Real World Urban Design Experiment #2: University LRT Traffic Calming

It’s notoriously difficult to do proper “scientific” studies of cities. You can’t run controlled experiments! Cities are too large, too complex, and filled with persnickety humans. You don’t have a “control group,” and I guarantee you that the Institutional Review Board would never approve.

That’s why urban planning relies on models, hypothetical theory, and inductive reasoning. Pretty much the only thing that planners and civic engineers can reliably study are the movement of cars, crime, and the taxable value of real estate. (Data for anything else, such as people moving on foot or happiness is almost impossibly tricky.) That’s no small reason why car volumes and real estate values become the main emphases for city policy.

But have no fear. All that can change thanks to these easy to follow Real Life Planning Experiments. There are a few places in the Twin Cities where you can experience two sets of scenarios right here, on these very streets. These are places where you have a “control group” (Test Case #A) and an “experimental group” (Urban Street Subject 5.2-C5). These are places where the conditions are similar enough that you can come to some preliminary conclusions about different urban designs, different treatments, different planning approaches.

Following these easy steps, you can conduct your own Real World Experiment. Walk, bike, and drive through the city. Find out for yourself whether urban design really makes a difference. The world is your laboratory.

Experiment #2: LRT Traffic Calming on University

Research Background:  University Avenue is the main East-West route between Saint Paul and Minneapolis, running about 10 miles between the two downtowns through the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis campus. It’s a wide street with 8’ sidewalks (on average) lined with commercial, residential, and industrial buildings of various densities and setbacks. The City, County, State, and Federal governments have spent the last few years constructing tracks for a light rail train (LRT) running down the middle of the street.

Though the train itself will not run down the tracks for another nine months, the tracks and streetscape modifications are already in place.

[University Avenue pre-existing conditions.]

[University Avenue: the before picture.]
Existing Conditions: To conduct this experiment, you have to compare University Avenue today to University Avenue before the construction. Two years ago, University had a wide right of way (ROW) devoted to car traffic. There were few street trees. Cars traveled unimpeded.

Working Hypothesis: Even without the LRT operating, the streetscape and traffic calming effects of the LRT dramatically change the experience of University Avenue, slowing down traffic and improving the experience of people on foot.

[University Avenue: the after picture.]

Methodology: Imagine that there will be no train, that the tracks are simply an elaborate design for traffic calming. Choose an interesting segment of University Avenue and go for a walk.

Think back to the street as it was before construction. How does it compare today? Is it a more or less pleasant experience? How fast do cars seem to be moving? Can you cross the street? Can you comfortably carry on a conversation with a friend or stranger?

Repeat this experiment while driving a car, or on a bicycle (with caution).

[A post-LRT sidewalk.]


Unknown said...

I've noticed a big improvement on foot before and after the LRT stuff went in.

I cross the same intersection on foot 2+ times a day and before LRT I was nearly hit by cars/trucks/buses at least once a week at a minimum.

After the LRT it's gone down to maybe once per month. Most frequently it's the cars from the side roads trying to make a left through the large intersection on a yellow.

Unknown said...

I'm a former-frequenter-now-resident of the neighborhood, and I think traffic has calmed substantially now that the major construction has finished. Cars even stop for me when I'm in a crosswalk, which I don't remember ever happening before the LRT was put in.

On the other hand, I'm not wild about biking University. I had not biked it much before the LRT was put in, so I can't give an informed opinion about the change. But as it stands, the road is a bit too narrow and too rarely frequented by bikes for my (admittedly picky) tastes.

Alex said...

Is the full non-roadway space only 8' typically or is that just the pedestrian space? I.e. does the 8' include the boulevard space or not? I thought it was supposed to be 10-12' typically.

Kristin said...

I'm a resident and definitely notice an improved walking environment. It's great having either a traffic signal or a crosswalk with protected median at every block! The new street scape and trees are a big improvement, too.

I think part of the traffic improvement is all the signals-- they're pretty well timed if you drive at a moderate speed, right around the limit. That plus the short distances between signals reduce the "gains" to be made by jackrabbiting down the street.

I've never been much for biking on University. I prefer Thomas as a parallel route, although that doesn't punch through to get west of Fairview.

Dan said...

Biking down University was never great due to high speeds of traffic and inconsiderate drivers, but while it does seem those aspects have improved, the remade street has been left with no shoulder in many areas, making it even worse for biking.

sam said...

Walking is much better, traffic in general seems more in control, but biking is impossible without taking a full lane, which I am hesitant to do.

Unknown said...

Charles is the biking alternative to university correct