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,

1 comment:

  1. Well written article and I generally agree. You'd likely be disheartened to know that $1.5 million in trails money is going into the project. That said some connection for pedestrians is needed.

    Anyway my broader appeal is for this kind of analysis and comment before the decision is made. It is all too common for people to speak out after the project is about to begin work and not in the planning stages. Speaking from inside government it is very hard to change the direction of the ship at this point. But easier than you might think in the early stages. I take part of the blame here; word could be better disseminated. However, the meetings for this project and for other projects like this are advertised and lightly attended. As in 3 people in a 2 hour time span.

    Again, this kind of analysis is good and what our community needs. But we need it brought to the right people in the right places before the decision is made, not after. By this I literally mean, we need citizens talking at their city council meetings, MPO policy board meetings, and writing emails/letters before the decision is made. Realizing these events and topics are made available to the public, I also realize they aren't made readily and clearly available to the public. We all need to do better.


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