The Fight for Pedestrian Safety

Getting even a modest pedestrian improvements can be an uphill battle. We have a design bias and process that is inherently unfriendly to pedestrians and bicycles. While we’ve made great strides in the last decade, it’s still a constant (and frustrating) battle.

Take a recent incident in Minneapolis as an example; a simple concrete median that protects pedestrians and bicycles is about to be removed. It comes after a dozen communities meetings, a lengthy engagement process, broad-based community support, and the backing of local City Council members.


Why is it being removed? Because a guy in Public Works doesn’t like it. Apparently cars keep hitting it. And therefore, it must be removed? This may seem like a small deal, but it’s not. It’s an example of the uphill battle that bike and pedestrians advocates are up against.

The system – as it is currently structured – it designed at every corner to favor the automobile.

It’s so omnipresent that we often forget it exists. I was walking back from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market in walkable Lowertown this last weekend and I was stopped in my tracks at the corner of 6th St & Sibley as a car whizzed by.


For those unfamiliar, this is great neighborhood that most any urbanist would love. It’s mixed-use, dense, has wide sidewalks, on-street parking, outdoor cafe seating, good public spaces, and plenty of eyes on the street. Yet, despite all these gains, there are still plenty of anti-urban transportation hold-outs present in the design.

Problem 1: The Corner


This corner radii was designed not to improve the safety of pedestrians, but to help cars make a right turn without having to slow down. This is a classic example of highway design being imposed on our downtowns and it’s omnipresent across America. The goal of a city street should not be to maximize traffic flow.


This is Traffic Calming 101.

When a street has a wider curve, vehicles can move around it much faster. When coupled with one-way streets, this can be even more dangerous. Simply reducing corner radius can have a huge impact. This (cheap) design element improves pedestrian safety.

This is a very simple, cost-effect way to improve walkability downtown. We need to start designing our downtowns for people, and not a thoroughfare for commuter traffic.

Problem 2: One-way Streets

The verdict is out, and it’s been out for a long time. Yet, these multi-lane one-way couplings still exist in most of our downtowns.


I don’t like writing about this because it’s so obvious. One way streets are bad for everyone except speeding cars. The struggle is that most our American downtowns are held hostage by a commuter culture. Politicians and traffic engineers are hesitant to disrupt that culture. It’s a shame, because they should.

Eric Jaffe at CityLab lists the most obvious reasons:

  • Livability: vehicles stop less on one-way streets, which is hard for bikers and pedestrians.
  • Navigation: one-way street networks are confusing for drivers, which leads to more vehicle-miles traveled; they also make it tough for bus riders to locate stops for a return trip.
  • Safety: speeds tend to be higher on one-way streets, and some studies suggest drivers pay less attention on them because there’s no conflicting traffic flow.
  • Economics: local businesses believe that two-way streets increase visibility.

One-way streets are a transportation relic that need to be expelled in most all cases. We need to value livability, navigation, safety, and economics above the desire to travel fast in an automobile.

Problem 3: Unneeded Turn Lanes


Every turn lane imposed on the urban environment where it is not needed does three things:

  • Increased crossing distance: pedestrians are in the intersection, where they’re most likely to be injured, for 10 to 13 more feet.
  • Reduced size of sidewalk: creates less space for people to walk or a business to have outdoor seating
  • Eliminates on-street parking: removes an important safety buffer, and each on-street parking space is one that doesn’t need to be expensively built off-street.

Again, this is difficult to write about because it’s so obvious. The dynamic needs to shift, and it needs to shift quickly.

The intersection I’m describing is actually okay for walkability – when compared to what most American intersections looks like. The fact that only three problems exist makes it one of the better one. This is a problem. And, we shouldn’t have a system where these auto-biases are built so ubiquitously. We shouldn’t have system where – after lots of effort and community support – an infrastructure improvement can be overruled because a person at Public Works doesn’t like it.

The American transportation system is designed at every corner to favor the automobile, and it’s a system that needs to end.

Rendering of proposed 494/169 interchange

Wasted: Before and After 125 Million Dollars

My very first post here at Strong Towns was on July 13th of 2011. Time flies.

In this post, I dove into a project that was underway here in Minnesota. It’s finished now, and the results shouldn’t shock anyone reading Strong Towns. The question isn’t whether the $125 million was wasted, but how wasted it was.

Highway 169 and Interstate 494 can be one of the more frustrating intersections to navigate in the Twin Cities. It was in 2011 and it is in 2015. During peak periods, it is either at a stand-still or creeping along slowly, and it went without saying that something needed to be done. That thing happened and it looks like what you see below.

Rendering of proposed 494/169 interchange

Rendering of 494/169 interchange. Completed in 2012.

Here’s a summary of what I wrote in 2011 about the $125 million interchange project:

Proponents of the new intersection argue it will reduce congestion and be a beacon of much needed “economic development” while “saving lives, time and money while strengthening the economy of our state and region.” Although well-intentioned, the advocates couldn’t be more wrong as they have based their assumptions on what is essentially a set of faulty principles.

Over the past 60 years, the American road building status quo has operated under the assumption “if you build it, they will come.” And for the most part, this has happened. We built more roads and continued to see more congestion. Like a broken record, we fell victim to the fundamental law of road building that states more roads will beget more traffic. This theory has been particularly true for I-494 and H-169. At its present capacity, the interchange is overused and outdated. Yet the current interchange, which was built during the mid-1990s, is only outdated because of the development pattern we’ve chosen.

For starters, I can’t believe I wrote that. I’m now more likely to write words like “dude” into my blog posts. Informal is the way to write.

So, this post goes on to say that most of the congestion on 494/169 exists for reasons other than engineering (by the way, the actual engineering is good). It exists because we’ve built lots and lots of single family houses outside of the metropolitan beltway where people are reliant on driving long distances. Take a look for yourself: Scott County in 1991 versus 2009. This is precisely the type of development we’re likely to get out if we continue to subsidize massive road projects like this one.

The structural problem in our road building system is that we’ve based these large financial decisions on faulty premises and inaccurate estimations. We’ve justified and enabled the subsidizing of less efficient forms of development through the aid of cost-benefit analysis. The 494 /169 interchange looks great on paper at first glance. It’s going to create jobs, handle more traffic, help the economy, and save time.

If only these things were true.

I went to the Minnesota Traffic Mapping Application and pulled the most recent (and accessible) data. Note: traffic data collection is not perfect, and these are estimates. It’s especially difficult to accurately capture daily traffic on roads like these.

169 Northbound: 2008 = 80,000 / 2014 = 87,000 (increase 7,000 cars)
169 Southbound: 2008 = 54,000/ 2014 = 48,500 (decrease 5,500 cars)
494 Eastbound: 2010 = 104,000 / 2014 = 107,000 (increase 3,000 cars)
494 Westbound: 2008 = 134,000 / 2012 = 132,000 (decrease 2,000 cars)

We’ve spent $125 million and 2,500 more vehicles use the roadway than in 2008/2010. While over two thousand vehicles is a lot for a resident street, it represents approximately a .6% overall increase. By itself, these numbers don’t really show us much beyond relatively flat vehicle miles travels. But, let’s imagine it is growing. Where are these 2,500 cars coming from? I think we all know this answer.

The cost-benefit on projects like these look merely at numbers. In this case, the interchange project has a 1.19 b/c ratio; meaning that for every dollar spent, there will be a benefit of $1.19. This savings would be remarkable if only it were true. Of the $198 million in “benefits,” $181.6 million is in the form of incremental time savings.

Like so many things, Chuck summarized the situation best in a blog post about costs and benefits:

There is no direct or indirect financial return to the government for this savings. Sure, the application argues that the “delays have a direct impact on the productivity of our local businesses and schools”, but nobody is arguing that this increased productivity will result in … million[s] in increased sales, income and property tax receipts. Or any real increase. The time savings is a purely social benefit for the people … who will now enjoy reduced travel times from the construction of the overpass.

This $181.6 million benefit is a “social benefit” – no money is actually being exchanged nor is government revenue increasing. And these small, incremental pieces of time savings do little to improve overall economic vitality. Improving an individual’s commute from, say, 1 hour to 20 minutes might spur growth, but improving the average daily commute by an estimated 3 minutes and 15 seconds will not.

We are acting under the assumption that moving cars is of the utmost importance and that traffic must be moving at a consistently high speed at all times, no questions asked. MnDOT has identified H-169 has a “high priority interregional corridor,” meaning it must “function at a free-flow level of operation, with a minimum of 60 mph speeds and minimal conflicts and interruptions to traffic flow.” A considerable segment of Highway 169 cuts in relatively close proximity to many residential neighborhoods and commercial areas. Is it absolutely necessary for vehicles to be, at all times, traveling at 60 miles an hour minimum?

Not only do policymakers need to more accurately link traffic growth estimates with current economic realities, but they also need to ask the question of whether we even want to continue to subsidize more sprawl-inducing infrastructure?

Even if this intersection does make new suburban growth possible (which it won’t), it’ll be the type of development that is destructive to our current infrastructure and simply not needed. Minnesota doesn’t need another housing subdivision or big box store.

Here’s my sales pitch: I started a brief weekly musing about local news, culture, urban development, and transportation. Each “newsletter” is only 2 paragraphs, plus 1 recommendation. You can sign up here.

4 Easy Steps to Squash the “There’s No Parking” Complaint

Before we start, I wanted to insert a shameless plug. I am starting a newsletter (via TinyLetter) that includes 2 short, smart, witty paragraphs each week, and 1 local Twin Cities recommendation. You can sign up here.

“There’s no parking!” – Concerned Citizen

I wish I had a bus ticket for every time I heard someone say this. Unless you’re Manhattan or San Francisco, it is fair to say you don’t have a parking problem. I take that back. You do have a parking problem – there’s too much of it.

Here is a quick how-to guide on dealing with those who claim your city or town lacks adequate parking.

1. Understand Perception

The easiest and most time-effective way of convincing your opposition is to have them acknowledge that the perception of parking availability is different than the reality. People come to the conclusion of parking scarcity for a good reason; many live elsewhere and only visit the city during peak periods or special events.

The mindset is beautifully captured by a recent Twitter exchange. I asserted that our downtown does not have a parking problem, and a person responded by complaining that parking for his dinner at an upscale restaurant was an unreasonable $20 (the timing coincided with a professional baseball game on a beautiful weekend night). It was pay $20, or he would be forced to walk from somewhere near the interstate (which happens to be about 5 blocks).

This person likely visits from the suburbs once every other month, and each visit is likely for an event or dinner on a weekend night. They are not present when spaces sit vacant 90 percent of the time. I recommend politely asking them if they’d be willing to drive and park on a Sunday afternoon, Tuesday evening, or Friday morning.

Now, before you start rapidly Tweeting links about Donald Shoup (such as this, this, and this), I recommend the next step …

2. Map Parking Supply

Load up Google Maps in your favorite web browser, search for your local area, and do a screen capture. Paste the image into MS Paint, or similar program. Start highlighting the open surface parking lots and parking garage structures. I recommend downloading Google Earth for this task.

Don’t spend a lot of time doing this. If you know your downtown, it should be straight-forward. Be honest, but don’t nit-pick; this isn’t a scientific peer-reviewed study. Here is a map of downtown St. Paul (created in 2013, slightly outdated):

downtown parking

Creating a visual can be shocking. The above blue spaces represents only off-street surface parking lots and parking garages; but do not highlight on-street or underground parking. Also, they represent only, to the best of my knowledge, available public parking. There are a few more small parking lots but Google limited me to 75 shapes per map.

Make this map and share it on social media and e-mail it to your local Council Member.

3. Document Unused Supply

Walk around your selected area during normal conditions and take photos. By ‘normal conditions’, I mean you shouldn’t document supply the evening of a Rolling Stones concert, nor should you snap photos at 4am on Monday morning.

IMG_0163 IMG_0168

I did this in St. Paul’s Lowertown. I decided upon an early Thursday evening and a Saturday mid-afternoon. I figured these times would capture both commuter parking during the weekday and out-of-town visitors on the weekend (photo collage available here).

Optional upgrade: convert images into black and white to maximize effect. However, most American downtowns don’t need the extra help. Here is a sample comparison:

IMG_0174 FullSizeRender (1)

It is at this point where you may be called out as cherry-picking locations. Hence, I encourage you to be fair and also document areas that have cars parked, such as this. As a final bit of advice, make sure to also snap photos of people out and about. Here is a block of sidewalk cafes during the same time frame, such as this photo taken on Saturday afternoon.

4. Use Yourself as a Case Study

Do it yourself advocacy is as simple as parking. I recommend getting a cheap dashboard camera (or mounting your phone) and recording yourself trying to park. I did this and here are the results on YouTube. I called it a challenge. It was anything but. As expected, parking was simple.

The rules: drive to the contested area, take the same route everyday, park as close as possible to most congested spot, and park for free (yes, $0).

To quickly summarize, my findings for the “Challenge”:

  • Furthest distance: 610 feet away
  • Closest distance: During three of the trips, I found a spot directly on the park
  • Cost: I never once paid for parking (note: I did pay for gas)
  • Shortest time spent finding a spot: 2 minutes and 15 seconds
  • Longest time spent finding a spot: 3 minutes and 41 seconds

All of the times included waiting at stop lights. To enhance enjoyment, I added a soundtrack and sped up the video to 2x. Now, this is not an academic study. I merely sought out to prove that, under current conditions, a person can drive into Lowertown and park with relative ease and do it for free. I also wanted to mention that I’m keenly aware of the limitations of this challenge (e.g.; time of day, work week, etc.).

Follow these three easy steps (and one difficult, time-consuming step involving video) to start combating the perception of a shortage of parking supply in your downtown or neighborhood. These won’t solve anything overnight, but act as a visual display of advocacy that people can relate to.


An Ode to Xfinity LIVE: Philly’s New Dining & Entertainment District

An Ode of xfinity LIVE:
Philly’s New Dining & Entertainment District

Silence builds along the six lane collector
Gray, concrete landscapes haunt fans and non-fans alike
Feeding either loneliness or drunkenness
A city stricken and destroyed

So here we are
So bold, so quiet, so expensive
Next to the Wells Fargo Center;
Home of the Flyers
Next to the Lincoln Financial Field;
Home of the Eagles
Next to the Citizen’s Bank Park;
Home of the Phillies

There is no sound but the buzzing of engines
This section of town has thrown in the towel
Sports, sports, sports, and valet parking
But one can dream of Super Bowl glory

Emptiness builds among the sea of parking
Welcome to the vapid landscape of nowhereness
Eating away every traditional urban thread

Xfinity Live, Philly’s New Dining & Entertainment District
The center of the world
Or the edge of the universe
Rarely anything in between
The only guarantee is convenient parking


A Matter of Priority #DuctTapeTour

A vast majority of our infrastructure is predicated on treating non-automobiles as second-class citizens. This is the status quo. One doesn’t need to look far to find examples; including one that was posted here yesterday (Orderly but dumb crosswalk), which comes close to rivaling my favorite engineering fail (courtesy of Jim Kunstler’s ‘Eyesore of the Month’).


The famous crosswalk to nowhere

Then there is this high profile case documented by Matt Steele on; a local doctor out for a jog was killed while trying to cross a four lane stroad. What makes this case so interesting is that the trail crossing was diverted in 2014:


The “improved” intersection is on the bottom.

The decision was made at this (former) intersection to prioritize automobiles and re-route pedestrians. Instead of walking 45 feet, pedestrians must now walk a quarter of a mile to get to the same destination. Steele continues;

Whoever designed and approved of this change saw trail users, including joggers, as the problem. But the problem is clearly the Four Lane Death Road, signed at 45 MPH, overcapacity for the 12 to 17 thousand vehicles per day. Instead of a refuge island, HAWK beacon, or similar improvement, [the city] decided to … make this trail intersection disappear. There is no clearer indication that the values of the public are not the values getting applied to streets and urban roads in our communities, and people are dying as a result.

This is our priority and people die as a result. We have accepted this compromise in order to have vehicle traffic move slightly faster. This is the status quo. If this doesn’t make you upset and frustrated, it should. You should want to see change.

So, who is looking to make that change?

There are a lot of great organizations out there (including this one). Yet, despite amazing organizations, it can be difficult to combat the lobbying organizations of the world. Locally in Minnesota, we have MoveMN.

To give you an idea of where they stand on the issue of pedestrian priority, let’s take a quick look at their “Duct Tape Tour”.

Keep your eyes open while traversing Minnesota’s highways this summer. If you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of the Ford F250 Super Duty Diesel – over 15 miles per gallon fuel economy – carrying the big roll of duct tape.


The Roll of Tape wouldn’t fit in the Prius.

The hashtag #DuctTapeTour had a few pictures, so I thought I would post them and give a quick rundown of why I am so hesitant to support their continued push for the status quo. It seems small, but it’s a major cultural issue that I find hard to get over: the places they’re holding your press conferences are prime examples of bad infrastructure.


Need more empty gas station parking lots?

The “Duct Tape Tour” was spotted (and tweeted) right outside the Bemidji Holiday Gas Station. Here’s another view of this area of Bemidji that is apparently in dire need of more infrastructure. The project that was being promoted at this stop was the “Paul Bunyan Expressway” that would expand a two lane highway to four lanes in order to connect Jenkins (pop. 437) to Pine River (pop. 934).

You all know Jenkins, right?

This connection is being touted as vital to northern Minnesota’s health. This 6.1 mile stretch of road will cost $58 million. Money well spent?

The #DuctTapeTour also visited west central Minnesota.


Taken behind Willmar’s unwalkable high school.

MoveMN did their press conference for local media next to the MnDOT facility (here), which unfortunately has a better location than their new high school (Walk Score: 4). If you look around at the adjacent road network, you’ll notice that more infrastructure is probably the last thing this area of Willmar needs.

Oh, and let’s not forget the south central Minnesota stop and press conference they held in Mankato’s Discount Tire parking lot.


Photo taken in Mankato’s Discount Tire parking lot

Now, look at this next image and tell me we need more money for the status quo …


Do we need more road infrastructure? Apparently.

This is why MoveMN is having so much trouble getting people like myself on their side. This. Look above. This is where you’re holding your press conferences? And your tweeting about it? This is the status quo.

The image of Mankato’s northeast side (above) is why we can’t fix what we have. And, it’s why we don’t seem to have any money in the budget for sensible bike and pedestrian projects. In other words, if you’re looking for more pedestrian deaths, I recommend supporting the status quo. The tragic case discussed above is not unique. In fact, it’s quite common – and our status quo appears to want to continue the trend. Because, you know, cars shouldn’t need to slow down. It’s the American way.