Predictable Bicycle Tragedy Points to Need for New Street Priorities at University of Minnesota

[The dead cyclist and her bicycle at the corner of 15th and 4th in Dinkytown. Img. StarTribune.]

Despite their recent accolades as the #9 best campus in the US for bicycling, I'm no fan of the cycling infrastructure at the University of Minnesota.

As you most certainly know by now, the University of Minnesota was the scene of a terrible “accident” this morning as a woman riding her bicycle to class was killed by turning truck as she progressed (quite legally, it seems) through the dangerous corner at 15th and 4th in the heart of Dinkytown.

If history is any guide, the reaction to this fatality will probably not be very helpful. It'll probably make people afraid to ride bikes. The police and University authorities will probably emphasize the need for cyclists to “behave better” and “wear helmets.” For example, see this quote by Minneapolis PD Sergeant William Palmer in today's Star Tribune article on the death:
In response, said Sgt. William Palmer, Minneapolis police are intensifying enforcement of "drivers not yielding to pedestrians, pedestrians jaywalking in congested areas and cyclists not obeying the rules of the road."

Even though the law is on the side of pedestrians, Palmer added, "police are asking pedestrians and cyclists to watch out for themselves."

In my opinion, the we should draw a far different lesson from this tragedy. The conversation should not be about enforcement of jaywalking, but about the much larger crime of having inadequate and unsafe bicycling streets right in the middle of a college campus where tens of thousands of students, mostly from rural and suburban environments, bike and walk constantly every day.

[The incredible disappearing gutter bike lane along 4th Avenue SE, near where the cyclist was killed. This is only one of many places where bike lanes disappear dangerously on or near campus.]

To put it bluntly, much of the the street design at University of Minnesota makes it almost inevitable that pedestrians and cyclists will be killed.

A few months ago I put together a litany of complaints about how the bicycling routes and treatments are badly designed on the Twin Cities' campus. Here's what I wrote about the North side of campus, which is probably the most dangerous place for cyclists in the whole school (especially right near 35W):
The main bike paths East-West through campus (Washington Avenue, University Ave or 4th Street SE) are designed almost exclusively for cars: all have their problems, 3 or 4 lane roads that encourage cars to speed as much as possible. These streets are both terribly uncomfortable and unsafe places for bicycles, and frequently used by bicyclists.

I certainly could have added 15th Ave SE to this list.

[The accident corner is arguably one of the "safer" corners for cyclists on the North edge of campus.]

Though the street layout on 15th Avenue is a little bit safer -- a 2-lane, 2-way street with bike lanes striped on either side -- it's still a terribly unsafe situation for cyclists. Anyone riding their bicycle to class is forced to navigate a series of claustrophobic intersections filled with buses and traffic along a way-too-narrow bike lane without adequate protection from cars or trucks. (Well marked bike boxes and colored bike lanes along 15th would be one obvious and inexpensive way to make 15th Avenue far safer for the many cyclists to bike from the SE Como and Dinkytown area into the main campus entrance at 15th and University.)

The fact is that the University of Minnesota has long prioritized auto transportation over alternative modes of transportation, despite the fact that many many students at the school don't use cars to get to and from class, despite the fact that the University is one of the best-served schools by transit anywhere in the country. (See for example the University's recent light rail lawsuit.)

Bicycle infrastructure everywhere on campus seems like an afterthought. Even the name for the University's office that deals with street design – The Office of Parking and Transportation Services – points to the administration's love of parking garages and large roads, and helps explain why the school seems to neglect and policing cyclists to the point where it often seems like a battle just to get across campus.

(In fact, email me a photo of a mid- to high-level University administrator on a bicycle, and I will personally buy you lunch in Stadium Village. That's a promise! I've never seen this happen, and I'd bet, neither have you.)

[Q: Does this street say to you "drive slowly and carefully and watch out for pedestrians and cyclists?" A: No, it does not.]

Whose bright idea was it to create 3-lane one-way streets where cars are encouraged to drive 40+ miles per hour right through Dinkytown, just feet from fraternity row, right in the middle of the most highly-trafficked pedestrian environment in the whole city where you have thousands of college kids wandering around wearing iPods and flirting and playing frisbee and drinking beer and generally having a nice time going to college? Why would you put these high-speed streets right in the very spot where hundreds of cyclists are riding at all times of the day and night? Why do the bike lanes along University and 4th start and stop without warning?

[A buffered 'cycle track' bike lane at the University of Wisconsin. Img James Baum.]

If the University really cared about encouraging cycling and keeping cyclists safe, it seems to me that the University and 4th corridors would be the perfect spots for a buffered cycle track, like they have over at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Cycle tracks are the 'gold standard' of bike infrastructure: bike lanes buffered with concrete barriers and traffic lights timed to bicycle speeds that would calm traffic along this busy and pedestrian-heavy stretch of the city. That would do worlds of good for cyclists and pedestrians on campus, and it's just one obvious idea.

This “accident” was highly predictable, and will inevitably happen again until we do more to protect students and to discourage cars and trucks from driving through campus at high speeds. Hopefully this accident doesn't end up discouraging students from riding their bikes. The University needs to do more to make sure that we can all get around the school on a bicycle without being run over and killed by trucks.

[In a very close decision, this junction of University and 35W gets my vote for "University Bike Lane Most Likely to Cause Another Cycling Death in the Future."]


Comparing the Small Blocks of the Midwest and the Northwest

Curiously, Jane Jacobs devotes a chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities to a relatively obscure topic: the “need for small blocks” in cities. Using Manhattan’s Upper West and Upper East sides as examples, Jacobs argues that long blocks make for “self-isolating streets” that restrict pedestrian choice and curtail economic activity throughout urban neighborhoods.

Jacobs’ small block advice crossed my mind on a recent trip to Portland, Oregon. At first glance, my hometown of Minneapolis has a lot of similarities with Portland, particularly in its housing stock, age of development, density and mixed-use characteristics. Yet many older neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest have smaller block sizes that you will find in the Midwest. For example, the average block size in Southeast Portland or Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood is less than 100 meters square, whereas most of the blocks in South Minneapolis or Chicago’s North Side are nearly twice as large. While walking through any of these neighborhoods, block size is not necessarily something you might notice, I think that the size difference has a few subtle effects.

In these cities, block size seems to affect traffic calming and walkability. In other words, the size of city blocks impacts the degree of pedestrian accessibility and choice. Smaller blocks increase the ratio of public street to private developed space, and create a “finer mesh circulation pattern” in urban neighborhoods (Siksna 1997). For example, Seattle’s Capitol Hill area and Portland’s Southeast neighborhoods suggest how small blocks can lead to walkable urban landscapes. On the other hand, the commercial streets of South Minneapolis, seem to be a bit less pedestrian friendly because of their larger size. With fewer intersections, cars can travel a bit faster. Likewise, there are fewer street corners, so that pedestrians have fewer choices about which path to choose.

Jacobs’ concerns about block size were primarily about the generation of diversity, about how to generate new forms of economic activity. She argued that block size had a large impact on the potential pedestrian populations for businesses, and that smaller block sizes made for more integrated circulation patterns. While Jacobs’ ideas are appropriate for a place like Manhattan, with its contiguous mixed-use fabric, in the streetcar neighborhoods of Seattle, Portland or Minneapolis block size is not really about generating economic activity. Instead, it forms an almost atmospheric part of the urban landscape. It is worth stopping and noticing how these differences in layout have fostered some of the most vibrant neighborhoods in US cities. The Northwest should be grateful for its legacy of small, walkable blocks.

[The relative block size patterns of residential neighborhoods in four cities.]


Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House

Siksna, A. (1997). “The effects of block size and form in North American and Australian city centres.” Urban Morphology. 1. Pp. 19 – 33.


Planning Blunder #7: Lake Street K-Mart Explained!

Check out Alex's write-up of what happened over at the corner of Lake and Nicollet back in the 70s. The Lake Street K-Mart was our most popular nomination for the worst planning move in Twin Cities' history, and his explanation of how and why it came to be will blow your mind, man.

[This is what Nicollet and Lake was supposed to look like.]


*** Sidewalk Weekend! *** #54

Sidewalk Rating: No weekend is better than the first spring weekend after a long winter.

Plastic trikes in the yards, people out watering the flowers and working on their cars, kids in the driveways shooting hoops, the high-frequency squeal of a TV sweep circuit through a screen door as Doc came up the path of the address he was looking for, to be followed by the more worldly sounds, as he reached the front steps, of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour. According to Fritz, the sweet frequency was 15,570 cycles per second, and the instant Doc turned thirty, which would be any minute now, he would no longer be able to hear it. So this routine of American house approach had begun to hold for him a particular sadness.

-Thomas Pynchon, from Inherent Vice.

*** ***

*** ***

If you’re thinking of moving into a skyway-served neighborhood, start scanning listings in the following buildings:

Centre Village (235 condos, plus an additional 50 condos in City Heights)
The Churchill (360 apartments)
The Crossings (302 condos)
Ivy Tower (92 condos)
LaSalle (122 apartments)
Marquette Place (240 apartments)
The Metro (112 apartments)
Six Quebec (21 condos)
Symphony Place (250 apartments)

[From Vita.mn.]

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***
[Lake Calhoun. (Thanks Jake.)]


Bikes are Freedom

[Freedom in a bottle.]

Car commercials would have you believe that the automobile is the gateway to "freedom," that SUVs allow you to scale mountain tops, that a Nissan Cube means you can zip through even the most congested cities, that nothing says "freedom" like buying a BMW and driving down endless deserted curvy rolling hill roads.

Well, the truth about cars is that you're often trapped in them, trapped in traffic jams or looking for parking for hours.

Well, I want to ask if bikes might just be more free. It certainly feels that way to me.

When you're on a bicycle...

... freedom is the sun on your skin and wind in your hair.
... freedom is stopping at the bakery, library, flowershop, diner, and deli on your way home.
... freedom is cutting through the parking lot, going around the traffic cone, and riding down the stairs.
... freedom is never dialing the phone number for Abra Auto Body, Tires Plus, NAPA Auto Parts, Pep Boys, Maaco, Midas Muffler, Jiffy Lube, or any of your fine local auto repair professionals.
... freedom is getting plenty of exercise without ever going to the gym.
... freedom is not needing a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
... freedom is rolling through stop signs when nobody's about.
... freedom is parking next to the door every time.
... freedom is not having to stop to smell the flowers.
... freedom is coasting down a hill.
... freedom is using your own tools to fix your own ride.
... freedom is people asking you for directions.
... freedom is not shoveling your driveway all winter long.
... freedom is not worrying that much about ordering one more drink.
... freedom is not knowing the price of gas.
... freedom is gliding after midnight through a silent sleeping city.

[The entrance to the basement of the One+on+One bike shop in Minneapolis.]


Goodbye to Porky's Happy Daze

[Horses were the transportation option at University & Prior, c. 1902]

I wish Porky’s hadn’t closed. I liked Porky’s. I went there once. The neon winking pig sign was really superlatively great. The dingy red and white buildings with the colored fluorescent lighting perfectly symbolized postwar consumerist ennui. The place was surreality authentic to the period. I wish it didn’t close.

That said, the closing of Porky’s has only the slimmest of connections to the light rail line, and anyone who says otherwise has their head stuck in their gas tank. For example, the owner’s claim that the light rail forced her to close her doors reminds me quite a bit about how bar owners complained when the smoking ban was instituted. If you recall, back then, people running divey marginal joints all through the city gleefully used the ban as a scapegoat for economic doldrums that were rooted in far larger social and global problems, things like the demise of working class neighborhoods or the escalating cost of fossil fuels.

["Streetsweepers" on University Avenue used to be dudes with brooms, c. 1915.]

Here’s the relevant light rail quote from the Strib’s article on Porky’s closure:
While Porky's, at 1890 University Av. in St. Paul, "has always been doing OK [and] was not losing money, it's just a business decision," said Nora Truelson, who began at Porky's as a carhop in 1957, then as the owner's girlfriend and eventually his wife and business partner until Ray Truelson died in 1994.

The Central Corridor light-rail line "is going to ruin the avenue, and I'm sure there isn't going to be any parking," she said, adding that high taxes and disruption from the line's construction were also factors.

(Quick thought: Why complain about parking? Doesn’t Porky’s have a giant parking lot? Isn’t that the premise of the entire restaurant?)

[The place where Porky's is, the corner of University and Fairview, c. 1918.]

More lengthy thought: I am actually pretty sympathetic to Nora and her reaction to the light rail. If Nora began working as a carhop in '57, she's got to be in her 70s by now. I’m going to hazard a guess that she's been thinking about selling the diner for some time.

Not only that, but its hard to blame her very much for not understanding what is happening on University. She’s a part of the generation that has grown up and thrived during the auto age, during the years when gas prices were always under a dollar, when there was no limit to how many roads you could build or how much you could drive, where the costs of car culture were well-nigh invisible.

[People hanging out on the wide sidewalks at the corner of University and Snelling, c. 1922.]

Actually, the more I think about it, the more that the parallel with the smoking ban parallel fits the situation perfectly. Just as the problem with the smoking ban wasn’t government regulation, but the obvious public health problem of cancer and smoke, the real “problem” of the light rail is auto dependency, which is every bit as pernicious and deadly as a pack-a-day smoking habit. Trying to get Saint Paul to wean off its addiction to cars is a lot like convincing your aging aunt Patty to give up her lifelong penchant for Virginia Slims.

And Porky’s was the mecca of Saint Paul’s car-culture. Imagining that culture peacefully co-existing with the light rail train (as the planners themselves visualized in their CGI animation from a few years back) was always an unlikely stretch. In a way, Porky’s was the harbinger of the real culprit that "ruined the avenue": the proliferation of drive-in everything’s. University Avenue, just like every older city in the USA, became a place filled with drive-thrus, the leading edge of a process that paved as much of Saint Paul as possible.

[Getting off the streetcar in the middle of University near Hamline, c. 1930.]

Let’s be honest: eating in your car kind of sucks. The idea might have seemed like a cute gimmick back when Porky’s was new (and today it seems like a moment of cute nostalgia), but for way too many people eating in your car is an everyday occurrence. We do everything in our car. We rarely leave it in between our office parking lot and our three-car garage. What cities like Saint Paul and Minneapolis need to do to keep economically vibrant is to provide an alternative to the drive-in culture, not re-create it.

I'm nostalgic about Porky's too, and I wish someone had bought it and kept it open. But I’m not sure I’ll miss the exhaust community that formed around cars on weekends along University Avenue, where people who spend their weekends polishing chrome and tuning mufflers sat around in chairs in the dark and looked up each others’ hoods while their buddies revved their engines and “cruised” in circles up and down the street.

[Looking west up at the KSTP tower from the streetcar pedestrian stop on University, c. 1948.]

So, next time you start to get nostalgic about the loss of 50s car culture in Saint Paul or Minneapolis, think again. There are a million 50s suburban strips (like West Saint Paul's Robert Street) where people can gather together and drool on their hoods.

But University Avenue should be more than that. Privileging the street's car-centric period (1960s to the present) is to ignore the rich history of streetcars, street life, theaters, churches, and diverse communities that lived along the avenue. A great deal of the appeal University comes from the remnants of those old buildings left over from before they started building drive-thrus and big boxes and huge car dealerships all up and down the heart of the city.

While the smoking ban may have hurt a few bar owners, in the end it made the city healthier and more social for most everyone. My hope is that light rail is going to do the same, and open up University Avenue to a larger public, to more ways of life than could be found in Porky’s parking lot. While I’d gladly have kept Porky’s around as a curious remnant of the ‘eat in your car’ era, I’ll take light rail pedestrian-centered transit over all the McDonalds’s and Wendy’s and gas stations and auto dealers and NAPA Auto Parts stores and Enterprise Rent-a-cars and U-Haul places and giant parking lots. I just wish Porky’s wasn’t the first to go.

[Wide sidewalks and medians at University and Rice, c. 1932.]

[Construction projects "destroying the avenue", c. 1949.]

[The streetcar / parking / auto traffic balance along University Avenue, c. 1951.]


Announcing a New Concept for the Blog

[Denny is thinking: "Boy I wish they didn't have to do those body cavity searches."]

I have an announcement to make. I wanted all of you to be the first to know.

I was happening by the courthouse the other day to laugh at Denny Hecker when I bumped into his half-brother, Lenny Hecker, who has taken over the family business of "leasing" cars and "selling" home mortgages to folks and making sure that "nobody walks" in the Twin Cities, and I don't know what came over me, whether it was Lenny's million dollar smile or a feeling of spring in the air or what, but I fell for it.

I signed on the dotted line and bought myself a package deal -- a brand new 2011 Nissan Armada Platinum & sweet 300,000 square foot house out in Apple Valley!

[This thing is sweet. You don't even notice when there's a headwind! Plus you can park it on top of your urban condo.]

I just couldn't resist. I want to be "livin' large." It didn't take much. All I had to do was walk into the 50 foot "lawyer foyer" and step out onto on that wall-to-wall carpeting, and presto! I was a new man.

[My new pad!]

The Armada is pretty nice too. I can fit all five of my bicycles in it at the same time, so that now I don't even have to choose which one I'm going to "ride" any given day around the Target parking lot out by Happy Trails Highway.

Also, there's a TGIF right nearby, only about a 2 mile drive in Burnsville. I joined their "Give me more stripes" membership benefit program, and not only can you "jump" to the front of the line to get into the restaurant, but a FREE appetizer... (one time only :( ... ).

Anyway, so, I'm lovin' my new lifestyle, but it turns out there aren't any sidewalks out here. So I'm gonna have to change the title of the blog.

Announcing: the new name for the blog is...

Twin City Interstate On-Ramps.

And to kick off, our first On-Ramp of the week is the really lovely 2 lane Northbound onramp at 35E and Country Road 11.

Each time I drive the Armada up this ramp, I get a nice 2 second view of a patch of trees off in the drainage ditch, and sometimes I think of home, growing up in the Oak Savannah forests of South-East Minnesota, the rolling hills, and springtime when the trillium bloom for just a week in the brown woods coming to life after a long winter.

Then I drive onto the freeway.

[The onramp of the week.]