Dancing for Safety at the Street Corner

The launch of the light rail Green Line has spurred an increase of 20 to 25 percent in pedestrian traffic at the downtown Minneapolis Nicollet Mall station where Blue Line trains have stopped for years, according to a new study. Unlike its predecessor, the new line traverses its entire route through the heart of the Twin Cities, an area particularly rich in vehicle, bicycle and walking traffic.

This calls for special attention to the safety of foot-powered travelers along the Green Line's busy rail and road corridor, as I advocated in a post last week. One pedestrian has already died when struck by a Green Line train in St. Paul while wearing headphones. But following our long autocentric obsession with the safety of vehicle occupants, the science of protecting others on the street remains in its infancy.

For example, timers on traffic signals intended to tell pedestrians how long they have to cross an intersection has the unintended effect of increasing rear-end collisions caused by drivers rushing to beat the light, according to an NPR report. The suggested solution is switching the countdown from visual to audio so pedestrians can hear it (if they're not ear-budded) but drivers can no longer see it.

Another, perhaps fanciful, change in pedestrian signals is proposed by Smart, the Daimler AG offshoot with the tiny two-seater autos and the car2go sharing service -- a dancing don't walk light. This might discourage dangerous jaywalking; it reportedly cut crossing against the light by 81 percent in a trial in Portugal. Who knows if it will ever be produced for something other than a promotional video, but hurrah for the brainstorming that went into it. We'll need lots more outside-the-box thinking to optimize the safety of our evolving multi-modal transportation system.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Complete Streets  Roads & Highways  Road Safety 

Parking Lot Views Can Build Better Cities

For most Minnesotans, a trip to the mall means getting in the car, driving through traffic, and navigating a crowded parking lot before even stepping into a store. But for residents who are moving into the new luxury apartments at One Southdale Place, a mall is just a short walk across the parking lot. These structures promote high-density, pedestrian friendly cities that strengthen community development.

Its no secret that American cities, including Minnesotan ones, were designed with car traffic in mind. Strong highway development provides access to the suburbs, but urban sprawl has repeatedly shown to hamper economic development. Southdale Place joins other developments in Eagan and Maple Grove as part of a growing effort to densify the sprawled suburbs of the Twin Cities metro area.

Historically, malls represent the auto-centric thinking of city planning: huge consolidated shopping areas with a sea of parked cars. Building homes near these centers can reinvent what these spaces mean. High-density cities reduce dependence on automobiles and oil consumption, according to Edward Goetz, professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. They feature walkable areas that not only reduce car congestion, but increase feelings of community. Southdale Place is unique because of the way it incorporates mixed-use developments to increase density. Previously, property at Southdale was devoted to commercial use. Building residential units in these spaces is part of a growing trend to “retrofit” suburbs, says Goetz. Suburbs like Edina already have strong infrastructures, which makes densifying difficult. Re-using space, such as the Southdale Shopping Center parking lot, is one of the best strategies to grow communities without sprawl.

 These apartment leases aren’t cheap—monthly rents begin at $1,345. According to Goetz, it was a missed opportunity to not include a few units of affordable housing. As city planners seek to retrofit suburbs, they should also be paying attention to diversifying housing stock in terms of affordability.

As cities and suburbs run out of empty developable land, any future growth will have to mean denser growth. Developments like Southdale Place demonstrate the potential of commercial areas to support residential housing. New apartment residents may have views of the parking lot, but they are also becoming part of a denser, stronger, and pedestrian-friendly city.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Minnesota Cities  City Management  Complete Streets 

Sharing like a Capitalist

The sharing economy has received lots of media adoration over the last couple of years. A closer look reveals a more troubling truth. There are various types of companies in this new economy, but the ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft provide a useful example. In a recent article, Avi Asher-Schapiro details the effects of this model on the workers.

Uber entered cities with great fanfare. They said that they had a ridesharing system that would be cheaper for the consumer and better for the drivers. At the beginning, Uber charged costumers a fare of $2.75 per mile (with an additional 60 cents per minute under eleven mph). With drivers keeping 80 percent of the fare, it was possible to work full time and make a $15-$20 an hour. This is what prompted the media to declare ride-sharing a success; workers were making a living wage and it was cheaper for the riders. This did not last.

Within the last year, rates have been cut to less than half of the earlier ones. With the drivers having no control over the fare price, Uber slashed rates to $1.10 per mile, plus 21 cents a minute. This has left the drivers with significantly less cash for the same amount of work. Now drivers struggle to barely make minimum wage.

Drivers are fighting back. Working with Teamsters locals, the drivers have started their own drivers associations. Because Uber treats each driver as a “partner-driver” the drivers are independent contractors. This makes forging unity among the workers more difficult. Nonetheless, strikes and protests have happened in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City, and others. It is not going to be easy; Uber has raised $1.5 billion from tech investors in Silicon Valley and they want to make a lot of money.

Asher-Schapiro’s conclusion of the new sharing economy is damning:

[U]nder the guise of innovation and progress, companies are stripping away worker protections, pushing down wages, and flouting government regulations. At its core, the sharing economy is a scheme to shift risk from companies to workers, discourage labor organizing, and ensure that capitalists can reap huge profits with low fixed costs.
There’s nothing innovative or new about this business model. Uber is just capitalism, in its most naked form.

New technology and the economies it creates can be a force for bettering people’s lives. As progressives we need to raise our voice to ensure that it works for everyone.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Workers' Rights  Automobiles 

Multi-Modal Transportation is Multi-Partisan

During an election campaign back in its Merry Prankster phase, an arm of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota bought billboards playing off the conventional wisdom that conservatives want more highways and progressives want more transit. In sample ballot form, it went like this: "Roads (Republican); Rail (Democrat): Don't know (Independence); Bikes (Green)"

Not for nothing did my colleague Jeff Van Wychen dub the league the Fact Slayers. Its billboards probably weren't true then—conservative and independent governors have signed off on light rail and progressives have laid plenty of pavement — and they certainly aren't now. A new national poll finds that progressive voters are more supportive than conservatives of boosting road capacity to smooth traffic, and—here's the surprise—well over half of conservatives back upgrading public transit, bike lanes and sidewalks.

While this right-of-center groundswell is seldom reflected by conservative leadership focused on shrinking the public sector (except for the military and law enforcement) at all costs, the numbers don't lie. "Though both parties agreed traffic is a problem, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to believe that all transportation investments would help resolve it—road-versus-rail party lines be damned," The Atlantic CITYLAB's Eric Jaffe commented. 

What's more, he noted, most of the gaps on transportation policy between the political poles are not statistically significant. In other words, there's much more across-the-board support for multi-modal traffic solutions than you'd gather from partisan rhetoric. Another survey documented a similar consensus on willingness to ride transit across red and blue U.S. regions.

It's common these days to bemoan the death of America's historic partisan accord on the transportation investments that have built our nation. At the grass-roots level, though, it never died. It behooves officials of all ideological stripes to heed the unified message on at least one issue from their supposedly divided "bases."

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation 

New Ride Sharing App Empowers Women

Transportation isn’t usually associated with female empowerment, but a new Twin Cities ride-sharing app aims to promote exactly that. Unlike its competitors, RideSqirl is a service run exclusively by female drivers.  

The app’s founders developed RideSqirl to make transportation easier and safer for women. Using female-identified drivers will reduce the sexual harassment and assault many women have experienced at the hands of male cab or rideshare drivers, as Olivia Nuzzi documents in this Daily Beast article. New statistics reveal that over 30 percent of women worldwide have experienced unwanted noncontact sexual experiences, but apps like RideSqirl could help to actively reduce those numbers. All of the RideSqirl drivers will undergo domestic violence and rape crisis training, and the service plans to offer free or discounted rides to women in crisis. Of course, male passengers can and are encouraged to use RideSqirl’s services as well. 

The app will operate similar to the popular Uber and Lyft, with a few notable differences. RideSqirl users will be able to select their driver and price from the three closest options. Unlike other ridesharing apps, the final price will be displayed as clients make their selection, not at the end of the ride.

RideSqirl not only offers a safe and respectful space for its drivers as well as its passengers. Along with other female-based taxi companies such as SheTaxis in New York, RideSqirl is working to change the face of the male-dominated transportation industry. Only 5 percent of New York City cab drivers are women, and this lack of gender diversity can be found throughout the USA. By using women drivers trained in social services, RideSqirl could expand our perception of a driver beyond a faceless male stranger.

This app is still under development, and the RideSqirl team hasn’t yet announced when it will be live but you can watch a demo here. It joins the community of Twin Cities Tech Start-Ups looking to impact our community through innovative solutions and flexible ideas. RideSquirl provides an easy, technologically-savvy way to get from place to place, but also begins to finally address safety and equity for women within transportation.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation 

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What Price Parking?

I grew up in suburbia and never questioned its autocentric assumptions. Then I drove a Mustang to graduate school in New York and immediately learned that a car was not only irrelevant on transit-rich Manhattan Island, but a downright burden. Parking regulations required frequent tedious searches for a new spot on the crowded curbs. One of the happiest days of my life was the day the car was stolen.

A recent article in the New York Times reminded me of that harsh lesson decades ago. In the Big Apple's trendy SoHo district, a new condo building is on the market with an option to buy underground parking spaces for $1 million a pop. That works out to as much as twice per square foot as for the $8 million to $10 million apartments upstairs. No takers were reported as of last week, but car stalls elsewhere in lower Manhattan, as well as in tony neighborhoods of Boston and London, have fetched $500,000 or more.

"Parking is in serious demand and has proven an excellent investment with no sign of a decline," a London real estate executive told the Times.

Richard Pryor once said that cocaine was "God's way of telling you you have too much money." Six-figure parking may be another one, and it tells us something about the irrational allure of motoring "freedom," even in locales where you will be hard-pressed to stash your luxury vehicle anywhere nearby.

As Sarah Goodyear noted on The Atlantic CITYLAB, "It's not just the 300 square feet ... outside your apartment building that your car requires to be fully functional. If you drive a personal motor vehicle for basic everyday transportation, there's also the 300 square feet at your job, and at the supermarket, and outside the restaurant where you have dinner. There's the 300 square feet at you kid's school, at the hardware store, at the coffee shop. Wherever you go, you're going to need a parking space."

Motorists don't have to think about this in most of Minnesota and the rest of the United States. That's because both business and government have chosen to subsidize "free" or cut-rate parking with higher merchandise prices and non-user taxes in service of the autocentric right to drive and stop anywhere without hassle. Estimates of the number of U.S. off-street parking spaces range from 105 million to 2 billion, according to Goodyear, and that doesn't count millions more curbside, most of them unmetered.

Surface parking lots cause heat islands and pollution, Goodyear adds, and "arguably they also create traffic by incentivizing driving, making life less convenient rather than more ... It took a century to engineer cities in such a way that space for cars, even ones that are sitting idle, became valued more than space for people ... Are we willing to do the simple math and start heading in another direction?"

Good question. One way is to replace parking minimums in many city zoning codes with parking maximums, a reversal pioneered in Britain and Brazil. Another is to price parking closer to its actual value to consumers, which theoretically should appeal to free-market fundamentalists. Steps like this can "improve everyone's mobility," according to a Drexel University study that urged more consideration of parking in comprehensive transportation management.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Minnesota Cities  City Management  Automobiles  Infrastructure 

A Subway for Cars?

Here's a surprise: The most walkable city in North America is not Boston, New York, Montreal or Quebec City, but little-known Guanajuato in central Mexico. That's according to Justin Swan, an urban planning engineer and blogger with the Twitter handle @urban_future.

Why is this historic, European-style home to 70,000 so pedestrian-friendly? In addition to its ancient, compact layout, it has relegated most motor vehicle traffic underground, to a system of tunnels dug for flood control in the 1700s. A dam project upstream made the old drainage infrastructure obsolete in the 1960s, just as automobile traffic was surging. A few modifications later, voila: a nearly car-free city.

"As a pedestrian, I felt more safe than in any other city on the continent," Mr. S reports. "Having the chance to drive through the area myself, I was outnumbered at least 15 to 1 by pedestrians. With streets too narrow, steep and bumpy ... speed bumps, blind corners and a road network with no straight lines or intersections that crossed at 90 degrees, there was only one possible speed—slow."

Minnesota's much newer, rectilinear street grids won't adapt to such a pedestrian-centric design, and we don't have tunnels ready to drive through. But we can dream, can't we?  Matty Lang suggested in a comment following a David Levinson blog I recently cited that instead of building a transit subway in Minneapolis, the cars and trucks should go underground.

Neither is very likely, and such concepts shouldn't be an excuse to derail the Southwest Green Line extension at this point in the planning process. But it's worth brainstorming any and all ideas to remake our cities for people at least as much as for cars. What are your thoughts?

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Complete Streets  Roads & Highways  Infrastructure  Road Safety 

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Bike Lanes: Balancing Act or Win-Win?

It's urbanist dogma that you can build a city for either cars or people, but not both. Now there's evidence to question that dualistic assumption. 

In America's busiest, most crowded city, New York, introduction of buffered bicycle lanes on the teeming streets has sparked a backlash from motorists similar to the one that doomed former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal for congestion vehicle pricing on Manhattan Island. But a funny thing happened on the way to gridlock when the city made room for bikes on some major Manhattan avenues: Auto traffic speeded up.

Huh? According to Eric Jaffe at the Atlantic CITYLAB, narrower driving lanes on Columbus Avenue and narrower and one fewer of them on Eighth Avenue brought significantly shorter travel times for motorists even though traffic volumes "remained pretty consistent." On First Avenue, meanwhile, a more radical reduction of five car travel lanes to just three plus a bus lane resulted in a 1 mile per hour decrease in taxi speed but a 160 percent increase in bicycle traffic—meaning "an overall rise in mobility."

"In simpler terms, everybody wins," Jaffe pronounced.

It took some smart street design to achieve these counterintuitive outcomes, especially the addition of left-turn pockets in areas otherwise reserved for parking and bike buffer strips along the one-way avenues. Before, Jaffe notes, "cars turned left from a general traffic lane; [now] traffic doesn't have to slow down until the left turn is completed and ... drivers have an easier time seeing bike riders coming up beside them."

According to a city report, injuries to drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians have all declined since the changes were made on segments of seven major avenues. On top of that, retail sales showed greater increases after bike lane projects than in other areas. The work also added trees to the cityscape and shortened pedestrian street crossings.

Bike lanes still stir autocentric outrage, however. In the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, the city has even removed some of them after protests, and a lawsuit remained pending over lanes at Brooklyn's Prospect Park West, Tim Henderson reported at Stateline earlier in the summer. "What should be a balancing of community interests has turned into something of an ideological battle," Alexandria, Va., law professor Frank Buckley told Henderson.

It doesn't have to be like that, though. As NYC's smart design shows, there may be ways to serve all the warring modes of mobility, even in finite right-of-way.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Bicycles  Roads & Highways 

Up to Speed in Minnesota

Our culture loves speed. How else to explain the popularity of NASCAR, a spectator sport in which advertising-festooned motor vehicles circle an oval track at ear-shattering intensity, over and over again?

The value placed on velocity affects public policy, too. The most common criticism of the new light-rail Green Line, despite its excellent ridership, is that it's too slow between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns. And since the repeal of the Nixon-era 55 miles per hour national speed limit in the mid-1990s, nearly every state has jacked up the legal rate.

Most drivers support this continuing trend. Idaho just bumped the limit on some stretches of rural interstate to 80, and Minnesota transportation officials are studying increases to 60 m.p.h. on many state highways, a process championed, interestingly, by the state's only blind legislator.

This alarms safety advocates, especially those representing insurors who profit from declining collision rates. "The research is clear that when speed limits go up, fatalities go up," says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The deadly physics of higher-speed crashes is undeniable, but it's also true that the two decades post-double nickel have witnessed historic reductions in highway carnage.

Two new studies let us explore this seeming paradox. Our nation's safest place to drive, tiny Washington, D.C., also has the lowest speed limi—55. Oddly, the only other U.S. jurisdiction that matches it is Alaska, and that huge state comes in worse than the U.S. average for highway deaths per miles traveled.

Meanwhile, Minnesota, rated among the speedier states in a Cars.com compilation, also ranks third best in the nation in fatalities by distance and No. 8 by population, according to a University of Michigan study.

Minnesota's average speed limit on state highways is 67, middle of the pack and rising, but not as high as top-speed Texas at 78, bolstered by its 85 m.p.h. private toll road, recently declared in default on its bonds. Highways in the Lone Star State aren't bleeding just money, either. Texas' 2012 fatality rate, based on distance driven, was more than double Minnesota's at No. 41 in the nation, compelling evidence that speed does kill.

In fact, though, speed is just one of many things that affect highway safety. I'd chalk up the improvements in recent years largely to safer cars, safer roads and fewer unbelted and drunken drivers. All of these advances have been driven by public policy, at the federal level for the cars, but more so in individual states on the other factors. But even Alaska's 55 limit hasn't made it very safe to drive its unique terrain.

If a universal 25 m.p.h. speed limit could be enforced, road fatalities would drop to nearly zero, but at a daunting cost in transportation efficiency. The numbers show that Minnesota, through a broad array of policy, has achieved a fine balance between public safety and the need for speed. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Automobiles  Road Safety 

Death of Driving: Greatly Exaggerated?

American urbanists have been cheered by persistent stagnation in rates of motoring going back years before the Great Recession, but there are new hints that the dreams of so-called "car-haters" may not be fully realized. The auto industry is booming again, with August's sales expected to top any month in the past 11 years.

Even President Obama's transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, just trumpeted in a news release that U.S. driving this summer hit a level not seen since 2008. "More people driving means our economy is picking up speed," Foxx noted. "It also means we need to increase our investment in transportation to meet this demand, which is why Congress needs to pass the president's four-year, $302 billion GROW AMERICA Act."

This is certainly an argument aimed at autocentric congressional conservatives, who nonetheless have blocked robust federal spending on surface transportation. They might loosen the purse strings if transit funding were divorced from the highway bill, but progressives, as well as sound overall mobility policy, stand against that.

Besides, despite the fraction of federal fuel taxes that support transit and nonmotorized modes, drivers get so much help from government that a return to our old motoring ways should surprise no one. Tanya Snyder at Streetsblog USA  offered a nice listing on tax day last April of all the regressive breaks available for driving, including the real reductions on autopilot over the 21 years since the U.S. levy at the pump was adjusted for inflation.

Compared with most of the industrialized world, our fuel taxes are practically negligible, and that helps explain why Americans can rack up the miles, at fuel prices per hours worked at low levels not persistently seen since the early 1980s, according to research highlighted in Fortune. Some of the supposed demographic causes of driving's decline may also be petering out.

"While it's true that urban areas have been growing faster than the suburbs over the last decade or so, it looks as if that trend may be starting to reverse," writes Fortune's Chris Matthews. "Finally, while Millenials [the rising generation that so far has disdained driving] are now America's largest demographic group, we have yet to really feel their presence in the economy. The single most common age in America today is 23, an age where it's much easier to get by living in a city without a car.

"As Millenials start to settle down, get married and have children, it's quite possible that their relative aversion to suburban life and cars will soften a bit. There's plenty of reason to believe that America's love affair with the car is beginning to cool, but it's probably a bit early to declare this case closed."

Good points, but we need to remember the often-overlooked reality that location and transportation choices don't occur in a free-market vacuum. Government policy will continue to tip the scales. For decades, it has encouraged more and more miles behind the wheel. Shifting subsidies away from driving, parking and sprawl could nudge us in a more sustainable direction. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Automobiles  Road Safety 

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