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Best of Blog: Where the money went

We have a series here on the blog focusing on my twin hometowns of Brainerd and Baxter, Minnesota. These adjacent towns are the perfect case studies for the post-1950 devolution of the traditional neighborhood pattern (Brainerd) and the wholesale adoption of the suburban development pattern (Baxter). This piece focused on the fact that Brainerd -- and towns like Brainerd that have tried to superimpose a suburban development pattern on their traditional framework -- have a huge percentage of their wealth tied up in streets that, ironically, have destroyed the value of the neighborhoods they serve. This post originally ran on July 19.

Where the money went

Like many cities across the county, my hometown of Brainerd, MN, is facing huge budget problems. So far they have handled those problems by doing the standard things like leaving positions unfilled, holding the line on wage increases and deferring maintenance. They have also done some more dramatic things like laying off their full-time fire fighters and shutting off some street lights at night.

Our Vulnerable Cities report shows that the city of Brainerd is highly dependent on aid payments from the state of Minnesota. When local government aid is completely phased out (yes, we said "when" and not "if" because, regardless of whether this aid is good policy or not, it will not hold up in the age of budget austerity we are entering), Brainerd would need to raise its tax rate from 44% to 94% of tax capacity just to stay even. 

And nobody in the Brainerd city government will argue that they are holding their own today.

Inevitably, Brainerd will join in the chorus of those who believe that cuts to local government aid are bleeding communities dry and that the state budget is being balanced on the "backs of our cities".

Sunday I found myself driving through the neighborhoods in southeast Brainerd and got really depressed with what I saw. I've seen it before, but this time I was waiting for my wife and so I had some time to really take a deeper look at these neighborhoods. If you want to know where the "wealth" of Brainerd has gone (and cities that have followed this same path), one need only look at these streets.

Some quick background on southeast Brainerd. This part of town is very near the railroad yard and so I suspect that many of the people who lived in this neighborhood when it was originally built worked for the railroad. It has the traditional neighborhood layout (grid pattern with alleys) and even has some neighborhood schools, Harrison (still operating), Washington (converted to district administration offices) and Lincoln (closed). So walking was a part of the original neighborhood design, but as you will see, not anymore. Two generations of retrofitting has made these neighborhoods unrecognizable.

The following pictures show a representative sample of the streets in this part of town. This is a huge area - probably a mile square or more - and the streets all look like this. Some design features to notice (and it is recommended you read our prior posting on cheaper streets):

  • The streets are bizarrely wide. Insanely wide. On every street you have two parallel parking lanes and then driving lanes that have to be 12 to 14 feet wide. These are highway dimensions. These neighborhoods streets are designed for intense speed.
  • On street parking is provided even where the zoning codes have forced new homes to be set back in a way that provides off-street parking. The on-street parking is thus rarely used, but there is all that pavement.
  • The sidewalks are gone. They may not have ever been there - the original streets were undoubtedly narrower and, with the slower traffic and lower traffic volumes, people probably just walked right down them. 

Here is the first photo. Notice that you could fit three or four car widths between these two parked cars. The design is to allow cars to safely meet at high speed without slowing down.

Here is another one. I was amused by the biking warning signs, which are actually necessary because there is a bike trail crossing here perpendicular to the road and the cars come flying through here. People generally don't bike within the public right of way, unless they don't have another choice for how to get around (no car or too many DUI's). Also note the lack of sidewalks.

Here is a place where the on-street parking was used, but this was right next to the church and I took this photo during mass. My guess is that these spots would be empty all week except for an hour on Sunday mornings. By the way, I go to church there and there is a huge parking lot that is never full except Christmas and Easter (we're Catholic, after all).

Many of the streets here are in pretty rough shape. Here is a sample. The maintenance that should routinely be performed to keep these streets from falling apart prematurely is not happening.


And lest our readers think that building these wide expressways through neighborhoods is the "old" way of doing things, here is what some recently "improved" streets look like. Not a car parked for blocks.

This shows where some of the trees have been cut back to improve sight lines. That is standard approach from the highway design manuals. There is a nice, smooth transition here so cars do not even need to slow down. Again, brand new streets yet no sidewalks. This is a "cars only" area, despite the fact that it is the middle of a residential neighborhood and just a handful of blocks from the downtown commercial area.

An engineer's dream. You could land an airplane on this street. Our readers might think this is a thoroughfare, but it's not. This is just a plain, low-volume neighborhood street.

The wealth of our nation has been squandered, neighborhood by neighborhood, building and maintaining streets such as these. In Brainerd the cost is easily in the tens of millions of dollars for all of the extra wide streets, paved and then not properly maintained. Nationwide the number is easily in the hundreds of billions, probably more. There is no city that has embraced this approach that has the wherewithal financially to maintain this excess.

What are the values that have induced us to spend our wealth, and the wealth of subsequent generations, in this way? Clearly, they are:

  • We want all trips taken to be automobile trips. Cars should not share the public realm with any other use.
  • Cars must be able to drive everywhere and be able to park right at every destination.
  • Cars must be able to move quickly. Trip times must be reduced.
  • Cars must have as little encumbrance as possible.
  • We must always be able to store cars conveniently.

(Note: The neighborhood traffic engineer would actually say that the highest value is safety, but that would be because he or she is ignorant of the difference between neighborhood streets and highways, the former being incredibly unsafe when designed using parameters for the latter. Such an engineer probably believes that we should have more police patrolling the streets to keep the traffic slow, as if speeding is not human nature reacting to their design but some reckless pathology that infects people when they get behind the wheel.)

So Brainerd, and thousands of historic towns like it across the country, have spent their wealth over the last two generations trying to create prosperity by abandoning their traditional development pattern - which was pedestrian oriented - and converting to a vastly more expensive, auto-oriented development pattern. In doing so, they have committed themselves to long-term maintenance costs that they have no realistic expectation of meeting, with or without state and federal transfer payments.

Has this all paid off for them?

The answer to that question, and a discussion on a Strong Towns set of values cities should apply to such neighborhoods, later this week.


For our best of blog readers, the posts in this series are:

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Reader Comments (3)

Being a licensed professional engineer in Illinois, I am not familiar with Minnesota design requirements. However in Illinois, we have separate and distinct requirements for highways and for urban roads like the one you show. I cannot imagine even being able to use the highway design standards for urban roads because each has different roadway elements. So when I see a roadway designed excessively wide I tend to believe there are factors other those related to engineering design that set the width and other elements.

For example we had a state highway running through the community where I used to work that needed a sidewalk extended to connect an isolated residential area with the rest of the community. The DOT had designed it in, and the city had been prepared to cost share in its installation. One resident who owned a storage garage for his cars along the route complained about having the sidewalk installed. His cousin was an alderman, and that alderman ended up writing a letter to the DOT representing himself as an alderman and therefore representative of the city. He indicated to the DOT the sidewalk should not be installed. The DOT removed the sidewalk due to this political pressure.

As an example for the speed, some people will speed no matter how much we install traffic calming techniques. For example where I used to work, we had a road platted in the 1860s in typical grid fashion. We improved the roadway but maintained a limited cross section (27 feet for 2 driving lanes and one parking lane) in compliance with the DOT urban design requirements. This roadway also had sidewalks along both sides. However, we still had problematic excessive speeding because some people will still speed no matter what, and at that point the engineer can do no more. That truly is a police problem.

Based on your posts, I get the impression you are trying to encourage engineers to incorporate more complete streets techniques into their work. And while complete streets is a great design approach, my experience has been that engineers are not the final decision makers on these matters nor is design a complete solution. We will have a lot more impact on changing roadways by concentrating on educating the public and elected officials about the importance of incorporating complete streets elements. Or better yet, our profession could be working on coming up with a reasonable and cost effective alternative to cars that does not require pavement at all.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPam Broviak

In the UK we flirted with the US approach in the post war decades but came to realise that it just led to bland and car-centric places.

If you're interested, the new paradigm is to put pedestrians' needs first and to give equal weight to platemaking when designing new residential streets. You can download the UK guidance on street design, Manual for Streets, here: http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/sustainable/manforstreets/

December 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Jones

Great article. Our cities and towns are spending so much money without a thought because these ridiculous designs have become "normal". We are literally enslaved by our dependence on oil and cars. I like the comment from Pam about educating the public and officials about complete streets, that's a great idea.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLouis Kreusel
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