Pedestrian Vortex Musings

I was driving around during the super cold snap, the "polar vortex" as they call it now, and simply happy to be warm. The car started. The seat heater was working. 

Extreme cold weather and wind gives the city an otherworldly gilmmer. Plumes extend to the horizon. Light obscures and refracts. Clouds get weird and hazy themselves, while hard edges crisp. The ground almost vanishes as snow blows itself up into powder, blurring edges like the world is being Photoshopped.      Through it all somehow the car still works and runs and speeds the dry buckling streets and loudly blows hot air at my head and gloved hands, and I feel lucky to be adjusting the radio in this hostile world.

And yet the street remains unfair. Even on a day when it's fifteen below zero and the wind is whipping, people are walking the streets of Saint Paul, huddled over their back to the wind noses poking out of thing scarves, standing on the street corner and icy sidewalks of the city. And even today, people are standing there waiting by the stoplight, numbly pressing the WALK button waiting silently waiting for people in warm cars to proceed for thirty seconds, two minutes, standing while the parade of people in warm heated personal vehicles processes by. On a day like this, the streets should stop and people walking should always have priority. 

But the hierarchy of the street prevails, even when life is on the line. Cars get their way, constant streams of them, right turns left turns both directions, and anyone sorry enough to be walking along the sidewalks, to and from the bus, is held hostage. 

It's like this every day, of course. In the heat or the rain or even on a nice day, where the people in private comfort have their way with the trudgers. But in the polar vortex it seems inhumane to force people outside to wait for you, and it is. 


Signs of the Times #151


[Pole. West Side, Saint Paul.]

All inclusive

[Window. New York, NY.]


[Subway pole. New York, NY.]



[Door. New York, NY.]

 [Window with tons of messages. New York, NY.]


[Wall. New York, NY.]


[Construction wall. New York, NY.]

Egg Cream

[Door. New York, NY.]


Reading the Highland Villager #226

[An ice-crusted stoop Villager.]
[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: Grand Ave.'s retail landscape is changing; several longtime merchants are squeezed out by rising costs, new market pressures
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A bookstore closed, and over the last year so did a furniture store and a tchotchke store, a [crappy] bar/club, a Chinese restaurant, and another restaurant. [In many cases, other businesses opened up in their places.] Minimum wage, property taxes are cited as reasons for the closures. [Even though the minimum wage increase is very slowly phased in and has not even taken effect.] Quote from the furniture store guy: "it's not fun to do business in Saint Paul any more." The phrase "parking meter debacle" appears. [One way to reduce property tax increases is to build more housing and retail in your city, such as this project that was rejected by neighbors concerned about traffic and parking. The quotes from the business owner in that particular case really did lay out what was happening re: changes to the retail environment along Grand Avenue.] Some business owners have closed their stores for personal reasons or because its difficult to compete with online retail. Others have been able to "adapt." [There's not a very coherent message here. Change is going to happen whether people like it or not, due to the passage of time, capitalism, aging of humans, technology, etc. IMO parking meters would in fact help more customers frequent Grand Avenue, by first ensuring turnover, and by second making the street welcoming to new customers who are not necessarily used to the archaic, opaque, and confusing parking situation that exists today. Mike Sonn had a good list of other ideas on Twitter.] 

Headline: City seeks large increase in local government aid from state in '19; Criminal justice reform, housing assistance also sought from legislature
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city is asking the state for money. [Hopefully they get it; LGA is way down compared to past decades.] They are also asking for almost $60M for a parking ramp and almost $50M for a new bridge out of downtown, as well as some other policy changes. [Cities are concerned about traffic and parking.]

Headline: County lobbies state for more assistance; more stable recycling market, more money for transit studies are also sought from Legislature
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The County is also asking the state for money and policy changes, for example, to study transit along West 7th Street and for snow making equipment in Battle Creek Park. [I would love that!]

Headline: Design unveiled for new Dale Street bridge over I-94
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The bridge over the freeway along Dale Street will be rebuilt with more lanes for cars and wider sidewalks. It will cost about $12M. For some reason the wide sidewalks are referred to as "pedestrian plazas." Medians on Dale will also be added. [Has Ramsey County Public Works ever seen a street it did not want to widen?] There will be public art.

Headline: Higher Ground shelters more homeless
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The homeless shelter downtown has about forty more beds now.

Headline: St. Paul is falling behind in effort to eradicate ash borer; for 10th year, infestation is spreading faster than city chainsaws can keep up
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A tiny bug is eating and killing all the ash trees. City staff are cutting them down as fast as they can. There is a seven-year plan. All this is expensive.

Headline: St. Paul grants its 17 district councils a raise of 23 percent
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The budget for neighborhood groups has been raised, after many years of being flat. [IMO these funds should be tied to metrics about engagement, where the city tracks the representativeness of different groups and memberships according to categories like %POC, and % renter.]

Headline: Ryan discusses plan for Ford site
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There will be a public meeting about possible changes to the Ford site plans. The developer is named "Ryan."

Headline: City ups fees for construction projects and business licenses
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Costs for things like licenses, permits, sewers, street paving, etc., have gone up.

[Note: If it seems like the Villager has been getting a bit thinner with its sidewalk-related news, that's true. The "News Briefs" section has not been in the paper for the last 3-4 issues, which represents a decrease in total news of about 25% in my estimation. Is this concerning? I think it might be. Where else does this zoning, development, and local government news appear? Nowhere.]


Seven Mountains of the Midway

People say there are no mountains in Minnesota and, apart from Amy Klobuchar’s graphic design campaign buzz team, generally this is accepted as conventional wisdom. But bicycling Saint Paul’s West Side, I am not so sure.

Years ago, I attended a talk given by a local geologist about orogeny, the study of mountain formation. The talk was captivating, and one thing the scientist said stuck in my mind:

“Of course there are mountains in Minnesota, they just don't exist yet.”

Mountains exist in a variety of different ways, with or without fault, virtually, uncertainly, or very very palpably. There are ancient forgotten mountains, future mountains, mountains of the imagination, and other kinds besides.

Once in a moment of adventure, on a dare with an old friend, I climbed a mountain near the northern terminus of Ayd Mill Road. It was a large mountain, many-fold higher than my head, grown somehow between the train tracks and the roadway bridge. Scaling the eastern slopes and reaching the summit, we looked out at the city below. In the far distance, new buildings were visible, their scale and shape warped by the elevated perspective. I saw things I'd never noticed, radio towers, scaffolding, signage visible only to crows.

Years later, I went back to look for the Ayd Mill mountain, but it was gone.

What happened to it? Where did it go?

Geology in the Upper Midwest is not for the patient. Our mountains rise and fall like leaves in October. Compared to most ranges, our mountains are but motes of dust drifting in a sunbeam, waves upon the ocean crashing to shore.

And yet there they are, mountains all around us. Take for example, Saint Paul’s Midway. It has a range of such peaks, a connected series of crests that scale the heights of our horizon.

These are seven of them:

Name: Mt. Curb
Height: approx. 3,000 feet, depending
Location: A few short leagues due east from Bang Brewing, near the end of Capp Road
Geology: an aggregate of lime, pumice, pebbles, powder

Character: Mt. Curb has a long ridge jutting sharply to the sky like an ancient adze. Its southern cliff faces are unstable and prone to landslides. The ridgeline and subsequent peaks form a majestic image for many who routinely visit, sometimes daily, to the foothills. Like pilgrims, perhaps believing  some slumbering deity lays dormant in the rocks, many leave a small offering before departing.

Name: Rock Box Cliffs
Height: Hundreds of feet, surely
Location: Somewhere north of the great ninety-four trench
Geology: Mix of stratified paper pulps

Character: These volatile, sometimes shimmering cliffs are mysterious, occasionally glimpsed by passers-by who seem to almost refuse to acknowledge their presence, a lacunae within the otherwise legible landscape of the western Midway. To the trained eye, they present a sheer face of thickly accumulated leaves, corrugated sedimentary sheets, and paper-thin geology that rises sharply from the ground to reach heights hitherto thought impossible. A strange presence lurks around these cliffs, and many who have approached them have never been heard from again.

Name: Telephone Mountain
Height: 50-200 rods
Location: Somewhere near Prior Avenue, allegedly
Geology: Round brown dirt, multiple peaks

Character: This mountain was seen once, documented, but then forgotten and never reclaimed. According to sketchy reports, it seems to move around the Midway on its own accord, sometimes spotted in one place, but when orogological investigators attempt to ascertain its whereabouts, it cannot be found. Some say it moves through the woods along the edges of high-speed roads, near sketchy fences, or perhaps underneath the ground itself, to appear again like a ground squirrel of massive proportion when suitable openings are created in the earth. If you see Telephone Mountain, document its precise location and report immediately.

Name: Merriam Terrace
Height: 1,500 ft above sea level
Location: The center of Merriam Park
Geology: Mix of Decorah shale, Plattville dolomite, and Victorian moratorium.

Character:  This an ancient mountain, now subdued. Overlooked by many and eroded by time, Merriam Terrace rises gently from the streets of the old Merriam subdivision, for which it has given its name. Named by an early European settler, these slopes have a thousand stories and the roots of its many trees grow deep into the ground below. Mt. Merriam has slippery slopes. Descend from apex you are sure to find the nearby bottom.

Name: Mountain Glyphs
Height: approx. 25’
Location: Long ago
Geology: Depiction, ancient cave painting

Character: These ancient and erased depictions of the Mountains of the Midway were the last traces of a lost civilization of mountain people. Nobody knows who made these paintings, or why they marked their landscape with the distinctive lines of nearby ridges. A cursory interpretation suggests there were once many more mountains in the Midway than exist today. Sadly for paleorographers, the mysterious glyphs were destroyed and have been lost to history.

Name: Mount United
Height: Fifty-five-one
Location: Near the future stadium
Geology: Deeply ridged Hopestone

Character: A mountain of dreams, since disappeared. The geologic abduction took place around the same time as great torrents of bright lights appeared in the fog-shrouded night. According to reports, Midway residents were amazed when the sky suddenly lit up with all colors of the rainbow, flashing randomly, perhaps in some coded message from distant civilizations. The occurrence continued for hours into the misty night. In the morning, Mount United was gone.

Name: Pile of Tires
Height: 8’
Location: Somewhere near the previous location of Mount Ayd
Geology: Firestone

Character: Some say that Pile of Tires is all that is left of the great Saint Paul Tire Fire, which once occupied a vacant lot near the origin of Ayd Mill Road, clouding and befouling all who pondered the provenance of that cursed transportation link.


Twin City Doorways #45

 [Rice Street, Saint Paul.]

 [University Avenue, Saint Paul.]

 [Downtown, Saint Paul.]

  [Downtown, Saint Paul.]

 [Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis.]

 [Randolph Avenue, Saint Paul.]

 [Rice Street, Saint Paul.]

[Downtown, Minneapolis.]


Twin City Neon #27

[West 7th, Saint Paul.] 

 [West 7th, Saint Paul.]

 [Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis.]

 [Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis.]

 [New York, New York.]

  [New York, New York.]

  [New York, New York.]

 [New York, New York.]


Signs of the Times #150


[Yard. Payne/Phalen, Saint Paul.]

 He's Fat
My Fault
No Walks

[Sidewalk. East Side, Saint Paul.]

 "NO" E

[Window. East 7th, Saint Paul.]


[Pole. East 7th, Saint Paul.]


[Bathtub. Railroad Island, Saint Paul.]

Oxtail Pho

[Awning. East Side, Saint Paul.]


[Door. West Side, Saint Paul.]


[Window. Selby Avenue, Saint Paul.] 


Twin Cities Bicycle Mode Share Bojack Horseman Shout-out

[Princess Carolyn knows her US bike modeshare!] 
From the opening of the season finale episode of Bojack Horseman, Season Five, witness this wonderful bit of metaphor statistics with a local angle.
[Todd] You shut down production? 
[Princess Carolyn]  Just for a couple of days. 
[Todd] What is going on over there?  
[Princess Carolyn]  It's a minor injury issue. A stunt went slightly awry.
[Todd] Again?  
[Princess Carolyn] And one of our stars got a little strangled. 
[Todd] What?  
[Princess Carolyn] Just a little strangled. Like, the minimum amount of strangled. Everyone's fine now. 
It's like it didn't even happen... Except  
[Todd] Except what?  
[Princess Carolyn] Some crew members might have taken some video of the incident that could leak to the press at any moment. 
But that's it! 
[Todd] Okay, I'm pulling the plug. 
[Flip] What?  
[Todd] No! It's too dangerous! We gotta cut our losses. 
[Princess Carolyn] Cut your losses? Philbert is a monster hit! We put your site on the map, boy-o, so don't get squeamish now about sunk cost. 
Face it: You need us like a fish needs a bicycle in Portland, Austin, Boulder, or Minneapolis, Saint Paul!  
[Todd] You are out of order. 
[Princess Carolyn] Fine. Switch Boulder and Austin and move the Twin Cities to the front. Now, can you give me a chance to get everything under control?  
[Henry slams door] Yes! Yes! Yes!  
[Todd sighs] You have one more chance. Do you promise me you can take care of this?  
[Princess Carolyn] I'm clearing my docket. This is my only priority. 
[Todd] Good, because my boss has made it very clear that if we let him down, he will, quote, "eat my ass for dinner.

End scene. Also very impressive that the script used the correct-yet-interchangeable titles for the Twin Cities core!


Reading the Highland Villager #225

[Villagers stacked up at Cooper's.]
[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: City sets hearing on 20430 comprehensive plan
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There will be a public hearing about the comp plan on Friday. You can send in comments via email. Article mentions “neighborhood nodes,” lists the different chapters.

Headline: Marshall landlord requests rezoning to bring his 10 units into compliance
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A guy who owns an old apartment building on Marshall Avenue wants to have it rezoned so that all 10 of the apartments inside would be allowed under the zoning code. Neighbors seemed fine with it.

Headline: City Council amends organized trash contract to resolve late-fee problems
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Council is demanding that the haulers change the dates they send out bills and how they handle late fees. Neighbors are concerned about billing and getting unwarranted fines. There is an effort to get petitions to have a referendum to get rid of organized garbage. Lots of the original haulers have sold their routes to other haulers, and now there are only eight companies left from the original 15. [Probably a good thing. I'm going to guess that it continues to consolidate as companies develop the skills of collection garbage and dealing with the public on a more efficient scale. Another example of the growing pains of the system, which will be largely forgotten within a year. PS. A pretty thin Villager this time around. Maybe the local news is on its holiday break. If so, well deserved!]


Two More Predicable Tragedies on Saint Paul's Deadly Border Streets

Like many people, I often ignore Saint Paul's border streets. There are too many deadly roads running through the heart of Saint Paul's walkable core to worry about the wide dangerous border streets like McKnight and Larpenteur that mark the edges of Saint Paul. But the last few days saw a string of terrible crashes on the edges of Saint Paul, and the carnage shows why we need to start focusing on these overlooked places in our cities.

On Thursday afternoon, driver(s) hit and killed Robert Blake Buxton and Meridith Aikens as they were trying to cross the street on Larpenteur Avenue, the border between Saint Paul and Roseville. Just a few days later, on the east edge of the city between Saint Paul and Maplewood, two young students named Zahra Mohamed and Hanan Farah were hit by a driver while crossing McKnight Road. Only one survived.

Here's a quote about the first crash from the Pioneer Press story on the rash of border road deaths:
A rash of east metro crashes involving vehicles striking pedestrians — including four fatalities — has prompted warnings from police officials for both drivers and pedestrians to be hyper-aware of their surroundings. 
This crisis began Thursday night when a man and woman crossing Larpenteur Avenue in Roseville were struck and killed. Police later made an arrest in the case. 
The next night, Friday, two St. Paul women were crossing McKnight Street in St. Paul when they were struck. One woman died and the other was seriously injured.
Roseville Police Chief Mathwig and [Saint Paul Police spox] Linders both cited the combination of warmer weather — prompting people to be outside walking more — and the darker and shorter days as possible factors in the increase in pedestrians being struck by vehicles. 
An hour after the Roseville crash, the area was dark, with few street lights. 
“I wouldn’t say this particular area is prone to pedestrian crashes,” Mathwig said. “But it is just off a well-lit area, which is Rice and Larpenteur. As you travel away you are going to have less lights and less area for people to be seen, so we would just ask people, especially at this time of night when the sun is going down, to be extra careful as they are driving along the road.”

I have to disagree with Chief Mathwig. These are spots prone to pedestrian crashes. There are hundreds of people who live directly off Larpenteur and McKnight who do not own cars, and depend on transit and walking for their daily needs. These are both areas with undivided four-lane roads running through the heart of a dense mix of affordable apartment buildings, strip malls with necessary services, parks, and other destinations.

[Google Maps photos showing surrounding land uses, with lots of affordable housing, at both deadly crash sites.] 
For example, Ramsey County and the adjoining cities recently conducted a study of the Rice and Larpenteur area, hiring a consultant to look at how development and the public realm might change in the future. The big takeaway from the report, to my mind, was the complete lack of adequate sidewalks, crosswalks, and safe street designs in the area.  The exact spot where Buxton and Aikens were killed was identified a place that needs safety improvements. People at the City and County have long been aware of the problem posed by these dangerous streets.

[An image from the recent study of sidewalks at Rice/Larpenteur, showing the need for safe streets.]

My mother recently moved into a condo on Larpenteur Avenue and I've been spending a lot more time on that street these days. I was heading to her home the other night for the holidays, and was amazed to see a figure in a dark coat standing in the middle of Larpenteur at unlit, marked crosswalk, cars streaming by him or her on both sides.

Like many Ramsey County roads, Larpenteur is deadly by design. It has the dangerous combination of a suburban-style road design and a walkable neighborhood. Unlike many suburban arterials farther from the urban core, Saint Paul's border streets are often lined with middle- and working-class homes. The result is a terrible recipe for the kinds of tragedies that claimed the lives of Mohamed, Aikens, and Buxton.

[Four-lane death road designs at the sites of both fatal crashes.] 

[Traffic volumes at both sites are relatively low. Thanks to Al for the awesome map.]

[This weekend shows why people keep pointing at this chart.] 
At first glance, these border streets have the added burden of being twice as complicated to fix and manage, where one city is responsible for the sidewalks and land use on one side, and a different city has claim over the other. But in practice, responsibility for both streets falls squarely in the realm of Ramsey County Public Works. (Larpenteur is designated Ramsey County Highway #30, and McKnight is Ramsey County Highway #68.) These streets are Ramsey County problems, and the County should fix them.

Despite adopting policies that, in theory, prioritize pedestrian safety, Ramsey County Public Works has not yet begun to invest in safer streets in practice.  Both spots where the deadly crashes occurred could be fixed to create pedestrian refuge medians. Traffic volumes are not that high at either site, well below the thresholds where "road diets" are impossible, and there's no reason that they need to be four-lanes wide. A road diet would reduce traffic speeds to safe levels, greatly reducing the chances that, if there is a crash, someone is killed. A 3-lane design allows engineers to add pedestrian refuge medians for safe crossing. Together these changes would probably have saved the lives of all of the people killed this past weekend. 

It's long past time that we saw on-the-ground safety improvements on Ramsey County streets. It's too late for the poor people killed this weekend, but given the deadly designs of these streets, more crashes are as predictable as the weather.