Department of Accessibility

At, Andrew Owen has a fascinating look at the work he has done with David Levinson on measuring accessibility in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.  I’ll let Andrew define accessibility:

Accessibility measures the ease of reaching valued destinations.

Think about the last trip you made. You were in place A, you wanted to be in place B, and you got there by paying some sort of cost. There are several components at work here.

First, lets look at your reason for wanted to be in place B. That’s the whole reason the trip took place! You didn’t just want to move around for a bit, and then come back to A. (People do that sometimes, but we don’t consider it travel — we call it things like recreationexercise, or NASCAR.) No, you had a reason for traveling to place B. That reason, from a transportation economics perspective, is the value that place B holds for you.

Now that we’ve established that place B has some value to you, it would be great if you could get there whenever you want, for free. But you can’t. Even if you frugally decide to walk from A to B instead of drive, fly, take the bus, or ride a horse, you cannot escape spending a precious resource: your time. The total amount of resources you spend in getting to B, whether they are time, money, oats (for your horse), or some combination, is thecost you pay to reach place B. To generalize just a little bit more, we can say that when the cost of getting to B is low, then B is easy to reach.

That, in a nutshell, is accessibility. It combines the value that we get from travel with the cost of making the trip. I love accessibility because it neatly encapsulates what I consider to be the fundamental purpose of transportation systems: providing ways for people to get to places they want to reach, at costs they are willing to pay.

Andrew then goes on to discuss the results of a project they completed for MN-DOT on measuring “cumulative opportunities accessibility”, or how many things can be reached within a given cost (time) threshold by car and transit.   You should read the whole post to see Andrew’s many interesting conclusions.

After reading it, a few things jumped out at me:

Owning a car gives you an overwhelming advantage in accessing jobs in this metro.  In a huge swath of the metro, making up all but the most outlying areas, you can access at least 100,000 jobs in 20 minutes by car.  A very large area, incorporating both core cities and most first-ring suburbs, can access over 500,000 jobs and up to 2.2 million.  By contrast, transit accessibility to jobs maxes out at 100k – 250k jobs, and this is if you live very near downtown Minneapolis.  If you live in parts of North and South Minneapolis and use transit, you have the same access to jobs in 20 minutes as someone with a car living in southern Dakota County (like in a corn field).  Or, based on the map shown below, from parts of Minneapolis, you can only reach 10-20% of the number of jobs reachable by car.

Ratio of jobs accessible by transit to jobs accessible by car

Is our transportation/land use system is failing those that can least afford a car?  I’d say that judgment wouldn’t be a stretch looking at these maps.  It will be interesting to see what MNDOT does with this information.

There will be a temptation to interpret this metric as only about transportation.  It’s actually about destination density AND transportation system performance.  I posted this idea in the comments and Andrew had a good response:

That’s a great point, and I didn’t talk much about the land use side of things in this post.

I feel like the popular conception often sees land use as more static than transportation; it is the background canvas upon which the dynamic lines of transportation are drawn. Discussion of expensive, exciting transportation systems tends to magnify this effect.

But in reality land use is far more dynamic! Transportation systems change in big fits and starts, but land use is constantly evolving in countless small ways. Even if we completely halted new investments in transportation, we could still make huge changes in accessibility through the policies we choose to guide land use development.

MNDOT mostly builds roads, so I assume they’ll use this report to think about where and how they should build more roads.  But if your goal is increasing accessibility, is it cheaper to lay blacktop or increase jobs/housing density?  What are the environmental implications of choosing each of those options?  Why do we have one half of the equation that’s totally socialized (road & transit building) and one that is totally privatized (with obvious regulation – land use controls/building construction)?

What if instead of a Department of Transportation we had a Department of Accessibility and it’s mission was to improve accessibility while meeting environmental standards, building resilient systems, and being economically viable?  I bet it would look at lot different than our current DOTs (hint: it would do a lot more with land use).

Mapping the Twin Cities bike counts

View Larger Map

Much has already been written about the 2011 bike counts: the great news that counts continue to climb, how we might use them to prioritize infrastructure improvements, and even what grains of salt we should consume along with the data.  But I haven’t seen anyone map them yet.

So here’s my contribution.  Circle size represents 2011 count totals.  These are also the true counts, not extrapolated to annual numbers (I don’t think those numbers have even been released yet).

Cross-posted at

Using bikes for serious emissions reduction

Bicycles in a square

According to the European Cycling Federation, if the whole of the EU cycled like the Danes, they could achieve significant emissions cuts.

If the EU cycling rate was the same as it is in Denmark, where the average person cycles almost 600 miles (965km) each year, then the bloc would attain anything from 12% to 26% of its targeted transport emissions reduction, depending on what forms of transport the cycling replaced, according to the report by the Brussels-based European Cycling Federation (ECF).

This figure is likely to be a significant underestimate as it deliberately excludes the environmental impact of building road infrastructure and parking, or maintaining and disposing of cars.

These figures are for the EU’s 2050 emissions reduction target.  The figures are even greater for 2020 targets.

Bikes are not a new technology that would require long adoption periods and high initial capital costs.  Almost everyone knows how to use them, and they are cheap.  They also have myriad co-benefits, not least of which is increased physical activity.  To get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should take a close look at the bike as a potential solution.

Using ECF’s study as a model and making some estimates, the Twin Cities metro could see some significant emissions reductions if we biked like the Danes, but getting there would be tough.  I’ll get to that, but first some initial thoughts on the Europeans. Continue reading

It’s very expensive

Strong Towns on the Stillwater Bridge.

Let’s stipulate for the sake of this conversation that the new St. Croix bridge is a worthy project (it’s not, but let’s pretend that it is). At a time when Americans are being forced to make some really difficult financial decisions, particularly about infrastructure spending, the reason why this project is likely to proceed while 1,100+ of our deficient bridges receive little funding is important to understand. Understanding that reason will illuminate why we are in such a dire financial situation, why our infrastructure is failing and why nothing we are likely to do will make the problem better.

The St. Croix bridge is a very expensive project. It is projected to cost more than the estimate for fixing ALL of the 1,149 structurally deficient bridges in Minnesota.

Without knowing the numbers, it would be fair to assume that the St. Croix bridge is really critical in terms of traffic volume. Not so. The bridge is projected to carry 16,000 vehicles per day. For comparision, Minnesota’s 1,149 structurally deficient bridges carry a combined 2.4 million vehicles per day.

This seems insane, and it is. Why would a state full of rational people spend $670 million on one bridge to carry 16,000 cars when we already have 1,149 bridges carrying over 2.4 million cars that are in a state of critical disrepair? Why would we not spend the money first on maintaining the bridges that we have? What business do we have adding more bridges to the inventory when we do not have the resources to maintain our existing ones?

Twin Cities Urban Sustainability Forum – Nov 2 & 3

I have a family obligation to promote the Twin Cities Urban Sustainability Forum on November 2nd and 3rd.  The forum is bringing together academics and practitioners to explore the connection between urban sustainability, what planners and practitioners often work on, and urban ecosystems, which I think is a way for the St. Paul campus folks to get involved in cities.

Twin Cities Urban Sustainability Forum, Nov. 2-3, 2011


Registration website

Updated (10-12) agenda, including speakers and panels

Cost: $25  general $10 students

Continuing education: AICP and PDH credits available
Location:  U of M Continuing Education Center, St. Paul campus.

ABOUT THE FORUM The Forum will highlight emerging outcomes of sustainability research and cutting edge trends in sustainability practice and policy. Presentations by leading national and international speakers will address:

· Connecting urban ecosystem science with social and economic sustainability

· Federal and state-level sustainability policy

· Overcoming disconnects between sustainability research and practice

Insightful panels and networking opportunities will inform a translational research agenda – to ensure a closer connection between re-search priorities and urban sustainability practice.

Speakers from the federal Sustainable Communities Partnership and state agencies will highlight emerging policy directions in sustainability. Researchers from the University of Oregon, University of Colorado, Virginia Tech, and the University of Minnesota will highlight cutting edge research addressing urban infrastructure, energy, air quality, health, and natural resource issues. U of MN research center directors, including CURA and CTS, will explore new approaches to connecting research and practice around sustainability.

WHO SHOULD ATTEND?  Planners, water and natural resource managers, engineers, urban ecologists, and others interested in urban sustainability practice or research.

For more information: Contact co-organizers Lawrence A. Baker, Dept. of Bioproducts & Biosystems Engineering ( and Carissa Schively Slotterback, Urban & Regional Planning Program, Humphrey School of Public Affairs (

The event is funded by the McKnight Foundation, National Science Foundation, U of M Center for Transportation Studies, and U of M Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 5)

Minnpost interviewed Representative Betty McCollum (whose district does not include the Stillwater bridge).  She has strong feelings about the proposed bridge.

MinnPost: You’ve long been against the plans for a big freeway-style bridge plans south of Stillwater. Is cost your major concern?

Rep. Betty McCollum: Cost should be every Minnesota taxpayer’s concern. Did you know the proposed St. Croix mega-bridge would be the most expensive bridge ever built in Minnesota? This project will cost $700 million and serve 18,000 vehicles the day it opens. Compare that to the $390 million price tag for building BOTH the new Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis and the Lafayette Bridge under construction in downtown St. Paul. The I-35W and Lafayette bridges are used by nearly 300,000 Minnesotans every day.

Based on the facts, the mega-bridge fails every common-sense test of taxpayer value. The mega-bridge wastes taxpayer money, especially when smaller, less-expensive options are available. Stillwater needs and deserves a new bridge, but a $700 million mega-bridge only six miles from the I-94 crossing is both excessive and irresponsible.

MinnPost: How about the environmental concerns?

McCollum: The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is the law of the land. It should be respected, not tampered with, as is being proposed in both the House and Senate legislation. I believe the Stillwater Lift Bridge can be replaced in a way that’s compatible with the letter and spirit of the law. The St. Croix is the only river in Minnesota protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The current design has been litigated and delayed for years and years because it violates the law.

Beyond Minnesota, the mega-bridge sets a new, dangerously low standard that would threaten every mile of every protected river in the national Wild and Scenic River system.

MinnPost: You’ve said that a new bridge would benefit Wisconsin more than Minnesota. How does that work?

McCollum: The estimates I’ve seen show 75 percent of the bridge traffic would be from Wisconsin, while Minnesota taxpayers pay the majority of the costs.

MinnPost: Would a new bridge feed urban sprawl, too?

McCollum: The proposed four-lane, freeway-style mega-bridge is designed to accelerate urban sprawl. But growth at the edges of the metro has come to a screeching halt because of the housing slump and high gas prices. So the bridge is not only poor urban planning, but it’s also out of sync with today’s economic realities. A smaller, appropriately scaled bridge can meet the transportation needs of both Minnesota and Wisconsin residents, regardless of population growth in St. Croix County.

LEED ND for regional planning at Twin Cities Research Group

Net Density has been on a little bit of a hiatus lately, mostly because of the deluge of summer-time activities.  In Minnesota, we have to take advantage of the weather while we can.  No one is indoors reading planning blogs, right?

Well, if you aren’t out riding your bike or drinking beer on a dock somewhere and you need some planning wonk, you can see me presenting on LEED ND for Regional Planning at the Twin Cities Research Group next Wednesday, June 8th.

TCRG Brown Bag Speaker Series:

Wednesday, June 8, Noon to 1:00 p.m.

Topic: Location Efficiency in the Twin Cities: Using LEED-ND for Regional Planning

How can our region accommodate the expected addition of a million people between now and 2030 while protecting critical natural systems, minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, using infrastructure efficiently and building vibrant and economically competitive communities? This presentation demonstrates that the principles of LEED-ND (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development rating system) can be applied to develop more effective regional planning and growth management policies. GIS analysis was used to show what areas of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region are eligible for LEED-ND based on location requirements and existing built form.

Featured Speaker: Brendon Slotterback, AICP, LEED AP, is a Sustainability Program Coordinator at City of Minneapolis

Where: Wilder Foundation, Room 2610, 451 Lexington Parkway (at University Ave), Saint Paul, MN 55114

Map with the meeting’s location is at

Event is FREE.  Wilder’s parking ramp is FREE.  Bring your own brown-bag lunch.

As always, we will have an open discussion with the presenter at the end of the hour. Join us to participate with your ideas, questions, and suggestions.

How the bicycle economy can help us beat the energy crisis

Elly Blue at Grist has a very interesting series on “bikenomics”, exploring the impact of bicycling on economics, both micro and macro.  Her post on the economic case for on-street bike parking is great, and should be made into a flyer and sent to all small businesses in Minneapolis.  Her latest post deals with “the energy crisis”, meaning generally addiction to oil, high gas prices, and environmental externalities of fossil fuel use.

There’s no easy way out at this point. But if we approach energy as a transportation issue rather than a geopolitical one, we can at least start to see a way through it.

Instead of pushing gas prices back to even more artificial lows, we need to invest that money that is normally all tied up in oil into bikes … and places to ride them.

Bicycling makes a lot of sense in a landscape built for cars. Bikes are fast and flexible enough to fill the gap between transforming spread-out driving destinations to walkable, accessible communities. With 40 percent of our driving trips spanning less than two miles, the distances are feasible — so long as the roads aren’t designed to be terrifying.

It takes minimal investments, mostly in mitigating the effects of sharing space with motor vehicles, for bicycling to almost overnight become a convenient and attractive choice for many, many people.

She does conclude by saying that nothing can save us from our energy crisis (although the bike will help us get through it with “grace”).  But how much impact could it really have?  The statistic she cites – 40 percent of our driving trips span less than two miles – seems amazing.  What if we could convert some of those trips of that to a bike or walking?

According to the Metropolitan Council’s latest Transportation Behavior Inventory survey, the average household makes 10.3 motorized trips per day. Perhaps 9 of these trips include an automobile.  3.6 trips per day (40 percent of 9) at 2 miles is 7.2 miles per day.  Using average mileage, that is 116 gallons or $465 per year per household (at today’s gas prices).  Not a huge amount, but enough for perhaps a nice weekend vacation with the family.  As a region though, that’s about $500 million per year.  Not too shabby.  Plus, that $500 million isn’t going to countries we don’t like, much of it will likely circulate in the local economy.  That’s also 130 million fewer gallons of gasoline burned and 1 million fewer metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere, which is about 5 percent of the emissions from gasoline in Minnesota every year.

So if we can take the shortest of our short trips by bike instead of car, will we have an impact?  Not huge, but definitely measurable.  Of course, the above are numbers for just a few of the benefits, Blue offers many more.  I feel out of my depth trying to answer questions about if and how we could do it, but the most recent numbers for the Twin Cities show only cycling and telecommuting growing in mode share, so I’d venture an “it’s possible”.