overwhelmingly respond to  behavioral cues rather than anything psychological or cognitive. 

This isn't to say you can't achieve anything with enforcement or public safety awareness campaigns. It’s possible to slightly tweak collective behavior at the very margins for a small percentage of drivers. There are some people who will put a “I STOP 4 PEDS” magnet on their car, or pay attention to a police enforcement effort.

[Like herding cats.]
In much the same way, it’s possible — though extremely difficult — to train cats.  

I know this because I’ve attended performances by The Amazing Acro-Cats of Chicago, Illinois on two different occasions. The Amazing Acro-Cats are the #1 trained cat circus in the United States, if not the world, and thanks to the tireless efforts of head trainer Samantha Martin, they perform somewhat amazing tricks like jumping on pedestals, pushing a small cylinder across a stage, and “playing" musical instruments. 

It's amazing, but more because of the efforts made by the trainer than the cats. The cats do these all of these tasks in response to a constant stimulus of positive feedback, the trainers using a “click stick" and cat treats.

(One warning at both shows: “Please do not be alarmed if the cats run off the stage and into the theater. They are cats after all.” Of course this happened; they are cats, after all.)

Training cats is like training drivers, pretty much impossible and only done with extreme dedication and continual attention. In both cases, the vast majority of the time, it’s not worth doing.

Instead, when there’s an accident [sic], the correct response is to change the environment. That’s the only thing that works. 

If the cat pees on your shoes, clean up the house and keep your shoes off the floor. If there’s a fatal crash at an intersection, remove a lane, install a bumpout, add green paint, or tighten the corners. 

Without changing the environment, nothing is accomplished. Yelling at drivers is like yelling at cats. “Training” drivers for a week or a month is next to useless. You might as well post a list of “house rules" in front of your cat’s food bowl. Just as with cats, the environment trumps everything else.

Note: this does not keep people from talking to their cats. Though I try to avoid talking to my cat, in principle, sometimes my psychological need to anthropomorphize a furry animal with the brain the size of a walnut wins out. This says more about the owner than the cat.


Two More Predictable Tragedies on Saint Paul's Fixable Streets

Already this week, there were two more tragic crashes in Saint Paul. While the details are yet unclear, in both cases the problem of streets designed to be dangerous is at the root of the problem, as Saint Paul's predictably deadly streets continue to cause injury and death.

On Friday, there was the tragic death of Benjamin Leighton, killed crossing the street at Rice and Como just north of the Green Line station. Leighton was 56 years old.

There are no details about what happened in the paper, other than the fact that the car was turning.
Bicyclist in critical condition after being struck by motorist in St. Paul

A pedestrian who was struck by a vehicle Friday night died of his injuries Saturday afternoon, St. Paul police said. 
The vehicle was traveling north on Rice Street and turning west onto Como Avenue about 9:30 p.m. when the pedestrian was hit.

This intersection, where Rice Street, Como Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue come together, is designed to be deadly. Rice Street should have only two lanes here, with bumpouts to tighten turning radii and protect pedestrians. Rice Street has long been a deadly and dangerous street running straight through a poor neighborhood full of young people.

Pennsylvania Avenue is even worse. The four-lane footprint and lack of sidewalks on this street are completely unnecessary and not warranted by the traffic. Eric Saathoff wrote about this in 2016, and later I put it on my list of easy bike and traffic calming projects.

This part of the city, full of people walking and living nearby, should be a place where cars travel at safe speeds, under 30 miles per hour, where the chances of killing someone in a crash are very small.

[The goal of Saint Paul street designs should be to reduce speeds below 30 miles per hour.] 

The second crash, where a bicyclist was hit by a driver yesterday at Griggs and Concordia (old Rondo), is an even more egregious example of deadly design.

Here’s the brief report from the Pioneer Press:
A bicyclist was injured Monday night in St. Paul when she was struck by a motorist, police say. 
The yet unidentified woman was cycling near Griggs Street and Concordia Avenue about 7:30 p.m. when the crash occurred, according to a St. Paul police spokesman. She was taken to Regions Hospital in critical condition.

Concordia Avenue, just like St. Anthony Avenue across the freeway trench, is designed to encourage people to drive at deadly speeds. It’s a wide two-lane one-way street with no bumpouts or traffic calming features, right next to homes, schools, and parks.

There are no good reasons for these streets to be designed this way. Instead of being calm, safe streets in a neighborhood that could badly use quality public space, these streets operate as de facto high-speed roads for drivers avoiding freeway traffic. Along with the nearby onramps and dangerous arterials, the deadly designs on these two streets make the freeway area an barrier unsafe for anyone on foot or bicycle.

Both the 94 frontage roads should be narrowed and calmed, especially near the new pedestrian / bike bridges over the freeway which were built at great expense over the last few years. There are a dozen things that engineers could do to make this street safer, and again, this crash was predictable and unnecessary.

I pray that the victim here recovers from her injuries. If decision-makers act, our civil engineers could re-design these deadly streets to prevent crashes like these from killing or critically injuring people in Saint Paul.

[A spot-on Tweet from James.]


Public Stairs of Saint Paul Walking Tour #2 (The West Side) on 6/24

Well, the first Public Stairs tour was a smashing success. So popular was the tour, in fact, that we could barely fit everyone on the staircases. People came and walked up and down and ventured forth through the Cathedral Hill, Crocus Hill and West 7th neighborhoods around old Pleasant Street (now unpleasant).

This will be a similar adventure, only in my own neighborhood, the very bluff-laden West Side. So bluff-ish is the West Side, in fact, that streets are currently closed to traffic because the bluffs are so volatile and literally collapsing. How exciting!

We will be walking a bunch of the public stairs on the West Side to see how many steps we can get in, and I can promise you a few long-lost staircases plus one super-secret staircase adventure that has me very excited.

Hope to see you then!

Who: Anyone willing to walk for three miles up and down
What: Group walk around the historic West Side to explore public staircases past and present
When: Sunday 6/24 at 2:30 pm
Where: Meet in the El Burrito Mercado parking lot area
Why: Because some of it is still there

[The old view from the green stairs.]

Dive Bars of the Southeast Borderland Walking Tour on 6/21

'm almost done with my epic cycle of Minneapolis and Saint Paul dive bar tours, but there are a few spots on the map that remain un-explored. This is one of them. 

[The border.]
Southeast Minneapolis is without doubt the most obscure of the four "quadrants" of the city. It has an odd and mercurial identity, part historic, part residential enclave, part active industrial area, and part massive and continually growing University. In some ways, the neighborhood's identity has always been driven by these contradictions and tensions, and the presence of the few bars of in area reflect this. They are odd places that (as you can see in the clippings below) have been sources of unease and/or community in the Como neighborhood for generations.

Then you throw into the mix the city border, and all the de-regulation and  nonsense that comes with that... Saint Paul lurks on the edge of the Southeast Minneapolis like a sunset at dusk, and there you will find some weird stuff.

We'll be walking around Southeast and the border together and visiting a few bars, as well as some other noteworthy spots in this overlooked part of the Twin Cities. Hope to see you then!

[What is this land of mystery?]

What: Walking tour of three (3) historic bars in Minneapolis and Saint Paul
When: This Thursday at 6:21pm
Why: Because it's there
Who: Anyone
Where: Meet at Sporty's Pub on SE Como Avenue

[Newspaper clippings about one of the buildings follow.]


Reading the Highland Villager #210

[A Villager on a mat.]
[Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free. See also: Three Reasons Why I Re-Blog the Highland Villager.]

Headline: Lawsuit targets organized trash; City’s proposed system is said to violate state’s Waste Management Act
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Saint Paul is still trying to organize the trash collection trucks. [Part 1502 of a long-saga of efficient governance, discouraging dumping, and decreasing wear on roads.]  A person is suing the city because of the fee structure of the new trash system. [If this state law does indeed govern garbage fees, file this under “dumb mistakes by the city’s legal team,” a too-thick drawer in the file cabinet if you ask me.] The contracts have already been signed. The state law is from 1980. [What is going to happen here, provided the lawsuit is not meritorious, is that there will be a lot of flailing and gnashing of teeth during the rollout of the new system, and then once it’s in place everyone will forget all about it almost immediately and things will have improved. See also: the dreaded recycling bins.]

Headline: Revision of city’s historic preservation regulations delayed; HPC postpones action to give proposed changes a broader public hearing
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There was a well-attended public meeting about how exactly the Heritage Preservation Commission conducts its business. Many people don’t like the regulations. Quote from person: “it took him three years to replace a garage.” [File under: “MOAR process.” Another thick drawer in the proverbial STP file cabinet.] There are lots of rules. The HPC and city want to charge a fee for people who appeal the process. The city has a lot of costs associated with this. [TONS of staff time! IMO having a fee of some kind to process the hours of work involved is very reasonable.] Quote from member of SARPA (summit avenue residential preservation association [as if you did not know!]): “the city does not charge bicyclists every time it stripes a bicycle lane on a street.” [Is there a law for invoking bicyclist metaphors even when there’s no logical connection? Like a Godwin’s Law for bikes? How about “MAMIL’s Law: the longer a local political public meeting goes on, the probability that someone scapegoats bicyclists approaches 1.”] Article has way more quotes about historic rules, bureaucracy, and the pros and cons thereof such as this one: “The people in this room tonight are the actual constituency of historic preservation and the HPC. I would ask the commission to reflect on the antagonism that seems to exist between the audience and the commission and how to ameliorate it.” [Sounds like a fun chat.]

Headline: O’Gara’s fine-tunes plan for redeveloping Snelling-Selby; New five-story building will need a rezoning and permit for 62-foot height
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A developer wants to built a five-story building on the site of a two-story bar, apartments, and surface parking lot at Snelling and Selby. [The bar formerly housed a small Charles Schultz museum.]

Headline: City fails to secure funds to replace crumbling RiverCentre ramp; Lobbying effort falls short at state Capitol
Author: Kevin Driscoll

Short short version: A big parking ramp downtown is falling apart. The City’s lobbyists asked the state legislature to help pay for it, but they did not. Article includes some history of ramp. A new 2K space ramp would cost $117 million. [Holy crapoly, that is a lot of money. Think of what you could do to improve downtown with that kind of money!] Quote from St Paul state legislator: “They were asking for an incredibly amount of money for a parking ramp; the $58M would bring the cost of a single parking space in the ramp to $54K.” Article claims that the last-minute change of city priorities from a new bridge on 3rd Street threw a big wrench into the bonding bill process. [NOTE: this is a really interesting article with some fascinating quotes. The city seems like it did not handle its bonding requests very well this year.]

Headline: Calming Snelling; New Medians put pedestrian-friendly face on Highland Park thoroughfare
Author: Erin Robinson

Short short version: They are [finally!] putting medians on Snelling so that people can cross the street. It cost $2.2M. Article mentions “edge friction” and traffic calming. [Wow, the Villager is really getting hot and heavy with some road design deets.] Article includes references to studies about safety. [Wow again.] Some people quoted like it for safety reasons, others do not for traffic reasons. Quote referencing Funeral Home guy: “would have preferred the city use the money to fix potholes instead of adding crosswalks where there may not be that many pedestrians. He was also concerned about the effects the medians would have on funeral processions.” [I.e. “won’t someone think about the dead people and the folks driving in cars symbolically for a change?” Wouldn't it be amazing if Saint Paul nixed street safety measures in order to keep traffic moving for funeral processions? That would be truly amazing. Note that this reminds me of the funeral home person who fought the bike boulevard at Charles and Snelling, for similar reasons.]

Headline: Six citizens withdraw from Pedro Park design process
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A while ago the city put together a committee to help design a park but many of them quit because they did not feel they had any say in the process and because the city is selling half the plot to a developer.

Headline: Neighbors appeal permit for Snelling-St. Clair development
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A group is appealing a conditional use permit for a mixed-use building on Snelling and St. Clair. The group claims that granting the permit would be “detrimental to the character of the neighborhood / endanger the public’s health safety and general welfare.”

Headline: Commission favors allowing accessory dwellings citywide
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: People will probably soon be able to [theoretically] build ADUs anywhere in Saint Paul now, not just in a small spot. [So far there is one (1) ADU in Saint Paul.]

Headline: Council grants garage license with conditions on West End
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A business person can build an auto repair garage on Randolph Avenue, as long as they have a nice fence and not too many cars.

Headline: Hearing set on new distance regs for off-sale liquor stores
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Saint Paul liquor stores might soon be able to be slightly closer to each other. [This is about the Big Top where the soccer stadium is going. I heard it is moving into the old Perkins! That is a wild turn of events: “liquor store Perkins Big Top Perkins” sounds like an old West Bank blues musician.] 

Headline: Walking tours of Marshall Avenue preview proposed zoning changes
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There is a plan to maybe rezone a part of Marshall Avenue, downzoning part of it and upzoning other parts. [Weirdly, they are going to downzone the part that is on the route of the #21 bus and future aBRT line, while upzoning the part that is not really directly on the transit line.] Neighbors are concerned about students living near them, preserving old homes, and “the specter of large-scale redevelopment.” [A spectre is haunting saint Paul – it is the spectre of private real estate, the presence of young people, and 50-year-old zoning.] People will walk around and look at the street on June 18th.

Headline: Concerns aired over sewer project’s possible impact on Coldwater Spring
Author: Bill Wagner

Short short version: An historic spring and civic site might be affected by a sanitary sewer tunnel.The National Park Service person does not seem concerned.  Neighbors are concerned about delineating the footprint of the watershed. [You can tell this story takes place in Minneapolis because traffic and parking are not mentioned. Also, Coldwater Spring is sacred to tribes.]

Headline: Gov’t snafu wipes out Merriam Park neighbors’ $10,000 landscape project; Xcel crew clear-cuts freeway berm 2 years after it was replanted [Call me an old fashioned fuddy duddy if you must, but I think SNAFU should be capitalized.]
Author: Lucas Hansen

Short short version: The vegetation on a freeway berm that had been planted for two years was cut down by utility workers in early May. The utility had cut down all the vegetation three years ago and people replanted it. There was “miscommunication between the city of St. .Paul and MnDOT” that caused the clear cutting. Neighbors want to see Xcel and MnDOT fix the problem. Quote from CM Henningson: “it’s one of those situations where the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.” Quote from upset neighbor: “I don’t want an apology; I want to have the earth restored.” [Go ahead and put that on my gravestone, please!]

Headline: Commission favors plan for senior campus on old Riverside site
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Planning Commission approved a rezoning and CUP to build housing for older people at the site of an old school. It will also include the reconfiguring of a dangerous intersection to make it safer.Another building is planned.

Headline: Fitzgerald’s wants to demolish Urban League building to add parking
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A restaurant in a busy walkable area wants to tear down a late 50s-era building to build a parking lot and patio. The building housed an African-American community group that has lots its funding in the last ten years.