Washington Avenue Traffic Projections

Hennepin County is preparing to reconstruct a portion of Washington Avenue between Hennepin Avenue and 5th Avenue South.  There has been much discussion of this project, in part because the reconstructed road may or may not include some sort of bike facilities.

Today I got an email about an upcoming public meeting for the project, and I noticed the project webpage includes a Traffic Operation Analysis with some traffic projections through 2035.  Hennepin County is projecting a 0.5% annual growth in traffic volumes between 2011 and 2035.

Hennepin County provided traffic volume forecasting information for the Washington
Avenue study area. Several considerations included in the traffic forecasts are:
Minneapolis overall expects to add 36,000 residents and 30,000 employees over
the next 20 years.

  • Closure of Washington Avenue through the U of M, east of the Mississippi River.
  • Construction of the new 4th Street S on-ramp connection to northbound 35W.
  • Reconfiguration of the interchange at Washington Avenue SE/Cedar Avenue.
  • Construction of the Central Corridor LRT line.
  • The impact of continued development in the downtown area including
  • townhomes/condos, office space and retail businesses.

Given the above considerations and through a review of past studies completed within the project area, Hennepin County recommends that the traffic forecasts be based on applying a 0.5 percent per year growth rate (13 percent increase by 2035) to the existing traffic volumes, then adjusting Washington Avenue, 3rd Street S and 4th Street S traffic volumes to account for circulation changes with the future 4th Street S on-ramp connection to northbound 35W.

I don’t feel qualified to speak about hyper-local traffic patterns based on certain street closures and circulation patterns.  That’s traffic engineer stuff.  But here are a few things (and charts) to consider:

  • According to Mark Filipi, who works on regional traffic modeling for the Metropolitan Council, the regional traffic model (based on old comp plan data) projects 0.3% annual growth in total Minneapolis VMT through 2025.  This is lower than 0.5%.
  • Total Minneapolis VMT has basically been falling since 2002, with non-interstate VMT fluctuating around flat growth (all VMT figures from MNDOT).Minneapolis VMT
  • Minnesota total VMT per capita has been falling steadily since 2004 at over half a percent each year, and total VMT has been falling since 2007.  Minnesota VMT and VMT per capita
  • According to the Minneapolis Traffic Count Management System, two of the three traffic count locations on Washington Avenue in the study area show a drop in traffic from their peaks in the late 90’s/early 00’s.  The third shows flat volumes.Washington Traffic Counts Between 3rd Ave & 4th Ave

Does all this mean that 0.5% annual growth rate on Washington Avenue is incorrect?  I’m not sure.  Minneapolis does plan to grow a lot of downtown jobs and housing.  On the other hand, per capita VMT trends have been falling not just in Minnesota, but across the country and world.  In addition, Minneapolis policy makers have stated their goals to shift modes.  It’s troublesome to me that in the “considerations” that Hennepin County used in their traffic forecasts, they didn’t include plans for that mode shift the same way they include plans for development.

Given the severe lack of detail on how the 0.5% growth figure was developed, I don’t think the community should accept any design predicated on that figure without some additional explanation, especially if the capacity needed to accomodate that growth is given as a reason to reject elements that will make this street a livable, vibrant and valuable place, namely, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Cross-posted at streets.mn

2012 Nice Ride Flows


Presented here without scale or legend, are the Nice Ride flows from 2012.  As with the mapping I did for 2011, individual road segments are thickened to represent the volume of Nice Ride traffic that traveled over them during the year. Bike trails and lanes were favored by the routing software, but since it looked for direct routes, some paths may be under or over represented compared with real-life Nice Rider travel (Cedar Lake Trail versus Hennepin Avenue, for example).

St. Paul is much more vibrant in 2012, with the Lake Street bridge seeing a high volume of Nice Riders crossing to our twin city.  Top traffic segments included the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck south of Loring Park, south of the Stone Arch Bridge, West River Parkway, and the Hiawatha trail east of the Metrodome.

Once again, kudos to Nice Ride for releasing all this awesome data.

2012 Nice Ride by the numbers

View Larger Map

Nice Ride has released all the numbers for their 2012 season, and things are looking good.
  • Total number of stations increased 24%
  • Total rentals increased 26%
  • Total duration of rentals increased 36%
  • Rentals by Nice Ride subscribers increased 14%
  • Rentals by casual users (non-subscribers) increased 50%
  • The 2012 season peaked in June with 52,000 rentals, while the 2011 season peaked later, in July with about 49,000 rentals.

Distribution of usage among stations looks similar to 2011, with the notable exception that many more St. Paul stations were online in 2012.  Heaviest stations usage is still in the diagonal Hennepin Ave corridor between SE 4th Street and Lake Street in Uptown.

Notable changes in the data include the fact that Nice Ride is no longer including the gender of each rental rider, which means we’ll have a harder time determining if we’re addressing the gender gap.  They are also not giving us a list of subscribers like they did in 2011, so we can’t analyze that.

I may map the fluxes flows like I did last year, but I think someone has the jump on me.

Bike lanes for jobs

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says protected bike facilities are important to retain hi-tech jobs in his city.

“By next year I believe the city of Chicago will lead the country in protected bike lanes and dedicated bike lanes and it will be the bike friendliest city in the country,” Emanuel said Sunday at Malcolm X College.

“It will help us recruit the type of people that have been leaving for the coast. They will now come to the city of Chicago. The type of companies that have been leaving for the coast will stay in the city of Chicago.”

Emanuel cited a recent meeting with executives from the hot Internet startup company GrubHub who told him that when they recruit engineers they show the new protected bike lanes which Chicago has been installing since last summer.

Very local control of urban parking spaces

David King makes an intriguing case for ceding control of on-street parking spaces to local businesses and residents, rather than relying on centralized management to make the best decision.  He mentions this in the course of describing a NYC program that allows businesses to petition to replace a parking space with on-street bike racks.

Here is a link to the city’s webpage that explains the program. The way it works is a partner (usually a business but this is not clear) petitions to convert a car parking space into a bike parking space. This is good! The partner is responsible for clearing snow and trash, and can add planters if they wish. While I think this is progress, I have two points:

  1. the city should maintain the bike spaces just as they do all auto spaces. Placing the onus on partners to clean spaces just because they are bike spaces shows clear favor toward autos. Why should bikes be held to a greater standard of private responsibility?
  2. New York City is admirably allowing businesses to take over curb parking for non-auto uses. Here is a report from 2011 that explains the effects of restaurant seating in curb spaces. The competition for curb spaces in parts of the city suggests that planners and business need to be thinking more broadly about what curb spaces are worth. Their value as spaces for cars is low, but parking spaces are extremely valuable for goods movement, food trucks, bicycle parking (which is a major headache in many parts of the city), emergency services, restaurant seating, etc. Perhaps one way to manage the conflicts that arise is to let businesses and residents manage all of the parking spaces locally. Even the latest RFQ from the city to enter a contract for management of all of the city’s parking meters only considers that one company will run the whole show. Why not let curb parking be a flexible (or “programmable” in planner’s lingo) land use that is controlled by the building or block? Dense urban areas need these types of flexible spaces more than they need cheap parking for cars, not to mention dudes like this guy. You can’t make the argument that cities have been managing curbs spaces successfully under centralized control. Very local control may prove a better option. It is at least worth considering.

Time for a change on Park and Portland

This morning I witnessed a very near miss between a cyclist and a school bus on Park Avenue South (also known as County Road 33).  This “bad interaction” would be classified as a “left-hook” where the bus was slowing to turn left, and failed to yield to the cyclist in the bike lane (approaching from the left and behind). Had this crash occurred, it would most likely have been severe, if not fatal for the cyclist.  This is the same kind of crash that killed a cyclist on Park Avenue in 2009.

It’s always seemed a little crazy to me that some of Minneapolis’ most heavily-used bike facilities are located on streets that are functionally freeway relievers (see Blaisdell/1st Avenue on the west side of 35W).  Drivers expect (and marked speed limits permit) travel at 35, 40 or 45 miles per hour on these routes, feet away from cyclists traveling 5, 10 or 15 miles per hour.

Don’t get me wrong, Park and Portland (likewise Blaisdell and 1st) are pretty great bike routes.  Given their heavy traffic, they have priority over most cross-streets at intersections, meaning a speedy trip.  They’re also huge, so there is space for adequate bike lanes.

I don’t know what the ideal configuration is for bikes and cars on these two one-way pairs, but as Hennepin County prepares to repair and re-stripe Park and Portland this summer, I think it’s a good time to think about how both of these pairs could be made safer and more inviting for cyclists.  In fact, Hennepin County’s Complete Streets policy actually requires them to assess all road projects for inclusion of Complete Streets features and “integrate innovative and non-traditional design options”.

So, in order to get the discussion started, here are some questions and ideas:

  1. Do these streets need to be one-ways? Park/Portland and Blaisdell/1st became the one-ways pairs we know today to address traffic capacity prior to the construction of the freeway system.  Well, we have a freeway now (and a newly widened one at that), so I think it’s time to reassess this configuration. Blaisdell at 40th sees 2,800 AADT, hardly two-lane one-way street territory. Access Minneapolis, the adopted citywide transportation plan, specifically identifies the Park/Portland and Blaisdell/1st Ave one-way-pairs for evaluation and eventual reversion to two-way streets. Two-way traffic would mean slower traffic, and better streets for bikes. Two-way streets also might allow more space for a “multi-street” solution (see #5).

  2. Do these streets need to be three lanes wide?  At any time other than rush hour, three lanes are way too many.  This encourages speeding (see #1) and wastes space that could be used for other modes.  Hiawatha handles similar and greater traffic volumes, and is only two lanes in each direction for most of its length.
  3. Do we need on-street parking on both sides of the street? Park and Portland have parking on both sides.  Losing parking on one side would free up a lot of space to better incorporate bike and ped facilities.
  4. Is there space for an “innovative” solution?  Hennepin County is already apparently considering moving the bike lanes on Park/Portland to the right side of the street, which is a good start.  But what about “buffered” bike lanes (paint, bollards, etc)?  What about putting the row of parked cars between moving traffic and the bike lane?  How about a full-on cycletrack?  New York and Chicago have some great examples of protected facilities on very busy streets that use just paint and parked cars.  With one less row of parking, I’m sure Park and Portland could each fit a wide bike lane and a 6-foot buffer between the curb and a rowed of parked cars.
  5. How about a multi-street solution?  I’ve outlined a multi-street solution to providing a segregated two-way bike facility on the Blaisdell/1st Avenue pair at Net Density.  If Park and Portland were both two-way (or one two-way and one one-way) perhaps both a segregated two-way bike facility could be used on one half of the pair while the other reverted to all-car.  Maybe we could develop one really excellent two-way facility on 1st Avenue south (an at-grade Greenway perhaps)?

  6. What solution is potentially the most safe AND inviting?  We shouldn’t be planning bike facilities for 30-year-old males.  We should be planning facilities for mothers with kids in tow and retirees riding trikes at 5 miles per hour.  Any new facility should increase safety AND be a marketing tool for hesitant cyclists.  People should drive by on their car and think to themselves, “I’d be willing to ride on that.  And I’d be willing to bring my child along with me”.  (Note: there appears to be some controversy over the safety benefits of “segregated” bike facilities.  I won’t weigh in here, except to say that recent evidence seems to show additional bikes on the road means more safety. If better facilities attract more riders and make drivers more aware of cyclists, that is a good thing.  Traffic engineers, please debate in the comments)

What do you think?  Do you ride or drive on Park and Portland?  Are you one of those traffic engineer people who can tell me more about lane widths and design speed and why we’ll eventually be told we can’t have nice things?  Let me hear it (here’s something from twitter to get you started).

At present, according to the Minneapolis Bike Coalition, Hennepin County doesn’t seem interested in anything beyond moving the bike lanes to the right side of the street.  If you’d like to see something different on Park and Portland, contact your County Commissionercontact the MBC and contact your City Council member.

Cross-posted at streets.mn

Where do the Nice Riders go?

Nice Ride released their 2011 ridership data in January, and I’ve been itching to map it ever since.  Flows (don’t call them fluxes) are a particularly interesting way to visualize the ridership over different route segments.

I used ArcGIS with Network Analyst on a heavily modified Open Streets Map metro shapefile to generate routes between the start and ending station of each Nice Ride rental. The Open Streets map file allowed me to include off-street trails (very important in Minneapolis), which weren’t included in my previous attempts. I set Network Analyst to prefer off-street trails, bike lanes and regular roads (in that order).

Other than being pretty, you can draw a few interesting conclusions from the flows:

  • The most traversed segment, with over 16,000 trips, was the off-street trail through the Hennepin-Lyndale bottleneck (although likely some of this traffic went to the Cedar Lake Trail in real life).  In my opinion, this is a horrible segment for bikes and peds and if we’re trying to attract visitors back to Minneapolis, we should do something about it.
  • Other heavily-traveled areas are the Mississippi River bridges, downtown streets, and Uptown.
  • Men and women take similar routes.  I mapped both, but the flows looked very similar.
  • People are using Nice Ride even in the middle of the night. They are sticking even more closely to the southwest-to-northeast spine common during the day.
  • 30-day and Annual subscribers are getting into the neighborhoods more than casual subscribers (single day), pointing to the obvious conclusion that they are full-time residents who are using Nice Ride to go to and from homes more often.
  • Since Saint Paul only had a partial year of service, it’s hard to draw many conclusions yet.

What else do you see?

Cross-posted at streets.mn

David Alpert on driverless cars

I’ve been meaning to write a “how this urbanist stopped worrying and learned to love the driverless car” post for a while, but I’ve finally been spurred into action by this piece in the Atlantic Cities by Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert.  Right up front I want to say I still have a lot of concerns about how we plan and incorporate robot cars, but on this issue of competing road users, I take a different view.

Alpert’s contention is that in our society’s haste to adopt driverless cars, we will “intensify current tensions” between drivers (more accurately called passengers in a robot car-filled world of the future) and non-auto users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, who are trying to use the same right of way.  I think this case is overstated for a number of reasons.

The author’s main evidence for the idea that tensions will be increased is reference to an animation done by some computer scientists that showed how to optimize an intersection when most of the cars are driverless, thus increasing flow.  According to the article,

[H]uman-driven cars would have to wait for a signal that would be optimized based on what everyone else is doing. And the same would be true of pedestrians and bike riders.

And to that Alpert reacts:

That certainly sounds like all other users of the road will have to act at the convenience of the driverless cars, under constraints designed to maximize vehicle movement instead of balancing the needs of various users…

The video even depicts an intersection with a whopping 12 lanes for each roadway, at a time when most transportation professionals have come to believe that grids of smaller roads, not mega-arterials, are the best approach to mobility in metropolitan areas.

Driverless cars, therefore, are poised to trigger a whole new round of pressure to further redesign intersections for the throughput of vehicles above all else.

I’m not sure how this one animation demonstrates why driverless cars would trigger a gush of road-building or elimination of non-auto facilities.  Setting aside the fact that I’m sure this animation was developed as a proof-of-concept (I can hear the research team now: “If we use 12 lanes in each direction, it will look even more impressive!”), this leads me to my first objection to the premise that driverless cars will increase tensions.

Driverless cars don’t make bad roads, people make bad roads

As Alpert himself states, “Already, cities host ongoing and raucous debates over the role of cars versus people on their streets. For over 50 years, traffic engineers with the same dreams about optimizing whizzing cars have designed and redesigned intersections to move more and more vehicles.”  Yes, and we’ll continue to have this debate into the future whether robot cars are adopted or not.  Given that gradual adoption of this technology is the most likely scenario (more on that later), I don’t see auto users getting more vocal (than they already are) about road capacity because there car has a few more widgets.

Building a balanced transportation system that looks at the full picture of quality of life rather than just mobility and speed will continue to be a challenge, although we seem to be making some progress in that direction.  Issues of public health, environmental impact and land use impacts will probably always take some extra effort to incorporate into transportation decision-making, an effort organizations like Greater Greater Washington should continue to make.  I view this as an institutional problem, failing to bring full information about transportation systems impacts to the design table, and it should be addressed in our decision-making processes.

12-lane at-grade intersections would make any cityscape pretty awful, but that leads me to my second objection:

Driverless cars can do more with less

Maybe the computer scientists at UT Austin should have showed a 2-lane 4-way intersection with driverless cars instead of a 12-lane intersection.  They also should have showed a comparison with a present day intersection.  One of the potential benefits of driverless cars is squeezing more flow or capacity out of the road systems we already have.  Cars can drive closer together, and yes, maybe intersections can look more India-like.  Potentially, we’ll get more from our existing concrete without having to widen or reduce non-auto infrastructure.

There is also this nagging funding issue.  In Minnesota for example, we already can’t pay for all the roads we want.  So 1) a huge explosion of more road-building probably isn’t likely and 2) driverless cars give us kind of another way out: if we’re intent on adding more capacity, maybe we can make our vehicles smarter rather than our roads wider.

And finally:

Driverless cars are safer

The first forays into “driverless cars” are about collision detection and avoidance (see a long list of existing implementation here).  Google’s driverless car has driven 200,000 miles and been involved in two accidents (both while being driven by a human).  Before any cars are driving themselves around, their computer brains will just be allowed to stop us from having accidents.  This is good for auto users and others alike.   And their adoption will happen gradually (they’ll be pretty expensive at first).

It seems obvious that driverless cars will be programmed to not hit pedestrians and cyclists.  Driverless cars will never (or very rarely) drive in a bike lane or right-hook a cyclist.  And for the next fifty years, they’ll probably be operating on roadways that look very similar to what we have today, pedestrian cross-walks and all.  The dys/utopian future where we have streets with tightly-spaced driverless cars traveling 200 mph is quite a ways off, and when that happens, why shouldn’t they be limited access and/or grade separated?  Wouldn’t we require the same of high-speed rail?

Again, there are lots of other potential negative impacts we need to be aware of as driverless cars become common (see my summary here), but I think these can be addressed by human policy decisions.  We also need to take some drastic action on emissions from transportation that contribute to climate change, and robot cars will likely not have a measurable impact there for some time (it’s also possible our action, if we take any, may actually delay their deployment).

Robot cars could offer urbanists a myriad of benefits that Alpert doesn’t address (but which others have covered in detail, but that should probably wait for another post.

Nice Ride 2011 route fluxes

Nice Ride has released their data on rentals from 2011.  After seeing these maps of “route fluxes” from bike sharing systems around the world by Oliver O’Brien at the Suprageography blog, I just had to figure out how to make them myself.

I didn’t use Routino as Oliver did, but instead figured out a way to make ArcGIS Network Analyst do what I wanted (after a fair amount of data wrangling and lots of loading time).  I’ll probably post more on that later.

Trip counts on each segment vary between 4 and 29,000.  I restricted bike routes to roads with a speed limit under 40 mph.  One drawback is that my road network did not include off-street trails (greenway, etc).