Solving Lakeville’s Problems: A Modest Transit Proposal

This post is the third in a series covering my hometown, a typical third-ring suburb; Lakeville, MN. I suggest reading parts I (the problems) and II (land use, walking, and biking recommendations) first.

My last post talked about loosening Lakeville’s zoning code across the board, allowing neighborhoods to accept more people of different incomes and life places, while also making it possible for people to walk and bike to neighborhood-scale commercial uses. I outlined a few things the city can do to make walking and biking year-round safer and more accessible. I wrote those first because I believe they’re the easiest, cheapest, and most effective ways to improve neighborhoods for all in a short timeframe.

That said, I’m not going to pretend residents will always be able to walk from a residential neighborhood to a job 2 miles away. Or that biking from downtown Lakeville to Crystal Lake will be a reasonable option 365 days a year. It does rain and snow here, and sometimes the temperatures are too cold to take kids out for a bike ride (even if people make a bigger deal about our weather and seasonal infrastructure than they should).

Minneapolis recently hosted the Winter Cycling Congress. It can be done!

Like our central cities, transit is the final key to extending mobility to people of all ages, incomes, and abilities for the entire year. It makes living car-lite possible, it allows neighborhoods to add residents without requiring expensive street/road widening, and (along with bicycling) allows for cheaper parking-lite housing to be developed.

So I’m going to say it: Lakeville, like many outer suburbs, should operate a transit network that links neighborhoods and job centers within its borders while connecting to the larger region. Before I go into how, let me talk about…

Local Precedent

Did you know Lakeville already runs a local transit system? You see it every day, shuttling thousands of residents about the city.

LakevilleSchoolBus
No metaphor intended, seriously.

Busing kids to and fro every day (well, for 9 months) costs taxpayers nearly $6 million dollars a year to operate, and almost none of those costs are borne by users directly. This is especially true when you consider 80% of the school district’s general fund (which funds the transportation contract) comes from the State of Minnesota. That number, by the way, is larger than the share of Metro Transit’s operating budget covered by state funds, which totals ~60% when you include MVST and general fund dollars.

Some things to remember. These kids don’t feel demeaned by having to share a bus seat with someone else. These kids are capable of walking more than the distance from the living room to the garage, then waiting in all sorts of weather for a bus to pick them up. They’re capable of figuring out which bus to board in the afternoon, and even where to go for after-school daycare. This suburb that prioritizes cars is clearly okay with running noisy, diesel buses up and down city streets to pick up humans. Finally, barely anyone questions whether this costly service is a waste of the taxpayer dollar.

You just do it. You fund it because you know there are people who can’t reasonably drop their kids off at school in the morning or be available to pick them up in the early afternoon. You know that there are people who aren’t old enough or can’t afford car ownership who need to get around to a legitimate daily destination. You do it because you know, deep down, that having 500 people waiting to pick their kid up at each elementary school would be a traffic nightmare and transit is a solution to inescapable geometry problems, even in spread-out suburbs.

A Lakeville Transit System

I’m not going to pretend that my proposal is 100% fleshed out, that there aren’t other potentially good routes, or that the number and placement of stops isn’t too many or few. I can’t give anyone a modeled daily ridership estimate because I wasn’t paid six-figures for a study.

can tell you that I tried to connect major population, shopping, job, and school destinations across the city. I tried to follow a grid that gives flexibility for riders by offering a single transfer between bus routes to get around. I tried to connect these to planned regional transit routes to extend the local system’s utility. I tried to keep stations infrequent to maintain decent operating speed (lowering trip times). Those were my goals. Here’s the system:

This system focuses on connecting downtown Lakeville and the Argonne shopping area to each other as well as surrounding neighborhoods (I’ll talk more about this in my final post), as well as industrial/warehouse jobs in the Air Lake district. Buses would run at 15 minute headways (4 buses per hour) all day from 6 AM til 10 PM, every day of the week. If you don’t ride buses often, this may or may not sound like an infrequent schedule. But I assure you, it’s better than most bus routes in (far denser) Minneapolis and St Paul. Take a look at Metro Transit’s high-frequency network, which is defined as 15 minute or better headways from 6AM-7PM on weekdays. So this would be a pretty damn good local transit network, all things considered.

I’m assuming the Orange Line will eventually be extended from the Burnsville Parkway station to the Burnsville Center and then down to Lakeville. I’d prefer a stop at the Argonne shopping area in addition to the Kenrick Ave Park & Ride. I also assume the Red Line will be extended down Cedar Ave. This is why all three local bus routes converge at Argonne and then the P&R, and two of them connect with the Red Line – providing all-day flexibility in extending job access via a transfer to the Orange Line. There’s an extension of the Green Line (L1) on every other bus into downtown Farmington, linking the two downtowns and a decent chunk of each population.

Based on bus frequency and estimated operating speeds, I calculate this network would need 10 buses to meet service requirements with a spare. I also estimate an annual operating cost of $6-7 million based on Metro Transit operating expenses per revenue hour. Every stop (there are only 39!) should get a heated shelter. Period. At $30,000 per heated shelter, this is roughly $1.2 million up-front capital cost, or equivalent to a third of a mile of a new suburban 4-lane road. Seems like a good deal. I’d strongly recommend putting a couple small bike racks at each station to make biking to the bus a reasonable option for folks outside the walk-shed.

I’d also recommend using real urban transport vehicles (low floor for accessible entry), and savings could be had by buying smaller buses rather than the full-sized ones Metro Transit uses. This reduces noise, road wear/tear, and (most importantly) capital/operating costs. It’s a very common practice. At roughly $150,000 each, all 10 could be purchased for ~$1.5 million, and will likely last 10-12 years.

Example of a small urban bus.

You may not believe that a system like this would have utility for many Lakeville residents. Like I said, I can’t put forward a ridership model. However, I do know that a good chunk of Lakeville’s jobs are served by by transit lines:

via Cenus OnTheMap tool, 2013 data

In fact, of the 14,150 jobs within Lakeville’s borders, just shy of 10,000 (70%!) are within a 1/3 mile radius of the stations I proposed:

And, while the OnTheMap tool doesn’t give us total population (it only focuses on number of workers and jobs), we know that over 10,300 workers who live in Lakeville (but whose job may be anywhere), 35% of the ~29,600 total, live within that same 1/3 mile radius of each station:

Over 1,000 workers both live and work within these service areas. Today. That’s 1,000 people driving to and from their job every day that could ditch their car (or second car) in favor of a combination of biking and busing. How many additional people and jobs could move to Lakeville over the next 30 years with a system like this? How many kids could ride this system to school, allowing the school bus contract to be slowly reduced? How many people currently riding the bus to the (free) Kenrick Park & Ride (with an $8.7 million construction cost) or other express bus station could choose to just hop the bus from the nearest station instead? It’s not crazy to think a local transit system could achieve 5-10% mode share in Lakeville in just a short time.

Finally, the thing I’m sure every suburban driver cares about, farebox recovery. At just 1,000 daily riders, this bus network would only recover 7% of its operating cost at typical Metro Transit fares. Of course, no one in Lakeville is questioning what percent of their road maintenance and reconstruction budget comes from the gas tax, motor vehicle sales tax, and registration fees, so I’m not sure why farebox recovery matters. In this case, it’s so low (with likely no crowding), that I’d propose just making it free. Yes, you read that right. It’s really not that radical of an idea, especially for smaller towns. Call me when Lakeville starts charging for on-street parking before complaining about a free bus system.

So there you have it. At an initial cost for shelters and buses of maybe $3 million and an ongoing annual operating cost of $6-7 million, Lakeville could connect almost all its commercial destinations and a significant chunk of its residents. You’re already spending nearly $6 million on school buses, Lakeville. Why not do the same for everyone else?

Solving Lakeville’s Problems: Land Use and Walking/Biking

In my last post I gave an honest assessment of the failings of Lakeville, MN – my hometown. Zoning and other restrictions keep housing options limited and expensive, which has perverse impacts for the city’s racial makeup. The car-first (or car-only) mentality in infrastructure design creates places that are unsafe (even for driving), impractical for walking and biking as transportation (vs. leisure), and aside from peak hour express buses are completely ignored by transit. Lakeville simply isn’t a welcoming place to people of all incomes, preferred housing styles, disabilities, and races.

I’m going to prescribe a laundry list of policy and infrastructure solutions to these problems, focusing on general land use and transportation issues in this post. Make no mistake, I’m aware they won’t always be politically easy or free from growing pains, to say nothing of the impact to the city’s budget. But, if you’re reading this Mr. Mayor, know that they’re the right thing to do from a social, environmental, racial, and fiscal perspective in the long-haul.

Reform the Zoning Code

Simply put, Lakeville’s zoning code is far too restrictive. It prevents all sorts of low-cost housing and neighborhood-serving retail from being built, both in new subdivisions as well as in existing ones.

Lakeville Zoning
Basically, Rs-2, RS-3, RS-4, and R-A (aka future RS-3) as far as the eye can see

While MN home builders fought (and won!) a laughable sideshow against sprinklers in 4,500 sqft mansions, everyone generally accepts other regulations that drive up costs. In general, Lakeville should relax single-family zone requirements; here’s what I’d propose:

  • Reduce minimum lot sizes. Don’t believe this affects new home prices? Ask the builders! When minimum lot sizes start at 10,000 square feet (~quarter acre), it becomes more and more difficult to defray land, street, and utility costs developers must spread across each housing unit. It also prevents existing owners from subdividing their lot. Don’t be afraid of stack and pack; there are some truly gorgeous single family neighborhoods across the country with lots ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. I’d at least start there. If you don’t believe there’s demand for 1,000-1,500 square foot homes on small lots in Lakeville, there are 5 mobile home parks within the city’s borders I’d like to show you. People at this income level deserve to be integrated in other family neighborhoods if they wish to.
  • Allow existing homes to add Accessory Dwelling Units (attached or detached), and convert structures to duplexes or triplexes. Aside from potential additions, this allows the addition of a family or two on a lot with almost no visual impact from the street. It also gives current owners financial flexibility as their family structure changes and ages – a basement apartment may be all a retired couple needs, with a family paying $1,500 a month for the rest of the house to help make retirement bills.

    KidsNotCaring
    Kids playing and not caring there’s a duplex next door. Should they? Should you?
  • Remove your maximum occupancy requirements, currently limited to 4 or fewer unrelated persons. All it serves to do is limit the type of people who could potentially share or co-rent a home, many of which in Lakeville sport more than enough rooms to house a few small families or 5+ unrelated individuals.
  • Ease restrictions on commercial uses. In Germany, “General Residential” districts allow commercial uses that serve the daily needs of residents and guests by-right – things like small restaurants, bread shops, hair salons, small hotels, etc. Most US cities are more restrictive, but older neighborhoods typically have small-scale commercial buildings scattered throughout neighborhoods, sometimes with a level of housing above.
    BjLz3M1CcAAzPII
    Small-scale commercial on a mixed-use street in Portland, OR

    This provides the opportunity for live-work opportunities for would-be small business owners that can’t afford the rents of a full commercial space in one of the few strip malls in town. The ordinance could be structured similarly to Germany’s to prevent massive traffic issues by providing the existing neighborhood an amenity it may be lacking but at a scale not designed for a regional or city-wide draw.

There are other reforms to suggest. Front and side-yard setbacks are generally too large, parking minimums for residential and commercial aren’t based on anything scientific and waste resources like crazy. It’s not crazy to suggest allowing more than a triplex in an RS-2 zone considering mixed densities would be great for affordability. But we’ll stop there for now.

Redesign Streets as You Rebuild Them

With the earliest subdivisions across the city dating back to the mid-70s, Lakeville going to embark on a never-ending cycle of road reconstruction as streets reach the end of their 30-40 year useful life. I can’t say with 100% certainty, but property taxes and assessments will almost definitely go up to help pay for these capital projects, as the initial street costs were baked into subdivision mortgages. I hear people are concerned about rising taxes. In addition to the land use reforms above (which add to the tax base without adding miles of street or pipes), there are steps to mitigate the cost of street replacement.

This is also a huge opportunity to calm residential streets and add bike/walk connections, allowing kids and adults to safely get around neighborhoods without a car. Some targeted suggestions:

  • Narrow residential streets from curb-to-curb during inevitable reconstruction. 99% of Lakeville’s neighborhoods don’t need 30-32′ wide streets (some are pushing 40′ wide!). No, the once-in-a-decade conflict between neighboring grad parties doesn’t justify the space for parking on both sides. One-sided parking will do just fine, and even then it’ll be a vacant moonscape 360 days a year. With 9-10 foot lane widths and a 7-8′ parking area on one side, the city would save 3-5% on pavement, and the result would be slower streets. Who among you have never complained about someone driving too fast down your street?
  • Build a sidewalk on at least one side of the street at entrance points to neighborhoods. Consider extending them into the neighborhood for half a mile or more. Require residents to shovel them to maintain accessibility in the winter. In doing so, children will have safe routes to schools and people with disabilities will have accessible routes in your communities.
  • Build strategic pedestrian and bike through-ways in neighborhood interiors to cut down on travel distances. An extra half mile in a car through curved neighborhood streets isn’t much of a deal breaker, but it’s a challenge if trying to get to a major arterial by foot. Focus on connecting major commercial areas and schools first.
  • Improve pedestrian crossing points between lights on major collector roads. You know the ones I’m talking about. 175th, 185th, Ipava, Dodd, Kenwood Trail, Highview, etc. Lights and stop signs are few and far between, with average speeds often approaching 50 mph or more. If people are to cross these roads, you’ll need some combination of narrowed widths, actually marking crosswalks, and overhead activated beacons.
  • Complete a network of off-street bike paths. Fortunately, Lakeville has many multi-use paths (MUPs) connecting the city:
    LakevilleBikeNetwork_Update-02
    Blue is off-street paths, yellow is sidewalks.

    I highlighted in orange where the city should target additional paths. It shouldn’t be difficult considering how generous the existing right of way is on collectors and arterials. As streets are reconstructed, treatments at driveways and intersections should follow off-street best practices. And of course, the city should commit to plowing a critical grid in the winter.

These reforms form the base for making walking and biking within neighborhoods, to commercial areas, and even across the city for transportation.

Invest In and Require Affordable Housing

All the land use reforms in the world simply won’t be enough to build new housing at prices affordable to roughly the bottom two income quintiles. Maybe that’s a stretch, there are options I didn’t explore above.

Regardless, Lakeville needs to be more proactive and involved in affordable housing, at least until we rationalize our complicated housing subsidies at all levels of government. In the meantime, policy and funding options include inclusionary zoning, publicly-built housing, and city-funded housing tax credits and operating subsidies. As always, there are other options, but right now Lakeville isn’t doing any of them.

While Dakota County offers or administers many programs, there’s nothing stopping Lakeville from funding things on its own. Given Lakeville’s relative wealth and the desirability of living in the city, there’s no excuse not to get involved.

My final post in this series will offer a potential transit infrastructure and focusing efforts on three key areas of town to maximize the reforms to zoning, transportation, and affordable housing.

Lakeville Needs Fixing

I spend a lot of time on streets.mn focusing on issues in Minneapolis, sometimes St Paul, and even region- or state-wide topics. For the most, part, it’s either hyperlocal discussions about a particular project or policy, or generic discussions about infrastructure costs or housing or policy.

I came across this tweet and the ensuing back and forth via my brother-in-law:

It should come as no surprise, but a pro-compact development, deregulated land use, and bike/walk/bus person like myself saw all sorts of red flags in the “forest for the trees” category of identifying root causes of suburban affordability and thus proposed solutions. But I’ve been meaning to write a post on my hometown for a while now, and this was a good catalyst.

I grew up in Lakeville, MN, a suburb about 25-30 miles and a river crossing from the downtowns of Minneapolis or St Paul. It’s got a decent early 1900s downtown and has at least a part of 3 recreational lakes inside its borders (including one I lived on growing up). It’s got all the things third/fourth-ring suburbs are known for in this country – good schools, cheap developable farmland, free parking, and land uses separated with surgical precision. In 2009, I purchased my first house on the back of heavy government subsidies in a mid-80s subdivision.

MyFirstHouse
Quarter-acre split-level dream ca. March, 2009

I still visit regularly as my parents and sister/brother-in-law own homes in Lakeville, so I’m aware of general comings and goings. But I don’t really have a dog in the local policy fight other than how Lakeville fits into our extremely large but sparsely populated region.

Please don’t take the words I’m going to write too harshly because Lakeville was a fine place to grow up with great people (many of whom I’m still friends with). Believe me when I say this post has no hint of smug urbanity judging a suburban lifestyle choice, but here it is:

Lakeville, like many affluent suburbs, has many serious problems and needs to be fixed.

Housing and Transportation Costs

Housing and transportation comprise anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of most American household pre-tax annual income. As the top two buckets of spending for most households, they’re both the best way to better low- and middle-income household lives, but also the easiest way to price a huge chunk of our population out of entire cities.

Considering suburbs are touted as the solution to housing affordability owing to pro-forma structures built on cheap farmland, Lakeville has almost no low-income and relatively few lower-middle class households compared to Minneapolis and the Minneapolis-St Paul metropolitan area:

**All data sources are ACS 2014 5-year estimates unless otherwise noted
**All data sources are ACS 2014 5-year estimates unless otherwise noted

I’ll spend more time talking about zoning codes in my solutions follow-up, but current restrictions on lot sizes and home style really limit the type of housing available. If you want to rent or buy a home in Lakeville, your options are severely limited to detached single family homes:

Housing Units by Structure Type
Still pleeeeeeenty of single family homes in Minneapolis

…with the end result being more homes at prices out of reach of middle-class households:

Home Values

…with few options to rent for those who can’t afford to obtain a mortgage (or don’t want to or can’t afford to maintain a home themselves):

Rent_vs_Own

What few renters exist in Lakeville struggle affording the rent at the low and middle ranges of the income ladder, with a lower share of them paying less than 30% of gross income on rent in these two income ranges:

Gross Rent Percent Income_Low IncomeGross Rent Percent Income_Mid Income

What few zoning districts the city does allow multi-family construction in are often placed against an interstate or major road – out of sight and mind for single family dwellers. It’s also exactly the type of place most people don’t want to live and will never be leveraged into a walkable or bikeable place. This is a good segue to Lakeville’s transportation issues…

While people could theoretically access work, shopping, school, and other daily needs without a car in Lakeville, practically this isn’t possible. Large home lots, separated housing and commercial uses, and giant parking drive up typical trip distances to the point where biking or walking aren’t practical. And local transit simply doesn’t exist. Compound that with a high-speed arterial grid with few safe crossing points and an incomplete sidewalk network and you basically require every resident to own a car to get around town.

Unlike some inner-ring suburbs, Lakeville also lacks a strong job base to make living near where you work (lowering average trip distances) tough. Less than 13% of working Lakeville residents commute to a job inside Lakeville. In Minneapolis, that figure is over 44%. Lakeville has a job:resident ratio of 0.22, while Minneapolis’ ratio is closer to 1, at 0.76. Put another way, Lakeville is designed as a city where people live to commute somewhere else, almost always by car.

Commute Mode Shares
Keep in mind, Census commute mode shares under-count walking and bicycling trips.

This has serious cost implications for an average household. I discussed this in theory here and here, finding that a middle class suburban family driving to suburban job centers paying $2.50/gallon pays upwards of $3,000 more a year on total transportation costs. If you bump up travel distances and gas prices, the gap widens considerably.

This is supported by research as well; the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index finds households owning more cars and driving longer distances spend more of their income on transportation. When compared to Minneapolis (a city where many people still drive!), Lakeville residents spend between 4 and 7% more on transportation, with the average household spending 5% more:

Their methodology estimates the average Lakeville household spends about $4,000 more a year than a Minneapolis equivalent. Arguments that increasing the gas tax would hurt typical suburban families fall flat in my opinion when you factor how much each family is spending just to own and operate multiple cars in the first place.

To be sure, we must be careful when using cost as a percent of household income for both housing and transportation; residual income is a better (but not widely used) metric. But outcomes matter, and right now Lakeville is primarily a city for wealthy homeowners who can afford a car and are legally and physically able to operate it.

Finally, Lakeville (along with many other suburbs) isn’t doing its part in adding affordable housing. Between 2011 and 2013, literally zero affordable units were built in Lakeville, despite a continued boom in market-rate housing. City planning staff only sees “non-profits or civic-minded developers” as the routes to adding new affordable units, ignoring multiple paths the city could take to directly fund or require by policy affordable units as the city grows.

Back to the mayor’s point about suburban homelessness – if Lakeville had the type of housing and transportation infrastructure in place to meet a wider range of incomes, perhaps families who fall into hard times wouldn’t be forced out of their homes or cities. Shelters and food shelves are good, but they’re not addressing the key underlying problem that is zero housing or transportation flexibility for families in the first place.

Race Matters

I’ll keep this section short. Largely for reasons stated above in the housing and transportation affordability section, Lakeville is a city almost completely devoid of racial diversity:

Racial Breakdown

In this county, even in this progressive, economically successful region, being black likely means being poor. A long history of racist housing policies, white flight, job sprawl, and bundling education quality with housing has severely limited opportunities and wealth creation for many people of color. How many black families in Minneapolis or St Paul or even other suburbs with lagging school districts would jump at the opportunity to live in Lakeville if they could afford it?

We can disagree on the impact that segregating oneself in basically every facet of your daily life from different races has on our ability to empathize with others, or its relationship to Lakeville’s history of racial issues. And I’m not saying Lakeville is going to solve America’s racial issues on its own. But when less than 2% of your population is black, in a region with 8% black residents, people should at least admit that there’s an underlying problem.

Safety

I’ve written about this before, but car-dependent suburbs like Lakeville, especially ones that interface with developing rural areas with high-speed roads, are extremely dangerous. Especially for young drivers; Lakeville is in a stuck pattern of teenagers dying with regular frequency. It’s easy to shrug these deaths and injuries off as a result of people driving drunk or speeding or texting while driving. But this is human nature; getting distracted, driving at unsafe speeds dictated by street or road designs, to drive home after drinking because the ample free parking at bars and no alternative modes leads to predictable outcomes.

SafetyComparisonDeathRate_1

I’m not saying Minneapolis in its current state is a model of traffic safety. As you can see, our streets are still built in such a way that pedestrians and cyclists become the victims, even as drivers have a much lower fatality rate. We’re working on it. But in general, more compact cities with calm streets with a variety of modes to choose from are far safer than suburbs designed like Lakeville.

Summing Up

I care deeply about our region and cities within it remaining affordable, equitable places to live. I want families of all backgrounds to have access to good education and job opportunities, as well as recreational and cultural amenities. I don’t think someone should have to live and work in a select few neighborhoods of our core cities to make transit and biking a viable option for getting to work or other daily needs.

If you’ve made it this far and don’t think any of the things I’ve outlined above are problems that need solving, great! You saved yourself reading another blog post. If you’re wondering how to even start tackling some of these problems, tune in next time.