Friday, July 20, 2012

Good transit needs good roads

Construction proceeding last year on what was one of the worst stretches of pavement on University Avenue.

rattle rattle rattle RATTLE rattle
rattle rattle
KA-BANG! rattle RATTLE rattle
rattle rattle

I still remember my early excursions on Metro Transit's old #6 bus to Roseville. Peering out into the dark as I felt the vehicle vibrate as it bounced over every little bump. Those rides were often an assault on my senses, forcing me to gird my stomach against pitching and rolling motions while I restrained my fears that the bus would shake itself to pieces.

I grew up in a suburb of Rochester and had hardly set foot on buses at all until I came up to the University of Minnesota after high school. The value of the on-campus shuttle buses was very clear (especially since they were, and remain, free to use). While they often lurch and rattle as much as the regular city buses, my early trips on them were pretty short—rarely more than a mile. Shifting over to using regular transit buses after college was never as easy as I'd hoped.

The Hiawatha Line was in the midst of being constructed when I graduated, and I followed many of the ages-old bus vs. rail debates at the time. I attended the line's opening ceremony in 2004 and took as many opportunities as I could to ride it, learn how it worked, and compare it to how the bus system operates. Some of the reasons I'd heard in favor of rail were debunked, at least in part, while others were enforced and refined.

For instance, I always used to hear about how rail vehicles were silent. While Hiawatha Line trains are often pretty quiet, they aren't silent—in some cases they make loud screeching sounds (most noticeable on the Hiawatha Avenue flyover just north of Lake Street). Similarly, ride quality is much better on Hiawatha trains than it is on a typical bus. Riders still get jostled when passing through switches and might get caught off-guard as the train speeds up or slows down, it's still vastly better than a typical bus ride. I have a much more difficult time reading text in books or on my phone when riding the bus than on the train, simply because the bumpy ride and vibrations from the diesel engine make everything shake so badly.

While part of the difference in ride quality between buses and trains has to do with the vehicles, much of the gap is due to the surface that they ride on. Railroad tracks have to be maintained within a certain tolerance, otherwise trains derail. As rails wander out of tolerance because of use, the speed limit on the tracks is reduced progressively until it becomes impractical to actually carry any traffic.

Roads are different, however. They just degrade and degrade, yet vehicles still go at the same speed because there's usually little risk of cars crashing if the surface has simply become a bit bumpier. (I have certainly wondered about some roads, however.)

Buses seem to be affected by bumps much more than cars since their immense weight makes it hard for the suspension to deal with poor pavement. Small imperfections get amplified, resulting in almost invariably bad ride quality.

Streets and highways that see lots of bus traffic should be prioritized for repair and repaving projects, and not just because it would help the bus glide along more smoothly. Much like the broken windows theory of crime, I feel that there's a strong case for a similar "broken pavement theory" related to the quality of life in a neighborhood.

Minneapolis and Saint Paul have begun attacking some long-damaged streets in the past few years, and it's often remarkable to see the road surface and sidewalks in a pristine state. Battered pavement is often a sign of bureaucratic paralysis brought on by budgetary belt-tightening over the course of years and decades. As freeways were built in the latter half of the 20th century, city streets were often left to rot.

While a lot of attention goes into designing and maintaining parks and plazas as public spaces, streets are the most basic type of public spaces I can think of. They should be treated with respect, and designed to facilitate many different modes of travel. Better surfaces don't just help cars or buses—well-designed spaces make things more comfortable for cyclists and pedestrians, and improves the value of properties along the way.

Next time you feel that busted old street, think about the decisions that led to it becoming a low priority, and try to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Climate Change is Simple"

Bill Lindeke included this video in his most recent Sidewalk Weekend linklist. David Roberts of says this is what you need to know when talking to climate change skeptics.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Location, location, location

I'll start this off by mentioning that Metro Transit is accepting comments on their Central Corridor Transit Service Study until this Monday, July 9th. When I attended a meeting last week, many concerns circled around the reduction of route 94 bus service. I've slowly been convinced that this is a reasonable idea, since the projected travel times for the Green Line make it only 9–12 minutes slower than the direct 94D for downtown-to-downtown trips, a difference that shrinks rapidly when compared to the 94B which circles around the state capitol.

Whatever comments you may have, they're due in by 5 PM on Monday. Metro Transit expects to modify their existing plans before they get implemented in 2014 with the start of light-rail service.

Cubs at Target Field, 3
A view of Target Field station
A groundbreaking for the Interchange, the expansion of Target Field station in Minneapolis's North Loop, is also scheduled for Monday. Plans by Hennepin County to first add new light-rail platforms and then expand the heavy-rail platforms below (in hopes of one day hosting intercity trains to Chicago, Duluth, and elsewhere) have come under many of the typical criticisms for rail projects these days. There are always questions about cost and whether such a project is needed or not, but the Interchange project—often known as "MTI" for "Minneapolis Transportation Interchange"—also gets barbs thrown at it for having a less-than-optimal location for people trying to get into downtown Minneapolis. I thought it would be a good idea to put this into a bit of a historical context.

The Interchange site is not all that from the downtown core—only half a mile or so, depending on where you're measuring from. But half a mile easily becomes 10 minutes on foot, probably farther than many people—especially commuters—would like to hoof it once they've arrived in town.

Transit planners know this, of course. That's partly why the station is where it is. When the Hiawatha Line opened in 2004, the northernmost station was at 5th Street between Hennepin Avenue and 1st Avenue. By simply extending the light-rail line a few blocks further, it intersected the only remaining heavy-rail line through the city center. Putting the station anywhere else probably would have required tearing down buildings, digging trenches or tunnels. Thinking through those ideas is a good mental exercise, to be sure, but extending LRT tracks to Target Field already inflated the costs of the Northstar commuter rail project by a big margin, and attempting anything more complicated than that would have made it vastly more expensive.

Timed right, a light-rail ride can shave several minutes off the last leg of travel to work, even if a rider is only going 2 or 3 stops into downtown. There are also numerous bus routes originating in the "B" ramp a block away, including route 20, specifically created for Northstar commuters headed toward the southern end of downtown and timed to meet each train. Oh, and of course, the "B" ramp gives fairly easy access to the city's skyway network, so you can get across town in climate-controlled comfort without having to worry if those "Don't Walk" signs are going to slow you down.

Okay, but Minneapolis is an old railroad town. Surely some of the city's old train stations did a better job of connecting riders to the city center, right?

View Minneapolis railroad stations in a larger map

Well, maybe. There were basically four significant rail stations serving the city center back in the heyday of rail transportation. Residents of and visitors to Minneapolis should be familiar with the old Milwaukee Road Depot at Washington Avenue and 3rd Avenue, now converted to a hotel. The big station in town was the Great Northern Depot, located along the riverfront at Hennepin Avenue, using land now occupied by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve and the central post office. The remaining two were smaller, respectively operated by the Luce Line (also serving two other regional railroads) and the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway.

Back when the city's commercial center was up near the river, the Great Northern and Milwaukee Road depots likely would have been the closest to the action. However, the central business district drifted southward along Nicollet Avenue over time, and nearly all of the Gateway District near the river was obliterated as the city took a heavy-handed approach to urban renewal. Today, the sites of the former rail stations and the Interchange's site are pretty much equidistant to the core of downtown. Certainly a traveler arriving at Target Field would now face a slightly shorter walk to the IDS Center than if they'd arrived at at the old Great Northern Depot, but only slightly.

Rail stations are often touted over airports because they allow people to arrive in the center of town. Perhaps that refrain has gotten a bit overplayed—certainly there are examples across the country and around the world where rail stations don't quite land you in the middle of the action, even if they get you pretty close. Still, I'll pretty happily take the 3,000-foot hike in downtown Minneapolis if the need arises: Even MSP airport's heavily-used Hiawatha Line station is a good 1,600 feet away from the baggage claim and ticketing areas, let alone the actual concourses.

The Interchange might not be in the best location ever devised, but it was among the best of a limited number of options. It will feel more connected once the Central Corridor is up and running, doubling frequency on the light-rail tracks through downtown. Now we should work to ensure that it becomes a great facility.