Any large building project has the potential to be defined by a detail. It can be for better or worse, but it’s often true that “God is in the details”. A major project here in Saint Paul, still in the planning stages, illustrates this point perfectly. The current plans for the Central Corridor (University Avenue) Lite Rail project are a catastrophe that cannot possibly succeed because they completely miss one important part of the transit experience – a decent sidewalk.
The project has been in the works for well over 20 years, and my objections to it have been well known to anyone with the misfortune be cornered by me for at least 3 years. The basic plan is to run a train down a busy city street without necessarily inconveniencing the cars. The plans for the streetscapes were recently released on the web for public inspection.
What they show is that street parking is completely eliminated through most of the corridor. If you look closely, you can see that the proposed sidewalk is about 8 feet wide, and runs directly along one of the driving lanes – there are no parked cars between pedestrians and traffic. It doesn’t matter which of the streetscapes you click on, because they are all about the same for practical purposes. There is little left over once the trains and cars are run down this street.
This may seem like a simple detail, but there are consequences that cascade from an 8 foot sidewalk without a parking lane for a barrier which show how terribly wrong this project is at its very core. The first thing you may notice in the same drawings is that there are no trees along University Avenue – just a river of concrete stretching from off into the distance. The reason for this omission is that a planter for trees takes up at least 6 feet along the sidewalk, and there isn’t room for them. This is only the most obvious problem that comes from an 8 foot sidewalk, however.
Along West Seventh Street, where I live, the sidewalk runs about 13 feet with about half of it taken up by planters, signs, newspaper racks, and so on. The clear path of sidewalk is only about 6.5 feet, which is barely enough. Any street furniture of any kind along University Avenue, including simple things like signs, will reduce the sidewalk to substantially less than 6 feet in many places.
The Federal Highway Administration has standards for sidewalk corridors in cities. Their recommendation is that 10 feet has to be considered a minimum, and they also suggest parking alongside the pedestrian world to provide a buffer. Some groups routinely call for 12 feet or more to create a truly pedestrian environment, and considerably more if you want to encourage sidewalk cafés. The 8 feet provided in these plans definitely meets no standards for a “Pedestrian Friendly Environment”, especially with the lack of parking.
A pedestrian friendly environment is critical to transit because in a city people are pedestrians before and after they get on a train. The pedestrian world is main way that the transit is connected to the rest of the city. Without that connection, any proposed transit occurs on an island that is hostile to reach. Transit cannot be effective in this way. The project, as defined, cannot be effective simply because of its size and intrusion into the pedestrian world.
There is another way, of course. Below is a sketch which I made showing how a Streetcar system could be used on the same street. The Streetcars should run along the sidewalks because that puts them in the pedestrian realm. The cars are confined to a 3-lane system that has been shown to work on many streets with the traffic of University Avenue (Average Daily Traffic around 20,000 cars). Between the pedestrian realm that includes the streetcars and sidewalks are trees and a place to park.
I know I am an idealist when it comes to these things, and there may be some good reasons why this tree-lined pedestrian friendly vision may not be realized. What’s important here is that there are alternatives, and they start with the much smaller and cheaper Streetcar. Once we see that a critical detail, the width of the sidewalk, fails utterly under the current scheme it starts to become obvious that all of the plans have a fatal flaw. More importantly, this flaw is fixable if we go back to the drawing board.
An 8 foot sidewalk with a busy through lane next to it may seem like one of those details, but God is in the details. The current plans for the Central Corridor are grossly unacceptable, and no one can possibly defend them and claim to be a friend of transit. They must be scrapped, and we must start over.