Bump and Grind

An urban design trend rattles tempers and suspensions

Dick Donovan stops his 1987 Honda Civic, flips on the flashers, reaches to the back seat, and leaps out with a white box in hand. The smell of pepperoni blends with the cigarette smoke that furls up from an American Spirits Light in the ashtray. Up above the driver's-side visor are tucked all the tickets of the evening, showing how many pies Donovan has delivered for the Leaning Tower of Pizza, a fixture on its longtime Minneapolis corner at 24th Street and Lyndale Avenue.

Donovan returns to tuck another ticket under the visor. "The standardized one-dollar tip," he scoffs. Measly gratuities--frequent, he says, in neighborhoods whose residents are accustomed to tipping coat-check people--are his profession's number one frustration. Close seconds are customers who come to the door late, smelly, or naked. And badly timed stoplights. And speed bumps.

"For this next delivery, we'll head to trusty Colfax," Donovan says, executing a fluid version of the pizza man's ballet--thrusting the cigarette in his mouth, fastening his seat belt, and shoving the little Honda into drive. "There's not a lot of traffic; you can get by with a ceremonial pause at the stop signs. There's no light at Lake Street. And there are none of those infernal speed bumps."

Jump the hump: Dick Donovan and the pizza man's nemesis
Christopher Peters
Jump the hump: Dick Donovan and the pizza man's nemesis

Donovan and his fellow drivers feared the loss of trusty Colfax last month, when the Lowry Hill East (a.k.a. Wedge) Neighborhood Association sent out ballots to residents, asking for a yes or no vote on a variety of Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) improvements. The list included $40,000 for 16 blocks of new speed bumps--in addition to the dozen or so bumps already in place around Aldrich and Bryant avenues north of 26th Street.

A short lesson in pizza economics is required here. First, Donovan's pay--like that of other drivers in town--comes mostly from tips. That means that he can't dawdle around the Tower's delivery zone in downtown and south Minneapolis for the 30 pies he'll handle on an average night. Second, it is a rare delivery driver who has a decent car. Donovan's light-blue sedan is typical. The CV joints creak; the transmission thumps; the brakes squeak; and the suspension is so far gone the car rides more like a shopping cart than an automobile.

Those squeaking brakes and questionable suspension are put to the test whenever Donovan is forced to go up Bryant or Aldrich on a delivery. The car's speedometer--which tonight rarely reaches above 25 miles per hour--drops to 10 as the Honda protests its way across speed bumps that, like cobras, always come in twos. "The truth of the matter is that once you deliver long enough," Donovan says, "you learn that you'll get stopped at the lights anyway, so it's not advantageous to speed. So the bumps don't stop me from speeding--they're just something that ruins my goddamn suspension." He slows down to look at the address on his ticket. "Because pizza drivers cover the same route over and over again, it's a special situation," he adds. "The average Joe is not going to hurt his car with these bumps."

But the average Joe voted twice--once in December and again in the recent NRP balloting--to defeat speed bumps in the Wedge. To pass, the proposal would have needed 60 percent of the vote, but it received only 55. Tenth Ward city council member Lisa McDonald, whose territory includes the Wedge, says she still hopes a way can be found to finance the bumps--perhaps by asking individual residents to contribute. "You know," she muses, "when we first put in the speed bumps [on Bryant and Aldrich], there was some initial furor that then died down. Everybody hates change."

Still, says Judith Martin, director of the Urban Studies program at the University of Minnesota, the NRP vote suggests that residents like their pavement the way it is. "It may be that, in a neighborhood like the Wedge, anything that messes with the streets is viewed as an irritation in a way that it's not where people can park in their garages. There may be a recognition that the street is a public space. And when you order a pizza, you don't want to have to wait."

That philosophy of public spaces and speedy pizzas has been put to the test around the Twin Cities--and the nation--in recent years as "traffic-calming" measures like speed bumps, narrow intersections, leafy road medians, and the like have become the rage among both professional and amateur urban planners. "Five years ago, communities would rarely go back and retrofit traffic calming into their neighborhoods," says Rick Dahl, an administrative assistant in the traffic division of Minneapolis's Department of Public Works and the city official in charge of fielding requests for speed bumps. "We tried traffic circles in Kenwood and other places--they and other devices all came out, weren't popular or successful. The speed bumps seem to be the one that the people have adopted. I would say, five years ago, there were probably not any in Minneapolis. Now there probably are about 60--not counting the Park Board's on West River Road and other places."

Criteria for the installation of speed bumps are somewhat fuzzy, Dahl admits. "To a large degree, if the neighbors want them strongly enough, we won't get in their way. If it's a regular residential street, 75 percent of the homeowners on the block have to sign a petition. Cost--$7,000 a pair--is a critical factor, since we have no money for any speed bumps in our budget. Sometimes there are assessments made. But the most typical way is through the NRP."

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