Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Conversations With an Engineer

Dateline: 4:26 pm December 15, 2010 Filed under:

For a laugh (and perhaps a good cry), click on this link to the Strong Towns website and a video called “Conversations With an Engineer.” Its deadpan delivery is funny, but its mindset never swerves out of its lane, if you will.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We try to create an attractive, lively urban environment, and the engineer scuttles it all in the name of “improvement,” “safety” and the dreaded “standard.”

Case in point: 42nd Street in Minneapolis

The City of Minneapolis, using federal funding, is currently completing a cross-city, on-street bike route that primarily runs through a residential neighborhood. At one point, the route, following 42nd Street, passes a commercial corner with a few small, successful businesses. Chris and Robs, which serves Chicago-style hot dogs and is immensely popular among neighbors and cops, sits at the corner, flanked by two new businesses, an acupuncturist and a kettle bells excercise facility. Successful local businesses, something actively promoted by the city and beloved by neighbors.

This business node has no off-street parking. Customers rely on 42nd Street to provide most parking spaces, as well as some on the residential cross-street, 31st Avenue.

Here’s the catch. The combination of street width and traffic counts does not allow for parking on both sides of the street, plus a vehicle lane and bike lane in both directions. A wider street (not an option) would allow all three (parking, bike, cars), and lower traffic counts would allow for bikes and vehicles to share a lane (a “Sharrow”). So we’re stuck (the cars aren’t – they get to continue to travel on 42nd Street at the “standard” speed); something had to give, and it was a lane of parking.

The great immovable object on 42nd Street? The “standard.” Even our own neighborhood group’s Business, Development and Transportation Committee fell for it. We (the group, with me dissenting) settled for the bike lane with better visibility so that speeding cars wouldn’t kill bikers, thus eliminating the one lane of on-street parking. What I could not convince the committee of was that the speed of the street is the reason bikers don’t find it pleasant, and I suspect you won’t see a huge surge in bike traffic for that very reason.

Eliminating a lane of on-street parking does nothing to slow traffic and make the street safer; it in fact does the opposite. And eliminating parking within a business node discourages local business vitality. One cannot argue that the mode of transportation to those businesses will be changed sufficiently to biking enough to offset the loss of parking. A lot of people arrive by car, many from outside the neighborhood, for a hot dog or to otherwise patronize these businesses.

So now, instead of a business node with sufficient on-street parking along a bike route on a street where cars are encouraged to slow down, making biking and crosswalks safer, the business node loses a large number of parking places it has historically relied on, the street speeds have been maintained for cars, making bikers feel less safe, and the overall quality of life for the street, business node and neighborhood is diminished. We have it exactly backwards, and all because of that goddamn “standard.”

The business node is not successful because cars can speed by; it is successful because cars stop and shop. The hoped-for bikers do not benefit from cars being able to maintain 30 miles per hour. The street is no easier to cross (on foot, bike or in their cars!) for neighbors out and about. There is every reason for the street speed to be slowed anyway, but for the “standard.” The irony is, the street slows one block west at a stop sign, and two blocks east at a stop light that is more often red than green. All the more reason cars should stay slow in between.

I am in favor of the bike route. Minneapolis is a big-time biking city and it is a wonderful, green option, even when the snow makes it white here. I stand by local businesses, and think we should be doing everything we can to help them thrive. I also like attractive, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly urban environments – you don’t see many where cars are racing by.

The appropriate solution in this situation, and no doubt in so many others across the country, is to relax the “standard.” Make cars slow down and share that lane with bikes. Keep that vital on-street parking. Make the street safer for all, not faster for cars. Cities, businesses and all residents will benefit.

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