A Different Kind of Subsidy

April 18, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A Different Kind of Subsidy

What is a Subsidy?

One thing I really get tired of is the time-worn adage from the suburb-haters. “We’re subsidizing your ‘sprawl'”. I don’t really deny this, but part of living in society is everyone subsidizes someone else. The working subsidize the retired and the disabled. The people that make the lifestyle choice not to have kids subsidize those that do. And even limiting it strictly to development, a person in a duplex the Wedge might subsidize my lifestyle in Bloomington. But the person in an apartment downtown is subsidizing the lifestyle of the person in the Wedge. And in turn I’m subsidizing the lifestyle of a person in Elko. It should also be noted that Bloomington is a huge loser with the fiscal disparities pool, a Robin Hood scheme to redistribute property tax dollars between various cities in the metro. (Minneapolis breaks even and St. Paul is a big winner thanks to tax free buildings for colleges and state government waste and bloat.) But there’s a subsidy most people don’t think of. The inner ring suburbs bear the burden of providing low value and/or subjectively undesirable retail to the cities, like big box retail, car dealerships, and gun shops.

Discount Stores, Hypermarkets, and Groceries

Although there’s (for now) plenty of Cub Foods in the cities, there’s exactly one Menards (in Midway) and Home Depot (the Quarry). For the most part if you want to fix up your house, and with the age of housing in the cities there’s a lot of it, you’re stuck paying outrageous prices at the local cute “Hipster Hardware”, or else driving. And the suburbs have more low value big box retail than they would need just for their own residents.


Home Depot in Richfield, but the de-facto store for the entirety of South Minneapolis

Here’s a map showing home improvement stores in blue and discount / hypermarkets in red.


Minneapolis area discount / hyerpmarkets (red), home improvement (blue), and large format grocery (greeen)

If we assume Cub Foods and the Lake Street K-Mart are not long for this world, the map gets even more sparse in the center. It’s not hard to see that with the coming of HyVee, Cub’s days are numbered. HyVee seems not particularly interested in taking over existing stores, and at any rate the Cub stores are much smaller than their preferred size.

Speaking of Hyvee, I’ll comment on the Terrace Theater situation. I’m a big believer in private property rights, provided you don’t do anything to impact you neighbors private property rights. Want a high pressure sodium vapor yardlight? (Banned on private property in Bloomington even thought it seems to be fine for the city to use them as streetlights) Fine. Want to build a 20 story apartment tower on three sides of my property with balconies overlooking my backyard?  Hell No!

Was I sad to see the Terrace Theater go? Yes. But we can’t save everything, and it was private property for the owner to do as he wished. I know there were offers to buy the theater, but imagine if I was trying to sell my house. The only interest in the property as a whole is someone that wants to tear it down and build something else, but it turns out George Washington slept in my garage. So I have all sorts of people screaming at me not to tear my garage down, and even offering to buy the garage, and the garage only, not the rest of the house, and without which the rest of the house is a lot less valuable.


The Terrace Theater

Cars, Guns and Gas

Suppose you need a new car (80% of Minneapolis residents own one). Sorry, can’t buy one at all in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. Need a gun (Nationally 1/3rd of households have one)? Sorry, can’t buy one in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. In Bloomington which is still trying to court Bass Pro Shops as a Mall of America tenant, there was a kerfuffle with the city  tightening the zoning ordinance to prevent the proliferation of smaller shops. Essentially the only place you can sell guns in Bloomington now is a few parcels in the Oxboro area and near I-494.


Minneapolis area new car dealers.

What about gasoline stations? There’s still many in the city, but they’re disappearing. The business model of a couple of pumps in front and a small store that sells hot dogs is no longer viable.  When you only make 3 cents a gallon, you need to sell a lot of it to be successful, which means a lot of pumps so people don’t see a line and decided to drive onto the next station. And in addition sell a lot of high profit items like donuts and car washes, with a store that has parking so motorists will stop to buy a donut on their way to work.


Small gasoline station, closed despite it’s prime location right next to the freeway.

Gasoline station attempts to expand to be viable have met with mixed success. Bobby and Steve’s on Washington Ave and Holiday on Central Ave were able to expand, despite opposition. SuperAmerica on 40th St and Lyndale Ave was not


SuperAmerica- Denied the oppurtunity to remain viable it’s probably not long for this world.

Unsurprisingly with few gasoline pumps per resident in the city, the place was packed when I visited, but if you have a tiny capacity you cannot be viable no matter how busy your are. For now SuperAmerica is still open, but it doesn’t offer a car wash or the food offerings that an expanded store would have, and thus probably won’t be open forever. Urbanists tend to yawn when an individual gas stations closes, figuring a hipster cafe with zero lot setback will be better, but what if there’s eventually only a couple of stations in the entire city. Maybe they figure no great loss, the suburbs can build more large stations to accommodate them, which is my point exactly.


So Why Are Things Like This?

I can think of three things.

First, the cost of land is simply high, that means that fitting a standard Home Depot in Minneapolis is difficult to impossible. An attempt to fit a K-Mart in ended in the disaster we all know.

Second, NIMBYism is much worse in the cities. It’s so hard get anything built that’s not cute and “urban”. It’s a lot easier to get your efficient prototype built in the burbs.

Third, there’s the cities anti-business ordinances like sick leave, minimum wage, and staple foods. Could Hyvee have found some cheap land in the city that they could have built on? Maybe, but better to locate just outside of the city where they can still attract city residents while being exempt from the ordinances. Obviously staple foods doesn’t impact Hyvee, but it does gasoline stations, who now have to figure out how to be fresh grocers, and deal with multiple weekly deliveries, product waste, and low profit that fresh produce involves.


So do I think the city should change things? Not necessarily. They can run things how they want, it’s none of my business; I choose not to live in the city and have little to do with it. My point is simply that it’s too simplistic to say “the city subsidizes the suburbs”, and I’m fine with this reverse subsidy since I’m part of society.


Time of a Portland Ave for all People

April 3, 2017 at 1:49 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Right now unless you’re a motorist, Portland Ave in Bloomington is a pretty dangerous and dismal place.  But now we have a chance to improve things for all people, not just those in cars. Coming up shortly is a county resurfacing project with a chance to include unprotected bicycle lanes. But they’re looking to beyond that to when the corridor is up for complete reconstruction too.


Public Meeting


The Current Portland is a Danger to Motorists

First, let’s take a look at what’s wrong with the present situation.  Imagine a typical trip down a death road like Portland Ave.  You’re driving down the right lane. Pretty soon there’s a bus stopped or a brave and fearless bicyclist in the lane, so you move into the left lane. Then a car is at a dead stop waiting to make a turn, so have to move back into the right lane. But stopping in a traffic lane to turn is a good way to get rear ended, as well as causing friction and other motorists to make abrupt lane changes, another was of inviting crashes. Plus the motorist waiting to turn is going to get antsy, fearing being rear-ended if s/he stays their to long, so at the slightest break in traffic s/he guns it, hopefully not hitting any cars or pedestrians in the process.

Engineers like to talk about “conflict points”, where two motorist might try to occupy the same place at the same time. A four lane road doubles the conflict points at an intersection…


And conflict points for turning movements. Red is through traffic and blue is turning traffic. You can see at the bottom left the red car moves out of the left lane to avoid the blue car that is stopped in the through lane to make a turn, potentially hitting a car in the right lane, then ahead could rear-end a car stopped to turn in either direction on the through lane.


The Current Portland is a Danger to Pedestrians

There’s really two issues with pedestrian safety on 4-Lane Death Roads like Portland Ave. The first is that with multiple lanes, a motorist will stop for a pedestrian. A second car coming will not see the pedestrian because s/he is crossing in front of the stopped car and try to pass the stopped car, and hit the pedestrian. There’s been several fatalities due to this in the state recently, such as on Maryland Ave in St. Paul.

A second problem is a site distance problem with turning traffic. A car in the left lane can block the view of a car in the right lane from a motorist waiting to make a left turn.


Last year there was a pretty dramatic crash a mile over another Death Road, Nicollet Ave at 86th St. A southbound Xcel Energy truck made an evasive maneuver to avoid a left turning car that failed to yield, but wound up losing control and plowing into a signal pole on the southwest corner, knocking it over. And in “Final Destination” in real life, a man that was just standing there waiting for a bus was buried under the whole mess. As typical once the scene was cleaned up and the next dramatic story came about the news media stopped reporting on the investigation, so we don’t really know what happened, but I strongly suspect it was either the sight distance issue or the northbound motorist trying to get out of the through lane.


The situation is aggravated by the lack of flashing yellow arrows along these roads. A “left turn yield on green” just doesn’t communicate the amount of caution that’s needed for permissive left turns.  One thing Hennepin County is doing now as standard practice is a 4 second delay in permissive only phases from the time the green through indication lights to the time the flashing yellow arrow lights. This prevents left turners from gunning it as soon as they get a flashing yellow arrow before oncoming traffic and pedestrians can establish themselves. I really hope these signals make it into the new Portland Ave.

Of course some Death Roads just have too much traffic for a 4-3 lane conversion. Lyndale Ave or Lake Street in Minneapolis, or Old Shakopee Road east of Penn Ave. But Portland Ave is not one of those. In fact south of 90th it has so little traffic it would even function fine without the center turn lane, so including one is more than generous to motorists.

A Multi-Modal Portland is in the Alternative Transportation Plan

It’s worth noting that an “on street facility”, ie unprotected bicycle lanes, is in the city’s Alternative Transportation Plan.  Not that they always follow it of course. They stubbornly refused to provide any accommodation to bicyclists when Lyndale Ave between 99th and 102nd was overlaid, despite it being in the plan. But the fact that it’s at least on their plan is a good start.

The I-494 Problem

One complication is connecting with the bicycle facilities to the north in Richfield across I-494. We have the following issues here:

  1.  The 1990 era long term goal for the freeway was to shift the entire mainline to the south. Right now Mn/DOT “is not pursuing that vision”.  But things could change in the future where we once again have the wherewithal and funding to meaningfully attack the congestion problem with capacity expansion. So we don’t want to spend a ton of money on something that might eventually need to be removed.
  2.  Right now it’s not likely a 4-3 conversion over the bridge will work without creating an absolute nightmare for motorists. The plan is to close the ramps at 12th Ave, and Nicollet Ave, which will only increase motorists using this portion of Portland Ave making it even less likely to work.

Perhaps the best solution is like Hennepin County is doing at Portland Ave over the Crosstown, widen the sidewalks as much as practical, build slip lanes for bicyclists to move on and off them, and do a 4-3 conversion outside the immediate area of the ramps.

The Ideal Arterial

The new Portland Ave in Richfield is perhaps the ideal for an urban arterial. Three 11-foot lanes for motorists, shoulders for the confident bicyclists and an off-road path for the less confident. Street lights, that while according to my measurement don’t quite state standards are an improvement over Bloomington’s love with the darkness. Flashing yellow arrow traffic signals provide added protection for motorists and non-motorists alike.


The Portland of tomorrow, in Richfield

With the limited scope of this project and Bloomington’s stubborn refusal to follow state street lighting standards it’s too much to hope for something this nice in the short term. According to a Portland study only 8% of the population are the “Strong and Fearless” or “Enthused and Confident”; presumably the type that would use unprotected bicycle lanes such as these. So Isabella is probably still excluded.



But one can always dream of the future while modestly improving things in the interim.

The 2015 “Bicycles On The Freeways” Incidents

March 24, 2017 at 4:28 pm | Posted in Bicycling | Comments Off on The 2015 “Bicycles On The Freeways” Incidents

On June 16, 2015 in St. Paul a 14-year-old girl was bicycling from her friend’s house home and followed directions from her phone- which led her down I-94 at rush hour. Mn/DOT traffic cameras immortalized the incident. In the first we see her riding down the shoulder; traffic management turns on the flashing yellow lane control signals for the outside lane to warn motorists.

In the second video, state patrol has arrived and is talking to her, then escorts her off the nearest exit ramp for her to continue her trip on city streets. At least she was wearing her riding helmet.

Riding a bicycle on a freeway in Minnesota is of course illegal,

169.305 Controlled-Access Rules and Penalties
 Subdivision 1
(c) The commissioner of transportation may by order, and any public authority may by ordinance, with respect to any controlled-access highway under their jurisdictions prohibit or regulate the use of any such highway by pedestrians, bicycles, or other nonmotorized traffic, or by motorized bicycles, or by any class or kind of traffic which is found to be incompatible with the normal and safe flow of traffic.

Although the situation is ambigous in some places like the Cannon Falls bypass, in the Twin Cities all the interstates are clearly posted. The state patrol let her off with a warning rather than a citation. This of course leads to interesting questions on our blinding trust in technology; “phone guides motorist into the lake” incidents happen now and then. And there was that Tesla incident where a man was watching Harry Potter movies while the car drove him into a semi.

In the Twin Cities, phones have “outsmarted” local agencies; guiding motorists on a shortcut through a ritzy Edina neighborhood that’s a lot shorter than the official detour on freeways, much to the distress of residents. As a last resort the city finally closed down the street.

A 14-year-old doing something clueless and dangerous isn’t shocking, but the same summer there were three more incidents, involving adults. The very next day a man was bicycling on the freeway in Woodbury, but exited before state troopers could intercept him. A third incident took place on August 19 in New Brighton. In this case the man was actually in the traffic lanes; the teenager at least had enough sense to use the shoulder.

Then on September 9 the fourth incident didn’t have a happy ending when a man was killed bicycling on I-94 near W. Broadway in Minneapolis. There’s endless debate about where bicycles do and do not belong, but I don’t think anyone disputes an urban freeway is not the place.


Bloomington’s Death Roads

October 23, 2016 at 7:14 pm | Posted in Bloomington and Suburbia | Leave a comment
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There’s a danger lurking in Bloomington in the form of the ordinary looking streets you drive, walk, and bicycle on. Engineers call them “Four Lane Undivided” and you might call them nothing special, but the have another name, the Four Lane Death Road, and all the ones in Bloomington need to go. I originally wrote about this when I was writing for streets.mn, and now that there’s been a pedestrian fatality in Bloomington I thought I’d revise and update it here.

A Danger to Motorists

Imagine a typical trip down a death road. You’re driving down the right lane. Pretty soon there’s a bus stopped or a brave and fearless bicyclist in the lane, so you move into the left lane. Then a car is at a dead stop waiting to make a turn, so have to move back into the right lane. But stopping in a traffic lane to turn is a good way to get rear ended, as well as causing friction and other motorists to make abrupt lane changes, another was of inviting crashes. Plus the motorist waiting to turn is going to get ancy, fearing being rear-ended if he stays their to long, so at the slightest break in traffic s/he guns it, hopefully not hitting any cars or pedestrians in the process.

Engineers like to talk about “conflict points”, where two motorist might try to occupy the same place at the same time. A four lane road doubles the conflict points at an intersection…


Conflict Points

And conflict points for turning movements. Red is through traffic and blue is turning traffic. You can see at the bottom left the red car moves out of the left lane to avoid the blue car that is stopped in the through lane to make a turn, potentially hitting a car in the right lane, then ahead could rear-end a car stopped to turn in either direction on the through lane. At higher volume intersection a right turn lane is appropriate to remove a further conflict point.


A Danger to Pedestrians

There’s really two issues with pedestrian safety on Death Roads. The first is that with multiple lanes, a motorist will stop for a pedestrian. A second car coming will not see the pedestrian because s/he is crossing in front of the stopped car and try to pass the stopped car, and hit the pedestrian. There’s been several fatalities due to this in the state recently, such as on Maryland Ave in St. Paul.

A second problem is a site distance problem with turning traffic. A car in the left lane can block the view of a car in the right lane from a motorist waiting to make a left turn.


A few months ago there was a pretty dramatic crash on 86th Street and Nicollet Ave. A southbound Xcel Energy truck made an evasive maneuver to avoid a left turning car that failed to yield, but wound up losing control and plowing into a signal pole on the southwest corner, knocking it over. And in “Final Destination” in real life, a man that was just standing their waiting for a bus was buried under the whole mess. As typical once the scene was cleaned up and the next dramatic story came about the news media stopped reporting on the investigation, so we don’t really know what happened, but I strongly suspect it was either the sight distance issue or the northbound motorist trying to get out of the through lane.


Scene of the crash on a Bloomington Death Road.

Of course this particular crash could have been prevented by putting the bus stop in a better location (and it has in fact been moved to the near side) but it illustrated the problem with Death Roads in particular, and also pedestrians are vulnerable almost the full length of Nicollet Ave due to the sidewalk being right next to the curb with no boulevard and no shoulder. It’s only a matter of time till a texting or drunk driver jumps the curb and hits another pedestrian that just happens to be there.

The situation was aggravated by the lack of a flashing yellow arrow (FYA) at this intersection. A “left turn yield on green” (YOG) just doesn’t communicate the amount of caution that’s needed for permissive left turns. Right now the the focus on convestions is to decrease safety and increase efficiency by converting protected only turns to FYA protected permissive, but we need to focus on increasing safety too by converting YOG turns to FYA, as Richfield has done at 76th Street and the northbound I-35W ramp where a freeway ramp crosses a major regional trail.Then you have Minneapolis and St. Paul, which are still installing new, dangerous YOGs, and in those cities pedestrian volume is much higher.

Bloomington even looked at not allowing left turns during a pedestrian phase. This was rejected, in part because existing controllers can’t handle this and it would have required fabricating external logic (this might be possible in the future as the trend is to have traffic controllers run custom software that is more adaptable). But one thing Hennepin County is doing now as standard practice is a 4 second delay in permissive only phases from the time the green through indication lights to the time the FYA lights. This prevents left turners from gunning it as soon as they get a FYA before oncoming traffic and pedestrians can establish themselves.

Some Conversion Options

But what if we restriped the road to three lanes? Bicyclists have a place to ride without impacting traffic. And left turning cars have a safe place to wait without disrupting through traffic. And the issues with pedestrian safety are solved.  The only downside is at traffic signals and stop signs through traffic has one lane instead of two, but often there is functionally a single lane here anyway due to stopped traffic waiting to turn.


Lyndale Ave, a former Four Lane Death Road restriped to three lanes.

Sometimes of course the roads are so wildly overbuilt the center lane is not needed because there’s so little traffic that it’s unlikely a left turning car will cause a conflict or create congestion. Here’s 102nd St near my house  with even more generous shoulders. At the heaviest volume near Lyndale Ave, traffic volume would have to triple to justify four lanes. Death Roads where traffic does not justify them create dangerous with almost no efficiency benefit.


102nd Street at Pleasant Ave.

These can of course be done within existing curb lines, but Richfield has done even better by completely reconfiguring the Portland Ave was reconstructed. In addition to eliminating the death road, there is now a protected bicycle path for the 61% of people that would be interested in bicycling but refuse to do it on a busy street, even with painted lanes.Also notice the trees and streetlights (although by my measurements the streetlights fail to meet state and national standards for an arterial street in a residential neighborhood.



Portland Ave, Richfield

Here’s a chart from Portland, Oregon: The 1% “Fearless” will ride on a busy death road and the next 7% will if there’s bicycle lanes. Richfield is to be commended for building protected infrastructure for the next 60% of their population.


Of course sometimes you simply need more than one through lane to handle motorized traffic. In that case it’s appropriate to add a 5th lane and protected bicycle infrastructure (this is what Richfield is doing with the center section of 66th St) , or maintain the death road configuration if there’s absolutely no way to widen it. Lyndale Ave in Minneapolis I wrote about earlier in the article on Traffic Signal Warrants, and that’s one situation that it applies to. But nowhere in Bloomington.

The traffic volumes that require more than one through lane vary depending on the study, with 20,000 being the most commonly cited figure nationally. In Minnesota 15,000 is the de-facto upper limit, as Mn/DOT requires a traffic study at volumes above that. The only street in Bloomington with those kind of volumes is Old Shakopee Road between France Ave and I-35W, and the houses are set back so far there that adding a turn lane and preferably a protected bicycle path could be done without impacting too many actual houses.

The Status of Bloomington’s Death Roads

Bloomington had an awful lot of Four Lane Death Roads. In a traffic calming policy started a number of years ago on collector streets, they’ve slowly been fixing them as streets come up for resurfacing. For political and possibly liability reasons they’ve avoided marking and calling them “bicycle lanes” even though they are, and they cater to the 7%. Conversions have been rarer on arterial streets, because the policy didn’t cover them and many of the arterial streets are county roads.

Here is a map of the status, Fall 2016. Black are Death Roads that haven’t been looked at. Red are Death Roads that were looked at but still not fixed. Green are Death Roads that have been converted, and Yellow are those planned or under construction. We’ve come a long way, but it’s time to do more.


A Word about “Pork Chops”

I’ll also say a few words about Channelized Right turns, aka “free right” aka “pork chop”. I’m not really inclined to blame the presence of a pork chop an Nicollet Ave and 86th St. It’s true that without one it’s possible they lady might not have been standing right on the street, but on the other hand the issue would have been easy to rectify by moving the bus stop, and pedestrian push-buttons are required to be present and be present right next to the curb due to ADA requirements so this encourages pedestrians to wait right by the street.

This particular pork chop was installed along with the 3-Lane conversion a few years ago. Turn lanes can mitigate two of the problems with such convention; you’ve double the impact of the right turning conflict points and decreased through traffic lanes at signalized intersections. This conversion was already contentious, with one of the councilmen who’s district it passed through an outspoken opponent. If problems had appeared at this intersection it would have put a screeching halt to any future conversions in Bloomington, and might even have resulted in a reversion to four lanes.

I’ll also say as a pedestrian I much prefer intersections with pork chops as opposed to without. It’s not an issue to wait a few moments for traffic to clear on the right turn before crossing, and then you have a much shorter stretch of pavement to cross on the Walk signal and you know that the car you’re in front of you is not going to not see you and start off in an attempt to make a right turn on red. Another person expressed a similar comment about liking them as a pedestrian on a recent MnPost Article.

There are ways to make them better. One way is to reduce the angle that they enter the cross street, to give turning motorists a better view of pedestrians and cross-traffic.


Burnsville has experimented with Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons at a Highway X and Highway 13.


Pork Chop with beacon, Burnsville.

They could even be signalized like is the practice at some places in Wisconsin.

Just because Bloomington has been improving things doesn’t mean it isn’t time to do better.

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Bicycle Helmet Use in Minneapolis and Suburbs, 2015-2016

October 19, 2016 at 1:54 am | Posted in Bicycling | Leave a comment

Here are the results of a research project documenting bicycle helmet use in the Twin Cities in 2015-2016. This isn’t met to be comprehensive, but to give some idea of helmet usage in different areas as well as a brief history.

A History of Riding Helmets

Advocacy for wearing bicycle helmets is almost as old as bicycles themselves. In the 1880s bicycle clubs began to advocate for the use of helmets. Eventually racers began to use helmets, first leather type pith helmets, then leather ring type “hairnet” helmets, but it was unknown in casual bicycling.


Leather Hairnet Helmet

The first thing resembling a modern bicycle helmet was put out by Bell Sports in 1975, the Bell Biker, and was a modification of motorsports helmets, made of polystyrene foam with a hard lexan shell. These continued to evolve to the early 1990s (most noticably replacing the act of threading the chinstrap through rings with a quicker to use buckle).


1980s-early 1990s hard shell helmets

Hardshell helmets have stuck around in a way, they’re now “skate style” helmets. The skate standard calls for limited multiple impact proection; some of these are skateboard only, some are dual-certified, and despite looking like skate helmets some are bicycle only. Like the earlier hardshell helmets they’re hot and heavy for bicycle use but they do provide an alternative design.

They’ve also morphed into “Urban” helmets, like Bern

Another neat idea, and R2D2 helmet


R2D2 Helmet

From the UK are Yakkay brand helmets, which are hard shell helmets with a decorative cloth cap on them. It seems they’d be unbelievably hot, but I guess it’s worth it to make it not look like you’re wearing a riding helmet.

Late 1980s: Soft Shell Helmets

In the late 1980s came improvements that negated the need for a hard, heavy outer shell. One of the first, the Bell Ovation, had a soft lightweight shell, but more commonly they had no shell at all. Most of them had a Lycra cover to make it look like you weren’t wearing a picnic cooler and to provide a bit of protection from handling damage. Unfortunately in practice these tended to shatter into pieces and scatter at the first impact leaving the user vulnerable to further impacts. Manufacturers experimented with a wire mesh, but ultimately returned to soft shells. The color of the foam eventually generally changed from white to black to reduce the “picnic cooler” or “mushroom-head” aesthetic.


Ovation and the shell-less helmets that followed


Early Soft shell helmets, shell taped to liner


Old Shell-less helmets with black foam, Rottnest Island Australia

Late 1990s: In-Mold Shell.

In the early 1990s came another innovation, injection molding the foam into the shell, rather than manufacturing them separately and then taping them together. Initially it meant the front strap or strap anchors were exposed, but later on they figured out how to make them recessed. Of course the trend towards  models with more an more vents came out.


In-Mold Helmets.

In the mean time, an occipatal lobe retainer became standard, this is the strap that runs across the back of the head, and later ring fit systems, where you tighten a fastener on the retainer, enable one size fits most helmets.

Later Refinements:

With the advent of ring stabilizers, the dilema “where do you put your pony tail” comes up. (Most helmets don’t curve up like the one above). Specialized has ones that do, they call it the “Hairport”.


Specialized “Hairport”

Another refinement is Bell’s “True-Fit technology, which eliminates the long, error prone, and often skipped process of trying to adjust the straps to get a helmet to sit right on a head. Specialized and Uvex now have similar systems.

Recently MIPS helmets have come out. One of the criticisms of helmets is they can increase the torque applied to the head in the event of a crash, MIPS is basically a layer of slick plastic that allows some slippage between the head and the helmet.

Selecting a Riding Helmet

So with all these advances in technology, is your new $200 helmet safer than your old on from the 1990s? Probably not.  There’s been various safety standards at different times and place,s but there’s been no real-world differences noted since the adoption of the ANSI standard in the late 1980s. No manufacturer is going to come out with a design that is “50% safer than brand “X”, for a number of reasons.

  1. The things that would make a helmet safer, namely thicker foam and fewer vents, would make it less marketable
  2. This would expose them to potential liability
  3. The safety tests performed are go/no go tests, there’s no standardized tests to say a helmet exceeds them by X percent, and it would be even harder to say that they were X percent safer in the real world.

If you look online for recommendations, there’s a lot of push by the helmet manufacturers to buy the most expensive helmet possible (and note they never say “safer”, they say “better ventilated; more stylistic, whatever). Meanwhile the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (actually one guy who’s been advocating for helmets since the early 1990s) has the following suggestions:

You want a smoothly rounded outer shell, with no sharp ribs or snag points. Excessive vents mean less foam contacting your head, and that could concentrate force on one point… Skinny straps are less comfortable. Dark helmets are hard for motorists to see. Rigid visors can snag or shatter in a fall. Helmet standards do not address these problems–it’s up to you!

Unfortunately this results in the type of foam picnic cooler bicycle helmet that would, as the Onion notes, protect against bicycle helmet inspired beatings. Some of these recommendations would seem to make sense, but the safer helmet is one that would actually be worn, and there’s been to my knowledge no objective studies of these contentions.

And despite the “one size fits all claims”, there is a wild difference in how well helmets fit. The usual advice is that Bell fits round heads and Giro fits oval heads, but there’s more nuance than that. BHSI found the Tru-Fit worked less well than traditional systems, but others have found the opposite.

The Helmet Controversy

But should a riding helmet by mandatory, or even worn in the first place? Everyone points to the original study saying they reduce head injuries by 85%, or tell stories about how a helmet “saved their life” without any actual evidence. So it’s time to look at some of the controversy:

The original study itself may not be definative. Helmet promoters a repeat a 1990 Seattle study that helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85% ad-nauseum, but followup studies are not so conclusive. In fact the CDC and NHTSA have withdrawn their support of the study The main criticism, besides being a single source that hasn’t been repeated, is that it doesn’t take into account some of the other variables described below. The authors themselves have revised their number to 69%, which still isn’t borne by real-world experience.

There are direct technical drawbacks. A helmeted head is much bigger than a un-helmeted one, which may lead to head contact that might not occur otherwise, and the torque that can be created is bigger. The trend towards smoother rounded helmets and the use of slick plastic lining in some of the newer ones, “MIPS” helps mitigate this, but it is still a problems.

It’s a distraction from the real issue, that the best way to be safe is not to crash. Again, the best crash is one that never happens, not one that you attempt to mitigate with a helmet. People think that if they convince people to put on a helmet they’ve done good, without addressing the much, much,  more important issues of safe riding skills and infrastructure design. Helmets are next to useless in bicycle vs car crashes, and motorists drive more aggressively when they see a bicyclist wearing a helmet. One guy from the UK measured this and found motorists get 8.5 cm closer to a bicycle when the rider is wearing a helmet

Risk Compensation may cancel out any direct benefits. Of course seat belts have this effect too, but in that case the direct safety benefit overwhelms any risk compensation, and overall motor vehicle safety trends bear that out. That’s not so clear with riding helmets, and safety trends are inconclusive. One study went so far as to objectively measure risk taking while wearing helmets. Anecdotally, the time as a motorist I had to do a panic stop to avoid hitting a teenage boy that had run a stop sign onto a major street, he was wearing a helmet.

The “dork factor” and discomfort leads to a decline in bicycling, which increase societal health costs and makes things more dangerous for all bicyclist. When Australia introduced mandatory helmet laws,  in the early 1990s, cycling trips declined by 30-40 per cent overall, and up to 80 per cent in some demographic groups, such as teenage girls. Simply put, bicycle helmets tend to be hot and uncomfortable, and produce the dreaded “helmet hair” as well as looking bad, and for some people it’s not worth it to ride if they have to wear one. Once of the best way to make bicycling safer is to make more bicyclists, so motorists get used to seeing them around.

From my pictures above it’s obvious helmets have come a long way in comfort, but some of the more expensive lighter and better ventilated ones cost as much as a department store bicycle so it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to have one that expensive. So the ones you find at Wal-Mart or at helmet giveways aren’t so nice. Here’s a helmet giveway from New York. The fancy graphics tend to disguise the fact that these would have been considered average ventilation… for 15 years ago.

I’ll also point out theirs a snob factor in certain elements of bicycling in the US too. When I still had a cheap department store bicycle one a guy on probably $1000 mountain bike stopped me and told me how lousy it was and I needed to upgrade. And when I was looking to buy a decent bicycle, at a store on Snelling in St. Paul,  as a guy with long hair maybe I didn’t look like the type that had $700 in his pocket to spend on a road bicycle. So I walked out of a St. Paul store after all three clerks spent 45 minutes helping a middle class looking family buy a helmet for their kid while ignoring me. To put it visually, suppose we make a comparison of stereotypical bicycling in the Netherlands vs the US…

The “Build it for Isabella” program encourages bicycle infrastructure design to be accessible to all. But the perception of bicycling needs to be more accessible too. For now Isabella wears her riding helmet, but will she keep bicycling as she gets older and has other options to get around?


This isn’t to fault people that make the decision to wear a helmet and bicycle clothing. After all we make decisions all the time that increase our personal safety and comfort to the detriment of the rest of society, say buying an SUV because it’s comfortable and safe rather than a small electric car. I’m just pointing out that this is an issue. Bicycling culture needs to be as accessible as bicycling infrastructure.

Helmet use is generally incompatible with bike sharing. Look at this chart.


Minneapolis may be towards the bottom because the climate is considerably harsher than the other cities and bicycling less established, but the bottom two cities have mandatory helmet laws and the rest do not. Rental or “disposable” helmet vending machines have been invented in response, but beyond discouraging usage this adds to the expense and complexity of running the programs.

A reasonable conclusion for all this is that as an individual you might be safer in a helmet provided it does not induce you to ride less safely in other respects, but the benefits are not as great as portrayed, and since all of life involves risk of some sort, and the risk of bicycling isn’t that great, riding helmet use should be an individual choice rather than forced to by laws or societal pressure. (And in case you’re wondering, despite my esoteric interest I rarely do myself; after looking at the risks and benefits I usually only do when on crushed limestone trails).

Finally the Statistics: Bicycle Helmet Use in Minnesota

So, with that said, here’s the data on riding helmet use in Minnesota. I’m not going to even attempt to say “X” percent use helmets, because there’s so many differences depending on age and location, so I’ll merely present it.

First adult helmet use on the Minneapolis off-road paths (that I term the “parkways”): Minnehaha, Calhoun, Harriet, Isles, and the Greenway, primarly during prime bicycling hours and weather.


Bicycle Helmet Use: Minneapolis Parkways, All Adults

One thing I noticed is that helmet use drops like a rock at dusk when the traffic thins out. My theory is the people that have made it a destination trip have gone and it’s more locals.

Second, the Minneapolis Parkways broken down by age and gender.


Bicycle Helmet Use, Minneapolis Parkways, Breakdown by Age and Gender

I did this several years ago (and appear to have lost the data), but I recall there was a much more significant difference between men and women; at the time men were around 50% while women were about the same at 60%.

Now the Minneapolis Parkways in comparison to other areas. “City Streets” are areas not on or immediately adjacent to the parkways in Minneapolis and St Paul (but note I have no reason to go to the poorer areas of town), “Inner Streets” are suburbs with grids, mostly East Bloomington. “Outer Streets” are suburbs with twisty streets and usually bicycle paths along the main roads, mainly Eden Prairie and Shakopee.

One observation is the helmet use varies widely in different neighborhoods of Minneapolis, being highest in say the southwest, and lowest in the poorer areas (which I normally stay out of so don’t have meaningful comparative data).


Bicycle Helmet Use in Minnesota- All Areas


Bicycle Helmet Use broken down by age an gender

Helmets for Inline Skating: Also on the charts are use by inline skaters.After some talk of developing an inline skating standard, they decided just to use the existing bicycle helmet standard. Inline skaters may be better served by those helmets that provide more rear protection like skate-style helmets and a few mountain bike helmets, but these tend to be less ventilated then would be ideal for the slow speeds and intense, continuous work of skating.

Nice Ride: As I noted above, helmet use is difficult with bicycle sharing, and the statistic seem to confirm that. I think these may be too high even as my first count included a large group of men riding together with helmets, something I didn’t see for the entire rest of the summer.

Bicycle Riding by Gender

Maybe if you’re not interested in helmet use, you might be in the total of men vs women bicycling. I counted 839 men and only 540 women. You could probably speculate endlessly on the reasons for the difference, but I’ll leave that to other. I’m just a transportation geek interested in some of the more oddball elements sharing my findings.

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Images and text Copyright 2016 by Monte Castleman, All Rights Reserved, except for hotlinked images or those licensed under Creative Commons as noted.

St. Croix Crossing Photo Gallery Part II

October 16, 2016 at 8:34 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment
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Where the new loop trail will be


Rock foundations on the loop trail


The shoddy mill at it’s new location along the loop trail




Minnesota Approach


Minnesota Approach


Segment on the move


Casting Yard and Bridge


Approach to the new Wisconsin roundabout


View from WIsconsin


Wisconsin approach road


Scout Camp Road overpass


More Wisconsin approach work


Eastbound MN on-ramp


Minnesota piers


Bridge over MN 95


Going horizontal


Minnesota overlook


Looking away from the Bridge in Wisconsin


A bit more horizontal


Scout Camp Road overpass


Pier and MN approach


More horizontal yet


Casting Yard and Bridge


Casting Yard


View from Wisconsin


Loop trail tunnel in Wisconsin




Loop Trail in MN about to be paved


More segments added


Another view from Wisconsin


On the boat for the second bridge tour. Water in the camera lens…






Wisconsin View




Minnesota Overlook




Bridge Towers


Minnesota Approach


Bridge Towers


View from Wisconsin


New Bridge from Old


Bridge Towers


Almost Done


View from Pioneer Park




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St. Croix Crossing Photo Gallery Part I

October 15, 2016 at 7:51 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment
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The St. Croix Crossing is one of the regions biggest investments in regional mobility in some time. I wrote a two part series about the much-too-long story of finally getting it built, so here simply are the best of the 1000 or so construction photos I have.


A nice sign on either side


The Ghost Neighborhood on the Minnesota Side. All the houses were removed for the bridge in the 1990s before the car-haters stopped the bridge for a while.


The Shoddy Mill, a set of historic buildings in the ghost neighborhood. The original contract to move these was cancelled when the bridge was stopped.


The Ghost Neighborhood is cleared out


Minnesota Highway 36. The New Bridge will go straight ahead


Where the bridge will touch down in Wisconsin


The approach road will go to the right of this farm


More work on the ghost neighborhood


Starting to tear up MN 36


The soon to be demolished Beach St. overpass


Looking north on MN 95. After the enviro-nuts stopped the bridge the first time money had to be spent patching up this overpass. It’s now about to be demolished.


The new Beach Street overpass going up


The new Beach Street Overpass


MN 36 and MN 95


MN 36 and MN 95, this will eventually be the off-ramp to MN 95, the bridge will on the left.


Beach Street Overpass


Looking north on MN 95


Looking west- the new bridge will be directly overhead


Clearing starting on the Wisconsin side


A slightly different angle


Bridge Pier rising


From the new Beach Street overpass looking towards Minnesota


And towards Wisconsin


MN 36 from a ways back looking towards Wisconsin


A little higher..


WI 35 closed for overpass work


Mess of signals at MN 36 and Osgood


MN 95 coming along


The casting yard taking shape for the smaller segments on the Minnesota approach. The large river segments were cast off-site and taken in barges


Bridge abutment


Minnesota approach piers


And a little higher yet…


The old bridge from the water


New bridge from the water


More piers


And yet another view of the piers


The barge coal unloading terminal, probably the ugliest structure ever. The dock was used as part of the project; at the conclusion the dock and machinery will all be removed.


Closeup of the piers


Samples of rebar on display at the tour boat


Segments in the on-site casting yard


The casting yard


Yet another view from the overlook


Looking towards the bridge at Wisconsin


The other direction at Wisconsin


Telephoto view from Wisconsin


The new bridge looking though the old bridge


The King plant and the Minnesota approach span

On to Part II

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The New Hastings Bridge Construction Photos

October 15, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment
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The Hastings High Bridge was built in the early 1950s to replace the old Spiral Bridge. Like the Spiral Bridge it became an icon of the town, but eventually age and increasing traffic demands took it’s toll. It was the only two-lane stretch on the expressway from Hastings to downtown St. Paul, causing a horrific traffic congestion problem. Residents clamored for a new bridge, but it was a low priority for Mn/DOT. This was the time when Molnau was appointed as a stooge by governor Pawlenty specifically to slash the agencies budget to shreds. The bridge could have probably been patched up another decade or too so nothing meaningful on a replacement was done. Then another bridge fell…

Alhough it’s hard to say if Mn/DOT cost cutting was the reason for the collapse of the I-35W bridge (one proposal to reinforce it was rejected because there were fears it might actually weaken it, not just for cost reasons) , it was an easy scapegoat. The legislature overrode Pawlenties veto of a gasoline tax increase throwing money into Mn/DOT’s lap to replace all the structurally deficient bridges in the state, and thus things got moving. Hastings decided they wanted a new signature bridge, although this choice was not without controversy, some wanted a vanilla girder bridge to make it easier for motorists to see the river and not detract from the buildings). Contractors were invited to bid on either tied arch span or a cable stayed bridge, and a tied arch span was what was bid on. Although the decision was aesthetic, unlike the Lowry Bridge there was at least an engineering reason not to built a generic bridge, an arch allowed a wider channel for barges.

The new bridge was only built to be four lanes. Although it’s forecast to be congested at the end of the planning horizon, building six lanes would have just moved the problem to once traffic wound up on Vermillion Street, and the capacity problem there would never be solved. Ultimately I think a bypass should be built when congestion mounts to get through traffic off the bridge and Vermillion Street. I also think the old bridge should have been saved; it was offered to the city of Hastings but they didn’t want it. They’re still lamenting the destruction of the spiral bridge and in time I think they will wish they had preserved this one.

Hastings Bridge Construction Sign

Construction Sign

Hastings High Bridge

Profile of the old High Bridge


Oblique View

H.D. Hudson Building

The H.D Hudson building. In later years they made plastic spray nozzles. The company was founded in 1905, and was located in this historic building by the bridge. The bridge required demolition of a nondescript warehouse attached to it, rather than rebuild the warehouse on site the company took the money and moved to the industrial park on the south end of town in 2011. Three years later, by now mainly located in Chicago, they closed down their Hastings manufacturing entirely. The city of Hastings owns the old buildings and is still trying to figure out a reuse for them.


Bridge Mural


The arch under construction in a park nearby


Showing where the arch was built in relation to the bridge.


Concrete Piers


Under the bridges


The arch was loaded onto barges for the short trip to the new bridge. Here it’s floating on the water, framed by the concrete of the new bridge


Equipment to help line up and lift the arch into place


The arch slowly going up


Spectators to see the arch being raised. I was able to see it as it was delayed a week so I was back from a vacation in North Carolina


Steel and Sunset


The arch in position, taken later that winter


Opening Day for the New Span. At this point they had shifted southbound traffic onto the new bridge while northbound traffic was on the old bridge


Traffic Configuration for a few hours that day. As you can see the new bridge carried two lane two-way traffic for a while until the final segement could be tied into the old road. Notice the jog to avoid the old bridge. In 100 years the next bridge will probably be built straight inline with the street.


People waiting for the opening ceremony and to walk the old bridge. It was delayed when one of the guest speakers got stuck in traffic on the bridge…


The Mayor of Hastings speaking


Walking on the old bridge


Another of the old bridge. I was one of the last dozen members of the public ever to be on the bridge as I was just ahead of the cops finally shooing us off.




Steel and Sky


Demolition. A sad site to loose such a beautiful structure

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Minnesota’s Scenic Byways and Unofficially Named Highways

October 15, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Highway Signs | Leave a comment

Here are the Scenic Byways

Apple Blossom Drive

Hiawatha-Appleblossom Scenic Drive Sign

Avenue of Pines

Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway

Glacial Ridge Trail

Glacial Ridge Trail Sign

Grand Rounds Scenic Byway

Grand Rounds Scenic Byway Sign

Great River Road National Scenic Byway

Great River Road Minnesota Sign

Gunflint Trail

Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway

Historic Highway 75 “King of Trails”

King of Trails HIghway Sign

Ladyslipper Scenic Byway (Formerly known as “Scenic Highway Scenic Byway”


Lake Country Scenic Byway

Lake Country Scenic Byway Sign

Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

Minnesota RIver Valley Scenic Byway Sign

North Shore Scenic Drive

North Shore Scenic Drive Sign

Old Design


Another Old Design

Otter Trail Scenic Byway

Otter Trail Scenic Byway Sign

Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway

Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway Sign

St. Croix Scenic Byway


Shooting Star Scenic Byway


Old Design

Skyline Parkway


Old Design

Superior National Forest Scenic Byway

Superior National Forest Scenic Byway Sign

Veterans Evergreen Memorial Drive

Veteran's Evergreen Memorial Scenic Drive Sign

Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway

Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway Sign

Unofficially Named Highways and Other Signs

Bobby Aro Memorial Highway

Bobby Aro Memorial Highway Sign

Bushaway Road. Getting these signs made was an attempt by NIMBYs to keep a dangerous and congested section of County Highway 101 by their houses from being rebuilt to modern standards with protected bicycle infrastructure.

Bushawa Road Sign

Dodd Road was an early road from St. Paul to St. Peter

Dodd Road Sign

The Mississippi Mile is a historic district along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis

Mississippi Mile Sign

Natural Preservation Routes are routes that are allowed deviations from modern safety standards due to being lower volume routes in natural settings

Natural Preservation Route Sign

Voyageurs National Park related areas


The Wild North is a branding for tourist attractions in the northeast

The Wild North Sign

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The Rock Island Swing Bridge (JAR Bridge)

October 15, 2016 at 12:57 pm | Posted in Abandoned Highways | Leave a comment
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Although locally called the “Newport” bridge, it is actually between Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul. The freeway bridge nearby, the pre-interstate Wakota Bridge, is one of the worst bottlenecks in the metro area, so many locals gladly paid 75 cents to bypass it. It used to be the only bridge between downtown St. Paul and Hastings, and was the original routing of the first Twin Cities beltway; MN 100.

This is a two level bridge, with a railroad on top, and a roadway on bottom, built in 1895. Rail service was discontinued in 1980, and the bridge was sold to a Joan and Allan Roman of Chicagoland; special legislation was needed to allow a private toll bridge in the state.

In 1999, this bridge was declared unsafe due to a bad, and was closed down since the owners didn’t have money to rehabilitate it. The bridge passed into Washington County ownership due to tax forfeit in 2003, and the county has no interest in restoring or rebuilding it, which could cost  $10,000,000. Additionally it was damaged in a fire in 2005, and there are navigational and “Homeland Security” issues due to the proximity of an oil refinery.


John Dillinger Fled Here: The auto deck back in the day. Minnesota Historical Society


Abandoned and vandalized toll House. Back in the day a car cost 20 cents, a sheep cost 3 cents. The final toll rate was 75 cents for a car, no official rate for a sheep. 

Abandoned Toll House. Back in the day a car cost 20 cents, a sheep cost 3 cents The final toll rate was 75 cents

With demands from the Coast Guard for removal as a navigational hazard, the National Park Service held a tour in fall of 2008 to build support for rehabilitation in whole or in part.


Waiting in Line to get on the bridge

Rock Island Swing Bridge / JAR Bridge 2008 tour

On the Bridge

Rock Island Swing Bridge / JAR Bridge 2008 tour

The end of the bridge

Rock Island Swing Bridge / JAR Bridge 2008 tour

Swing Span

Rock Island Swing Bridge / JAR Bridge 2008 tour


However, later than winter a portion of the eastern span collapsed into the river. Demolition of the remainder of the swing span and the eastern span began that winter, however in 2009 a two year moratorium was placed on demolishing the west span. Plans began to come together to save 2, 4, or 5 of the western segments. What eventually resulted was four of the fiver remaining piers were saved, the best two of the old steel spans were restored while a modern steel replacement on the existing piers was installed to bridge the gap between the shore and the old span.

Rock Island Swing Bridge

Plaque by the bridge

Rock Island Swing Bridge

New Span leading to the old span


Benches at the end of the old span

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