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?

Advertisements

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.

What Metric Should We Use For Vehicle Safety?

Okay, specifically when comparing transportation modes. It gets way too complicated when you try to include everything, as the end of my last post shows.

Today, I am specifically inspired by Randal O’Toole’s latest post denigrating light rail transit because it’s unsafe for pedestrians. I don’t take issue with the discussion because I’m a rail fan (truthfully, I’m not, I almost always push bus before rail)., but because of the way Mr. O’Toole presents the safety numbers.

Incidents Per Passenger Mile or Per Passenger Trip?

Oftentimes you will see safety numbers presented per mile (or km) driven. This is fine when comparing between countries, and it gives an idea of how good or bad our drivers and roads are by normalizing total distance traveled.

However, when comparing different modes to one another, it’s common to see another layer added: per passenger mile. The logic is that some modes carry more passengers per vehicles than others, and so it’s a fair comparison to normalize for the bus carrying 40 people that hits a bicyclist vs a car carrying 1 driver who does the same. Those 40 people are each going somewhere, traveling some miles, so the risk rate (to both the occupant and non-occupants, ie pedestrians and cyclists) should be equally compared.

Ultimately, what really matters is the big picture: how many people die or are injured in transportation-related incidents per inhabitant. It tells us how our land-use/transportation combination is doing at keeping us safe. In that regard, we know we’re doing very poorly:

RoadFatalityRatePopulation2012
Source

But that view (even at a state-level) is far too big picture when talking different modes, as Mr. O’Toole is so eager to do.

Ultimately, a per-passenger mile metric fails the sniff test (despite its broad-usage). Look at the general formula and see if you can tell why:

WrongFormula

Cheat sheet answer: increasing the denominator automatically makes the safety rating better without reducing the number of fatalities. Mr. O’Toole’s whole post was focusing on non-occupant safety, so let me give a visual example. Let’s say I’m a pedestrian walking along Lake Street in the LynLake area. A person making a 1 mile trip in their car hits me halfway through its journey and I die:

1_Mile_Trip_Crash

Now, let’s rewind this (very sad) story, and a different person making a 2 mile trip by car hits me 1.5 miles into their journey:

2_Mile_Trip_Crash

Once again, let’s think bigger, and a person drove into LynLake from Richfield, hitting me 5.5 miles into their 6 mile desired journey:

6_Mile_Trip_Crash

Here’s the thing. As a non-occupant, it doesn’t matter how far that car traveled or intended to travel. All that matters is that I’m dead. Another statistic. All that matters is that driver walked out their front door with the intention of making the trip from A to B. They made a modal choice. They could have biked, or walked, taken transit, or driven. Yes, some modes would have taken a lot longer, but we’re not talking about accessibility vs mobility right now, we’re talking about safety.

Now, multiply this by the millions of trips taken every day. Some are short, some are long, some are on buses, some on light rail, some in cars. Those modes have different numbers of passengers in each vehicle. But what matters is that each vehicle has a number of people making individual trips. To understand how compact vs distant land uses and their associated safety impacts with people taking longer and longer trips by auto, we should compare incident rates per passenger mile to the rate per passenger trip.

Evaluating those modes’ deadliness relative to how many people they’re moving from A to B (regardless of how far A & B are apart) is the important statistic. Otherwise we could just convince everyone to drive 100 miles for every trip (bump that denominator up!), not lower the pedestrian fatality total, and look like we’re all of a sudden 10x safer than we currently are (2009 average car trip length is 9.7 miles). It’s misleading, almost intentionally in favor of automobiles.

Using numbers taken from a mixed-bag of sources*, here is what that looks like:

Fatality_Rates_Mode_TripvMile

Takeaways:

  • Occupant death rates for transit of all modes is clearly much lower than driving, whether taken as per-mile or per-trip.
  • Drivers of cars kill far fewer non-occupants per mile driven or trip taken. No doubt about it.
  • LRT is especially dangerous for pedestrians, no matter how you slice it.
  • The total safety gaps between cars and transit widen (or, narrow for LRT) when passenger-trips are used as the metric.
  • Random stat: 2/3 of heavy rail and 1/3 of LRT non-occupant deaths are suicides – a lot of people intentionally walk/jump in front of trains.

A similar trend is observed when comparing injuries by mode:

Injury_Rates_Mode_TripvMile

Cars look roughly the same as every other mode per passenger mile, but are clearly more dangerous than transit. The ratio of occupant:non-occupant injuries for transit is much closer to passenger cars than deaths (meaning, trains and buses kill due to their weight/inertia when a car-ped/bike crash may have meant the person walked away).

Takeaway

Mr. O’Toole advocates for mobility over accessibility, and is willing to let drivers & their vehicle occupants take their lives into their own hands to achieve longer distances traveled. This is a losing strategy from a safety perspective – vehicle occupant death and injury rates per trip are higher in cars than any transit mode, by a fairly wide margin too. Again, it doesn’t matter if my grocery store is 1 or 4 miles away, but only if I die or are injured making that trip.

From a non-occupant standpoint, his argument has merit no matter how you look at it for light rail transit. Pedestrians are more likely to die per passenger trip or mile by a light rail vehicle than the vast number of cars on the road. Urbanists need to be aware of this – we shouldn’t accept the high number of pedestrian fatalities from car crashes, nor should we for transit. More grade separation in heavily-trafficked pedestrian areas, better station design, etc are all important in reducing total fatalities.

But from a metrics standpoint, we should start moving toward a per-trip method rather than per-passenger mile. This informs our land-use decisions from a safety standpoint much better than per-passenger mile.

*Sources:

2011 Transit Passenger Miles, Fatalities, & Injuries by Mode taken from NTD data
2011 Occupant Fatalities/Injuries, Non-Occupant Fatalities/Injuries by Vehicle Involved, Miles Traveled by Vehicle Type
Vehicle Occupancy & Trips Taken for Passenger-Trips and Passenger Mile Calculations