Do you enjoy being a planner?

Huzzah! Another question in the inbox! This one comes from some anonymous creeper, which I will present in part, with my own comments inserted:

Hi Reuben,

We’ve never met, but I saw you at Menards once! haha

What the creeper? You saw me at Menards? I hope I wasn’t doing something embarrassing – like daydreaming that I’m floating in space surrounded by planets and stars in the middle of the light fixture aisle – or recreating that scene from The Little Mermaid with my wife:

Sha la la la la la
Don’t be scared
You got the mood prepared
Go on and kiss the girl

Anyway, hopefully you didn’t see that.

I’m done being creepy now.

Doubt it.

Do you have a degree in Urban Planning?

Yes. Did you already know that? I think you probably did, or else you wouldn’t ask. It’s fine. Small talk. Good stuff.

Should I get my Masters in Urban Planning if at present I have a Bachelors in Chemical Engineering? Where should I get my masters in Urban Planning!?

Well, I wouldn’t recommend getting a MURP degree just because you have a bachelor’s in chemical engineering. But, if you want to be an urban planner, then, yes, I recommend a MURP degree. I expect you’ll find that a chemical engineering undergrad won’t be much of a selling point if you’re submitting applications for planning jobs. As a side note, you know you’ll be taking a major salary cut, right? Engineering is probably a far more lucrative career choice. But, if you’d rather be a planner, then go for it.

I went to the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute. It was good. I liked many things about it, I didn’t like other things. I’d be happy to tell you more about what I liked and didn’t like sometime if you can come out of your shell and say hello to me next time you see me at Menards (but DO NOT interrupt me while I’m singing).

Do you find your career rewarding? I really appreciate any and all feedback!

Yes, I really enjoy being a planner/engineer. I enjoy playing a role in shaping the physical world around me. I generally find it interesting and satisfying. That doesn’t mean I enjoy every project I work on, but yes, I like it.┬áLet’s talk more. Shoot me an email. Take me out to lunch. I’ll tell you anything you never wanted to know about it.

Any More Questions?
Ask Me Anything!!!

Vermillion Falls, Hastings, MN

Your Ultimate Guide to A Hastings Saturday Morning Getaway

With Mel being all 7 months pregnant and all, we’ve been looking for a few opportunities to get out and do some things that we might be hesitant to do if we’ve got a baby to cart around with us (In other words, we’re living it up in preparation for the birth, which we are referring to as “the end of fun.”).  We decided to take a little road trip to the sleepy town of Hastings, MN, about 30 miles southeast of Minneapolis. Vermilion Falls is right on the south end of town on the Vermilion River.  We just stopped for 15 minutes for a quick photo shoot:

After we hung out at the falls for a while, we decided to check out downtown hastings. Turns out, if you don’t know where you’re going, downtown can be a little tricky to find. If you drive into town on US-61, you fly right over main street on the bridge without even noticing it’s there. Once we found it, though, we liked it. US-61 has taken over as the town’s primary thoroughfare, leaving downtown to handle all the niche destination shops. As the downtown is only about 3 blocks long, you can explore the whole thing in just a few minutes.

The first thing that stands out at you when you get to downtown is that the streets are huge! Meaning enormously wide.  At my day job as a traffic engineer and urban planner, I’m always working on projects where public right-of-way is extremely limited. This main street has more room than it knows what to do with!

What’s really tragic here is that the City hasn’t taken advantage of their enormously wide right-of-way available to provide things like enormous sidewalks (which could allow for sidewalk dining during the summer), landscaped medians, or corner bumpouts. Anyway, eventually you run into the Hastings Bridge, which dominates the city streetscape and kind of cuts main street in half.

After that, we made a stop at Karl’s Red Rock Cafe for some lunch.  We thought it was absolutely hilarious that their menu says “Breakfast Served All Day (until 2 pm)” because, of course, that’s not all day.  But they close at 2:00 pm most days, so it sort of makes sense.  Sort of.

mmm.mmm.  Biscuits & Gravy. American Fries. Bacon. Eggs. Blueberry Pancakes.

The Difficulty of Placemaking

The other day, I had an experience that reminded me about he importance of placemaking – the idea that cities should be composed of neighborhoods with distinct characteristics.
I’m quick to criticize suburban communities for being bland and monotonous, to blame the twisting and winding roads when I inevitably get lost searching for whatever destination I’m looking for. Among other crimes, I often accuse suburban neighborhoods of failing to create neighborhoods distinctive enough to remember.
This past Saturday, while I joined the throngs of last-minute shoppers to find the last of the Christmas presents I would purchase for the year, I was determined to shop locally. I left my South Minneaopolis home and headed east towards the local shop – one of those hole-in-the-wall stores in one of the small commercial nodes at the intersection of two otherwise nondescript streets right in the middle of a residential neighborhood – a surviving evidence of a previous era’s streetcar system.
…But I couldn’t find it. I drove up and down the streets of the Longfellow and Corcoran neighborhoods looking for it – certain I was within a mile or two of it, but unable to find it. I’d driven past it dozens of times previously, each time thinking, “I should go there sometime…” – each time thinking, “Remember where that is so you can come back sometime.” But I couldn’t remember.
And that’s when I was reminded that there is more to placemaking than just avoiding a maze of disorienting & winding streets. This local commercial node, despite its near grid-iron network of identically sized blocks and predictable street names, and despite being filled with one-of-a-kind local stores, wasn’t distinct enough to help me remember where it was. I only eventually found it after placing a frustrated phone call to someone who could google the store name and provide me with an address – at which point I drove directly to it.
So what makes a neighborhood memorable? Ever been lost in the middle of a grid-iron street network – always knowing exactly where you are – but never quite sure where anything else is?

West River Parkway

I went on a leisurely bicycle ride down West River Parkway today and snapped some photos while riding. The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board is in the process of reconstructing the corridor. There are still signs of construction, but the bike and pedestrian facilities are already in place in what I assume is their final state. I’ve been really excited about this project – the old bikeways along West River Parkway were in pretty poor shape.

For the most part, the new trail is great. The new pavement provides a much smoother ride than the old pavement. The ornamental streetlights are attractive, and as near as I can tell, there won’t be any more street signs placed right in the middle of the bikeway anymore. Here’s a slideshow of the photos I took today:
There were a few things that I would have done differently:
1. There are a few locations where I would have removed a few trees to avoid awkward curves in the trail. I appreciate that the MPRB tried to preserve as many trees as possible, but in some instances, the new trail suffers because of it. In the long run, we would have been better off removing a few trees now and planting twice as many new trees in more appropriate locations to replace them.
2. There are a handful of parking lot access points along the roadway where the bikeway and the roadways intersect. In all these locations, the automobiles are given preference over the bikeway users, despite the fact that the bikeway users vastly outnumber the parking lot users. At each crossing, cyclists will have to ride through two access ramps and over two concrete curb strips – clearly entering “automobile space” as they do it. A much better design would have provided cyclists with an uninterrupted pavement surface (or at least one without ramps and curbs) that requires cars to cross the “bicycle space.” Such a design would be safer for all users.
3. The bicycle and pedestrian facilities are separate throughout the corridor, although they combine frequently when limited space requires. Some of the areas where the combinations and separations occur are a little bit awkward.
So what do you think of the new design? What do you like? What would you have done differently?

Corridor Evaluation: Park Place Blvd

Park Place Boulevard in St. Louis Park was recently reconstructed by the developer of the West End commercial redevelopment project. I ride my bicycle along Park Place Blvd at least twice a day, so I’ve been watching the project closely. I’ll share my thoughts about the corridor, but then I’d like to hear some of yours. In case you haven’t been there to see it for yourself, yet, I’ve created a slide show:

There’s a lot to like about this project & the corridor. The wide sidewalks on the east side of Park Place Blvd between Gamble Drive and 16th Avenue look like they will be very pleasant. I like the brick pavers, the planting strips, the ornamental lighting, and some of the other pedestrian amenities, and I like that some of the retail storefronts will directly face the street. The landscaped median is a vast improvement over the previous concrete median. The pavement is well-striped, and the zebra-stripe crosswalks and pedestrian ramps are all ADA compliant – complete with audible pedestrian warnings and pedestrian countdown signals. All great stuff.
There are also a few things of which I’m not very fond – primarily the width of Park Place Boulevard and the difficulties that creates for pedestrians who wish to cross the corridor. Park Place is a 4-lane roadway, but it flares out to 7 lanes at the intersections (4 through lanes + 2 left-turn lanes + 1 right-turn lane). Park Place is about 100′ wide at the pedestrian crossings, making it a daunting challenge for even the swiftest of pedestrians. The curb radius at all the corners is much larger than I’d like, and the sidewalks on the east side of the corridor south of Gamble drive are simply inadequate.
Then there’s the mixed use trail on the west side of the corridor. It’s a nice-looking facility, and I’ve even seen several cyclists using it (and they appeared happy as clams), but I just can’t shake the feeling that sidepaths in urbanized areas are just generally a bad idea because of safety concerns at the intersections and the suburban streetscape it creates. Instead of constructing a mixed-use trail, I would have preferred a high-quality sidewalk – maybe even one similar to the sidewalks across the street. If a slow-riding cyclist wants to ride on empty sidewalks, well, I don’t have a problem with it – I just want everyone, especially the cyclist, to be clear that he or she is expected to behave like a pedestrian.
FYI, there was a planning study completed for the area (here), but it was completed after construction on the corridor had already begun and had little impact in the outcome of this project.
So what do you think of the corridor? What do you like? What do you dislike? What would you have done differently?

Mid-Block Crossings

I see a lot of jaywalking near my office in Golden Valley. A MetroTransit bus drops riders off mid-block, and many of the passengers who work in the office building across the street cross mid-block instead of crossing at either of the adjacent signalized intersections (both of which have functioning button-actuated pedestrian signals). It is perceived as enough of a problem that signs have even been installed by the land owners near the bus stop to discourage the practice, however, pedestrians continue to disregard the signs and cross mid-block.

This is not a unique scenario. As a traffic engineer, I am often involved in projects where the client wants to discourage mid-block crossings, but there is rarely an easy solution. I’d rather not try to persuade pedestrians to cross a street where they aren’t naturally inclined to cross already. I like to believe that my job as an engineer is not to force pedestrians to use a specific crossing location, but to make the natural crossing locations the safest (and vice versa). Any time a pedestrian chooses to cross mid-block, they are implicitly stating that the costs of using the nearest crosswalk are greater than the benefits provided by that crosswalk. They are saying, in effect, that despite my best efforts as an engineer to make crosswalks safe pedestrian facilities, the supposed benefits of crossing there aren’t worth the time and effort it takes to use it. Notice also that the sign placed at this location doesn’t claim that using the crosswalk provides benefits – it only says that it’s the law.

In theory, the benefits of using a crosswalk are many. Pedestrians using crosswalks have the benefit of allowing the traffic signal to stop cross-traffic, providing an acceptable gap in traffic to cross the street. Crosswalks allow pedestrians to cross at a time and location where vehicles will be expecting them. The light ensures that even a relatively slow pedestrian will have enough time to cross the street without awkwardly running or “darting.”

In theory, there are also known costs to using a crosswalk. Using a crosswalk often requires pedestrians to travel additional distance beyond the shortest available path, which requires additional time and energy. Pedestrians will also likely incur additional delay waiting at the traffic signal. Pedestrians must also be aware of vehicles making turning movements in the intersection – a condition that does not usually exist at mid-block locations.

In practice, I hope that the benefits outweigh the costs, but unfortunately, many of the anticipated benefits of crossing at a traffic signal often aren’t fully realized. Vehicles may not properly yield right-of-way to pedestrians, and vehicles may not stop behind the stop lines, blocking the crosswalks. Pedestrians may have learned from previous experiences that not all pedestrian signals function properly. In addition, roadways often widen to allow for turning lanes at intersections, and corners are often designed with a relatively large turning radius. The combination of these two factors results in a significantly larger roadway cross-section at the crosswalk than at mid-block. In some locations, the sidewalks leading to and from crosswalks are not attractive pedestrian spaces, either. All this is not to say that pedestrians don’t necessarily see any value in crossing at intersections, just that they aren’t always willing to travel out of their way to use them. Obviously, the relative weights of the costs and benefits of crossing at a signal vary depending many localized factors.

So what does this mean for engineers and planners? It may mean that we’re building crosswalks in the wrong locations, or that we’re not building enough of them. It also indicates that we could do a lot more to make our intersections more pedestrian friendly. But I also believe that frequent mid-block crossing is ultimately the result of poor urban design – that suburban land use and transportation patterns with large set-back distances, frequent parking lots, and large blocks encourage pedestrians to seek short cuts. I think the best strategy for curbing mid-block crossing is to design cities so that the natural crossing locations inherently occur at intersections. This calls for greater interaction between engineers, planners, and architects, and a greater understanding that every element of the urban landscape plays a role in the pedestrian route decision-making process.