In Defense of a Paved, Accessible Minnesota Valley State Trail

September 30, 2016 at 2:51 am | Posted in Bloomington and Suburbia | Leave a comment
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Recently there’s been a lot of controversy about filling in a link in our protected bicycle trail network, the portion of the Minnesota Valley State Trail through the Minnesota River Bottoms in Bloomington. The idea to add a paved trail to the existing dirt mountain bike trail is nothing new, the concept of a trail from Minneapolis to Le Sueur (and later all the way to South Dakota) has existed since 1969. What’s different now is that construction of the controversial segment is imminent. Ann Lenczewski, the (now former) longtime DFL state representative from Bloomington, secured $2.5 million in funding in the 2013-14 legislative session. Plans are to do various engineering and survey work this year, with heavy construction, starting with a bridge over Nine Mile Creek, next year. City Pages recently ran an article, “The High-Priced Paved Trail Bloomington Doesn’t Want” and this has generated a lot of comments on Bloomington-related Facebook Groups, so I thought an article here would be timely.

Is This Really Something “Bloomington Doesn’t Want?”

So far, most of the public input has been overwhelmingly negative. But does this really reflect on what the people as a whole want? It’s been pointed out many times here on that public meetings aren’t the best indicator of actual public opinion, whether for new parking meters or a new building. The people that attend public meetings are disproportionately people with lots of free time on their hands and those that are extremely passionate about an issue. So it seems reasonable to believe that hardcore mountain bikers and birdwatchers are naturally going to be over-represented. The mother with 3 kids that would like someplace besides a busy street for herself and her kids to ride their department store bicycles isn’t likely to show up.

Are the 5000 people signing an online petition representative of public opinion? Even assuming all those 5000 people are from Bloomington, which they almost assuredly are not (it seems that, like other controversial proposals, this issue is stirring up environmentalists from all over the state and even the country), that’s only 6% of the city population. Perhaps an unbiased poll of city residents is in order. It’s also worth noting that the Bloomington city government, elected by Bloomington residents, has overwhelmingly supported this.

Similarly the move to organized trash collection has generated vocal opposition, the “Hands Off Our Cans” Facebook group, and even a lawsuit to force the city to accept a petition to put in on a referendum. Other cities have even been scared away by what’s happening. But really, it’s hard to tell, apart from the loudmouths, what the people of Bloomington actually think. If 90% mildly support something and 10% vehemently oppose, the latter viewpoint is going to get the most attention. I personally oppose organized trash collection due to my libertarian political views and because I like my current hauler. But I roll my eyes at the huge stink that’s been created. I have more important things to do than file a lawsuit about who picks up my garbage, or even attend a public meeting about the matter.

The Mountain Bike Trail is not Going Anywhere

By the sensationalist media headlines and the rhetoric of the opponents, you’d think the proposal is to kick them out permanently or to do something like this to the valley:


Valley of the Drums

When the reality is that making mountain bikers share this space with the physically handicapped, casual bicyclists and others unable to use a narrow, muddy trail, will look something like this:

Big Rivers Regional Trail

Despite headlines and web sites like “Last Chance to Ride …”, “Save the River Bottoms“, and “Mountain Bikers Fear Loss…“, the fact is the unpaved trail isn’t going anywhere, or at least not far. When building the paved trail they will try to avoid it if possible, but it may be unavoidable having to move it a few dozen yards or so in some locations. Portions where mountain bikers will need to ride on pavement will be kept to an absolute minimum; in most places there’s plenty of room for both trails.

Besides hyperbole, opponents keep focusing on straw-man arguments like maintenance costs. But there’s already quite a few paved trails in areas that flood. One of the premiere off-road trails in the country, the Root River State Trail, floods regularly. So does the Minnehaha Creek Trail.  Even if it is expensive, sometimes nice things cost money. Sure, it’s more expensive than building an off-road trail along a ditch next to a highway, but then again an iPhone costs more than a TracFone for good reason.

Bloomington Does Not Have Enough Protected Bicycling Infrastructure. 

Some opponents have suggested that we have enough protected bicycling infrastructure. Look at this map at East Bloomington, and see if you agree that East Bloomington has enough.


Bloomington Protected Bicycle Infrastructuer

When I want to ride, I do this: load my bicycle in the Jeep (in practice it usually never leaves the back because there’s no protected cycling infrastructure anywhere close to my house), and drive to Lake Harriet or Hyland Park or someplace. And normally when I want to go out is right in the middle of rush hour traffic after I’m done with work.  Is this what we expect the residents of East Bloomington to do? Imagine if Minneapolis had decided a couple of trails along busy streets was enough and left the Grand Rounds trails as bare dirt!


My House to Hyland Park, the nearest decent paved bicycle trail.

Even if Bloomington Actually Does Oppose This, it Might not Matter

As evidenced by its name, the Minnesota Valley State Trail, this is more than just a city issue. We’re all part of society, and sometimes cities need to accept something that while not their preference, may be good for the region as a whole. See the suburban interests getting the urban freeways built, or urban interests wanting the suburbs to build more affordable housing. As you can see by the map, this is a huge, glaring gap in the regional (and state) paved trail network, not just an issue with a more local park. In fact, what delayed the reconstruction of the Old Cedar Bridge for so long is Bloomington’s insistence that the river bottoms are a regional amenity, and therefore should be paid for by the region.


Minnesota Valley Trail tie-in to existing Minneapolis and St. Paul paved trail network.

Opponents have not suggested a realistic alternative routing. Old Shakopee Road will need to be rebuilt sometime, and while protected bicycle infrastructure like a multi-use path or cycletracks would be nice, a State Trail isn’t intended to run along city streets for significant distances. Similarly, running something along Highway 13 would hardly be worthy of a statewide amenity. An alternate routing directly along the south side of the river would be possible east of I-35W, but west of 35W is a maze of barge terminals, quarries, and toxic waste contaminated landfills. Especially with the Old Cedar Bridge finally being restored on the east end, the new bicycle crossing at County 101 on the west end, and the soon to be built bicycle crossing at I-35W, this will ultimately be a network that is so much more than the sum of its parts, attracting riders from all over the metro.

The Old Cedar Bridge

In closing I thought I’d mention what’s going on with the Old Cedar Bridge. It’s a completely separate project, just coincidentally happening about the same time, in the same area, and will be part of the same network.  Basically the impasse for the past several decades has been that the city of Bloomington claimed they did not have money to fix it, that the burden shouldn’t be solely on the city to fix it, and that if they were going to fix it, then it should be in a manner that kept future maintenance costs to the minimum. But the original plan for a causeway was vetoed by the federal government, then the old bridge was designated historic, ending proposals to replace it with a modern structure.

Finally, Bloomington got a significant amount of state money to fix it, now totaling $14.3 Million from various sources over the years (more than double the cost of what a replacement would cost and likely with higher future maintenance costs). It turns out the foundation and trusses are in pretty good shape, but the deck and piers are trashed. So the trusses are being jacked up and hung from shoring towers while new piers are built on the existing foundations. A new deck will be made using modern standards and will be much lighter as it only needs to support bicyclists, pedestrians, and the occasional maintenance or emergency vehicle. This has necessitated the construction of a temporary bridge and bringing in three cranes. The trailhead is getting cleaned up and is getting a modern restroom building.


Old Cedar Bridge Construction

In closing, I’ll say this about the unpaved trail: I’ve tried to ride it a couple of times on my $100 department store mountain bike. But after a couple of miles, I was dissuaded by the mud, brush (is that poison ivy or a stinging nettle you’re heading straight toward?) and debris. I couldn’t even begin to start  feeling safe or comfortable. I’ve been on foot a few times too, and I still feel I’d enjoy it more walking on a paved trail.

Presumably, a lot of other Bloomington (and regional) residents are in favor of this, so it’s time for them to speak up and be heard too. It’s time to not limit it to those that have $1000 mountain bikes and the skills to ride them, or the wherewithal to slog through the mud pits on foot. It’s time to open it up to all of Bloomington.


Mud pit. It took me weeks to get the mud off my shoes after taking this photo


The Twin Cities Future Highway Map?

September 28, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This is one idea of what the state trunk highway system could look like in the future, perhaps 30 years out. I’ve pointedly avoided calling it a “fantasy” map, since it’s based mostly on official planning documents, not me drawing lines wherever I think a new freeway would be cool. I’ve also excluded the “I-894 Outer Beltway”, which would cost roughly $1 Zillion and thus is just a little to abstract and unlikely for here (Even though it actually got inserted in a recent funding request).


Twin Cities Future Trunk Highway Map?

Large size version Here

Sources are:

  1. The often repeated long term goal of having the trunk highway system correspond to principal arterials and the recent jurisdictional alignment study.
  2. Specific local planning documents for locations of new principal arterials.
  3. A bit of my own fantasy and speculation. Notably all the assigned numbers are fantasy and speculation

The history of the trunk highway system is long and convoluted an would make a good article someday, but Mn/DOT and it’s predecessor, the Minnesota Department of Highways, have always felt they’re in the business of facilitating long distance and regional transportation. However due to political reasons they have in addition have a bunch of local, unimportant roads (like MN 270) they are obligated to maintain, Mn/DOT is trying to return them to local control. This has been happening statewide at a very slow rate with routes from trunk highways to minor unimportant towns that Mn/DOT was forced to take over a 1949 pork barrel bill. With respect to the Twin Cities; it’s more the shift of long distance and regional traffic to the freeways  rendering the city streets more local in character. Here’s a 1979 map showing all the trunk highways on streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul.


Twin Cities Map, 1978, after substantial completion of the interstate system but before turnbacks really began.

Brooklyn Blvd is MN 152. Although US 65 was shifted off Lyndale Ave almost immediately, the street remains a trunk highway except for 50th to Lake St, and US 8 no longer follows Broadway St to Central Ave.  For some true Roadgeek Trivia, notice MN 278 and MN 280 as pork barrel routes. What would be MN 279 is Cedar Ave, and was marked as an extension of MN 36 instead.

Here are some specific notes on the future map:

South Metro

MN 13 is shown moved onto Cliff Road, and MN 149 and MN 952A (Robert Street’s secret number) are shown turned back.

The status of MN 50 reflects some of the conflicting goals involved. As a non-principal arterial, it is a turnback candidate (and has already been turned back in Lakeville). Yet there are studies for a new east-west principal arterial, one possibility being MN 50. Thus I’ve shown it as remaining a trunk highway and extended directly west. And Scott County is not coordinating with this study, so I’ve shown it ending at I-35.

I’ve shown the existing County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 42 and CSAH 21 principal arterials as trunk highways, and the existing MN 13, MN 21, and MN 282 as turned back. Scott County, newly flush with road funding from a local 0.5% sales tax and $20 motor vehicle excise tax, plans to significantly upscale CSAH 17 into a new principal arterial, and to even build interchanges at some of the major junctions.

CSAH 86 is proposed as a future principal arterial. It’s already used as a regional east-west route, and there’s a proposed interchange with I-35 (which would take some pressure off the CSAH 2 interchange as well as regional traffic out of Elko-New Market). CSAH 17 and 42, and MN 13, 21, and 282 are identified as potential transfers in the realignment study, and this is per the 2030 Scott County Comprehensive Plan.

I’ve included the planned freeway river crossing at MN 41. When and if it gets built it would likely cost around $1 Billion, so I’m not optimistic about seeing it in my lifetime, but I included since it’s still officially planned. As an idea toward how far it’s along, Scott County is going to build an interchange at the existing MN 41 that would likely need to be demolished if the new freeway crossing is ever built.

This is what I would consider a reluctant but appropriate use of road tolling: providing badly needed highway expansion that has zero chance of happening otherwise. But aside from Mn/Pass lanes, every toll facility proposed in Minnesota has either been sunk by over-ambition or denied municipal consent. (Remember the proposals to build the new Wakota Bridge or US 212 as a toll facilities? And I’m not aware the idea is even being discussed here.)

Despite MN 7, US 212, and the MN 41 river crossing being the only principal arterials in Carver County and MN 5 being identified previously as a turnback candidate, only MN 282 is shown on either the jursidictional alignment study or the Carver County 2030 Comprehensive Plan as being turned back. MN 5, MN 25, and the rest of MN 41 remain, except MN 25 is shown rerouted farther west and MN 5 is moved slightly to bypass Norwood Young America.

North Metro and Minneapolis

I’ve taken the liberty of delving into almost pure fantasy here with the idea of moving MN 95. The existing highway going through Stillwater and the downtown areas small riverfront towns isn’t appropriate as a regional through route, although MN 95 between CSAH 18 and I-94 was already moved back onto Manning Ave, and there was actually a 1960s plan to route it west of Stillwater.

Bridge 03

1961 proposal for the Stillwater area showing a westerly bypass of MN 95.

MN 96 is shown deleted both as being identified on Washington County’s comprehensive plan as a turnback candidate and not a principal arterial. The plan shows MN 244 being kept, but I’ve shown it deleted as it’s not a principal arterial, or even very important.

There also is a proposal to study a new river crossing between the Wakota Bridge and the Hastings Bridge. When I was at a public meeting discussing what to do about the JAR Bridge, I mentioned the possibility of reopening it to vehicle traffic. The consensus was that a local crossing would not be a bad idea, but it would be better to do a new study and build a new structure rather than send cars back over an old bridge that, eventually, partially fell down by itself. I’m not even sure this would be  trunk highway and there’s no specifics where it might go. I’ve put it in dashes.


John Dillinger Fled Here: the old JAR Bridge

CSAH 12 is a principal arterial and is identified as misaligned, so as such I’ve shown it as a trunk highway. Part of it was a trunk highway, but was recently turned back in order to cheat the system and get funding for improvements from the turnback fund, that would be long in coming from other sources. CSAH 22 has been identified as a future principal arterial and trunk highway.

The Anoka County 2030 Transportation Plan identifies CSAH 22 as a new principal arterial under Mn/DOT jurisdiction, and moving part of MN 47 onto CSAH 9. University Ave and Central Ave south of I-694 are not principal arterials and are identified as misaligned, and as such I’ve shown them removed from the trunk highway system.

I’ve chosen to show the proposed new river crossing in dashes. Unlike the new Stillwater Bridge were there was cooperation between jurisdictions to facilitate regional mobility, in this case Hennepin county has refused to cooperate with Anoka County, and with the long term funding problems it’s hard to find the project even being talked about. The city of Ramsey is preserving right-of-way and has it in their 2030 Comprehensive Plan, but that is about it. The idea has been around for 50 years; originally it was suppose to be a bypass for what is now US 169 to get regional traffic out of downtown Anoka, but development has made that impracticable now, and it would now tie into a future Brockton Lane interchange on I-94 that local governments have been incessantly trying to get built for the last decade or so.

St Paul 

Yes, I know about state statute 161.122


The location, designation, marking and numbering of Legislative Route No. 125, marked Trunk Highway 51, as that route is established, located, designated, marked, and traveled southerly of University Avenue within the city of St. Paul, shall not be changed by the commissioner of transportation.

Nevertheless, statutes can be repealed, so I’ve shown MN 51 as shifted to Ayd Mill Road. Opening it up has shifted a lot of the thru traffic to it, and the proposed more direct connection to I-94 would shift even more.

MN 5 is shown moved from 7th Ave and Minnehaha Ave (which are not principal arterials) to Shepard Rd and Warner Road. Moving the trunk highway and building a better connection at I-35E would allow downscaling 7th to be a more neighborhood street as well as accommodating light rail.

Will all of this happen? Not likely, but it gives an idea of some of the potential changes that might happen in the decades ahead.

The Case Of Bloomington’s Disappearing Streetlights

September 28, 2016 at 2:03 am | Posted in Bloomington and Suburbia | Leave a comment

In the summer of 2015 streetlights were disappearing in Bloomington. First came red spray-paint on a bunch of the poles on Lyndale Ave. Then they started to disappear. One day I drove out during my lunch hour, and crews were literally cutting them down with a Sawzall.

An email to the city revealed that many of the 1970s-1980s vintage poles were structurally unsound, and they hope to get funding to replace them in the future. So Lyndale Ave is left with long dark spots and these stubs.


Perhaps it’s excusable that a city is caught off guard when this happens. Bloomington has done what many of us do when the furnace gives out or the car needs transmission work, although ideally we’d have money saved for such eventualities, as should the city. But Bloomington’s issues go deeper and farther back than this one time incident. I’ve been dealing with them over street lighting and traffic signal issues for years.

Here’s another section of Lyndale Ave. Notice the concrete circle. That was a street light. Several years ago the underground wiring failed. After several unacknowledged requests to the city and Xcel Energy (who have a contract for routine maintenance of all city-owned lighting as well as their own), the pole was totally removed.


Another missing light on Lyndale, gone for years. The neon sign is really cool though.

Another query to the city asking what was going on was returned with “It’s not economical to fix it now.”  Maybe I can accept that fixing underground wiring is expensive, but they’ve fixed it in other locations, and if they couldn’t fix it right away they could have budgeted it for the next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that.

Soon after, the light next to this failed, and then the one next to that was sawed down this year leaving a long, dark stretch

Bloomington is Severely Under-lit

Here’s some maps with the street lights highlighted of a random half mile square section in Minneapolis:


Minneapolis Streetlight Map

And Richfield:


Richfield Street Light Map

And Bloomington:


Bloomington Streetlight Map

Does anyone else see the problem? To be fair, property tax revenues and density are lower,but not that much lower. Note that this includes Nicollet Ave, which as an arterial should be lit better than purely residential streets.

You might think things would keep getting worse the farther out you go, but here’s Shakopee:


Shakopee Streetlight Map

Moving beyond dots on a map, how do these areas look at night?

Richfield, MN street at night

Richfield street at night

Bloomington, MN Street At Night

Bloomington Street at night. In what world is this level of street lighting considered acceptable? This is not some African village!

These were shot with identical camera settings: f/8, 8″, ISO 200.  Keep in mind there are no sidewalks so pedestrians, likely not wearing the pedestrian safety kit may be walking on the street. I also commonly see bicycles at night without any kind of light; it’s difficult to see them in the dark sections between street lights in these installations if you’re driving in a bright section.

How about those nice Minneapolis lanterns? (This picture  wound up zoomed in a bit more, but settings are still the same).


Minneapolis Lanterns at Night

Besides looking at pictures, there are objective ways to measure how good or bad a lighting installation is. There’s a measure of how much light is striking a horizontal surface, the “foot-candle (fc)”, or 1 lumen per square foot. State and national standards for a typical residential street are an average 0.4 foot-candles (fc), with a average to minimum uniformity ratio of 6-1 (and using these we can derive a minimum acceptable level of 0.067 fc.).


Here’s another way to look at it: light levels as you walk down the streets, from the center of a cross-street down a long block to the center of the next cross-street.


The Minneapolis lanterns have an average of 0.38, which is close enough to the 0.40 standard to be statistical noise; even within the 5% accuracy of my light meter. The dip towards the beginning is due to the  placement of the lanterns at a “T” intersection to favor the major cross-street. (The streets I measured were nearby but not the same ones I photographed). The spike towards the middle of the Bloomington installation is a private yard light.

(To make up for these shortcomings, private yard and floodlights either burn all night or annoyingly and distractingly turn on with motion are common.)

Improving the Installations

Even the very few lights that Bloomington does have, the spacing is very odd in some areas. You can see in the above map that some superblocks have a light where a street would be, and some don’t. But odd spacing goes beyond that.

Consider this section of Normandale Blvd. What logic is there for the spacing? The two lights at the lower right are decorative lanterns on the housing development sign that cast no useful light on the intersection.


Normandale Boulevard in Bloomington.

Or this section of Nicollet by Kennedy High School? Why does 96th street (at center left) get two lights plus another immediately adjacent, while 95th Street, (at the far left), a much busier street, gets one?


Nicollet Ave in Bloomington

Even if Bloomington stubbornly refuses to follow state and national standards itself, it’s more than willing to impose them on private businesses. (In fact the lighting code is one of the most restrictive in the nation, mercury vapor and sodium vapor bulbs are banned in all but the smallest fixtures.) As a result, when you’re driving out of a parking lot that’s lit like the Vegas strip, as are the Holiday and Kennedy High School in the second picture, suddenly you’re on a street that might as well be in farm country, and you can’t see anything until your eyes adjust to the blackness. And many students at Kennedy walk across the road to get from the Burger King and Holiday to school, which is legal here provided they yield to motorists since this is not between two signalized intersections.

Here’s a much better spacing, with new lights in red and removed lights in grey. It doesn’t take that many more to make a much better layout.


Normandale Blvd, Improved Street Light Spacing


Nicollet Ave, Improved Street Light Spacing

Additional Weirdness

And some more examples of odd spacing. Here’s where they never bothered to remove the old Xcel Energy wood pole light after a traffic signal went up, so we’re paying for rent for a useless street light.dissapearing-lights-15

This is not in some remote, out of the way location, the building in the background is the public works facility, and right across the street is city hall. The personnel responsible for street lights likely drive by this twice a day. (And they obviously don’t walk to work because one of the “Walk” lights was out on the signal.)

In my neighborhood on Wentworth Ave just north of 104th St,  there’s a light on two immediately adjacent poles.  You can petition to have a street light added. Apparently the residents wanted a yard light, but didn’t want to pay to rent one themselves (which you can do as a private homeowner), so they got one at the city’s expense.

So what would lighting improvements cost? A 100 watt street light rents for about $12 a month, energy and maintenance included. There’s 14 houses on one of the Bloomington blocks in the previous diagram. So to light blocks where there are overhead utilities to the standards of Richfield and Minneapolis wood pole areas (which as noted above still don’t quite meet state and national standards due to lack of uniformity) would cost about $30 a year for each house.

That’s pretty small compared to the typical property tax bill. Even a single mid-block light on the long blocks, at $10 a year, would be an enormous improvement.

Routine Maintenance is Troublesome

Even maintaining what few street lights there are  is troublesome. There is the Xcel web based reporting system. But it does not talk to their database; a worker reads the reporting system and then keys it into another system. Ideally the systems would talk to each other, to confirm that the address you keyed in corresponds with one of their lights. Or you could see a graphical representation if you don’t know the address. It’s nearly impossible to get a light fixed in a place like the boat landing parking lot, where there really isn’t a physical address and you have no idea what they have listed for one. Sometimes the actual tech will call back if they run into issues, but the office staff may or may not, so when a light doesn’t get fixed right away you’re left wondering if maybe they got the wrong one.

Furthermore there seems to be plenty of finger pointing to other agencies.  In an extreme example, it took several unacknowledged requests to Xcel, then several emails to Bloomington and MnDOT for Bloomington to acknowledge that this light at 90th and I-35W actually belonged to them. When I demanded they either fix it or remove it, they simply removed the luminaire and left the empty pole in place.

There’s a “How many civil servants does it take to change a light bulb?” joke in here some place, and it’s not funny.


90th And I-35W

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Bloomington’s Oxboro Neighborhood

September 27, 2016 at 1:45 am | Posted in Bloomington and Suburbia | Leave a comment
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I’ve lived in the Oxboro area of Bloomington my entire life, 3/4 of a mile from the major commercial area at 98th St. and Lyndale Ave. Although most of my shopping is done at big box stores in other areas, this is where I go to the bank, get lunch at the drive-thru, drop off mail at the post office, and access the freeway. Though I’m basically happy with it, there is always room for improvement for both motorized and non-motorized traffic, as well as the general area.oxboro-1In the past this area was the unincorporated town of Oxboro, dating from the 1850s. The Oxborough family from Canada built a trading post called Oxboro Heath on what is now Clover Center. Meanwhile Bloomington was a stagecoach stop at Nine Mile Creek, and there was another settlement at Old Shakopee Road and Old Cedar. These all eventually got absorbed into the city of Bloomington.When I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Oxboro area had a single noteworthy building, the Sunde blacksmith shop (owned by the father of Vikings great Milt Sunde). And a lot of decrepit buildings: the old Burger Brother’s store and Bloomington Drug, Kinney Shoes, and a bar at 95th. REI was in Clover Center before they moved into their newer flagship store along I-494. There are quite a few photographs on the Flashbacks of Bloomington Facebook group.In the early 1980s the grandiose “Oxboro Redevelopment” plan was initiated, but it never lived up to it’s highbrow aspirations, eventually stalled, and is still going on in fits and starts. The city thought they were creating something much more elite than they were – after offering SuperValu a place in the new strip mall, they broke that promise when they decided they wanted Byerly’s instead.

SuperValu was full of mismatched floor tile, bare fluorescent strip lights, and stained ceilings, but it was a place to get groceries. I remember walking through Byerly’s when it was new and being awestruck by carpet, chandeliers, and lobster tanks, and also being awestruck by the prices. Aside from our initial trip, I think we shopped there twice before they closed. The owner raised their lease rate from the original 20-year sweetheart deal and their freezers needed replacing, but obviously they could have made it work if it had been a good fit for the neighborhood.

In typical 1980s fashion, we got a mix of “suburbanism” and “fake urbanism”; Some strip malls with lots of parking in front that have gone downscale over the years, and then what is now Duluth Trading Company and Fairview Oxboro clinic. These went right up to the street, but have blank walls where doors would obviously be in an urban setting.


Fairview Oxboro Clinic

More recently, two new housing developments have gone in. After adding two strip-malls to the area, the city said no to a fourth, but relented when the developer added senior housing.


Strip Mall and Senior Living

A new set of apartments replaced the old lumber yard. Wixon Jewelers had a plan to build an elaborate jewelry store and watch museum at what is now Duluth Trading company (and wanted to buy and knock down the Bakers Square so the rich people that could actually afford their products wouldn’t have to park so far from the door) which was eventually was dropped. The trees and street furniture were plopped down centered in the sidewalk. Constricted by tree rings, the trees have never grown much and are constantly dying and being replaced.

Over time too, people like me have moved a lot of shopping elsewhere. My family quit shopping for groceries at SuperValu when the new Cub opened at Valley West. We quit shopping for toilet flappers and light bulbs at Hardware Hank when Home Depot opened along 494. It seems others have done the same. Over time the restaurants, banks, and other such staples have stayed, while some of the general retail has closed. (Although SuperValu was doing OK until the landlord kicked them out to sell to a developer to build the Holiday gasoline station.)

Few people are under the delusion that this is a cultured and sophisticated place. Yes, there are the typically derided places like Applebee’s and McDonalds. And yes I go to them. But to me it’s not “nowhere”. I personally don’t want to live in either the central cities or farther into the suburbs, so Bloomington’s Oxboro neighborhood is “somewhere” to me and quite a few other people. Yes, it’s ultimately very auto oriented, but again that’s something I like about it. It’s easy to drive down to Subway and park, it’s also easy to drivethrough on my way to the freeway entrance.

Still, I acknowledge that there are people that do walk or bicycle in the area and there is room for improvement without impacting motorists too much, and some things that could be improvements for all modes. Although it’s only 3/4-mile away, taking pictures for this article was the first time I’ve ridden down there in years.




Some of the problems I see:

1) Although vehicle traffic flows pretty well, there are a few operational problems. Firstly the heavy westbound through and westbound to southbound movements at 98th St and I-35W conflict with the heavy eastbound to northbound movement. Eastbound to northbound only has a single turn lane, and aggravating the problem, and there is no right turn lane from westbound to northbound. Secondly, both directions of Lyndale Ave at 98th St have very short single left turn lanes that tend to back up into the through lanes during peak hours. My attempts to complain to the county and city have gotten nowhere. Traffic signals are still mostly the inefficient, protected-only turns (red arrows), and there are no sight line problems or other unusual considerations that would preclude protected/permissive phasing allowing motorists to make a left turn if there’s a break in oncoming traffic.

2) There’s a complete lack of bicycle infrastructure in place.  The official line from the city is that bicycles are supposed to (carefully) use the sidewalks, which although having few pedestrians, are full of trees, light poles, and garbage cans. Meanwhile there are free rights, which I like as a pedestrian but not usually as a motorist, and auxiliary lanes of dubious value. And while Lyndale needs all the lanes it has right at 98th St, probably north of there and certainly south of there it could use a road diet.

There’s been a few modest improvements for bicycles and pedestrians, including the addition of countdown pedestrian signals and this new sidewalk to the VEAP social services building with a rectangular rapid flashing beacon, and new marked crosswalk to cross Lyndale Avenue.


New Crosswalk

3) The Orange Line has to fit in somehow, which will increase the number of people walking and bicycling in the area.

4) I think the free right from the northbound ramp to 98th St. is extremely dangerous. I have seen crashes there, including one where a car was flipped onto it’s roof. There’s simply not a good sight line to see cars coming over the bridge (due to the railing and the hump), and cars tend to speed since it’s fairly wide open.


Driver’s eye view of free right

5) There are too many ramps too close together on I-35W

6) Thinking broader, Bloomington has way too many Four-lane Death Roads (even one is too many).

7) There’s no drive-through coffee shop. Seriously! I’d probably stop several times a week if there were. Maybe we can find room for a Dunkin Donuts! The only shop in the area is a Starbucks, and while I’m not too highbrow to go there, there’s no drive-thru and believe it or not it’s usually difficult to even park there.

Although I’m basically satisfied with the way things are, here I start to fantasize about changes that could be made.

So Here’s What I Propose:


Yellow: New Ramps, Blue: New bicycle trail and bridge, Orange: Orange Line Station, Aqua: roads reduced to 5 lanes (except 98th right at Lyndale), Green: Roads reduced to three lanes. North is to the left.

Roadway changes, the interchange

The most notable change is the addition of a loop ramp from eastbound to northbound. This was actually envisioned as phase two of the interchange project back in the 1980s but not implemented–you can see the extra space available on the northbound side of the underpass.  The Orange Line documents hint at not building overly elaborate stations at 98th Street in anticipation of “future interchange reconfiguration.” This accomplishes three things: (1) it fixes the problem with heavy vehicle movements conflicting, (2) it eliminates the free right, and (3) with no left turn lane needed on the bridge, that can be given over to expanded bicycle and pedestrian options without widening the bridge structure.

The ramp to southbound is removed, the existing carpool ramp off the frontage road expanded, and the carpool bypass moved to the loop. This might even have an operational advantage to motorized vehicles, since eastbound to southbound and southbodund to eastbound traffic would no longer cross. The northwest loop is tightened and realigned to Dupont Avenue. The access to the office building is changed to 3/4 access. Office workers would still be able to easily access the southbound freeway by taking a right and then crossing 98th and going around the loop. The ramps to and from 94th Street to the south are eliminated in favor of the frontage roads.

The net result is an important, high volume interchange remains friendly and even improved to motorists, while the high speed movements on and off 98th Street that pedestrians now have to negotiate are eliminated.

Lyndale Avenue

Here, the free rights are removed and replaced with conventional right turn lanes, and the useless auxiliary lanes converted to cycletracks. South of 98th Street there’s not enough room to have a double turn lane and cycletracks, but banning the left turn from Lyndale Avenue southbound into the shopping center would allow lengthening the northbound lane. Southbound at 98th Street there is room for a double lane. North of 95th Street and south of the business district it is converted to a three lane configuration.


Green Lines indicate new protected cycletracks at 98th St and Lyndale Ave

98th Street

I’d add cycletracks with space taken from the auxiliary lane between Grand Avenue and Lyndale Avenue; probably east of Nicollet Avenue, and definitely east of Portland Avenue, a three lane section will suffice. If more lanes are maintained to Portland I’d buy out a couple of houses to eliminate the short “four-lane death road™” segment from 3rd Avenue to Portland Avenue by adding a center turn lane or median.

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned “bicycle lanes,” just cycletracks. This obviously represents my biases, since I don’t use bicycle lanes at any time, anywhere, for any reason. I want something more than paint between me and cars when I’m on a bicycle. But in the real world with other people planning, that would be an option. Similarly on-street parking is something I don’t want, wouldn’t use, and see no need for (the last time I really parallel parked was my driver’s test), but would be possible along “Clover 2.0” along Lyndale Avenue.

Thinking of Bloomington as a whole for a minute, the four-lane death roads all get road dieted, except for Old Shakopee Road west of the freeway which gets a five lane section. (Traffic counts are above 20,000 for most of it, due to Hyland Park limiting east-west options). The Lyndale Avenue cycletracks go from the new bicycle crossing at the Minnesota River bridge (which is going to get replaced sooner or later, and it looks like sooner), to the 86th Street bicycle lanes, the 98th Street cycletracks go to at least the new Nokomis-Minnesota River Regional Trail and the under reconstruction Old Cedar Avenue bridge along the newly road-dieted section.

StreetscapingMoving back to the Oxboro area specifically, I’d replace the street lights. Due to the width of the streets the one on high poles are necessary to get even illumination on the road, but they could be alternated or supplemented with decorative pedestrian scaled ones like at France Avenue. I’m generally not a fan of the “fake history” lanterns that are so common; the ultimate in ridiculousness is the “acorn” lanterns in front of the Shakopee Walmart. My personal preference would be something attractive but contemporary. And I’d extend the boulevard trees to both sides from 95th to the end of the commercial area, and the freeway to Nicollet Avenue.

Traffic Signals

Flashing Yellow Arrows would be implemented at all the signalized intersections. Pedestrian recall (The walk light always goes on without having to push a button when vehicles have the green) would be possible across some of the minor legs of the intersections, like the shopping center driveway or 95th Street. Of course all the signals would get ADA compliant push-buttons. Also nice would be a signal at 102nd and Lyndale–it’s hard to make a left turn out of the intersection at rush hour, maybe even a pedestrian overpass at 102nd St over I-35W.


Obviously this would take out the park and ride and Clover Center. To replace it, I propose to redevelop Clover Center and Freeway Ford with structured parking, market rate apartments, and a small amount of retail. The northbound Orange Line station would be integrated here, with a pedestrian bridge along the railroad tracks. Maybe that drive thru coffee shop could go here and also serve commuters. The bank might be able to stay, or maybe not–notice I’ve maintained two auxiliary lanes due the short distance between the new ramp and Lyndale, shifting things north. But I am thinking bigger for this corner.


Freeway Ford

Also of note, the former SuperAmerica headquarters, now a storage facility, (the white building in the lower center) might be a place to think about redevelopment too. It might not seem like a great place to live, surrounded by a wide suburban style road, a freeway interchange, and a railroad, but keep in mind there are apartments now in what is basically the Southdale parking lot, and this would be right across the new pedestrian bridge from the Orange Line stop. Or the park and ride facility could go here and needn’t be incorporated into the Clover Center redevelopment.

What’s Not Going to Change

In case it’s not obvious by now, the fact that probably 95% of the people either drive to or through the neighborhood, so it will stay reasonably friendly to motorists. I haven’t mentioned the strip malls, fast food, banks, and whatnot. I wouldn’t mind limiting low density detached commercial to of 95th Street. Nor would I necessarily be opposed to eventual redevelopment of the strip malls with parking in back–it doesn’t matter to me if I park in front or back of the Subway or Chinese takeout. The issue is that it’s difficult to configure a business to have both front and back entrances, and the strip malls provide affordable rents for a variety of stores. If the area was all redeveloped at once, there’d be too much high-end retail space and not enough low-end; after all this is not a highbrow area, as Byerly’s found out. An advantage is that there’d be fewer driveways crossing the Lyndale Avenue cycletracks.

A Reality Check

So is all of this going to happen? No. Obviously this is just my fantasy, which differs from how Bloomington likes to do things. So far, the city hasn’t been receptive to my feedback about more minor issues so I might as well suggest that they allow a toxic waste dump next to city hall. But, I can dream that these auxiliary lanes get used more productively as something else.


US Highway 14: New Ulm To Rochester Phototour (Summer 2015)

September 23, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Posted in Highway Phototours | Leave a comment


Originally there were multiple east-west routes across Minnesota, one just about as good as the other. In fact, as part of a post-war, pre-interstate plan to upgrade some of the nation’s major traffic routes, US 212 was slated to be upgraded to an expressway (the short, substandard US 61 expressway at Esko and the old US 52 expressway west of St Cloud are legacies of that). But when it came time for the interstates, focus zeroed in on the US 52 and US 16 corridors and the others were left unimproved.It wasn’t until the 1970s that the first improvements were made to US 14, a freeway bypass on the north side of Mankato, and a short expressway west of Rochester, and things have been happening in fits and starts since then. US 14 is one of the most dangerous roads in the state, and improvements are driven more by the desire for safety and linking the towns into our expressway network to ease and speed up long distance travel than traffic volumes. Most of it is under the 10,000 vehicles a day threshold where you normally consider four lanes. There is an active association promoting the completion of four lanes from New Ulm to Rochester. The ultimate vision is a freeway east of Mankato and an expressway west of Mankato.One wonders if it would have been better to have built I-90 where US 14 currently is; closer to Winona and Rochester and through Mankato. Of course, if that happened, we would now be addressing the same problems along US 16….

Here’s a map with the status of the improvements: Green: Freeway Complete, Red: Expressway Complete:, Yellow: Expressway Under Construction


US 14 status, summer 2015

The following is a compilation of two trips, one down to New Ulm and Owatonna to check out the new construction, and the other from Owatonna to Rochester.

US 14 New Ulm Entrance Sign

The journey starts at the western city limits of New Ulm. MnDOT considered the concept of a bypass around the northwestern corner of the city, but it was dropped as “inconsistent with local traffic patterns;” most of the traffic was actually going to and from New Ulm.

Menards Sign, New Ulm, MN

Shortly after the sign is the “big box” zone, with a Menards and Walmart. My impression is downtown is still doing reasonably well; having big box here probably attracts the people that would instead drive to big boxes in Mankato to shop, so the dollars are kept in-town and a lot of driving is prevented.

US 14 and the New Ulm Walmart

US 14 and the New Ulm Walmart


US 14 on the west side of New Ulm

Here’s US 14 on the west side of town. This was rebuilt recently, but traffic volumes are over 20,000, making a three lane conversion unworkable.The street lights look European, but they’re actually a Holophane product called the Mongoose. Holophane was more noted for making all kinds of glass optics than complete street light assemblies. As you can see by the sign, US 14 takes a turn to the north here, going across the Minnesota River.


A nice “Minnesota River Valley” scenic byway sign. I really like the Minnesota Scenic Byway markers, which are unique to each byway and often multiple colors. And Minnesota highway markers are one of my favorites. The first ones were a gold star, then a white star, then a white square. The current design dates from the 1960s and was changed because the white squares looked too much like a speed limit sign; the letters were originally gold. Unfortunately the gold fades; some sign people would like to give up and just change it to white. Only Minnesota and Colorado use three colored designs.

Traffic Signal on US 14 in New Ulm

New Ulm was one of the first areas to get LED traffic signals and pedestrian countdown signals. This very early design had letters a single LED width numbers and outline symbols, neither of which are still allowed.


Traffic Signal in New Ulm

Some early designs had the hand/man and the numbers as separate modules. This one the hand/man side was already replaced with exposed but filled symbols, and needs it again.

New Ulm Holophane Street Light

Here’s a street light in New Ulm. This is a Holophane product (which seem to be a lot more common outside the metro in southern and central Minnesota).

New Ulm Lanterns

These are very non-dark sky compliant lights. And I think such non-cutoff lighting can even be desirable in a business district, where the up-glow lights up the façade of the building).

The Old New Ulm River Bridge

The New Ulm River Bridge

Old New Ulm River Bridge

The bridge that replacement bridge will also be two lanes. MnDOT originally proposed a four lane bridge, but the instead it will be two lanes, with the money saved going to build an interchange north of the river where State Highway 15 splits off. Present and forecast traffic counts don’t justify four lanes, and much of the traffic bound for town exits at County Road 37. The one concession to MnDOT is it will be expandable to four lanes if and when traffic volumes warrant.

New Ulm North Intersection

The intersection north of the bridge.

Speed Limit 55 Extra Enforcement Sign

A reminder US 14 is a dangerous road

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Highway Sign

On a LIghter Note

Old US Highway 13 in Courtland

Courtland, Nicollet, and much farther along, Byron, are the three towns remaining on US 14. Since New Ulm to Mankato was envisioned as an expressway rather than full freeway, through town options were considered.

Courtland Water Tower and Plaque

Courtland Water Tower and Plaque

Courtland Water Tower

Courtland Water Tower

Old US 14 Near Courtland

Driving through Courtland and Nicollet isn’t nearly as slow and tedious as driving through Waseca is, but the towns wanted bypasses, so they’re getting them. The following photo shows a view approaching Nicollet. This was actually an early bypass that got engulfed by the town, and it will be obliterated and returned to farmland when the new bypass is built.

US 14 New Construction

The Future New Lanes east of Nicollet.

US 14 near Mankato

Interim safety improvements from Nicollet to Mankato consist of a wider center strip with pylons and rumble strips.

US 14 and County 6 Interchange, Mankato

This is the beginning of the freeway segment around Mankato at a new interchange at County 6.

US 14 Minnesota River Bridge Approach

Here is the approach to the Minnesota River Bridge

The US 14 Minnesota River Bridge at New Ulm

The US 14 Minnesota River Bridge at Mankato

For many years the freeway ended at MN 22, and traffic was forced to exit. The expressway was extended to near Janesville in the 1990s . Already there’s regrets about building this as an expressway rather than a freeway; long term plans are to convert it to one; some minor intersection improvements are currently happening.

US 14 Ramp Closed When Flashing Sign

US 14 closes occasionally in the winter, facilitated by permanent gates and signs.

US 14 Interchange East of Mankato at County 12

A new interchange was built just east of State Highway 22 to serve a Wal-Mart distribution center. Besides safety, part of the motivation for the new freeway is to encourage commerce (I get the impression truckers really do not like two-lane roads). This is also part of the motivation for 4-laning US 20 across Iowa.

US 14 Detour Sign

Old US 14 is being redone, and I found this detour sign kind of odd.

At Waseca, it’s unfortunate that the big box and fast food strip is now on the “wrong” side of town; it’s all north of town along MN 13, rather than by the freeway exits. There’s not even a gasoline station for travelers.  I know some people here don’t share my love of highway oriented commercial, but having it nowhere near the highway has to be the worst possible scenario. My prediction is eventually the highway oriented commercial will move south, leaving vacant buildings on the north side.


Waseca Layout Map

I’m also not a fan of how excessively long the new freeway is, rather than cutting a diagonal. This is probably done to avoid splitting farms, but it’s likely the land on the city side of the bypass will be developed eventually, and you’ve now inconvenienced 10,000 people a day forever. I’d like to see a “buy the farm” law, where MnDOT would be able to buy out an entire farm if the owners wanted to sell rather than have their farm split. Or if the owners wanted to keep farming, MnDOT could build a cattle pass, like the one being built on the St. Croix Crossing approach road, where the angle necessitated splitting a farm in Wisconsin.


The Waseca corridor eastward to Owatonna was completed after they decided the goal was a controlled access facility with adequate funding, so it’s a freeway. This is the view approaching Owatonna. The original plans were to have the interchange with I-35 be a diamond, but they found funding to make it a cloverleaf at the last minute

Black and Yellow Trail Sign

On either side of I-35 are these neat signs. Before and in the early days of numbered highways, the “auto trails” would have names, usually promoted by an association


Here’s the formal registration for the Black and Yellow Trail.

The Yellow Stone Trail (US 14) and the King of Trails (US 75) have also been officially revived. US 218 runs concurrent with the US 14, although the eastbound signs say “To” and westbound there is an “End US 218” sign well in advance of I-35.

The four lane expressway south of town has been around a long time (and was instrumental in decommissioning Kaplan Woods State Park due to having new freeways on two sides of it). Formerly the four lane expressway ended short of US 218, this was improved in the early

The current project extends the expressway a few miles west, shown in red.  Although the goal is a freeway, they are not building an interchange east of town at this time. A “Reduced Conflict Intersection” was greeted with the usual scorn by locals, so they’re building an at-grade intersection for now. Most of the new freeway is going to be on new alignment next to the railroad tracks, this actually causes the least disruption since private houses and accesses on both sides of the existing US 14 can remain.

US 14 Construction at Owatonna

Four Lanes Under Construction


Now we’re back to two lanes. The haze is from the western wildfires.


This is one of only two signals, both of which are at Byron. Every single “Don’t Walk” light was burned out. They were burned out when I was here last year, and were in 2007 judging by Google Street View. And one of the pedestrian buttons was broken. Don’t think they get too many pedestrians here. I reported the issues to Mn/DOT and have been told they’ve been fixed.


Among the unexpected sights I found was this defunct mini-golf course.

US 14 at Rochester

Approaching US 52. It’s hard to see, but an extension of the Douglas State Trail crosses just before the highway bridge. Although the road continues to downtown Rochester, the US 14 designation turns and follow the bypass, as did I.

Back to North Star Highways Home


Will Self-Driving Cars Solve Congestion?

September 18, 2016 at 5:48 pm | Posted in Future Cars | Leave a comment


google-car-freewayConventional wisdom seems to be that self-driving cars will do a lot to alleviate congestion. They will be able to interact with each other and the environment so that they can space themselves closer together, detect and reroute around congestion, and not cause crashes (which accounts for about a quarter of the existing congestion). However, there are some factors that suggest that they may not completely solve the problem.First a comment about the “rental vs. ownership” model. There are a lot of predictions that self-driving cars will act more like taxicabs, where you don’t own one, but punch a button on your smartphone and one shows up at your door.Personally I’m skeptical.

1) There’s the whole “pride of ownership” thing, and being attached to your car. Of course maybe this will eventually die out with me and the rest of Gen-X.

2)What if the person that rode right before me has Ebola? Or a bad cold? And what’s that mystery stain?

3)What if I buy a couple of 50 pound bags of dog food and want to leave them in the trunk while I’m at work? Or if you just keep your bicycle in the back, as I do.

You can laugh at these scenarios, but people do think that way. There’s no strong rational reason for “rail bias” either, but it exists. There are already alternatives to owning your own car: taxis, ride-sharing, car-sharing, car rental, and transit. And there are drawbacks to each of these.  You’d think they’d be more popular if people really wanted to not own cars.

It’s also possible there might be a hybrid model, where a family owns the primary car but rents one as needed, or rents out their own car when they’re not using it.

But now lets look at the big reason why they might not fix congestion…

Self -Driving Cars will likely substantially increase Vehicular Miles Traveled.

People routinely mention that VMT is rising a lot slower in days gone by, or is even decreasing on a per capita basis. But that may not hold true in the future for a number of reasons. And with increased VMT (assuming highway expansion can’t keep up), comes increased congestion.

Here are some of the reasons:

1) Moving car storage around is going to add more miles

It seems a dream of urbanists to get rid of downtown parking garages. With self-driving cars, the cars could store themselves in an out-of-the-way location.

Fair enough, but that’s going to add miles traveled. And how close to downtown would massive car storage be palatable? They’re already trying to move the impound lot. Who’s going to want this facility in a developed area?

What’s more, suppose a downtown worker decides to send a car all the way back to Lake Elmo for a family member to use during the day? Or just because they doesn’t want to pay to park downtown? You’ve just doubled the miles traveled in a day.

It’s also possible you’d want to use your garage at home for a shop, rec room, or junk storage, and have your car park somewhere else.

2) People may choose to own more cars

Take a look at this 1950s Levittown ad. Space for one car. And then this typical Shakopee house. Notice how much more space for cars there is.


Levittown Ad


Shakopee McMansion

Right now in many cases we’ve reached a limit with one car per licensed driver. But what if you don’t need to be a licensed driver any more? Suppose Junior has a car to get to elementary school. Grandma has a car to get to her quilting club.

Alternatively, if the rental model comes to pass and people don’t own cars or own fewer cars, there’s still going to be  a lot of these extra trips, as well as driving from one fare to another.

 3) People may increasingly choose longer commutes

I know the trope “Millennials are choosing the city,”. I don’t doubt many of them are, but not all of them are doing so, especially after it’s time to stop partying and leave the stack & pack in the city and settle down and have kids.  And not everyone moving into the area is a Millennial, and it’s possible preferences will change over time.

There’s been a desire for more space by people in the country ever since the resistance to the first anti-growth boundary, the Proclamation of 1763. The 1950s freeways and affordable houses just made possible what had been a long-standing desire (previously limited to streetcar suburbs). A couple of studies for one demographic group do not convince me things are going to to change in the long term. And it’s been decades since we’ve built a substantial number of affordable houses. The house in Shakopee above sells for more than triple what the Levittown house, in inflation adjusted dollars, cost.

The reasons for this suburban desire are complex, and I’ve gone into them in “Why Aren’t We Building Affordable Houses Anymore“: zoning issues, builders figuring out they make more money building mansions and stack & packs, and consumers thinking they have to have granite because they saw it on TV, or thinking it’s child abuse for kids to share a bedroom.

But with no new supply of affordable houses, and lots of people wanting them, eventually the price of existing houses is going to rise to unaffordable levels, as it has in San Francisco and other places. For people that want houses, the choices would then be a long commute or settling for multi-family housing.

But what if you could take a nap or surf the internet during the commute?  A lot of us already spend several hours a day working at home, or on the computer, or on the phone. What if you could do that all during a commute?

The predicted 103,830 vehicles a day over the St. Croix Crossing in 2067 could actually happen. Maybe they even choose a school for their kids near work so they can have family time in the car. (Or what if even they choose a school a long ways away for their kids since it’s better and transportation is no longer an issue?)


4) There could be more delivery service

I think the idea is awesome that I could punch an order into my touchscreen in my car, and then pull up to Famous Dave’s and have food handed to me. (The kitchen would of course know when my car was due to arrive.) And then actually be able to eat something like ribs, even drinking a beer while in a car… it would be a welcome break from Taco Bell and Burger King.

But if driving is easier and cheaper, there may be more discretionary trips. Want a cheeseburger instead of ramen tonight? Order one, and the car will make a trip between Burger King and your house that you ordinary wouldn’t bother with.


5) The coming of Electric Cars

Even using gasoline, if energy costs remain the same or go up, with the above factors it’s likely VMT is going to go up. But something else is happening simultaneously…


Yes, the electric car. Right now a Leaf is impractical for anything but a second car for most families, and a Tesla is too expensive for most people.

But what if someday you could have an affordable car with a 200 mile range? I don’t know if it will happen or not, but there is a lot of motivation from different parties to try to make it happen. Electric cars are a lot cheaper than gasoline cars to operate, even more so that they don’t pay fuel taxes. Right now society has decided they’re fine with that. But at some point we’ll need to rethink transportation financing. And while we’re at it we might as well make users pay the full cost of the roads, most likely with a mileage based fee.

At $3 a gallon, a 30 mpg gasoline car costs 10 cents / mile in fuel costs, 1.6 cents of which is taxes. An electric car is typically 3.3 cents a mile, of which none is taxes. If you double the taxes to replace funding from general sources and add them to cost of an electric car, it’s still only 6.5 cents a mile, and the gasoline car goes to 11.6 cents. Going further, we could triple the tax and in turn eliminate the tab fees. This makes the heaviest users of the roads pay proportionately, but even then it’s only about 8 cents a mile. Probably still enough to induce a lot of extra travel  And to be fair,  we should have transit users pay the whole cost of their transportation choices too.


6) Shifting of Trips from Transit

But speaking of transit, remember the ridiculous proposal to just buy transit users cars? Well, that might not so ridiculous any more. Anyone that can physically ride in a bus can ride in a self-driving car. The energy cost would cheaper, so more people could afford it, or the cost or the government to provide it would be less. Or maybe, with a lot fewer reasons for people to take transit, we wouldn’t have to  provide services like the Gold Line. We could limit buses and trains to areas inside the beltway, by subsidizing the cost of renting or owing self-driving cars for the poor.

But wouldn’t that be just another form of transit? The lines get blurry!

It’s also interesting to think about what self-driving cars would  do to intercity transport. When I’m in Chicago I normally stay at a Holiday Inn Express in the northwestern suburbs. My house is in the southern suburbs here. To go by plane, I would drive to the airport, pay to park, then pay to rent a car in Chicago. What if I could leave at dusk, sleep, and then arrive in the morning with my own car? And with an electric car the cost being less? I might travel a lot more for pizza. But if I’m going to take regular trips of that distance I want something comfortable.


There May be a Focus on Comfort, Rather than Efficiency

We’ve all seen this cute Google Self-Driving car. You could fit a lot of those on I-94, right?

Well, you can buy a conventional car that looks like that today.

There seems to be a complete and utter lack of interest in the US. The Smart Fortwo sold 9264 in 2013, compared to 360,089 Honda Accords. You could make the case that if the rental model of self-driving cars comes to pass that people could take a Smart Fortwo to their job in the city, and use the Ford F-150 for towing the boat to the lake on the weekend. But right now there’s already that market for “2nd cars”. People could have a pickup for the weekends and one daily driver, and a city car for the second daily driver, but they don’t.

Instead, here’s another take on what a self-driving car could look like, the Mercedes concept:

Just a little bit bigger. If people increasingly choose two hour commutes to save on housing costs or to get more space, and no longer needed to drive, they’re going to want more space to be comfortable. So you might see recline-flat seats, big screen TVs, and maybe even RV-like amenities like lavatories and kitchenettes.

A car being too big for people to be comfortable driving is no longer going to be an issue. And the cars will undoubtedly be programmed to increase comfort by gentle acceleration and stops. Everyone who’s been behind a semi truck “gently accelerating” knows what it can do to traffic.

Ultimately I look forward to self-driving cars. I figure they’ll be ready for prime time when it’s about time for me to surrender my “manual car” license, and thus I won’t loose my freedom. But I don’t think they’ll won’t solve congestion. They’ll just make it matter less.

The Myth of the Dangerous Right Turn on Red

September 17, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Traffic Signals | Leave a comment
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The Right Turn on Red

We all know right turn on red (RTOR) is extremely dangerous, leading to motorists mowing down workers carrying plate-glass and old ladies pushing baby buggies. Or is it? Well, it seems to lead to a lot of aggressive behavior from both motorists and pedestrians, which has been well documented here in official studies, but actual crash data shows it’s very safe.

California, with its wide streets and auto-centric culture, has had RTOR since 1939. The first study was in 1956 by James C. Ray in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Richmond which found just 0.3% of intersection crashes involved a RTOR. Also of note: RTOR maneuvers involved 11% of the right turning crashes but 18% of the total right turns (And the same motorists that can’t make a RTOR would make a right turn on green during the next phase, which has the issue of motorists not yielding to pedestrians, along with much higher speeds).

Eastbound Exposition Boulevard approaches and crossses at Farmdale Avenue intersection traffic signal green lights but No Right Turn on Red, No-U-Turn signs and No-Right-Turn light sign illuminated when the Expo Light Rail Transit Train is crossing

Later studies have similar results. For vehicle vs. vehicle crashes, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)  1989-1992 study of Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, and Missouri (selected because crash reports from those states included data on whether a RTOR maneuver was being performed) found they amounted to 0.05%, of all injury crashes, and 0.06% of all fatal crashes.  A 1994-1996 study limited to San Francisco found they amounted to 0.45% of all intersection crashes.

Nor do things change much for car vs. pedestrian crashes. A 1994-1998 San Francisco study (to determine if RTOR should be banned citywide) by Jack L. Fleck and Bond M. Yeeshowed just 0.8% of all car vs pedestrian crashes involved a RTOR maneuver. To try to see if there may have been some problems with reporting, they picked 100 random car vs pedestrian crashes to analyze in detail. They found that of the 25 that occurred at signalized intersections, zero involved right turn on red and 12  involved right turn on green. Quebec, long the lone holdout against RTOR, finally allowed them in 2003 after reviewing the studies.

There are some conflicting data: one study of several states (by Paul Zador, Jack Moshman, and Leo Marcus) showed that when RTOR was enacted crashes at intersections increased 20.7% from what they would have been but there was no significant change in severe or incapacitating crashes.  A similar before/after study by Claude Dussault had similar results. One possible explanation for the discrepancy is a learning curve from both motorists and pedestrians, and that when the law was changed there were specific intersections that should have had restrictions that hadn’t been identified and so marked yet.

I acknowledge the possibility that a lot of very minor crashes between cars and pedestrian are not reported. This is not something I’ve personally observed (I’m rarely outside a car unless I’m on recreational trails which tend to have few signalized intersections and I try to avoid driving in pedestrian heavy areas if at all possible).  However there have been no studies on this, just anecdotes, and thus I can’t support or refute them since there’s no data on how common they are in objective terms. No one chimes in and says “I was not knocked over by a car today”. Maybe that’s a good area for a future study?

The MUTCD Speaks

Here are the MUTCD guidelines for NTOR, section 2B.54 03:

A No Turn on Red sign should be considered when an engineering study finds that one or more of the following conditions exists:

  1. Inadequate sight distance to vehicles approaching from the left (or right, if applicable);
  2. Geometrics or operational characteristics of the intersection that might result in unexpected conflicts;
  3. An exclusive pedestrian phase;
  4. An unacceptable number of pedestrian conflicts with right-turn-on-red maneuvers, especially involving children, older pedestrians, or persons with disabilities;
  5. More than three right-turn-on-red accidents reported in a 12-month period for the particular approach; or
  6. The skew angle of the intersecting roadways creates difficulty for drivers to see traffic approaching from their left.

For a long time there was a no RTOR at Lyndale Avenue and 66th Street, but this was removed because there wasn’t engineering justification.  Of course this specific example is soon going to be a roundabout…

Lyndale Avenue at 66th Street

“Unacceptable number of pedestrian conflicts” is kind of subjective, so if they really wanted to keep the ban it they might have been able to justify it here, and I agree this might be a good place for one.  And this is only a recommended practice (The MUTCD has three levels of guidelines: “May”= Optional, “Should”=Recommended, and “Shall”= Required). San Francisco, in fact, bans RTOR in some places just to prevent motorists from inching into the crosswalk. .

But take another kind of intersection: If you ban right turns from a shopping mall to a wide suburban style road, traffic on the main road has to screech to a halt every time a motorist wants to turn out of the mall, and there’s probably not a pedestrian there and hasn’t been for the past hour. When you count all the suburban intersections around, there are probably more places they should allow RTOR than shouldn’t.


MN 252 at 85th Ave N, no reason to ban RTOR here. Pedestrians aren’t even alloweed at street level because of the pedestrian bridge

My Own Thoughts

1) As should be obvious by now, due to the improved LOS for motorists and the preponderance of studies indicating it is actually extremely safe, I fully support allowing RTOR where appropriate. 

2) I don’t like city-specific bans like NYC, or Montreal where you have to be aware of different rules of the road. This diverges from everything we’re trying to accomplish now with standardization, and I think NYC can afford signs at this point.

3) As for whether the problem of motorists making illegal turns where banned is an engineering problem, enforcement problem, or both, I don’t know. Lighted blankout signs grab your attention, but have typically been used only at specific times of day, or when there’s a train on adjacent tracks. We use lighted indications for everything but a NTOR prohibition, so while not excusing bad driving, it’s understandable why it’s sometimes hard to see.

An Idea: Flashing Yellow Arrows for Right Turns

Directly related to the problems with right turning traffic at intersections, I propose increased use and modification of four section arrow heads on the right to try to make intersections safer.

The states that allow a right turn on a red arrow would have to change, and the MUTCD would have to allow a flashing red arrow, but this is how I see it operating:

  • Green Arrow: Go, no conflicting vehicle or pedestrian phases
  • Flashing Yellow Arrow: Yield to pedestrians or vehicles
  • Red Arrow: Stop and do not turn / Flashing Red Arrow: Stop and turn if safe

A four section head with a red ball on top is already legal if the intent is to allow RTOR, but I would prefer that we narrow the meanings of red balls , just as we are for green balls.

Three section flashing yellow arrow heads are now permissible, but installing a standard 4-section head may be more problematic when physically mounted on the post for right turns. The lack of positional change from a flashing yellow to a steady yellow would be mitigated because the through signals would always change at the same time. It seems motorists have a problem with the “yield to pedestrians” on a green ball, just like they do for “yield to oncoming traffic”on a green ball.

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Traffic Signals Abroad

September 16, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Posted in Traffic Signals | Leave a comment
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Minnesota vs the Rest of the Country

1) As I’ve mentioned before, protected only turns (where left turning traffic has a red arrow and must wait a whole cycle if they arrive one second after the typical 10 second green), are much less common. Only in California have I seen more than in the Twin Cities suburbs. These are becoming less common with the debut of flashing yellow arrows, the feeling being that with the extra warning to yield, left turning drivers can now be trusted to make good decisions.

3M Model 131 Traffic Signal Left Turn Arrow

The Capacity Killer

2) The usual arrangement for 5-light signals is the “doghouse”, rather than the 5-light vertical. Vertical signals are mainly used in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, South Dakota, and Arkansas; other areas use the doghouse configuration. With the adoption of the 5-light bimodal flashing yellow arrow, probably at the urging of the FHWA, Minnesota and Wisconsin are adopting the doghouse. (And much more common is a 5-light vertical  to be replaced with a 4-section flashing yellow arrow, although agencies that refuse to use flashing yellow arrows, like the city of Minneapolis, are still erecting new vertical installations.)


5 lens vertical signal

2) Signals hung from overhead span wires are not used in Minnesota, except in temporary installations (although some, like MN 62 at Hiawatha, persisted for decades for various reasons). MN 36 in Lake Elmo will likely be the same story. These are more common in permanent installations out east, which are usually metal poles, and usually a lot neater than the wood poles that Minnesota slops together. There are also quite a few surviving 4-way signals, some converted to LED. With the requirement of more than one signal head in each direction, these were augmented with two single faces tied together on either side, for a total of two facing each direction. Looking at old photos, Minnesota always seems to have preferred putting them on posts on the side, I’ve never seen a 4-way here.


4-Way Signal Cleveland, TN

3)  Minnesota always puts signals on the poles on each side of the mast (and these are useful if there’s a truck blocking your overhead view. Other states do not always do this. It might be carried over from masts supplementing side signals in Minnesota, and replacing overhead span wires in other states.

3) Of course, some signals are mounted horizontally elsewhere, as we’ve all seen in Wisconsin (although their new standards are vertical only). These are also common in Texas and Florida.

4) Eagle brand signals are a lot less common elsewhere. Possibly because of their Quad Cities location (stuff cost a lot more to ship in days gone by), Eagle in all its various incarnations, from the 1940’s Eagleluxes up to the 2000’s Bubblebacks, had a virtual monopoly on the signal market. In other areas of the country, Crouse-Hinds (of New York), and Econolite (of southern California) are a lot more common. McCain, a new player making a big splash with boring but functional equipment, is becoming more common both in Minnesota and nationwide.

Spotters 11

Type SIG “Bubblebacks, later version, 98th and Dupont Ave / I-35W, Bloomington. Eagle visors tend to point downwards more than other brands.

5) Of course other agencies have their own quirks. Obviously there are too many to list, but Chicago DOT does whatever they feel like, nationals standards be damned.


Noncompliant Chicago signal

The US vs Canada

1) The flashing green ball in BC is used at intersections where a pedestrian can stop traffic to cross. The light will flash green until a button is pushed, then solid green, yellow, and red.

In Ontario it has the same meaning as a left turn arrow in the US. In some places the flashing is much faster than in the US. I called them “seizure lights” and my sister called them “disco lights”.

2) Some provinces use square reds and yellow diamonds as assistance to the colorblind. Except for Quebec, they seem to be on their way out.

Prince Edward Island Traffic Light with Shapes

Charlottowne Traffic Light

3) Pedestrian symbols are red and green, and are always outlines (as opposed to the US where they’re now required to be all solid). There’s a subtle difference to the hands, but a large difference to the mans.  This one is Canadian standard but is actually in Osseo. A Canadian company called Ecolux was one of the first with LED signals, so some Canadian stuff snuck in down here. Canada also generally uses circular lenses.

Canadian Standard pedestrian signal in the US

Canadian Standard pedestrian signal in the US

Not really related, but because I think they’re cool, a moose warning sign in New Brunswick, and a stained glass representation of the Confederation Bridge at the visitors center. Tolls on PEI are one way leaving the island, leading to the slogan “You only have to pay if you want to leave”, but still was a bit of a shock paying a $45 bridge toll.


Moose Warning Sign in New Brunswick

Colored Glass Art of the Confederation Bridge

Colored Glass Art of the Confederation Bridge

The Rest of the World

I’ve not been out of the US and Canada since 1985, when I was a child, but here are some of my understandings based on conversations with other road and traffic signal enthusiasts.

1) Fixed time signals are much more common than actuated signals.

2) There’s a much wider variety of configurations, and some vehicle signals have countdown displays until the light turns green light, or until the light turns red. These are specifically banned by the MUTCD on the grounds that studies have shown no benefit, and there’s been suggestions to try to hide pedestrian countdowns from motorists because motorists were looking at them.  I’m guilty of that myself. After driving around San Francisco for several days where the vehicle light turns yellow at zero, I angered a truck driver behind me in Grant’s Pass by slowing down where the countdown went to zero with the light still green.

To get vehicle countdowns to work in the US requires technology that hasn’t been implemented here yet. The pedestrian countdowns were designed to “drop in” to existing installations and memorize how long the change interval is, which works because unlike a vehicle signal the pedestrian change interval never varies; there’s no additional wiring beyond the mains wiring for the two indications.

The beautiful “Spiderweb” lenses were only used in the US in the 1940s; they stuck around in Europe


Traffic Signal with GE Spiderweb lens, Cleveland, TN

2) They have stuck with LED look indications, and in turn have developed thinner signal heads that can only accommodate them rather than switching to “incandescent look” modules that require as much depth as an incandescent reflector.

Lenses 24

Comparison of module depths

Early Leotek LED module

Early Leotek LED module

The famous Ampelmännchen of East Germany.


Animations are common in Asian countries. Notice that the animated pedestrian speeds up and starts “running” as time expires

Uniquely, some German pedestrian push-buttons allow you to play Pong with the person across the street while waiting for a “Walk” signal.

This was actually an ad campaign: people could walk into a booth where their dance moves were copied on the Don’t Walk light, but 81% more pedestrians waited for the light.

Fundamentally too, other countries, including Canada, use red and green for pedestrian signals, instead of orange and white. I covered the development of pedestrian signals earlier, but I’ll repeat, expand,and speculate. In the US the word “Walk” was originally in thin art-deco letters on  8″ round lenses, usually mounted on the same head as vehicle signals.

A green lens would have made it even harder to read across an intersection and possibly be confused with the adjacent green vehicle light. When the orange “Wait” indication was added and moved to a separate head, an orange stripe was added to the top and bottom to make it easy to see and differentiate. The neons, which were a large separate head and one color, were as efficient as another and no way to be mistaken for a vehicle signal, used red and green until they were forced to change. (Red is the “default” color in neon because it is cheaper and lasts longer than other colors). I believe Europe used icons (easier to see) on a separate head from the beginning.

Early pedestrian accommodation, first with the green lens designed to throw some light downward, then with the separate “Walk” lens

Early pedestrian accommodation, first with the green lens designed to throw some light downward, then with the separate “Walk” lens

Later evolution to two indication Wait / Walk and then square Walk / Don’t Walks.

Later evolution to two indication Wait / Walk and then square Walk / Don’t Walks.

Crouse-Hinds Neon Don't Walk Signal

Crouse-Hinds Neon Don’t Walk Signal

4) Some areas have a yellow before the green. This reduces reaction time and gives motorists with manual transmissions (the norm in much of the rest of the world) time to drop the clutch, but can also encourage people to jump the light. Interestingly some early American signals by their design also used a yellow before the green, like the el-cheapo 3-lamp Darley

5) Installations are usually less elaborate than in the US. 

6) Right turn on red is prohibited unless specifically allowed. Universal RTOR is one of the legacies of the 1970’s oil crises,  the other being the 55 mph speed limit. The first is definitely pro-motorist, the second anti-motorist, so it’s not hard to understand why the first hung around in North America but not the second. Various countries use various means to indicate that a RTOR is allowed. Some use signs and some use signal indications, for example Germany uses a sign and France uses a flashing yellow arrow.

Of course RTOR is controversial in the cities, with some feeling they should be banned and some noting a problem of drivers doing them illegally anyway in places they are banned. And that’s a subject for another article, along with my ideas to make right turns safer and improve LOS for pedestrians.

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Common Questions About Traffic Signals

September 15, 2016 at 12:36 am | Posted in Traffic Signals | Leave a comment
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Here are some random questions and answers about traffic signals that didn’t deserve their own article.

1) What can pedestrian sensors do?

Although pedestrian sensors are uncommon for all the usual reasons (cost, engineers don’t see need, old equipment, etc), there are some neat things they can do. Besides being able to call a pedestrian phase if a pedestrian is present, a second sensor can be mounted pointed toward the crosswalk. This can extend the pedestrian phase if the pedestrian is especially slow. Or conversely terminate it early if it’s a runner or bicyclist. Perhaps by mounting one farther back on a multi-use path they could call a phase if a bicycle or pedestrian is approaching, hopefully giving a walk signal by the time they reach the intersection. The idea is not new; some early ones experimented with pressure sensitive plates, but modern ones use microwave detection.

2) Why do we still have push-buttons if the “Walk” sign always goes on (ped recall)?

This is covered pretty thoroughly in previous articles and my comments to them, but basically ADA (at least as implemented in Minnesota) absolutely requires a station with  audible and tactile feedback (in the form of an arrow that vibrates) next to the crosswalk.


Shiny new audible-tactile push-button on and old signal

First, a station that includes feedback, with all the sophisticated electronics and simply lacking one mechanical button doesn’t make sense, either to produce as a product or for agencies to stock spares for. You’re probably talking about a part that wholesales for a couple of cents for a $400 station that’s part of a $6000 system (and can cost well into five figures to retrofit an existing intersection).

Second, if there was a station without a button, it would still look like it had a button, people would push at it and be confused when it doesn’t move or do anything (if ped recall is enabled or the button has already been pushed the speaker says “Wait”, but it doesn’t affect the cycle.) There’s already a myth that pedestrian buttons don’t “do anything” (that apparently started in New York when they converted from actuated controllers to fixed time and disconnected the buttons without removing them).

The Econolite push-buttons, as used with the famous California neons, would turn a small red light to green to acknowledge that the button had been pushed. This was probably not more widespread due to the maintenance of the incandescent lamps, and has now finally been coming back with the new electronic buttons.


Agencies vary widely in how rapidly they are bringing existing infrastructure into compliance with the ADA. Not just traffic signals, but removing utility poles from the middle of sidewalks.

Guidance in the past has been vague, for example the MUTCD does not require accessible signals, and disability rights groups have in the past conflicted with each other, but finally the FHWA made the statement:

“Implementing regulations for Title II of the ADA, which covers State and local governments, also address “communications and information access,” requiring ‘effective communications’ with persons with disabilities. In the sidewalk/street crossing environment, this would include accessible pedestrian signals, markings and signage.” (FHWA, 2004).

And with the “Public Right-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines” (PROWAG) under development, it is expected accessible pedestrian signals will be mandatory.

But the ADA only requires modifications to existing infrastructure when it can be done without “undue financial or administrative burden.” So far, modifications have been up to the whims of individual agencies and how far disability rights groups want to push things. Minneapolis and Hennepin County, for example, aren’t always using them in new construction. By contrast, MnDOT, which was pushed by disability rights groups, feels they have to include them every time they go smooth out some bumps in the road, and will actually remove crosswalks rather than leave them noncompliant or upgrade them.

3) Why aren’t there more leading pedestrian intervals?

There generally is an impact to motorists, as you more or less double the time they cannot use the intersection (the exception being if the pedestrian phase is long enough and motorists few enough that motorists don’t fully utilize the green time if a pedestrian phase is present), but they are such an advantage to pedestrians that they are beginning to be implemented in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic anyway (one study showed a 60% decrease in vehicle + pedestrian accidents).  The MUTCD only specifically allowed them in 2009, so there are the usual issues with older equipment not having the capability, and of resources required to implement them.

One area where I feel a leading pedestrian interval would be appropriate is Berry/Calhoun Parkway and Richfield Road. This has a lead left and in practice pedestrians and bicyclists on the very heavily used trail often jaywalk as soon as the cross street turns red, or at least get confused when they don’t get an immediate walk (It doesn’t help matters that during non-peak period it is permissive only). It would be better as a lag left with recall enabled and a leading pedestrian interval.


Calhoun Parkway and Berry Road

4) Why won’t the light turn to “Walk” if the same direction has a green left turn arrow?

Sometimes it’s just the engineers didn’t think of it and implement it, but this requires the “pedestrian overlap” outputs on the controller be used, not the standard outputs, with associated reprogramming as well as additional load switches. The controller may be old and simply not have that capability. There may be no room in the cabinet for more load switches. Implementing this certainly requires wiring changes in the cabinets. Always much more complicated than setting a menu item on a controller


Simple Traffic Controller Cabinet

Here’s a typical cabinet, you can see in #4 that load switches plug directly into the backplane, #3 If there are no empty sockets you basically  have to replace the cabinet, probably with a bigger one, and thus probably requiring concrete work… You can’t simply shove an extra load switch in some nook and cranny.

5) Why, when I pull into the turn lane, does the side street turn green first with no one there?

First, it could simply be a fixed timed light where there is no sensing of vehicles. Second, skipping phases where there is no demand is a fairly recent concept. It simply didn’t exist in electro-mechanical or early electronic controllers. So it might be that no one has worked on and upgraded the intersection recently.

Or, the loop detector could be broken, as often happens. If they break they are supposed to default to the “sense” position so calls are always generated.

6) If the cars have the green light why don’t I get a “Walk” signal when I push a button?

“Pedestrian Reservice” does exist and is an option on most modern controllers, but is subject to the minimum pedestrian phase time. You can’t promise the controller “If you give me a Walk, I’ll hurry across.” Since walk intervals tend to be short compared to clearance time, there’s usually not time to give a walk if a pedestrian is not there before or at the beginning of the vehicle phase.  Simply extending the vehicle phase until the pedestrian phase can get done would lead to all kinds of issues with coordination. The “Home Depot” intersection previously discussed does have reservice even if it doesn’t have recall to cross the driveway and side street.

To me this is somewhat redundant, since if a phase is long enough to allow ped reservice, it’s long enough to allow ped recall, but the concept does exist.

7) Why don’t signals flash at night or during times of low traffic?

Nothing’s more irritating than coming across a red light late at night when no car is in site. In Minneapolis where there are many fixed time intersections, it can even be a while before it changes. Basically night flash was removed in Minnesota because there have been a number of studies that it’s safer to have full operations 24/7, as well as actuated lights becoming increasingly common. Various studies show a reduction in night-time accidents from 27% to 95% when signals run 24/7. In theory if a light is red, it should turn green as soon as a motorist arrives at 3:00 AM.

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, engineering fundamentally balances efficiency and safety; Minnesota engineers try to tilt the balance towards safety as opposed to efficiency in a lot of ways, most visibly with how prevalent protected-only turns are (Only in California have I seen more); this balance explains why night flash is extinct in Minnesota. With the increasing number of actuated lights and the introduction of right turn on red, motorists at least don’t have to wait as long as they would have in days past.

8) Can I change a traffic light to green with my TV remote or flashing my headlights?


Longer answer:-That Youtube video is a myth/prank/joke.


Preemption is triggered by a strobe light mounted on emergency vehicles that flashes at a rate different than what a commercial strobe light will do. After electronic geniuses started building their own triggers, Minnesota specifically outlawed having one in your vehicle (although I have one for my home setup). And in case anyone still has ideas, they’re not easy to build; they require more precision than can be obtained with simple “Electronics 101” type resistor/capacitor timer circuits.  Also, they won’t work on the street anyway anymore, because the flashing is now encrypted.

9) What are those blue lights on some traffic signals?

To tell the cops waiting in the next driveway you just ran a red light. The first installation was at the now replaced signal at County 5 and MN 13 in Burnsville and was improvised with a standard industrial fixture; now there are specialized LED lights available. Also, those cameras on top of the signal mast are not “red light cameras,” they’re generally video cameras or microwave sensors for detecting cars, and go no farther than the traffic cabinet. Some MnDOT intersections do have traffic cameras, but they are mounted much higher up.



10) What about driver-less cars?

I really am excited about driver-less cars.  Imagine being able to start out to Chicago at night, fall asleep, and then arrive in the city with my car in the morning. Imagine editing a post for while stuck in traffic. Imagine ordering fast food, or even slow food, on a touch screen and it would be ready when you pull up (and a lot easier and safer to eat in your car). I’d probably eat at Applebee’s instead of Arby’s if it were just as convenient.

But getting back to the topic, think of how fundamentally unchanged the interface between traffic signals and motorists is despite nearly 100 years. A traffic signal controller can only tell if a car is there or not, not how many are there, or how many will be coming it’s way in five minutes. A driver can only see and react to a red light, not know there’s a string of red lights five miles away. So it’s easy to see how revolutionary cars communicating with traffic control equipment could be: No wasted reaction time, signals which know all about traffic and can react accordingly; cars which can reroute if there are a bunch of red lights ahead. Despite frustration with the present, I see great optimism for the future.

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Traffic Signal Timing and Phasing

September 13, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Traffic Signals | Leave a comment

This is an overview of traffic signal timing and phasing, and the implications of various sequences. As of note about terminology, I’ve generally used the term “vehicle” and “vehicle operations” to match engineering terminology, despite that fact that it is ultimately the human motorist whose time is wasted with poor vehicle operations, and that a bicycle is a vehicle, but it can be on the sidewalk or sidewalk / trail rather than the street, and the rider is affected differently than motorized vehicles. This part focuses on timing and phasing issues.

The Case for Long Cycle Times- Intersection Efficiency 

During each cycle you have some time where no one is utilizing the intersection. For simplicity let’s say the yellow and all red times are when no one can use the intersection.  (Although it’s well known motorists will “run” the yellow, and they can’t start immediately on green, in the real world these considerations usually exactly cancel each other out.)

Let’s take two extremes. 20 second Main Street green, and 7 second Side Street green, three second yellows, and  two second all reds. That means for that cycle only 73% of the time is green.


Now how about an 8 minute Main Street green (as actually implemented for US 10 in Royalton on Friday summer evenings) and say a 30 second Side Street green. Here 98% of the capacity is green.


Obviously there’s disadvantages to longer cycle times. Pedestrians have to wait longer in the cold if they want to cross the street that’s green. Motorists start to fume and may turn around and cut through neighborhood streets. The engineers’ phones start to ring with complaints. Like so much else, setting cycle times is a compromise based on judgement and trial and error.

Protected-only turn phases (you can only turn on a green arrow) have a pretty negative impact to vehicle operations. With protected phases both in directions, you’ve just doubled the yellow and red times per cycle, plus some of the turning traffic that time is devoted to may have been able to utilize gaps in the main phase had they been allowed to.

3M Model 131 Traffic Signal Left Turn Arrow

The Capacity Killer

The Case for Short Cycle Times: Progression 

But why can’t lights be timed so you hit a series of greens? They try to (sometimes). And have been since almost the beginning of traffic signals. And computer modeling is making it a lot easier. But the suburbs, with their irregular traffic, irregular spacing between traffic signals, and frequent use of turn phases make it extremely challenging. One of the reasons you’re seeing many more where the turn arrow is at the end of the phase in one direction is that it was determined that is the most efficient way to coordinate (and the flashing yellow arrow makes it safe to do so with protected/permissive by eliminating the yellow trap).

Another problem is that although long phases are more efficient at moving traffic through an isolated intersection; short phases are better for progression. For progression on a two-way street you want to have a cycle take twice the time it takes a motorist to travel from one signal to another. Here’s a video of a NYC driver catching a green wave for 125 blocks. This is the ideal situation: late at night with little traffic on a one way.

Fixed time lights can actually work quite well in dense areas. A while ago NYC disconnected many sensors and reverted to fixed time (and left the pedestrian buttons abandoned, leading to the myth that they “don’t do anything”.


Portland and San Francisco, with their noted anti-car, pro-bicycle/pedestrian culture, have timed signals to create a green wave for bicycles.

In downtown areas with signals every direction every block, it may be better just to have a string of lights turn green at the same time. This is easier to implement and if traffic is gridlocked it all starts moving at the same time.

Pedestrian Times 

Moving into pedestrian times first we need to define some terms. We have the walk interval (the time the “Walk” sign is illuminated), the pedestrian change interval, (when “Don’t Walk is flashing), and the buffer interval, (when the “Don’t Walk” sign is illuminated steady). The clearance time is the combination of the change interval + buffer interval. Here’s a graphic illustration, Minnesota uses the first option, where the pedestrian buffer interval starts with the vehicle change interval (the yellow light). Overlapping the buffer with the red clearance interval, like the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th options can reduce overall cycle times or increase the walk interval, but is problematic to program and reduces the time for pedestrians to scramble out of the intersection after the sign goes steady and before vehicles are released.


Pedestrian times are set with the following parameters:

1) The walk interval must be at least 7 seconds, unless it’s determined that 4 seconds is adequate in a specific location.

2) The clearance time is the distance from curb to curb in feet divided by 3.5 feet / second walking speed.

3) As mentioned above, in Minnesota, there is the two second red clearance interval after the clearance time.

4) There is another calculation that is made: the time of the entire phase must equal the distance from the near push-button to the far curb divided by 3.0 feet / second. In practice this doesn’t become the limiting factor until road widths become extremely large, in the order of 100 feet or more, so we will ignore it for a while

5) 4.0 feet / second walking speed was formerly the national standard, but is now only allowed if there is a provision for a pedestrian requesting extra time at the button, or pedestrian sensors in use. I am not aware of these features being implemented in Minnesota.


Refuge islands  count as far as setting time to the far curb; in practice the time is usually more generous than the minimum, since the goal isn’t to make every pedestrian wait in the middle, just reduce the times so the slowest possible pedestrian doesn’t impact vehicle operations too much.

Pedestrian Recall- Why or Why not.

Sometimes the “Walk” sign goes on every cycle (ped recall), and sometimes not. Generally speaking:

1) In a fixed time intersection, there is no provision for vehicle sensors or pedestrian push-buttons, so ped recall is enabled all the time in all directions.

2) In a semi-actuated intersection, some directions have sensors and some don’t, so ped recall may be enabled some direction but not others. In the past the presence or lack of pedestrian buttons was a good indication of whether an intersection was actuated or not, but with the advent of accessible pedestrian signals they all have buttons.

3) For fully actuated intersections, ped recall may or may not be enabled if it can be without degrading vehicle operations. Sometimes the limiting factor in how short an intersection phase can be is the pedestrian phase, sometimes the vehicle phase. Lets look at two scenarios.

Scenario 1: 56th Street at Penn Ave , 56th is 35 feet wide, Penn is 40 feet wide. 40 second minimum vehicle phase on Penn, 15 seconds on 56th. The minimum pedestrian phase is  21 seconds (7+40/3.5 + 2) in theory across Penn, 19 seconds on 56th (but is 25/22  seconds as programmed- they made the change interval longer than what is required) Vehicle phase is the limiting factor across 56th, Ped phase is across Penn. So ped recall is programmed in the former but not the later.

Penn Ave S and W 56th Street

Penn Ave S and W 56th Street

The only impact to vehicles is if a vehicle arrives on 56th and there is no traffic on Penn after the minimum green time, they may have to wait through Penn’s change interval before getting their green. This is mitigated somewhat by having the ped signals repeatedly count down and then go back to walk, at the cost of making a pedestrian wait if they don’t arrive during one of the walk intervals.

Scenario 2: American Blvd at Grand Ave (better known as  Home Depot Driveway) Six lane wide suburban-style road about 90 feet wide,  15 second vehicle phase for Grand Ave.  If a pedestrian phase is present, the minimum time is 35 seconds (7 + 90/3.5 + 2) both in theory and practice, so a pedestrian phase impacts vehicle operations pretty severely. It’s such a problem that engineers try to deal with it by either by adding a refuge island in the center (as has been discussed as a solution for various places on American) so a slow pedestrian has to use two cycles to cross. Or by fudging on the timing so the 3.5 feet / second rule only gets to the center of the last lane (the theory no doubt being the driver in the last lane is going to look before starting…).

American Blvd at Home Depot

American Blvd at Home Depot

There is no ped recall on any crossing at Grand and American, but with the 70 second phase for American Blvd. an engineer could enable it to cross Grand with essentially zero impact to vehicle operations. Why don’t they? A blanket policy not too? Didn’t think of it? The way it’s always been done? I don’t know. (The city of Bloomington has been less than friendly and responsive with my dealings with them so I didn’t even attempt to get an answer). Engineers (and from what I perceive of  the general public) just don’t see the act of pushing a button either as especially difficult nor the supreme ideological insult.

 Exclusive Pedestrian Phases (X-Ped)

Ped Recall may or may not have an impact on vehicle operations, but exclusive pedestrian phases almost always have an extremely severe impact.  Rather than sharing the intersection, vehicles and pedestrians use the intersection sequentially, the most inefficient way possible, and a ban on right turn on red is essentially required.  The problem is compounded by the recent reduction of assumed pedestrian walking speed from 4.0 to 3.5 feet a second. The vehicle delays are so extreme that Denver, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, removed the last of theirs fearing gridlock with the reduction of walking speed and the coming of light rail.

So let’s chart our intersections “as is”, with ped recall on all phases, and with an exclusive pedestrian phase. (To keep things simple I’ve used the theoretical 3.5 ft/s walking time even though they are more generous than that on Penn.) Wasted Green Time is when the vehicle signal has to be green because of the pedestrian phase, but no vehicles are there. And we’ve already calculated concurrent phasing, so let’s calculate exclusive phasing. Penn Ave S. at 56th is 65 feet diagonally, 7 + 65/3.5 = 26 seconds. American Blvd at Grand Ave is 11o feet diagonally from curb to curb, 120 feet from button to far curb. This is getting pretty wide, so we better check both calculations. 7+ 110/3.5 = 40 seconds, 120/3 = 40 seconds. So interestingly this is exactly where the two calculations meet.







Obviously this has a big impact to vehicle operations. But what if we decide that motorists can sit and stew because all we care about is pedestrians? Well, it’s not so clear then either. There are drawbacks to X-ped to pedestrians too. It increases their average wait time. (One intersection that was modeled increased it from 34.7 seconds to 49.5 seconds- LOS D to LOS E.) The tendency is to get impatient and jaywalk against the “Don’t Walk” sign, where motorists see they have the right-of-way and thus are not looking for pedestrians. An Israeli study showed  that X-Ped is safer as far as vehicle vs pedestrian crashes at heavy vehicle volumes (18%), but more dangerous at lower vehicle volumes (-8%). Like most everything else in engineering it’s a trade-off between safety and efficiency.

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