The Silos of the Status Quo


The status quo of planning is that of professional silos. That needs to change. It’s about time we consider a Department of Transportation and Land Use. The two shouldn’t be divorced.

Transportation and land use planning are intricately linked, but the process is ultimately detached. The majority of the transportation decisions are made at the Federal and state levels, whereas land use is left to local governments. This isolated decision-making has yielded places like Hiawatha Avenue.

Let me explain:

There’s a big overhaul coming to Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis and everyone is doing or already has done a good job of what they were assigned to do.

City of Minneapolis planners did a good job of developing pedestrian overlay district plans around Hiawatha light rail stations in an effort to create a mixed use, transit and pedestrian oriented environment. All things considered, the code is progressive in that it encourages pedestrian character, promotes street life and activity by regulating the built environment and prohibiting high impact auto-oriented land uses.

City of Minneapolis traffic engineers are doing their job in a new $1.1 million multi-agency effort to update Hiawatha Avenue’s signal timing to correspond better with the light rail that runs adjacent to the avenue and into downtown Minneapolis. I have confidence that the city engineers can improve the signal timing and create an environment where cars flow more freely and at higher speeds. The project is also designed to help local neighborhood traffic cross the corridor traveling east and west.

The contradiction is clear.

It’s hard to blame engineers for tackling this issue. Even the occasional observer will note that the train crossings and signals don’t complement each other.  It’s not uncommon to see a train running north or south while vehicle traffic running parallel will be at a standstill in each direction. It’s also not uncommon to see local traffic crossing the corridor backed up to the end of the block.

I’m one of those people who occasionally finds themselves slowly traversing the avenue (along with on average of 23,000 vehicles a day on the south end and 38,000 on the north end). It can be frustratingly slow trekking up Hiawatha Avenue, a road with an identity crisis, that is not unlike many other places across the country: it’s trying to be a highway and city street.

But everyone is doing their job. That’s the problem. It’s structural. Otherwise it’d be clear that it’s lunacy to develop a dense, mixed use, transit and pedestrian oriented corridor and design a multi-lane highway to travel right through the middle of it. There needs to by some other way.

[The large green spaces are a few examples of pedestrian overlay districts that straddle both sides of Hiawatha Avenue].

I’m not even certain this improvement will benefit cars. In a recent interview about the project, a concerned business owner made the following statement:

“At one point in time it got so bad I advised my employees to take an alternative route to get into work so that they wouldn’t have to go down Hiawatha.”

By the way, that’s exactly how it ought to be. If one road is deemed congested, a traditional grid pattern will offer alternative routes that will be able to pick up excess capacity. This is a quality that should be applauded.

Will making traffic flows better on Hiawatha Avenue improve congestion? It’s clear that congestion hasn’t acted as a disincentive to over 55,000 cars traversing it each day. Will induced demand merely bring those taking alternative routes, such as the employees described above, back onto Hiawatha? History would indicate so, and I’m skeptical the project will do more than temporarily improve traffic congestion – especially considering that more people are slated to move into the neighborhood, and hence, creating more daily trips.

The Hiawatha corridor will take a long time to develop into the mixed-use hub many predicted and with expensive signal re-timing projects that only enhance car traffic, development along the corridor is likely to take longer. What better way to dis-incentivize people from using a $500 million light rail investment than to continue to subsidize its competition and create an environment contradictory to land use plans? One of the few reasons people are enticed onto light rail tracks is precisely because Hiawatha is congested. This fits our recent history of building expensive pieces of public infrastructure and then funding its direct and indirect competition (this is common with event and convention centers).

It all boils down to having a backwards approach to transportation and land use planning (and Minnesota isn’t alone). We operate within the same environment, but these professions work separately – and they shouldn’t. We spend millions building light rail in hopes that it will create mixed-use urban development and then we attempt to move cars as fast and conveniently as possible through an area where we expect increased pedestrian activity.

The reality is that there is a long history showing how these two components of our urban environment don’t interact well. In the meantime, we’re getting the worst of both worlds as we try to have our cake and eat it too [Ideas are out there though, suggestions were proposed at Streets.MN that offer an alternatives to the status quo, such as turning Hiawatha into a multi-lane boulevard.]

Ultimately, we need to find a way to combine transportation and land use. It goes beyond zoning and road mismatches, principles of induced demand and the quixotic nature of subsidizing competing interests. Transportation and land use planning are intricately linked, and our planning process needs to reflect accordingly. Otherwise, we’ll likely be experiencing more roads with personality disorders.

P.S. [10am / 10/10/12]:  I wanted to add a quick note: I don't actually think the singal timing project is necassarily bad. The devil is always in the detail. It's crucial to add connectivity between the neighborhoods on the east and west side of Hiawatha. The problem isn't the series of lights or their timing, but moreso how we've decided to have our transportation infrastructe interact with our land use (both the light rail walls and Hiawatha Ave traffic add to this problem). Until Hiawatha decides what it's going to be (a city street or a highway), then the problem is likely to continue.