Sunday, September 27, 2009

Does Gail Dorfman Ever Even RIDE a Bus?

It’s been another depressing day as I think about the Twin Cities’ overall attitude towards the role of public transportation in life. Specifically, I’ve been reading Gail Dorfman’s letter to those who support the 3C LRT alignment. While I support 3C, I can understand that there are valid reasons to support 3A, mostly that it may come down to a choice between 3A or nothing due to the current flawed federal funding formula. While that’s frustrating, it’s not nearly as frustrating or depressing as the arguments of people like Dorfman. A quote from the letter:

“Many people are curious as to why ridership in Uptown isn’t significantly higher than on the Kenilworth alignment. The answer lies in the excellent transit service that Uptown already enjoys. Adding LRT to Uptown does not draw a large number of new riders to the transit system, and while it may move some riders off of buses, that reduces the overall efficiency of the transit system.”

How does this make any sense? Let me take it point by point:

Uptown already enjoys excellent transit services. True, to a point. Uptown does have good bus connections, and it is relatively easy to live in Uptown without a car. At the same time, these bus routes are often slow. ConnectUptown has crunched the numbers: 22 minutes from the Uptown Transit Center to downtown (4th Street), 24 minutes from Lyn-Lake. The Uptown alignment would reduce that to nine minutes and eight minutes respectively. That sounds like a pretty major improvement in service to me. Besides, if we were going to go purely by this argument we could say that riders in Eden Prairie already have express bus service to downtown Minneapolis; why bother putting in light rail since it duplicates service?

“Adding LRT to Uptown does not draw a large number of new riders to the transit system.” Where does this idea come from? Is it based on bogus federal reports? Common sense suggests that this simply isn’t true. Despite the fact that Uptown does have plentiful bus options, the vast majority of Uptown residents do not, in fact, take public transportation on a regular basis, or at least not to work. Many do, of course, but census data has shown that as an overall percentage of the population there’s still a lot of room for growth. Not all residents work downtown, in Eden Prairie, or at points along the route, of course, but there’s still likely a sizable portion of untapped new riders that aren’t being factored into the equation. These are the same types of people that are expected to be attracted to light rail out in the suburbs: people who currently drive, don’t like buses, but could be convinced to take a train. If they count out in the ‘burbs then they should count here in the city.

Moving riders off buses reduces the overall efficiency of the transit system. I don’t really know where to start with this one. What? What does that mean? Isn’t the point of an efficient transportation system to get people quickly and easily from point A to point B? If a lot of people along the 3C route want to quickly and easily get downtown (or to Eden Prairie, or to Hopkins, or to St. Louis Park, or anywhere else along the way) then isn’t this route helping them to do just that? Or does this imply that there will be so much demand from existing transit users (who apparently don’t matter) that they’ll crowd the trains and make the LRT ridership numbers a little too high?

I’ve seen others (including Dorfman) argue that Uptown residents won’t walk a few extra blocks to get to the LRT station if they can just hop on a bus instead. Again, I’d like to know where they get this information. Bogus federal guidelines shouldn't count. Are there local market studies out there that suggest this? This in no way matches up to my experiences living in other cities, cities with active light rail and subway lines. In DC we lived on Connecticut Avenue a couple of miles from downtown. A bus stopped right in front of our door; while I did take the bus sometimes, I almost always preferred to walk the extra four blocks or so to the metro station. The bus was convenient, but, like in Minneapolis, it sat in traffic. Snow, traffic, motorcades; the same issues that plague Uptown (well, not the motorcades) led to frustratingly slow bus rides. Far better to just walk to the station, hop on a train, and zip along underground until I got to my stop. It worked the same way in Los Angeles. I rode the bus a lot, but the train (light rail in this case) was faster, didn’t get stuck in traffic, and was often worth the extra walk (and I wasn't the only one who felt that way). I certainly plan to ride LRT in Uptown if 3C does somehow get built, even if it means a few more blocks of walking. From the perspective of a parent, too, it’s far, far easier to bring a stroller onto a light rail car then onto a bus. Uptown parents (or parents elsewhere who want to easily visit Uptown with your kids): take it from me, 3C will make your lives easier.

Light rail does not have to be for commuters only. This focus on city versus suburbs overlooks the fact that there is a great deal of movement between city and suburbs, and that Uptown is a part of a regional network. This is not just about getting Uptown residents to and from downtown quickly, although that’s worth consideration, too, given the density of the neighborhoods in the 3C corridor.

I can understand why some people support 3A, although I don’t agree with that choice. That’s not what angers me here. What is so depressing is to have politicians like Dorfman throwing out all sorts of arguments that make little or no sense, and perpetuate the myth a viewpoint that light rail lines are only for commuting. When I read some of the rationale thrown out by Dorfman I’ve got to wonder: does she ride the bus? How often does she ride the bus in Uptown? Does she take public transit in other cities? Because quite honestly, the impression I’m getting from a lot of these people is that they could use a little more time in the real public transit world. If they’re going to continue to advocate for 3A then please, please stick to the rational arguments, and stop arguing that the low Uptown ridership numbers reflect any kind of reality.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I Love Alleys

I love alleys, and always have. I've been trying to analyze why, and think it has something to do with the blend of their private nature and utilitarian function. Wandering through a neighborhood's alleys show a glimpse of another world, one completely different from the facade out front. Garages themselves can be interesting, ranging from the architecturally intriguing to the hideously ugly, from the old and decrepit to the updated and modern, as well as all points in between. Nature, too, can be found back there; squirrels, birds, cats, sometimes rabbits or raccoons, not to mention the ever-present lilac bushes and other greenery bravely hugging the property lines and filling the gaps between garages. You can get a peek at people's backyards, some fabulous retreats still visible to the alley, others blocked off by tall fences, and still others unfortunately paved over into unpleasant surface parking lots.

Not all of Uptown's blocks have alleys, but many of them do. I've spent a lot of time in them over the years; walking dogs, pushing strollers, and visiting garage sales. The photos below are not meant to be the best examples of Uptown's alley system, but rather a handful of images that struck my fancy when I went out on a photo-gathering trip earlier in the summer.

Maybe it's because I grew up on a house with an alley view of the Buzza Building (Lehmann Center), but I think those enjoying the view from the alley between Dupont and Colfax should count themselves lucky. I've always appreciated the fact that you can see the beautiful and fascinating historic Buzza Building from blocks away; those who complain about newer tall buildings "blocking the sky" should stop for a moment and realize that the Buzza's tower is pretty tall, yet I've never once heard anyone complain about how it ruins the character of the neighborhood.

One of these days we're hoping to buy a place of our own, and when we do one of the first things we do will be to plan a vegetable garden. In the meantime I'll have to make do with watching the progress of those lucky enough to have sunny space of their own.

Yet another reason I want to buy a home of my own... I really want some backyard chickens. Uptown's chicken population is growing, and these lucky chickens reside in a beautiful red alley-side coop.

This alley (near Bryant Lake Bowl) isn't itself particularly attractive, but I liked how the building is edged with a strip of greenery.

Yet more garden photos; an example of how vegetable gardening doesn't have to be expensive or fancy to be productive and worthwhile.

This garage could use a little work, but I love the architecture. Let's hope it never suffers the fate of an owner who decides to "upgrade" to a massive new structure. I love Uptown's historic garages, especially those with a lot of character.

The garage itself isn't beautiful, but the modern and attractive address numbers add some visual interest. There's no reason the back entrance can't be given the same care and attention as the front of the house, or that garages can't also benefit from a little creativity.

Ever wonder how to best use that small patch of space between two garages? I loved the canoe storage concept.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The More Boba the Better!

Word on the street (well, actually word in the Southwest Journal) is that Uptown will soon be home to another bubble tea place. Bubble Me will be opening at 1404 W. Lake St., next to Stella’s. The Southwest Journal is describing it as a “bubble tea, snack bar, and coffee shop.” Given the name, though, I’m assuming the focus is on the bubble tea (boba) part of the equation.

I love boba. I’d take it over coffee any day, and appreciate the fact that most (all?) of the boba places in the Twin Cities are independent places. It’s kind of a strange love, admittedly, as I don’t have particularly like the taste of the tapioca balls, although I don’t dislike them, either. I like the big straws, the bright colors, the very non-Minnesotan tropical flavors, and the weird sense of accomplishment that comes from sucking one of the balls up through the straw. Boba can be refreshing on a hot summer day yet warming (in the purely imaginative sense) on a cold day in January.

I admit that when boba first showed up in Uptown I didn’t think it would stick around. Is there really enough of a true boba following in Minneapolis (and in Uptown in particular) to keep boba around in the long-term? Now I know it’s been trendy for a long time now; it started in Taiwan in the ‘80s, became very popular in parts of Asia in the ‘90s, then made its way to New York, Los Angeles, and other strongholds of Asian immigrants who knew and loved the stuff. It’s since hit the rest of the US, including, of course, Uptown. Tea Garden opened its first location, at 26th and Hennepin, in spring 2002. It’s still going strong, and has over the years opened multiple locations around the metro area. I welcome more Uptown boba options, and concede that although I thought it was just a trend that wouldn’t last, maybe the boba bubble hasn’t yet burst.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Uptown is Worth the Fight

As some of you may have noticed, I haven’t posted much lately. Some of that is due to practical issues; I’ve been busy with work, done some traveling, and have been entertaining visitors. Some of it, though, is because I’ve been a little depressed about the future of both Uptown and Minneapolis. While I’m sure that both neighborhood and city will continue to be pleasant and desirable places to live, it’s frustrating to feel like I’m on the losing side when it comes to vision for the future. I envision Uptown as a vibrant, bustling, exciting urban neighborhood, a neighborhood where people of different ages and backgrounds live side-by-side, where residents can walk to all the essentials of life, and where a car is unnecessary.

The problem is, lots of people don’t seem to share that vision. Despite the rhetoric, a lot of local activists, mostly the NIMBYs, seem to prefer a quieter neighborhood. Sure, they like local stores and give good lip service to the importance of walkability and public transportation, but their actions send the message loud and clear: no city neighborhoods wanted here. They'd prefer to see Uptown as a slightly larger version of Linden Hills. Uptown has historically been an urban neighborhood, and I want to build on that tradition, to bring back streetlife and vitality and a better mix of people and businesses, rather than trying to remake the neighborhood in the image of a (perfectly pleasant)neighborhood located just a couple of miles away. I love Linden Hills, but if I wanted to live the Linden Hills lifestyle I would choose to live there, not Uptown.

The most recent frustration has been light rail. I understand the various pros and cons of each line, and why some people think that any line is better than no line. I’m still hoping that 3C will come through in the end, but mostly the ongoing debates have highlighted the fact that many people in the Twin Cities, and even in our city neighborhoods, don’t see public transportation as a regional need. They see light rail as primarily something to serve the needs of commuters (whether to the suburbs or to the city), and not as something to be integrated into the many different needs of daily life. When we were living in Los Angeles I took my local light rail line on a regular basis. I used it to bring my son to and from daycare, to go to work, to go to the doctor, and to go shopping. Most of my trips involved short distances: five stops to get to daycare, followed by three stops to get to work; one stop to the doctor and to the pet store, two stops to get to the bookstore. Light rail, subway, bus, commuter rail, and Amtrak were all integrated into one larger transportation system, and I used all of them depending on my needs. Obviously the transit-dependent among us in the Twin Cities will do the same thing, but it’s frustrating that so many people are willing to accept the notion that light rail is only for home to work commutes. It seems part of a larger willingness to give up and accept as fact the idea that Minneapolis is not worthy of the same quality public transportation found in so many other cities around the world.

It’s not just public transportation, of course. The focus on height has overtaken almost all other issues when it comes to Uptown’s “character.” Many of Uptown’s self-appointed leaders have decided to focus their time and energy on preventing any tall buildings from entering the neighborhood. Where’s the outrage about auto-centric, short, suburban-style buildings? Why the focus on height at the expense of all else? I still believe that these outspoken residents do not reflect the majority of Uptown residents, but unless there’s massive change it seems likely that the NIMBYs will continue to hold enormous power over neighborhood issues, and to continue to represent themselves as the voice of the neighborhoods.

I love Uptown, and think a vibrant, urban Uptown is still a cause worth fighting for. Still, the NIMBYs are wearing me down, and sometimes I wonder if it’s easier to just give up and just move somewhere like New York (or, yes, LA) where dense, vibrant, urban neighborhoods are plentiful and appreciated. After having some time to think it over, though, I’m starting to get reenergized. Why should we have to move to another city simply to enjoy urban living? Why should a handful of outspoken local homeowners get to shape Uptown into a vision of a quieter, less urban neighborhood? Minneapolis has plenty of neighborhoods like that already. For many of us, Uptown’s primary appeal is that it’s one of Minneapolis’s nicest urban neighborhoods. Let’s run with that, and give Minneapolis city lovers a chance to enjoy the best of urban in our own backyards.