Open Minded on Open Data

I published a column this week in Cityscape all about the urban "open data" movement. I'm kind of averse to what JH Kunstler calls "technonarcissm," but the open data movement seem to me a more compelling kind of interaction between the public and government. As I put it in the piece, "open data is a movement that combines government transparency, bottom-up crowd sourcing, and high-tech geekery into an unpredictable stew of numbers."

Here are some other ideas that didn't make the final cut of the piece...

Data is Valuable 
One of the key points that I wish I could dive into more fully is about how much money data is worth.
[Nice Ride data viz.]
Any institution (like Nice Ride) can choose to sell its data to private companies, that then turn around and use it for marketing or whatever. According to Mitch Vars, the Nice Ride director that I talked with, some of the bike sharing systems around the country are considering that.

Meanwhile, Nice Ride is just dumping their data out into the public realm for anyone to use. Good on them!

Similarly, the conversation with Andrew Own made me realize how progressive and helpful cities could become if they actually went out and generated particular data, rather than passively making their currently existing data available.

For example, if Minneapolis actually proactively generated a speed and traffic data set (that Owen fantasized about), they would have an amazing resource that I and many people could use to think about the connections between street design, speed and safety, and traffic flow. That could be a game changer for Minneapolis, but it would take active cultivation form the city to make it happen.

[Traffic accidents in New York City.]

The Role of the Portal
[NYC even has a data viz of their data sets.]

Having an open data portal for cities, kind of like a homepage for metrics that show trends throughout the city. For example, it could show violent crime, weather patterns, foreclosure rates, average traffic counts, accident rates, etc.

If Minneapolis' portal looks half as good as New York's or Chicago's, it'll be amazing. Imagine all this data in one place? Imagine being able to look up taxable land values so that you could make your own "Taco Johns" analyses, easily find ADT maps, crime comparisons for neighborhoods, look at street tree cover, or whatever else you can imagine.

For one thing, it would make you realize exactly how much the city government is doing at any given time. Often, the role of the government fades into the background. City services disappear like sewers, and people end having very little idea what their tax dollars are actually doing all year long. A data portal like the one that New York has reveals all of that activity, putting it all in once place where anyone can see it.

Frankly, it's amazing to see so many different activities gathered in once place. It reminds me of a 21st century version of the old "city symphony" films, which attempted to reveal and narrate the complex working of the city through documentary documentation. (The best of these is the famous Man with a Movie Camera.)


Following Through and Two Saint Paul Example

Saint Paul should follow Minneapolis' lead, obviously, as should the rest of the cities in the metro. According to one of my sources for the piece, Saint Paul makes shape file data available for all their storm drains. (Though I can't personally find such a map anywhere on the city website.)

Why is this helpful? Because when streets ice over and flood in the early Spring, people know exactly where to go out onto the street and break up the ice to make sure the street drains properly. I mean, it's not something that I particularly care about, but

Saint Paul also has an adopt-a-hydrant program that got some press a while back. One of the dangers about open data hype is that follow through becomes very important. Even if you make an app that does something interesting, if people don't actively promote and disseminate the program, it's not going to do much good.

Who Knows?

Probably the most exciting things about the open data idea is that I can't even being to predict what might happen. I have no idea how many data sets there might be out there. And I have no idea what the increasingly data-savvy public might do with these various data once they get their nerdy hands on them.

Stop signs per capita per neighborhood?
A map of street lights correlated with income?
A map of snow plowing plotted against political contributions?
A dramatic pothole vizualization animation?
Crosswalks bollards per city ward?
Average traffic speed plotted against land values?
A map of freeway noise?
Toilets flushed per person per hour per neighborhood? 

[Energy use map of Chicago neighorhoods.]


Signs of the Times #91



[Old bank thing. Hinckley.]


[Toilet. Hinckley.]


[Yard. Duluth.]

A Door

[Door. Northwest WI.]


[Board. Superior, WI.]

Love Letters

[Gargoyle box. West Side, Saint Paul.]

 Bring back the

[Pole. Downtown Saint Paul.]


[Wall. Downtown Saint Paul.]

SIdewalk Poetry #41: Running in the Muddy Twilight

I was running in the muddy twilight
past decrepit railyards and silent
scaffolds, through wet neighbrhoods
that smelled of iron and reheated rags
hoisted up -- in the dust-laden spaces
between tin shacks and sewage
canals -- on newly built, already
blackened walls against the backdrop
of a colorless metropolis.
    Over broken
asphalt, through clumps of grass pungent
with excrement and black stretches
of mud -- dotted with warm, foul pools
dug out by the rain -- queues of cyclists
and wheezing trucks bearing wood
scattered headling here and there
into suburban centers where
a few cafés already glowed
with circles of light, and under the smooth
walls of a church some young people
lay mischeviously about.
    Around already old
low-income high-rises, rotting gardens
and construction sites brislteling with motionless
stagnated in feverish silence.
But a bit outside the lamp-lit center,
beside the silence, a blue asphalt
street appeared wholly immeresed
in a life as oblivious and intense
as it was ancient. Though few in number,
oil lamps glowed with a waning light,
and the still-open windows were white
with laundry hung out to dry and vibrant
with voices inside. Old women sat
in the doorways, as a group of boys
huddled together, brightly dressed in overalls
or knickerbockers as if for a special occasion,
joking with girls who were
younger than they.

    Everything on that street
was human, and the people all clung
to it tightly, in the windows, on the sidewalks
with their rags and their lights..

It seemed as though man, even deep
in his wretched abode, were merely
encamped  here, like another species,
and that his bond with this place,
in that grimy, dusty evening,
were not an Existence, but a random
    Yet the paserby looking on
without the innocence of need
sought, as a stranger, communion there,
at least in the joy of passing and looking.
All around was only life, and in that dead
world, for him, Reality was reborn.

[Photo of Italy, also by Passolini.]


Jefferson Bike Boulevard Illustrates Frustrating Pace of Change

Well, if you've been in bicycling in Saint Paul over the last decade, you have probably been following the Jefferson Bicycle Boulevard fiasco-triumph, which began sometime around 2008 when the NTP project funding landed next-door in Minneapolis.

Here's how I recapped the situation when the proposed project was finally passed two years ago:
... for various reasons the proposed bicycle boulevard down Jefferson Avenue has for few years now been seen as controversial. The project has gone through a few different iterations, and finally now, after a huge number of community meetings involving hundreds of people, and after the city's Public Works department has spent countless hours doing research and analysis, a compromise plan has emerged that seemingly everyone can mostly agree about.

This plan isn't perfect. For example, it doesn't include any diverters that are common in bicycle boulevards elsewhere. These kinds of diverters do a lot to move 'through' traffic onto adjacent streets, while making sure that pedestrians and bicyclists can safely cross the busier streets that have higher traffic speeds (such as Cleveland and Cretin Avenues). You can see for yourself how these kinds of diverters work in South Minneapolis, where they seem to have not caused any kind of automotive apocalypse.
Anyway, the final St Paul proposal got rid of these kinds of traffic calming treatments in favor of traffic circles, which you will find elsewhere in the city.

As it turned out, the City Council stripped or delayed many of the proposed traffic circles from the project. And then bids for construction came in too high, which further delayed construction for the Jefferson Boulevard (which has been signed as a boulevard for years already).

[A traffic circle in a place that probably doesn't need it.]

Finally, Real World Progress

That's why it was delightful to see actual concrete construction on Jefferson this last week. Finally after years of wrangling, hair pulling, elections, FOIAs, shenanigans, and endless histrionic community meetings, two small innocuous flower-planted traffic circles will be built along less important parts of an East-West street that might marginally slow down speeding cars.

Here's the conclusion of my piece, expressing all my hopes and dreams for this street:

In five years, nobody living nearby will think bicycle boulevards are a big deal. Neighbors will actually like the traffic circles once they are built. They'll blend into the background of the city and grow flowers. Ideally, Jefferson will subtly shift into a more quiet beautiful safe street for all types of people. Ideally, it'll be a place where even my mom would feel comfortable riding a bicycle and getting exercise on her way to the Highland Grill without feeling like she's 'in the way' of a pickup truck speeding down the hill.

I still think this can come true, though I wish this project wasn't the very definition of half-assed bike infrastructure.

Mainly, what these small concrete circles signal to me is how painstakingly slow the current rate of change has become in our cities. While this one project has been kicked to death like a sleeping dog, other cities around the country (including the one next door) have built orders of magnitude more miles of higher quality bicycle infrastructure, literally lapping sleepy Saint Paul.

How Much Consensus?

From one perspective, deliberation is a good thing. We want changes to our city to be aired out, vetted, and presented to the community. We want our officials and engineers to have to answer questions about plans and projects.

But there's a difference between transparency and consensus. I'm reminded of Gil Peñalosa's speech this year at the Saint Paul Transportation Summit (which I wrote about earlier on streets.mn).

I urge you to watch the entire speech, but here's one of the things that he said when discussing a pedestrianization of Nyhavn, a key shopping street in Copenhagen:
Change is difficult, of course. And it doesn't happen by consensus. When they were thinking of making this [Nyhavn] pedestrian, people in these restaurants said "Oh, if the cars don't park in front of my restaurant, we're going to go broke." You have to listen to everybody.

But at the end of the day, what is the general interest? Change will never happen by consensus. If you want change to be unanimous, you have to water down change so much, it's not going to be change any longer. So listen honestly, and then make a decision. Do you think any of these restaurants go broke? 10,000 people buy more food than 83 cars.
So, it's about changing mindsets. And this is why all of us are here.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about Peñalosa was how he didn't settle for platitudes, but challenged Saint Paul leaders with difficult problems. He said that we needed to stop retreating from winter weather, that we needed to compare our city to world leaders rather than Midwestern followers, and he said that we needed to prioritize rather than accommodate non-motorized people.

But this challenge, to move past the desire for continual consensus, is a difficult one for the typically Midwestern mindset. The glacial pace of change on projects like the Jefferson Bicycle Boulevard only serves to highlight this problem.

There are lot of questions that emerge from Peñalosa's advice. How can the city accelerate meaningful change (that conforms with our city vision for the future), without becoming Robert Moses-like despots? How much consensus do we really need?

These are all political questions, but the answers to them do not have to remain in the back rooms and community meetings. I believe that there are plenty of ways to change people's mindsets about sticky problems that don't necessarily need to take the form of elaborate engineering construction or high-blown skyscrapers.

Meanwhile, a couple of traffic circles are popping up in Saint Paul. Soon they'll fade into the background, fill with flowers, and the tempest in the teapot will be forgotten.

[There goes the neighborhood.]

Apparently the two bike boulevard projects (Griggs and Jefferson) are far over budget. This will really makes it far more difficult to build any kind of support for future bike projects in the city.

Here's the quote from today's paper:
Two bicycle boulevards on Jefferson Avenue and Griggs Street, which once were projected to cost $1.52 million, are $900,000 over budget.
[...] City staff said the Jefferson and Griggs projects were put out to bid twice -- in the fall of 2013 and spring of this year -- and both times came back over budget.
They said costs went up over the course of four years. A bidding process for the Jefferson project, budgeted at $1 million in 2010, was repeatedly delayed as a result of lengthy public discussion and neighborhood opposition in the Mac-Groveland area.


MPR Decoder: Green Line Signal Timing

Occasionally, I listen to Minnesota Public Radio. So, occasionally, I share with you what I have heard in a segment I call MPR Decoder.

Here's last week's short Daily Circuit segment about signal timing on the Green Line. Host Tom Weber had on Brian Lamb from Metro Transit and Nancy Homans from the Saint Paul Mayor's Office to talk about the tension between the city and the Met Council over the stoplights of Saint Paul. Both officials stayed on message pretty well, even when Tom dropped a Chuck Marohn soundbyte on them (which the transportation policy equivalent of a bunker buster bomb). 

You can listen to it here, or enjoy this rough [slightly annotated] transcript:


Tom Weber (TW): ... to the amateur observer [i.e. everyone with half a brain], it would seem a quirk makes this trip longer. It might be too late to change, but give us the theory... Why is it that stations were put after that stoplight vs. before, and now there are situations where there are two stops?

Brian Lamb (BL): When you’re taking the width of the street and trying to split the stations, if they were side by side it would further curtail the driving lanes ["curtail" is an interesting verb], so that’s why we have split stops.

TW: You have em right now where the stations are across the stoplights. But why not switch it? Why not have it be before the red lights, so that you’re putting the stops before the red light?

BL: Technically we do have the capability to reverse run [I like anytime a wonky professional drops jargon, like the "reverse run"], so we could run the westbound train down the eastbound tracks. However the system is designed that when we get the signalization optimized, and we don’t have it done quite yet [understatement], the train will go right through the intersection and only stop once. So therefore then it has a little more dwell time that's possible, on the far side before it leaves for the next station.

TW: So if it were before the stoplight and it turned green but the operator was loading passengers the train operator might feel pressure to say, c’mon!

BL: Exactly. You might miss another 90 seconds of the signal.

TW: So Nancy, the city has a big role here because the Green Line itself are operated by Metro Transit, but the lights are operated by the city. It sounds like its not working quite yet.

Nancy Homans (NH): We knew that from the get go, that once the system was installed it would take some fine tuning. It has to serve obviously automobile drivers, bus riders, pedestrians, bicyclists, folks who want to cross the intersection. [And in that order, too.] We made a commitment from the get go that the Green Line would not be a wall down the avenue that people would be able cross to get to the stores on the other side. So the challenge is that everybody gets the amount of time they need and everybody is well served and we are making those adjustments.

TW: The city … one of the debates is about "minor intersections" that the city could give up a little bit of its power to operate those lights and hand it over to metro transit so that it flows better. Is that gonna happen?

NH: What the Met Council and Metro Transit have asked is for us to consider signal preemption, which is that if the train is is coming it gets priority, at these intersections. We have indicated that we are willing to do that. [The "we have indicated that" is such a passive super political speak kind of phrase, isn't it. Like, "we have indicated we'll help you using a secret code akin to baseball signs where the managers scratch themselves on the ear..."] We need a little bit more comfort around some detection systems, but we are wiling to do that because we believe that if we can shave off a little time of those intersections, that the Snellings will work better. [“The Snellings" is like a nightmare I keep having, where I'm stalked by evil MnDOT engineers or something. Or maybe it's a horrible disease? "Looks like you've got a case of the Snellings. That's not going to clear up anytime soon."] 

But the challenge is that those intersections are green all the time unless someone has pushed the walk button to cross, or there’s someone waiting to cross [in a car]. So how those people are served or how a pedestrian is served... we want to make sure that those people aren’t skipped where they’re waiting and then wait for a train and then there’s a full 90 seconds or so before they get to cross. So we’re just trying to make sure we get that right.

TW: Is the goal and the meaning of the line to get people from downtown to downtown quickly? Is that actually the goal?

BL: As with many forms of transit, it has multiple goals. There are fewer people who will go the full length of the route from downtown to downtown, than people who... maybe the average length is a couple of miles... to go to a different part of the corridor. And that’s what makes this route so successful. 

By the way, we’re already over 30,000 riders per day, which is one of the most successful new starts in the country over the last several years, because it has that intermediate traffic. [More successful than the great Peoria express bus of 2011!] So it really has to serve people going long distances and those going short distances. 

For the most part those going downtown to downtown during peak they also have the option of the 94 express service. That bus is very successful as well.

TW: The solution sounds like you’re not saying "oops we made a mistake when we made the stations," [Britney Spears song?] but you’re saying that you’re saying you can fix what’s going on now simply by altering traffic signals. Is that correct?

BL: That is correct. We believe that with the proper signal balance b/w preemption and priority which is just the signal timing that we can keep the trains moving so that the only times the trains are stopped is when they’re picking up people. 

TW: So Nancy when will that happen?

NH: [She's not gonna answer that one!] We have a team of folks that are working on an intersection by intersection basis. So we will see improvement over time. We’ve already seen improvement from June 14th to today. And we expect to be working on this for months. And when new development and new transit are added we’re going to have to tweak it again. This is a continuous process of getting this right and we believe that when the signal timing is improved that will improve the ability of operators to predict that the lines going to stay green and they’ll be more confident going through the intersection. 

BL: And it is an iterative process as the signals get more synchronized we believe we can pick up the travel speed b/w the two stations and then it’ll cause another round of signal optimization. We’re at 33K before the U of MN or any other colleges are really in session, as the loads start to change that’ll be another opportunity to tweak the schedules.

TW: Nancy said we’re not gonna just make a wall and that the LRT is just going to go through untouched, its one of the things debated. Last month we spoke about transportation funding. Here's a short piece of audio from Chuck Marohn, of the organization Strong Towns... [Dropping a clip like this must be the best part of a radio host's job!]

Chuck Marohn (on tape): ... a billion dollar investment, yet we make it stop at red lights, how can you have a billion dollars dropped on a line and say "we’re going to make it sit here and let that cycle through when there’s no other cars around or there’s one or two other cars on a side street getting across…" If you’re going to make an investment of that size why would you not make it the priority of the corridor well the reason is that we’re sensitive to the notion of shaping behavior, telling people how we’re going to live. Well, we’ve done that. We’ve spent a billion dollars on this corridor, and I think we’ve gotta own the fact that transportation does shape behavior.

TW: Chuck is saying, "own it." You spent so much money, you should make it the only thing going through all the time, thoughts?

NH: We also added three additional stations so we could serve the communities that live along the line, that they were the people that needed to get to education and employment and stop for them. [Classic dodge, like a Dodge Aires or something.]

TW: That’s not the issue that chuck was saying. Chuck was saying, fine have as many stations as you want but just get ride of red lights. [Well done, Tom. Asking the follow-up question after a dodge must be the best part of a radio host's job. Actually there seem to be lots of fun parts to a radio host's job. I'm probably wrong about this.]

NH: In order to allow peds to cross University safely, we needed additional signals. We added those. As part of the design we involved thousands of people to help us understand how to do this best. 

But we agree, we need to get through more quickly and we are going to work day in and day out to reduce those signal impacts on the train, and give the pedestrian the appropriate amount of time, but at a different time and space to get through. We need to get the train down University Avenue and support all the amazing development that’s happening along the line, the 30,000 folks that are already riding, and the people that will be riding.  We understand our responsibility to that [with great traffic FUBAR comes great responsibility], and we think we’re working a very fine balance and we have partners at Metro Transit to help us get that balance right.

[Sounds good to me. Let's get it done, Saint Paul! The proof is in the train.]