Monday, October 26, 2015

Collins Road: Oy Veh

(Google maps)
Collins Road NE, a.k.a. State Route 100, is the best example of a stroad in Cedar Rapids. Running five lanes east to west between I-380 and 1st Ave, it handles about 30,000 vehicles per day. A series of access drives link it to Lindale Mall and an impressive array of strip malls. Traffic in and out of the plazas requires the intersections be signalized, which makes it very difficult to make any time along the main road. I, for one, never drive Collins Road unless I absolutely must go to one of the stores there.

Cedar Rapids's policy response to this, predictably, has been to "solve" the traffic congestion problem by widening the road to six lanes. The latest stage, from Lindale Mall to Northland Avenue, roughly 1/3 of a mile, will according to the city cost $15.4 million, including the costs of property acquisition and removing the frontage road that connects the parking lots on the north side. But that's not all! Lindale Drive, which currently stops at the frontage road, will be extended through to the mall, underneath Collins Road, which will be elevated to create a bridge over it. Construction starts next spring, with completion early in 2018.

Consistent with the city's recently-adopted "complete streets" policy, Lindale Drive will be augmented with 8-foot sidewalks on either side to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to pass from one side's strip malls to the other. This is not much in the way of additional expense--it adds maybe 1 percent to the cost of the project--but it could be better spent elsewhere. Moreover, it smacks of greenwashing the whole project, as witness city officials bursting with pride in interviews with the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Gary Petersen from the Public Works Department promises "pedestrians and bicyclists an inviting option in one of the city's principal commercial centers where few options now are in place for them." PR person Emily Muhlbach added, from the same article, "It's a shift in how people can access those retail opportunities."

Alternatively, the boondoggle can tarnish the city's genuine efforts to improve walkability, as witness a letter to the editor in Friday's Gazette who charged the city with blowing the whole $15.4 million on bike infrastructure.

Oy veh.

Where do I start?

Maybe by saying "oy veh" again?

First, the rational response to a mess like Collins Road is to leave it alone. Don't try to fix it. With luck it will attain some kind of comfortable stasis. It's certainly not paying for itself now, but you have to choose your battles, and putting more money into it isn't somehow going to make it cost-effective. Cedar Rapids should continue to choose the sort of very enlightened, positive changes to our downtown that promise to spill over into core neighborhoods. Triage, says Jeff Speck in Walkable City, chapter 10. If you've got $15.4 million to spend--actually, it's only $3 million of city money, because there's grant money from the State of Iowa, and the U.S. government has also determined that it's in the national interest for this thing to go forward--spend it where it can do the most good. Think of all the places in Cedar Rapids where you could more productively spend this chunk of taxpayer money (or not spend it at all).

Secondly... "complete streets," my eye. While the wide sidewalks on Lindale Drive arguably improve the project, at marginal additional cost, they are not going to make this area walkable and bikeable, anymore than tarting up the intersection of Collins and 1st Avenue with sidewalks and brick crosswalks did. The combined transportation budgets of the European Community member nations probably could not make Collins Road a "complete street." (For one obvious point, anyone seeking to walk from one strip mall to the next, or to the inviting sidewalk-to-be on Lindale Boulevard, has to cross acres of parking lots.) The Lindale Mall/Collins Road strip is, by design, so utterly and completely auto-oriented that it can't be fixed. On the other hand, many parts of Cedar Rapids can be fixed. Invest in making them walkable and bikeable.

So, despite the positive spin of Ms. Muhlbach from the PR department, I don't think we'll see significant change in how people access these particular "retail opportunities." Nor would the long-demonstrated principle of induced demand lead us to expect an easier, less congested auto commute.

Third point: Next to the Gazette story on Collins Road was another story about a state legislative proposal to keep more graduates of Iowa universities and colleges in the state by offering them tax breaks. Here we clearly are working at cross purposes with ourselves. While most young Iowans presumably don't move to Chicago or St. Paul because of those cities' low taxes (irony alert!), perhaps some would be induced to stay with sufficient tax breaks. If so, however, we should offer them a rudimentary, no-frills state, as opposed to building expensive infrastructure in unproductive places that will some day be theirs to maintain. If young people possibly are moving to bigger cities because of employment and cultural opportunity, well, investing in Collins Road isn't going to help that either.

Finally, what of the safety of those bold pedestrians who do challenge the four lanes and 30,000 daily cars of Collins Road? Apparently there are some. Ann Poe of Cedar Rapids's City Council, who clearly spends more time on Collins Road than I do, described here encounters with pedestrians there "frightening." I would find that hard to argue with, particularly as four lanes become six and induced demand drives that 30,000 number upward. All I can say to that is [a] having one underpass at Lindale Boulevard gives these folks an option, but only if they desire or are willing to cross there and not at a different point along the road; and [b] as I said above, there are surely many places in Cedar Rapids where you could get much more safety improvement for your $3 million.

There are things cities like Cedar Rapids can and should do to improve business opportunities, transportation options and traffic safety. I've written about some of them, and in general they fall under the complete streets umbrella. But first of all, you have to be smart.

And stop trying to solve bad infrastructure with more infrastructure. Petersen estimates the entire cost of the Collins Road projects at $100 million. Add in the Westdale Mall boondoggle and you're up to an eight of a billion dollars spent in one city just trying to fix the 1970s.

Oy veh.

SOURCE: Rick Smith, "Major Work for Prime Destinations," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 15 October 2015, 1A, 9A


"What is a Complete Street?Holy Mountain: A Blog About Our Common Life, 13 August 2014

Charles Marohn, "Dealing with Congestion," Strong Towns, 19 October 2015,

National Complete Streets Coalition Page:

[NOTE: I revised this substantially after first posting it. I don't know if that's within the bounds of propriety. But I needed to make more clear why I object to the different aspects of this project: to the road widening and bridge on effectiveness and efficiency grounds, and to the new sidewalks mainly for opportunity costs but also because they're being oversold.]

[NOVEMBER UPDATE: Three posts summarizing recent research on induced demand]=========

Dave Alden, "Induced Demand, Congestion, and Peak Spreading Redux," Where Do We Go from Here?, 16 November 2015,

Eric Jaffe, "California's DOT Admits That More Roads Mean More Traffic," CityLab, 11 November 2015,

Jason Schaefer, "Reducing Traffic or Inducing It," Strong Towns, 20 November 2015,

Sunday, October 18, 2015

One way or two? (II)

My recent blog post commending Cedar Rapids's conversion of one-way streets to two-way raised some eyebrows when I noted that not all cyclists agreed that the conversion improves cycling. It occurred to me that not all one-way streets in our fair land are the same, and that so the image that comes up in your mind when I say "one-way street" might not be the same as the one in mine.

This is Jackson Boulevard, an eastbound, two-lane, one-way in downtown Chicago. The average daily traffic count between Kennedy Expy and Michigan Av ranges from 10,100-14,300. Cycling on this street at almost any time of day is going to be fraught with fast- or at least suddenly-moving auto traffic. Creating some friction by converting to two-way would surely improve bicycle and pedestrian safety.

This is 2nd Avenue SE, a three-lane one-way through the Wellington Heights neighborhood headed towards downtown. It is scheduled to be converted to two-way in the near future. The average daily count through this stretch in 2009 was 2,710. Subsequent to that, the street was blocked at 12th Street to accommodate the Physicians Clinic of Iowa facility, and traffic has probably declined; in any case the most recent traffic map does not include a count for 2nd Ave.

It also happens to be the route I take to work. While cars typically exceed the 30 mph posted speed limit, there's enough room on the street that I can take the right lane and cars can take the left and center. Even in "rush hour," there never is enough traffic to complicate this arrangement. I never feel like I'm on Jackson Boulevard.

The right-turn-only lane at 13th Street, where I don't turn right, does get complicated, but that's a subject for another post.

4th Avenue SE has already been converted to two-way. (See before-and-after pictures in my previous post.) Whatever its traffic load, it's apparently not significant enough to merit inclusion in the posted counts. 4th Ave used to be a two-lane, one-way headed towards downtown, and again, traffic was rarely so intense that cars couldn't easily get around a cyclist in the right lane.

Below 8th Street there are two car lanes and two bicycle lanes each way, so bicyclists get the advantages of both friction-slowed auto traffic and dedicated cycle lanes. Above 8th Street, though, 4th Ave makes room for a center turn lane by ditching the bike lanes and making do with sharrows. This arrangement is begging for awkward car-cycle encounters. There haven't been many yet--even at 7:30 a.m. I often have no cars with which to compete for road space--as downtown and MedQuarter development proceeds apace, we should expect considerable increase in auto and bike traffic.

All this is not to abandon my earlier praise for the conversion project. Particularly for residential areas like Wellington Heights, the three-lane one-ways are counterproductive to the neighborhood. But we should bear in mind, as one of the commenters on the Strong Towns site notes, "sharrows are not going to make cycling accessible for [ages] 8-80 if there's any volume or speed to the [auto] traffic."


Paul Fritz, "Main Street Vacancies," Small Town Urbanism, 29 September 2015, [one-way streets partly responsible for downtown decline in Sebastopol, California]

Sarah Goodyear, "Can the Least-Loved Biking Infrastructure Be Improved?" CityLab, 23 October 2015, [painted sharrows in Oakland, California, improved performance and approval... but note it was a two-lane one-way street that they worked on]

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Urban images in art: Gustave Caillebotte

Paris Street Rainy Day
This image of pedestrians on a Paris street is taken from one of the most beloved works of art ever, "Paris Street, Rainy Day" by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). As testimony to its place in the pantheon, quite the crowd turned out to see it on the final weekend of an exhibition of Caillebotte's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., "Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye."
Entrance to the Caillebotte show, Saturday 10/3/15
It's not hard to imagine why Caillebotte's best-known work has such appeal: Even in the rain, Paris is Paris, and very few of us are currently in positions where we wouldn't rather be strolling in Paris. [Point of irrelevant information: I used to have an umbrella with this scene on it.] There are people, ordinary people like you and me, they look good, they're active, and the scene is very accessible. Like another mega-famous Impressionist work, George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte," you feel like you could very comfortably pop into the scene yourself.

Yet Caillebotte's own attitude to the scene is marked by ambivalence, which becomes clear upon viewing five other Paris street scenes he painted during the same time period, between 1876 and 1880. He depicts a new Paris, produced in large part by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman, a local official during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. Haussman's public works program assaulted the medieval city with brio, smashing old structures and widening streets. He was Robert Moses a century before Moses would remake New York City, except that the technology of Haussman's day prevented him from building expressways. Whatever the value of cleaning up the "dirty, crowded and unhealthy" old city (Rice, quoted in "Haussman," cited below), it also removed places of meeting... which may have been Napoleon III's idea to begin with.

Caillebotte's Paris paintings show people who are disconnected from each other, walking wide streets by buildings large and unfriendly enough to draw the ire of a 19th century James Howard Kunstler. (Come to think of it, Kunstler's favored word for this kind of design, "despotic," is precisely what Napoleon III was.) The city is not human-scaled, and the people are alienated.
"The Rue Halevy Seen from a Balcony," from
The painter's vantage point, an upper-story window, means he (and by extension us) aren't connected to the people in the painting either. In none of the six paintings is anyone making eye contact with anyone else. Even the couple in "Paris Street, Rainy Day" isn't, upon a closer look, particularly connecting with each other. In "The Pont de l'Europe" I thought I saw someone looking at a dog, but despite Gracen Johnson's eloquent tribute to dogs' contributions to urbanism, I think he's actually looking between the dog and its owner.
A few days later, by something of a coincidence, I attended an exhibit of watercolors at the Waterloo Center for the Arts by local retired architect Michael Broshar. Broshar's cityscapes are cozy and human-scaled.
"Venice 1"
"Chicago Street"
Broshar paints places he enjoys, and it's easy to see why. Clearly he's making a different point than Caillebotte was.

Caillebotte's ambivalence is underscored by his suburban and rural landscapes included in the exhibition. (See, for example, "The Bridge over the Seine at Argenteuil," painted in 1885.) There is still no socializing, but the colors are brighter and the skies clearer. Thanks to the commentary accompanying the exhibit, I can also tell you his brushstrokes were bolder.

The Paris we know and love today evolved out of Haussman's overhaul. Somehow over time urbanism and complexity reasserted itself. Maybe in an America beset by suburban sprawl our frame of reference is different, too.

SEE ALSO: "Physical Design Issues Illustrated" (on Hale Woodruff), 15 April 2013

Holland Carter, "Painting Paris in a New, Natural Light," New York Times, 10 July 2015, C17 & 19
"Haussman and New Paris,"
Mary Morton and George Shackleford, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye (Chicago, 2015)

Muddy but sociable: "The Halt at the Inn" by Isack van Ostade, c. 1645
National Gallery of Art

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