Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has wasted no time spreading his message that under the Biden administration, everything about urban transportation will change, especially the way people think about it. In the new world of urban transportation, equity and concern for the interests of people other than drivers will take precedence. But this view goes up against a century of thinking that has catered to cars to the exclusion of everyone else, and changing those entrenched habits will prove difficult. For evidence, we offer stories from Houston, where the Texas Department of Transportation gave itself the go-ahead to widen a Houston freeway to ten lanes, and Minnesota, where civic leaders in both of the Twin Cities are trying to push the Minnesota Department of Transportation to get serious about “reimagining” a freeway that cut a historically Black St. Paul neighborhood in two.
Money for road projects may not be as free-flowing as it used to be, but it’s still plentiful. Meanwhile, money for transit operations remains scarce. Yet riders still need the same level of service they had been getting, which has put most city transit systems in a huge bind. The coronavirus relief bill now making its way through Congress promises $30 billion in federal assistance for transit, which one analysis says should be enough to keep the country’s urban transit systems running through the middle of 2022. But the agencies themselves and their allies say that’s not even enough for this year.
And this year, on a floor near you, a future transportation engineer is busy building the city of their dreams with the world’s most popular building blocks, the bane of feet from coast to coast. Lego blocks give kids the chance to both reflect the world around them in built form and to imagine what it could look like someday in the future. It’s that last part that had a Dutch architect upset about Legoland’s pro-car bias, and now, thanks to nearly two years of dogged effort on his part, transportation equity has finally pushed up through the cracks in the pavement of Lego city streets: Bike lanes have come to Lego World.
For Team Asphalt, It’s Business as Usual in Texas…
The Houston Chronicle reports that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has signed off on its own review of its plan to rebuild Interstate 45 through Houston, a project that would widen the highway to ten lanes in the process. The paper also reports that TxDOT’s greenlighting of the project has set off alarms among community activists who have been critical of the proposed widening.
Eliza Paul, the Houston district director at TxDOT, told the Chronicle that the department’s plans for the road are not set in concrete yet. She called the signoff “a necessary step in moving into the detailed design phases of project development, which is where we will have the opportunity to fully explore many of the project refinements requested.”
“‘Refinements’ is a blatant mischaracterization of the critical changes requested by Harris County, the City of Houston, and other elected officials representing the people of the directly impacted communities,” was Oni Blair’s response to Paul’s statement. Blair is the executive director of LINK Houston, an advocacy group that seeks a more equitable transportation system and policy for Texas’ largest city.
As proposed by TxDOT, the rebuilt I-45 would require the department to take all or part of nearly 1,100 homes — including hundreds of public housing units — 300 businesses, five churches, two schools and dozens of other properties in order to widen the road. The regions are disproportionately in low-income communities of color, Streetsblog notes.
City officials and state legislators quoted in the story were even more critical than Blair of TxDOT’s decision. All of the elected officials quoted in the story pointed to the many comments TxDOT has received from Houstonians during the project’s gestation phase asking for major changes as evidence that TxDOT hasn’t taken community concerns into account at all in planning the new road. While Mayor Sylvester Turner was relatively restrained in his criticism, calling on TxDOT to shift more of the project’s budget towards transit improvements, two Harris County officials were less restrained.
Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “very disappointed” in the department’s decision, and she has also supported an effort by the county to sue TxDOT over the project. And Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia was even more critical: “So far, the record shows TxDOT has chosen to ignore stakeholders’ concerns,” he said. “Why should we trust that will change? The decision to move forward shows a lack of commitment to listen to residents most affected by the current plan.”
TxDOT self-certified its review of the project under the provisions of a recent federal rule change that allowed expedited review of infrastructure construction projects.
…While Minneapolis and St. Paul Push Back Against a Wider Interstate 94
Meanwhile, about 1,200 miles to the north of Houston, the busiest Interstate highway in Minnesota has reached the end of its design life. And if officials in both Minneapolis and St. Paul have their way, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) won’t rebuild it the way they built it in the first place.
East-west I-94 connects the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. On its way to doing this, the freeway tore a huge gash through the heart of Rondo, a historic Black neighborhood west of downtown St. Paul. As MinnPost columnist Bill Lindeke noted in his essay examining I-94’s ugly past and possible future, the story of Rondo’s destruction by the freeway “has filled several books, a handful of documentaries, and at least one play.” Groups like ReConnect Rondo have been pushing MnDOT hard to get serious about “rethinking I-94” by incorporating design features that will suture the wound the freeway opened when it gets around to actually rebuilding the highway. (Perhaps helping ReConnect Rondo’s cause is the fact that its managing director, Keith Baker, worked for MnDOT for 15 years before joining the advocacy group.)
Most of the recommendations Reconnect Rondo and other activist groups have submitted to MnDOT have several things in common. Shifting the project’s focus from moving cars to moving people, rejecting any attempt to widen the freeway and mitigating the damage the road caused when it was built are the three biggest. The Minneapolis City Council went on record with a resolution in December opposing rebuilding the highway in its current form, rejecting outright any widening of the highway, and calling on MnDOT to provide for BRT service on the road, convert two existing general-traffic lanes to HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes and include bike and pedestrian paths along the road from St. Paul to Minneapolis.
The Pioneer Press reported Feb. 5 that the St. Paul City Council has followed suit with its own resolution opposing a simple rebuilding or widening of I-94. Its resolution, which passed by a unanimous 7-0 vote, echoes the Minneapolis one in flatly rejecting any widening of the highway or doing anything else that might lead more motorists to use it. It also calls on MnDOT to prioritize public transit and pay special attention to the history of Rondo as it rebuilds the highway that severed it.
According to the report, MnDOT is at least conscious of the calls for change. Its “Rethinking I-94” project is still in the information-gathering stage, and it is on record as saying that improving relations with the communities it wrecked in the course of building the highway is a main project goal. Spokesperson Dave Aiekens told the Pioneer Press in an email, “We are still working with communities on what that vision might be. We’re looking at more than moving cars and more than roads and bridges. We are identifying (with the community) opportunities for establishing a sense of place, community connections, economic opportunities, equity, safety and a healthy environment for the communities that live, work and play there.”
COVID Relief Bill Includes $30 Billion for Transit; Transit Says That’s Not Enough
Railway Age reports that as part of the package of bills implementing President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief program, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has included $30 billion for the Federal Transit Administration to distribute to mass transit systems whose budgets have been blown apart by COVID-19. That’s $10 billion more than had been originally proposed in the package Biden announced on Jan. 14.
But is $30 billion enough? Not according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York. It and 22 other large urban transit agencies sent a letter to Congress calling for $39.3 billion in assistance. Railway Age’s report on that letter notes that the figure sought is the amount an analysis EBP US Inc. performed for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) said would be necessary to fill the hole COVID-19 continues to blow in transit agency budgets across the country. APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skouletas cited that analysis in his own statement praising Congress for okaying the $30 billion.
How long would that $39.3 billion last? Transit Center performed its own analysis of the funding proposal and found that a little more than that amount — $40 billion, to be precise — would keep America’s buses, trains, trolleys and ferries in service through the end of 2023. The $20 billion originally proposed would last until the middle of 2022, and the $30 billion would take care of things for somewhere in between those two points. The $14 billion in additional assistance already approved in a supplemental COVID relief bill Congress passed in December would keep things going until either this summer or January 2022. The bottom line, according to Transit Center? “The more emergency funding is secured now, the longer agencies will be able to maintain service before needing another round of relief.” Transit Center points out that even after mass vaccination has produced enough immunity for things to return to more or less normal, transit ridership will likely not return to pre-COVID levels for years after that.
Bike Lanes Come to Lego City
Lego bricks are certainly the most popular construction toy in the world, and their Denmark-based manufacturer offers children everywhere sets and kits that let them express their enthusiasms, spark their curiosities and give their imaginations room to roam.
Those kits and sets include ones that create imaginary cities. In actual cities in Denmark, other Scandinavian countries and much of the rest of Europe, not to mention the United States and elsewhere in the world, bike lanes are part of the transportation infrastructure now. But not in Legoland: according to an article in The Verge, the streets in Lego’s city sets “had space for cars, people, even tiny storm drains, but no designated lanes for zero-emission, human-powered vehicles like bikes.” And even worse, it seemed that Lego was taking its cues for city street design from Detroit: “As compared to Lego sets from years ago, the cars seem to have grown larger — evolving from four- to six-studs wide — and the roads appeared to be getting wider, while the sidewalks were getting more and more narrow.”
This irked Marcel Steeman, a regional council member in The Netherlands, no end. The Dutch, of course, have made bikes an integral part of their urban transportation network for nearly a century, and he figured that Lego City should follow the Dutch example too: “It really stood out that Lego City is such a car-centered city,” Steeman told Verge writer Andrew J. Hawkins in an email.
So Steeman submitted his bike-lane proposal to Lego’s “Ideas” website two years ago. According to this story, that site is more commonly a place where ideas go to die: only 33 submitted ideas have been incorporated into Legoland in the “Ideas” program’s 13-year history. Steeman’s repeated submissions met the same fate, with one such submission being dismissed as “a political statement and not a set.” But as Steeman persevered, his ideas gained the support of a professor at a Dutch university and even more fans on social media. And he discovered that once upon a time, Lego sets did include green bike lanes on their streets.
Well, it seems that Steeman’s persistence paid off. After nearly two years of silence, Lego hinted that change was coming to the streets of Lego City, and late last year, the company released a “shopping street” set that included a pretzel shop, a sporting goods store, a couple of streetlights, a crosswalk and a thin blue bike lane. (Bike lanes in Denmark are painted that color. In the Netherlands, they’re red in order to avoid confusion with the water in Amsterdam’s canals, and in the U.S., they’re green, like the Lego lanes of old.)
Lego spokesperson Molly Martin told The Verge, “City is inspired by reality and bike lanes are a natural part of many cities so it’s only natural for us also to include this in our play sets. The great thing about the new road plate system is that it’s a highly modular and versatile system so you can easily add more building elements to your play, such as bike lanes if you choose to do so.”
Steeman, however, wasn’t totally satisfied. He submitted another proposed set with wider bike lanes to the Ideas site, and to his surprise, this time, Lego accepted the submission quickly. Lego gave him 60 days to round up 100 supporters for his bigger version; he got them in four hours. He now has about two years to get 10,000 supporters for his proposed play set. (You can become one by leaving feedback at the site using the link above; as of Feb. 10, his idea has 5,394 supporters and 772 days to go.)
“In the end, I just want a worldwide generation to grow up with a sustainable, healthy and above all safe alternative to the car-centered world we live in,” Steeman told The Verge. “And there is actually no bigger city on earth to start that revolution than Lego City. So Lego was probably a bit right when they said it was a political statement.”
Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.
Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.