2014 Book Recommendations

Here are my 2014 Book Recommendations* (the top five favorite books of the year):
  • “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick – This is a tale of ordinary North Koreas who have escaped to South Korea. It tells multiple tales of every day life that include struggles to survive and dealing with strict government repression. It beautifully details daring escapes and adjusting to life in the modern world. Where this book deviates from other North Korean-related non-fiction is that it tells a much more emphatic story, that of tight-knit loving families fighting famine and the (albeit nostalgic) benefits of not living in the modern world (such as not being constantly distracted by media).
  • “Console Wars” by Blake J Harris - In the early 1990s, Nintendo ruled. Console Wars is a story about how Sega, a new competitor, went from having 5% market share to over half and toppled a monopoly. Sure, it’s a story about video games, but it’s more than that. It’s a story of smart start-up who didn’t play by the rules and had to use creativity. Sega was ‘lean’ before ‘lean’ was a thing.
  • “Masters of Doom” by David Kushner – Side-scrolling ruled early 1990s video game. This is another story of rebellious outsiders who dominated the computer gaming industry and did it all themselves. They went around publishers, warehouses, middle-men, and took atypical methods to change the way we view video games. Ultimately personalities tore them apart, but it’s a great tale of passionate programmers and businessmen. Note: Yes, another video game book recommendation.
  • “Hitch-22″ by Christopher Hitchens - Smart. Poignant. Funny. I had not followed the life of Hitchens while he was alive, and reading this book made me regret that fact. I once heard Sam Harris say, “Hitch had more personality than some civilizations” and I do not doubt this. It tells the personal life of Hitchens, who left school as a Socialist activist and his journey into becoming Americas most loved/hated capitalist, atheist, and political outsider.
  • “Flash Boys” by Michael Lewis – Almost everything I know about Wall Street, I have learned from Lewis. I loved this book; it was short, sweet, and to the point. Lewis knows how to tell a good story, and he continues to do this with his newest book. It’s a great narrative of how two outsiders are challenging a rigged system. My fingers are crossed that they can succeed.
*Thanks to Mr. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns fame for giving me this idea!

The Rise and Fall of Sonic the Hedgehog (and Sega)

For a brand to thrive, it needs to constantly reinvent itself. Sega isn’t doing that and the once unstoppable hedgehog has been diminished to mere nostalgia.

The icon that helped launch Sega ahead of Nintendo during the Console Wars has been relegated to second-class superhero status from an overabundance of sub-par appearances and reckless business practices. As a staple of my childhood, I find this disconcerting.

Originally released in 1991, the inaugural Sonic the Hedgehog had unique gameplay, previously unseen graphics, and fast gameplay. Experiencing Sonic in the early 1990s was akin to the previous generation watching color television for the first time. This was the Launchpad of an iconic brand.

Sega followed up with an impressive sequel that gave most players their first-glimpse at the 3D gaming world through expertly-designed bonus stages. This feat should not be understated. Quality games (and a skilled marketing team) helped bring Sega from a market share of less than 10 percent to the dominate player in the industry.

Sonic ended the 16-bit era with a bright future despite some forgettable spin-off flops, such as Sonic Spinball (Sonic + Pinball = Disappointment). As Sega would soon learn, one failed spin-off is fine, but multiple failed spin-offs is not.

Sega’s mismanagement during the 32-bit era created doubts about the company, including the business decision to release a new console (Saturn) without a title of its hottest intellectual property (Sonic). Doubts amplified as Sega faced increased competition from Sony’s Playstation.

The decision to release Saturn (and then immediately pull the plug) was a move that likely cost Sega billions of dollars. There was a four year period between 1996 and 1999 with no major titles. Imagine this timeframe in the mid of a young gamer: going from eight to 12 without the creation of brand nostalgic. In the minds of these kids, Sonic is irrelevant.

This absence of Sonic during this period allowed Nintendo to dominate, and Mario 64 and Pokémon helped create a near monopoly on this age group while Sony converted mature gamers onto their platform (one of those gamers was me, and I still remain largely loyal to Playstation).

For better and for worse, Dreamcast got the jump on the next generation with the clever “9/9/99” campaign. They had learned from their mistakes and released the new console with their flagship franchise (Sonic Adventure). In 1999, you had Sonic Adventure and everything else. Sonic was back! The game was a hit and was a much needed breath of fresh air for Sega fans.

Yet, it wasn’t enough. Despite a successful launch and masterful Sonic games, the Dreamcast couldn’t compete with Playstation 2. Sega soon abandoned the console market to become a software company. Since the demise of Sega’s console business, the Sonic brand has been a collection of mostly misses. It’s an unfortunate truth that Sonic has been damaged to such a degree the gamers approach new releases with caution, not excitement.

When Sonic does best, it’s through nostalgia-aimed releases like Generations. But new versions of the franchise have failed to revive the brand. One journalist hinted that Sonic 06′ was one of the worst games of the year and the re-branding that resulted in Sonic Boom: Rise of the Lyric had people scratching their heads. Both appeared to be rushed to market at the expense of gameplay. Continually releasing an unrefined product is a good way to kill a franchise.

Sonic now operates primarily in the nostalgic realm. There are still hardcore fans, but without a landmark release like Sonic Adventure, there isn’t much hope for the revitalization of the Sonic brand. A business can run on nostalgia only for so long.

The question is: How can Sega appease the nostalgic fan base while moving the franchise into the future?

This is the question Sega will need to answer if Sonic is going to be around for another 20 years. Sega appears to be making the smart move of tackling the youth market dominated by Nintendo. This is a crucial age group to capture from a marketing perspective. The problem with this approach though is that Sega is challenging Nintendo’s market share while still being reliant upon them to release their games on Nintendo consoles.

Sega’s faults have been that they’ve been absent when competition was strongest and over-eager to release inferior products when unnecessary. I want to see Sonic thrive for another 20 years. To do so, Sega will need to drastically improve the quality of flagship Sonic games, aggressively target emerging gamers, and find a way to control their distribution (e.g.: not being reliant on Nintendo).


The Impending Decline of Second Ring Suburbs

There is a small war going on in Americas second-ring suburbs.

As many places cautiously emerge out of the housing recession, the uptick in new development has been at odds with concerned citizens, elected officials, developers and long-range plans. The only word that comes to mind: bipolar.

To best describe what is going on countrywide, I’m going to use an example in my backyard: the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka (not the lake). It’s a well-to-do middle-class community that has expensive, moderate and cheap suburban living. As far as suburbs go, it has a surprising range of housing price points.

The suburb had it’s largest growth during the 1970s, when its population jumped 43 percent, and again in the 1990s with a 25 percent gain. I only bring this up so you can paint a mental picture of cul-de-sacs of split levels and starter mansions with wooded lots. Add in a regional mall and interstate extension to complete the image.

These suburbs would like to grow their tax base, but they haven’t much additional land to grow outwards. All new growth must go upwards. It is this dynamic that has longtime residents at odds with the future non-existent residents.

Here is a proposed development that will knock down a 1980s bank and replace it with a suburban retrofit mixed-use building on a parcel that sits adjacent a dying shopping mall with hundreds of acres of empty parking.

Highland Bank Minnetonka Redevelopment Site

The existing land use is three-quarters parking and abuts two major regional arterial roads.

The mall and adjacent commercial area are the defacto “downtown” of Minnetonka. It currently looks like what you’d expect it to look like.


The Ridgedale Mall is the defacto “downtown” and commercial core of the suburb.

The proposed redevelopment fits the spirit of the community’s 2035 visioning plan that calls to transform the retail center into a vibrant, mixed use community with improved pedestrian connections. Here’s a snapshot of what the developer is proposing:


The building isn’t perfect, but it is a great step in the right direction. All things considered, it’s a thumbs up.

The decision whether or not to approve the building came down to a close vote. Unfortunately, the Council voted against it and instead, for the wishes of existing residents. Concerns ranged from added traffic, increased density, more difficulty finding parking, and not fitting in with the community character. One concerned citizen was quoted as saying, “I was relieved they didn’t vote for a project that doesn’t fit the core Minnetonka values.”

Many are rolling their eyes now (if you’d like to continue rolling your eyes, read this Letter to the Editor).The objections are classic NIMBY claims. However, please consider that the citizens aren’t necessarily wrong. Developments like these will change the community’s character. But, is changing the character of a stagnating suburban strip mall corridor such a bad thing?

It struck many aging suburban communities in the mid 2000s that they needed some type of mixed use center. Planners, city officials, and neighborhood groups spent the following years hashing out plans. These were often long, frustrating meetings, but alas, in the end, democracy favored those who showed up.

Countless hundreds of hours were spent at countless meetings creating plans that, at the time, had little market viability. They were pie-in-the-sky ideas. Fast-forward a decade and the things have changed. The market is going after pent up demand for urbanism. Now, we have the same type of people who were originally involved in the visioning process who are now opposing the very type of development they sought.

When suburbs need to put their money whether their mouth is, they often get skittish. Its sad because it’s a real waste of everyone’s time when our city plans and market say yes, but the neighbors say no.

Suburbia is designed for the automobile and this development controversy is case-and-point why that is such a bad thing for growth. The nearest single-family home to the development is approximately 950 feet (about three football fields). Yet, there is literally no way to directly get to the development.


As a direct result of suburban design, 900 feet translates into a 1 mile walk along an interstate frontage road with no sidewalk (no joke). This means that traffic and parking will be an issue if this person ever wants to enjoy the added amenities (which include a restaurant and coffee shop).

The disconnecting nature of suburban design takes something that should to be a benefit and turns it into a headache. There is a big difference between a three minute walk and a one mile drive, and your relationship with that place changes as a result. In a way, I don’t fault particular neighbors for opposing. It might be tougher to find a parking spot. And, even if traffic won’t be effected, why take the chance? You live in the suburbs and your commute is bad enough as it is.

Suburban retrofits might be the only long-term financially-viable options for aging suburbs. These places often cover a huge land mass, have lots of roadways and sewer pipes, and not a lot of population density to help pay for it. Minnetonka, for example, has a land mass half the size of its neighbor Minneapolis. Yet, its population that is approximately 8 times less.

Most of Minnetonka’s infrastructure is around 30 to 50 years, and those sewer pipes aren’t going to last forever. They’ll need people to pay for it.

I like to ask the question: If not this, then what?

Aging suburbia is going through an identity crisis. Existing residents would like the place to stay much the same. New residents, including those who do not live there yet, are demanding something else. So, what else? These places can’t continue to stay the same. Yet, the change is to difficult for many to swallow. This is why the default for most suburbs is decline. Growth isn’t built into its DNA.

For those living deep in the suburban pattern, new development doesn’t make your life a better place. Nearly the entire housing stock of the second-ring suburb is  designed in a way that the lack of development is the best option. If a home’s ideal is to be disconnected, then anything near it – whether good or bad – that isn’t nature is taking away from that aesthetic.

Here in lies one of the biggest faults in suburbia: it’s not designed to change. In mature cities, as land values increased, the intensity of development would follow. That’s why downtown Minneapolis, which once housed single family homes, now has blocks of towering skyscrapers. This is change needs to occur.

The harsh reality is that these places will have to change or face an impending decline. Many first-ring suburbs, such as St. Louis Park, have decided to grow upwards. Will the second-ring follow suit?

America: The Random

Here’s the game.

Open Google Maps. Zoom out to the entire US. Grab the StreetView icon.


Hover over the center of the US (aim for Kansas) and close your eyes. Shake the mouse for a few seconds and let go. Let the adventure begin. Boom!


Jackpot. America, the beautiful. I landed at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. The place looks amazing, but I can’t imagine being a pioneer trying to cross it with a wagon cart. This definitely looks like a place I’d love to visit.

Okay, now to round two. Here we go …


Some bridge over some road in north North Carolina. Lake Reidsville. Looks nicel America’s a big, beautiful place, and most of our land is rural. We’ve got some great countryside.


A First-Timer Plays Dungeons & Dragons

Has there ever been a better time to be a nerd? No, probably not. So, I wanted to dive in deeper …

My first adventure into ultimately nerdery has left me with one resounding conclusion: if you have never played Dungeons and Dragons, whatever you think you know, forget it. You are wrong. It’s not the broad common assumption supported by mainstream media and it’s certainly not the Simpson’s Comic Book guy.

It’s something else.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game I have been anxious to play for quite sometime, but up until recently, I never had that special someone to introduce me. After what felt like a decade, my friend Chris invited to join his group. I finally had my date. Wednesday night. 7pm. Roseville. Fantasy Flight Games Event Center.

On Facebook, a friend suggested I pick up a bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos, Twizzlers and some Mountain Dew. These were surely the needed rations. With giddy delight, I texted a photo of the junk food to my Dungeons and Dragons playing friend. It was only a few seconds later that I was alerted that “Sadly you can’t bring that into FFG :(.

It is at this point that I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was walking into. Is Dungeons and Dragons even possible without Mountain Dew?

It hit me. I experienced something I hadn’t in the longest time: unreasonable teenage angst. As if I was going on a first date. I even mentally beat myself up over what I should wear. It was prom night and I was unprepared and unsure of myself. I could do nothing but drive north on Snelling Avenue and sip Mountain Dew in anticipation.

The FFG Event Center shattered any preconceived notions I had as it more closely resembles a post-modernist downtown hotel than your high school friend’s parent’s basement. Which, frankly, was both disappointing and relieving. I quickly grabbed a coffee at the cafe and my friend picked up a Surly on-tap before the game (yes, local craft beer is available).

I was a halfling rouge teamed up with an elf and two dwarfs. It was an unbalanced team consisting of two rookies, a mid-career professional and an experienced veteran. And the ruthless Dungeon Master? A friendly dude named Brian.

After a quick explanation of the rules, we were off. The first mission: get a dragon egg from a barn.

Okay – this is where I’m going to lose a few people. I agree. Getting a dragon egg from a barn doesn’t exactly sound epic. I was along for the ride, even if the whole deal seemed shady. I distrust anyone, fictional or otherwise, willing to exchange money for a dragon egg in a barn. It worked out beautifully though and it was a great beginners story to learn a few tricks and strategies.

For our successful completion (oh! we dropped a few bad dudes in the process), we were granted 200 gold coins by a man I can only assume was going to use that dragon egg for nefarious purposes. Regardless, we got our coin and traversed into something a little more frightening: a goblin cave.

An crying woman’s family had been kidnapped at their now-ransacked farm outside of town (advice to humans living in the world of DnD: buy Goblin Insurance).

Here’s where the real fun began. So, two dwarves, an elf, and a rogue halfling walk into a goblin cave. We head into the cave and it’s at this point, maybe an hour and a half into the game, that I get it. I decide to take two items and use my imagination (lantern + flask of oil) and toss all of them into the cave. The result was a medieval Molotov cocktail with a side of chaos. One fried goblin later, we’re inside and rescuing some humans. Success!

Two missions down, literally thousands to go …

What’s astonishing about Dungeons and Dragons is the learning curve. It’s easy to get started, but the game can get insanely complex. It’s your job to use your best improvisational skills within the boundaries of the game. It’s about asking questions, improvising, and moving within a loose framework. It creates this beautiful platform where you can play the same series of events 10 times and never have the same outcome. It’s a table top game with near infinite possibilities.

What did you do last Wednesday?

I helped rescue some humans, drop some evil goblins, bought a dragon egg, and made a few friends in the process. Heroes in our own minds. Nerds in the minds of others. But who cares? There’s never been a better time to be a nerd.

If you haven’t played Dungeons and Dragons, I think you really should. Grab a coffee (or Surly on-tap) and join us each Wednesday in Roseville’s FFG at 7pm.

If you have the courage to show up, I can guarantee you’ll have a great time.


The Urbanism Crowdsourcing Hodge Podge Twitter Grab Bag

It all started with a tweet …

The responses quickly came in. First from Mike Christensen, who has a quick draw. He’s the fastest tweet in the west.

I have a lot of thoughts on road diets, specifically that we don’t do enough of them. We have a cultural misunderstanding about what makes a good place. That misunderstanding starts with the road. We tend to view all roads as conduits of moving traffic as efficiently as possible. We do this with little regard to the built environment. In urban areas, this recklessness destroys our traditional urban fabric. In suburbia, it doesn’t create a template for future urban growth to occur.

The next Tweet, from Mike Sonn, is about a local St. Paul example of the need for the above. For those who missed it, there was a child walking to school who was struck by a vehicle along a street in desperate need of a road diet.

This is a good question and I don’t know why.

What I do know is that four lanes is inappropriate and a 4-3 conversation should extend into St. Paul. There are a lot of needs in St. Paul’s east side, but I am regrettably not intimately familiar. This comes with embarrassment. It is a place that I genuinely wish I knew more about. But I, like many others, haven’t played close attention; much to the detriment of half the city.

Next tweet, from Nick Hannula, is about the Riverview Corridor:

This is a difficult question (thank you). I have two answers:

1. I support taking the Riverview Corridor right down the middle of West 7th  and giving it a) signal prioritization and b) an exclusive right-of-way. The intersection at Highway 5 should divert car traffic down Shepard Road. This would slow down traffic on W. 7th and help allow the area (especially south of Randolph) to mature and become more urban. A few notes on this; I would be timid in supporting a plan that doesn’t connect to the airport to downtown. The Ford Site rail spur would be best used as a rails-to-trail project.

2. It was disappointing to see the City of St. Paul turning down money for BRT along W. 7th. As someone who lives a stone’s throw from W. 7th, I would rather have BRT today than the potential (maybe?) for LRT / streetcar in 10 to 15 years. If we would have made the BRT move, I think it would have helped push even more development along the corridor and we could have always upgraded it to LRT if ridership demanded that in the future.

Next tweet is from Chris;

Triangle blocks are beautiful. Architects do their best work when they are constrained by space. Triangle blocks do this; rectangle blocks do not. But, why not triangle blocks? When it comes to infrastructure, we’re stuck with what our ancestors gave us. There are some quirky spaces in the Twin Cities, but they are rare. Most of our blocks are based on the land-dividing efficiency of the 90 degree right angle. However, for the few that do exist, we should take them and create great places!

Next tweet is from Fred Melo;

I recommend going nuts.

Next tweet is from Bill Dooley,

This is a good, complicated question. And, I want to apologize for not answering it thoroughly. I don’t know enough about the risks to comment any further. There is risk in co-location. Environmentally it would be a disaster if anything did happen. Will that happen? Fingers crossed it doesn’t.

Southwest Light Rail should have bypassed the Kenilworth Corridor and traveled through Uptown. That ship has sailed. What we’re left with is a political compromise that no one is really happy with. The whole situation would have been avoided if we decided to give transit to those most likely to use it.

Next tweet is from Andrew Price;

Yes! We need to place senior housing in walkable communities. In many American cities, we have adapted senior housing to be in suburban style complexes. They are also often developed at a mega-scale. We need to scale them down. I, however, do not like the idea of a building being a ‘village’ in and of itself. All of our development should strive to connect with the immediate community.

And finally, from Adam;


Dreamcast is, without question, the most underrated gaming system of all-time. It was innovative in many ways that go unrecognized today. For starters, Sega modernized sports game. Prior to the NFL 2k series, sports games were basic. Sega added that spice and everyone (including EA) followed suit. Secondly, Dreamcast was the first to have online multiplayer. The next console to have full online capability wasn’t until PS3’s release in 2007. Dreamcast was 8 years ahead!

The games on Dreamcast were second to none. However, they were games for gamers. They lacked a “Halo” style mainstream game (although Sonic Adventure 1 & 2 were undoubtedly solid). Dreamcast did best when taking risks with such games as Jet Grind Radio, Chu Chu Rocket, Skies of Arcadia, and countless others. These niche games were great, but ultimately lacked mass appeal.

Sega at the time, 1999 to 2001,  was still recovering from flops such as Sega CD, 32X and the Sega Saturn. Consumers didn’t trust Sega and, as a result, were slow to adopt Dreamcast. PS2 killed Dreamcast. Many people didn’t have DVD players and that capability with PS2 really helped give it an edge.

I recommend reading “Console Wars” by Blake Harris. It’s the tale of Sega v. Nintendo in the early 1990s. It primarly concentrates on Genesis vs. Super Nintendo, but hints at the failures of Saturn and Dreamcast as internal conflicts between Sega of Japan (HQ) and their American counterpart (SOA – Sega of America).

Thanks everyone!



An Open Letter to Katherine Kersten

Dear Katherine,

Please stop writing the same article over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Being polite Minnesotans, with exceptions being granted to those commenting anonymously on the Star Tribune’s website, we have tried rather unwillingly to disregard your repetitive assertions that our regional government agency is akin to George Orwell’s 1984.

The assertions in your most recent column (“Met Council’s ‘Thrive’ Plan has a bullying effect”) can best be described as click-bait. One day, I would love to address them, but diagnosing the problem and offering alternatives would render this article dry and exhaustively nuanced, and therefore unreadable. I’ll leave that task to someone else.

There are real issues in reforming the Metropolitian Council. However, the mud-slinging, or more politely, the constructive-less criticism, harms healthy debate.

I have criticisms too. It would likely serve our region better if our representatives were democratically elected. I believe that local government should have more control over funding and that subsidizing large-scale affordable housing complexes near a highway exit in an exurb is silly. I also believe that we’ve allocated limited resources towards some rail projects, specifically the Northstar line, that could have been better used elsewhere.

Believe it or not, there is a surprising amount that we can agree upon. We should approach the debate in this manner.

I may be jumping to conclusions, but I think it is fair to say that you’ve found your base. That being, a group of like-minded souls following you precisely because you’ll give them exactly what they want. You write to the blood-thirsty hyenas as if they are caged and starving, and you’re tossing them a freshly cut steak.

You also know how to strike a chord with the opposition. You do this by twisting admittedly overused planning industry buzzwords and placing them within quotations. “Sustainability”. “Equity”. This is how you express mockery onto the subjects without having to address the root issue. These words have, without question, been greenwashed and co-opted. But, when you examine the heart of these concepts, they’re things we as a society should genuinely care about; and more importantly, they are neither left nor right.

Transportation and land use are nuanced, and we need to treat them as such. To say light rail is always wrong, or conversely, that never building another road is good, is to not understand urban geography. It is fair to say that masterplanning can never be perfect, but it’s unfair to say that our status quo, that being of suburban expansion, has resulted in what the consumer wants. Historically speaking, the free market has not driven the suburban infrastructure and development you claim support. Ironically, it has been that of massive government intervention at the federal, state, regional and local level.

I don’t need to lecture. You already know this. And, since when did you fall down that perilous, slippery slope and into the Phil Donohue school of policy making? Such Met Council bashing only makes only your most admiring supporters feel good about themselves, but it’s unlikely to make much of a dent in the problems we face. A smart person once quipped that.

As someone who would like to see real change at the Metropolitan Council, I would like to politely request that you please start writing critically about it, examining nuances and offering real suggestions. You have a great platform and it’d be a shame to squander such a great opportunity.

Sincerely, -Nathaniel Hood


Place versus Not-Place in Mankato

I took a play from the Andrew Price Playbook and applied it quickly to the downtown of Mankato (using Microsoft Paint). Here’s the aerial from Google Earth:


I’m going to define “place” as: a location where people can comfortable stand without fear of being hit by an automobile. This is white with a blue outline. A “non-place” are streets and parking lots/garages. These are red.


This isn’t scientific, but it does a good job of illustrating what places need work. The street grid doesn’t need to be moved, as it serves a good purpose. However, the large swatches of parking lots (particularly open surface) need to be turned from “non-places” to “places”.


The Irrationality of Infrastructure

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Council is gambling $8.7 million on a project to alleviate congestion that might exist in 5 to 10 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

Why do smart people make bad decisions?

The below $8.7 million piece of public infrastructure is intended to create a more safe passageway for travelers at the Downtown East station during Vikings home games. It’ll serve west and northbound train passengers and other pedestrians looking to enter a new football stadium. It is deemed this will be an important pedestrian overpass once all four major light rail lines completed.

The Viking Stadiums Bridge to Nowhere

Download the Downtown East Plan Met Council PowerPoint here [PDF].

Those reading this should have at least two questions:

  1. How did this come to be a thing?
  2. Why is it all of a sudden getting $8.7 million?

I pay particularly close attention to local projects. I read blogs, forums and newspapers daily. I know and follow local decision-makers on social media, track development proposals, and pay attention to those boring committees few care about. I also work in the industry and talk to other people who work and follow the industry across related professions. It’s fair to say that I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the Twin Cities and the transportation and development needs of the community.

Never once have I heard of this project until a few days ago. And now, out of the blue, we’re dropping $8.7 million on a bridge that’ll be needed 10 days a year starting in 2019.

I wrote a blog post last year titled The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure. It was well received, and is even being used as required reading in an undergrad planning course in California. In the article I theorize as to why we make bad decisions when it comes to receiving other people’s money on transit projects;

It’s the orderly, but dumb system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

The pedestrian bridge is different. It may deal with Federal grants, but is also come from local and regional coffers. Regardless, this project is being pushed forward. According to the Star Tribune,

“The transit agency will likely devote $6 millon from its coffers for the project (this figure could be offset by federal grants), with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (which oversees stadium construction) ponying up $2 million, and the rest coming from bonds issues by the Met Council.”

Before we go any further, I think we need to ask a complex question.

How did we get here?

The new $1 billion Green Line is done and the $1.1 billion Vikings Stadium is underway. They combine to represent over $2 billion of investment. Our local leaders are concerned, as they should be, that these pieces of infrastructure be as perfect as possible.

To quote a former Governor (one who wasn’t a professional wrestler),

“All too often, the human tendency is to compound one big mistake with a series of additional mistakes in the hope that somehow the results will improve. This appears to be the case with the Vikings stadium.”

Politicians are attracted to big, transformitive projects, so it seems only natural that our leaders, who have expelled a great amount of political capital, want to see every inch of it succeed. Even if that means throwing good money after bad.

How We Justify It All

An engineer at the Met Council, likely under much political pressure, noticed something: based on 2019 projections, during peak hours on Minnesota Vikings game days, there will be only a 120 second headway between trains. This will likely not be enough time to manage safe pedestrian crossings. The proposed solution is the bridge.


Please note the skyway attached to the State-mandated parking structure.

The pedestrian bridge makes some sense. Based on the projections, there will be long lines and delays during this period; and building a bridge for pedestrians certainly isn’t an unreasonable response. The Met Council’s Transportation Committee appears to be interested in the idea.

But, let’s look at these assumptions: they assume that there will be two additional light rail lines in full operation, both of which have not yet even been either fully allocated money or constructed. Basically, the Met Council is gambling $8.7 million that there might be a problem in 5 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

To reiterate: Four (4) LRT lines being in operation (Blue, Green, SW & Bottentieu) and that Vikings game attendees hitting a 40% transit mode share. It also assumes, more importantly, that if there is congestion people will not find an alternative route or change their travel behavior.

It’s just hard not to see this as buying flood insurance for the house you have yet to purchase.

Where are the Met Council’s Priorities?

Why did this project get fast-tracked while other smaller, more “everyday” projects never see the light of day? And, when smaller projects get the public’s attention, why do they struggle to find funding? These are merely a question of priorities.

As Nick Magrino (at streets.mn) has asked so often, “why are we embarrassed by the bus?” He writes,

“… I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on.”

A bridge like this seems like such a low priority, especially when we have legitimate transportation needs. For example, THIS is a bus stop on a heavily used transit line near the center of Minneapolis.

It’s not that a pedestrian bridge is a terrible idea. Under the projections, at some point in the future, it seems maybe reasonable. But, why is the Met Council prioritizing and fast-tracking this, whereas things like bike lanes, bus shelters, and potholes get ignored? I say this because you could build 40 miles of protected bike lanes for the same price tag.

Projects can take on a life of their own. There is no traditional process to getting things done. In this pedestrian overpass, you have the right person with the right slideshow presenting it to the right people at the right time. From here, you have the Met Council employees and political-appointed representatives who have monies at their disposal. The proposal, while not perfect, seems reasonable enough. And, we’ve just spent $2 billion on infrastructure, so we need to make it right. The presentation looks good, so why not go for it?

What would your City do with $8.7 million?

Imagine if the City of Minneapolis was given $8.7 million that could only be used on downtown pedestrian and/or transit projects. What would they do? The answer is: not a pedestrian bridge to be used during 10 sports games a year.

So, why are we doing it?

The answer is that we can get money from elsewhere to do the things we don’t need to do. But, when it comes to doing the simple things that we need to do, well, that money isn’t available from elsewhere. The pedestrian bridge is a bad idea (right now) that’s made worse when you think of the countless thousands of more useful public investments we could be making.

Our priorities get skewed and we misallocate resources most when our funding comes from elsewhere. In fact, it is precisely why Minneapolis has the below. All of which the City of Minneapolis will be tearing down in 30 years …