I235

Intended to facilitate easy movement of people from suburban homes to downtown jobs, Interstate 235 carved its way through several historic and well-established neighborhoods. This mass demolition and construction project is a scar that never healed - consuming land and dividing the city while encouraging disinvestment rather than concentrating resources. In retrospect, it would have been a much better path to invest in updated mass transit.

Below is a journal of the progression starting in 1950 through today.

Interstate 235 Path - 1950: Aerial photo of the neighborhoods through which Interstate 235 will carve a destructive path.Interstate 235 Path - 1950: Aerial photo of the neighborhoods through which Interstate 235 will carve a destructive path.

Interstate 235 Path - 1960: The Interstate 235 construction makes its way to 19th Street (now the Martin Luther King) exitInterstate 235 Path - 1960: The Interstate 235 construction makes its way to Cottage Grove exit (now the MLK exit)

Interstate 235 Path - 1970: Interstate 235 now fully divides formerly historic neighborhoodsInterstate 235 Path - 1970: Interstate 235 now fully divides formerly historic neighborhoods

Interstate 235 Path - Current Day: Interstate 235 exits have been reworked and additional pedestrian bridges attempt to connect across the divide, but the scar cannot be healedInterstate 235 Path - Current Day: Interstate 235 exits have been reworked and additional pedestrian bridges attempt to connect across the divide, but the scar cannot be healed

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I-235 Revived

22 Dec 2010

Ed FallonEd FallonYesterday's topic on "The Fallon Forum" radio show was Interstate 235. Evidently, after spending close to a half billion dollars renovating a ten-mile stretch of the highway just a few years ago, Fallon discusses a report that traffic congestion is again a concern.

[Click here to listen to the program]

It is abundantly clear that we can't build our way out of congestion by expanding highways and that they do not "promote economic development" in the existing cities they slice through. Physical evidence of this litters our urban landscapes in the form of destroyed neighborhoods - yet the meme continues to exist. It will take instead a rethinking of our transportation network and the subsidies that encourage automobile-dependent growth.

I want to thank Ed Fallon for the discussion and for mentioning several times my proposal to convert a portion of I-235 back into a street-grid-connected boulevard. I wish he had also mentioned my blog address so people could read it themselves... most of the callers had misconceptions about the actual proposal.

I am most certainly opposed in principal to dumping many more millions into subsidizing westward suburban expansion by widening I235. I am also not convinced that there is actually a congestion problem on I235 in any commonly understood sense of the word. My analysis of MPO data released several months ago reveals that the actual measured average travel time over the I235 segment from downtown to the I35 interchange only exceeds the legal posted minimum travel time between 7:45 and 8:15 am in the eastbound lanes and between 5:00 and 5:45 pm in the westbound lanes. Confusing, yes, but it boils down to this: If you drive the speed limit, there are only two brief times it will take you any longer to commute from the western suburbs. More in-depth discussion of this here.

Progressives appear to be stuck celebrating the recent "bike sharing" coup while the planners and politicians work on getting the big money for the horrible north-south connector and probably inevitable widening of I235. There needs to be more people talking about this now. By the time the project "studies" hit the papers it will be too late.

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What's the Rush?

16 Jul 2010

Lego Rush HourLego Rush HourOne of the responsibilities of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is to monitor and report on interstate highway traffic patterns. This data is used to build a long-range transportation plan based on traffic and trip projections.

The Business Record recently published an article analyzing 2009 MPO data (PDF report) that contained a table with morning and evening commute data between downtown and the western junction of I-235 and I-35.

Stick with me through this analysis - am I reading this data right?

The distance from Downtown to the the I-35 junction is 8.3 miles. Of that segment, approximately 5.5 miles is posted at 60 MPH and 2.8 is posted at 55 MPH. Therefore, the legal minimum amount of time it takes to drive from downtown to the western junction is (5.5/60)+(2.8/55)=.143 hours or 8.55 minutes.

Because 8.55 minutes is the fastest one can legally drive the segment of I-235 between downtown and the western junction, I'm going to refer to this as the "legal posted minimum" travel time.

Rush Hour?

According to the MPO data as presented by the Business Record, Des Moines doesn't really have a rush hour.

Actual measured average travel time over this segment only exceeds the legal posted minimum travel time between 7:45 and 8:15 am in the eastbound lanes and between 5:00 and 5:45 pm in the westbound lanes.

It gets even better!

According to the Business Record analysis, the average difference in commute time between the actual measured and the legal posted minimum is a minuscule 15 seconds! In other words, if you drive legally and safely even when you can speed, your commute between the western suburbs and Downtown Des Moines will average only 15 seconds longer during "rush hour".

Of course the speed data also includes those people that put the pedal to the metal once they have an opening in traffic. And, during non-rush hour times, the average speed across the entire segment is above the posted limit. In some areas, significantly above.

Breakin' the Law!

Discussing the data, the Business Record said:

Your absolute best option - if your bosses will allow it - is to get on I-235 at about 7 a.m. and go home at about 4 p.m. Over the course of time, you could save three minutes per day on average. That might not sound like much, but translate that over the course of 10 years, and you can save upwards of five days of your life.

Actually, this is only true if you break the law.

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Ingersoll Avenue is on its way to becoming a "Complete Street". The 6th Avenue revitalization project has identified "Complete Streets" as a goal of the infrastructure improvements. Beaverdale intends to remake a major neighborhood intersection to align with a "Complete Streets" philosophy. The City of Des Moines has adopted, over vocal objections of some business owners and residents, a general policy promoting "Complete Streets".

What is a Complete Street?

Bike-Friendly Street in Toronto: Copyright notice: This image was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.Bike-Friendly Street in Toronto: Copyright notice: This image was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.Beginning with the advent of the interstate highway system and the ensuing suburban construction explosion, streets have been designed with one overarching goal: to move cars as fast as possible from starting point to final destination. In contrast, Complete Streets refers to a roadway that is designed and operated with all users in mind - including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

A complete street is not necessarily urban. However, urban areas are inherently compatible with the complete streets philosophy - urbanity depends on density, layered uses, and interacting transportation networks. The idea behind an urban "Complete Streets" makeover is to consciously design and operate a roadway to take advantage of all that an urban environment has to offer.

A Complete Streets Extreme Makeover

Several weeks ago, I proposed removing a section of Interstate 235 that divides downtown from the neighborhoods to the north and slices through the heart of several established neighborhoods.

Ultimately, the city would be better served by a transportation network that links downtown to the rest of the city instead of providing a direct conduit to the suburbs.

UPDATE, 6/25/2010After a long discussion with my wife last night, I came up with the following clarification. I think the highway should lead to Downtown Des Moines as a destination by dumping out onto a "connector" that is tied to the street grid between 42nd street and the Capitol complex. This "complete streets" connector would be designed to do all of the following:

  • Move automobile traffic efficiently
  • Create a better relationship between downtown and the neighborhoods to the north
  • Layer transportation systems (pedestrian bike, auto, and transit) into a street that works for many different "trip types"
  • Promote more efficient use of the existing urban street grid
  • Take pressure off the streets that currently feed limited access points to the highway

But what would replace the Interstate? A Complete Street, of course! Let's see what that might look like:

Mixed-Use Complete Streets Replacement for Interstate 235: A potential design for reclaiming Interstate 235 through downtown Des Moines as a "Complete Street".Mixed-Use Complete Streets Replacement for Interstate 235: A potential design for reclaiming Interstate 235 through downtown Des Moines as a "Complete Street".

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Last week, I posted a proposal to convert Interstate 235 from 42nd Street to East 14th Street into a boulevard. One of the reasons a project like this could benefit the city is by reclaiming vast amounts of unproductive land as taxable property.

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Interestingly, after posting the article today about removing the downtown portion of I-235 in order to promote development and reconnect downtown to the rest of the city, I received the following announcement. Local funding for the environmental impact study of the proposed north-south connector extending MLK to I-80 has been pulled, jeopardizing the project!

The MLK extension is a good idea from only one point of view: that of an Ankeny resident who works downtown. From just about every other perspective, it is a horrible plan.

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Across the country, cities are looking for ways to reverse decades-old planning decisions that facilitated decline of their downtowns and surrounding neighborhoods. Some of the most brilliant and innovative projects are those that stitch together neighborhoods torn apart by the construction of interstate highways. Yes, some particularly progressive cities are actually removing interstate highways!

This approach seems counter intuitive to many people. Many Americans have grown up knowing no other option for moving people through a city or between cities. Indeed, as a means of moving a steady flow of individuals and goods across great distances to decentralized locations, the Interstate was a wonderful experiment. Intercity travel has become simple and relatively fast.

Within cities, however, we have found quite the opposite. It was assumed by early planners that adding limited access highways as another layer in a complex transportation system would facilitate easy travel. Unlike previous transportation innovations, the limited access highway has never been adequately incorporated into a healthy urban environment.

It is time to reconsider this experiment.

The Proposal

What if Des Moines were to remove I-235 from 42nd Street to East 14th? What if we converted the limited-access highway that currently divides downtown from the surrounding neighborhoods into a six-lane boulevard with integrated public transportation and lined with appropriate retail/residential and commercial development?

42nd Street marks a change in the character of the neighborhoods that surround the highway. East of 42nd, it is clear that the highway sliced through established residential neighborhoods. West of 42nd, the underlying development pattern is not disrupted to the same extent.

On the east, it is clear that any fundamental transportation planning initiative should include the Capitol complex, the river, and Downtown proper.

And yet, we should also dream big... This could be the start of a larger project to convert the highway all the way through the Fairgrounds/University exit (or beyond) on the east.

I-235 Study Area: Proposed study area for conversion from limited access interstate highway to urban boulevardI-235 Study Area: Proposed study area for conversion from limited access interstate highway to urban boulevard

The goal of this project would be three-fold:

  1. Knit Downtown and Capitol complex back into the street grid. Not only would this create additional land for residential and retail development, but would also drastically improve access into and out of downtown.
  2. Create approximately 100 prime "developable" acres in the central city. Sale of the land could top $26 million. Once built-up and after any development incentives have expired, the land could generate $6 million in annual tax revenue for the city.
  3. Promote more compact development and the opportunity to rethink underlying regional transportation strategy. Rather than continued expansion of the suburban and exurban fringe, the future will demand that we refocus on sustainable neighborhood redevelopment.
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Most cities are scarred by freeways cutting through residential neighborhoods and downtowns. These highways have multiple commonly accepted negative impacts that include:

  • Long-lasting effects of the original construction such as removal of historic buildings, relocation of poor residents, and division of long-standing neighborhoods.
  • Facilitating suburban expansion at the expense of traditional neighborhoods. Highways encourage automobile use rather than public transportation.
  • Creation and maintenance of a physical separation between formerly connected neighborhoods. Restricted access highways are a physical barrier that prevents people from crossing - what was once a two-block trip may now take 12 blocks. Bridges and tunnel crossings are often unpleasant for pedestrians.
  • High cost of construction and maintenance for the road surface, bridges, and ramps. The complexity inherent in a highway ratchets up the cost of maintenance and construction.
  • Massive amounts of formerly productive land are utilized as circulation and buffer rather than generating taxes through intensive use.

40th Place Pedestrian Bridge40th Place Pedestrian BridgeDes Moines has done a comparatively good job of reconnecting across Interstate 235 for both pedestrians and automobiles. There are numerous pedestrian bridges between major cross streets. Streets like Cottage Grove connect through easily by automobile, bicycle, and foot to downtown amenities.

Generally speaking, it is my opinion that the introduction of highways within city borders has done much more damage than good. The highways themselves have become one of the primary drivers (so to speak) of our dependence on automobiles for personal transportation, economic stimulus, and as symbols of freedom. Instead of planning our cities around people, we now plan them around automobiles.

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