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."

Credit for inventing speed bumps goes to the British. According to a publication put together by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), an international association of transportation planners, U.K. agencies in the early 1970s tested various designs before coming up with the "parabolic profile hump." It was soon picked up elsewhere in Europe and finally in this former colony; Federal Highway Administration testing of speed bumps began in St. Louis in 1979. By 1995 David Sucher, author of the book City Comfort--How to Build an Urban Village was calling traffic-calming "the most significant new idea in city planning." Cities in Florida, Oregon, California, and Washington were the first to try the technique, and hundreds more soon embraced it.

But, as with any new idea, the backlash inevitably came. In the past decade, a number of cities have removed speed bumps in response to public criticism. It happened in San Luis Obispo, where Terry Sanville is principal transportation planner: "We've had quite a few traffic-calming successes and some very tough failures," he says. "You've got to realize that when you put in speed bumps, you're going to hear from everyone: emergency-vehicle drivers, people who have sick relatives, plumbers who come to fix your pipes, people with RVs and large vehicles, garbage men, delivery people of all sorts. Neighborhoods that want to put them in had better be pretty certain about it." (A variety of anti-speed-bump reports are listed on the Web site of a national group called Americans Against Traffic Calming, www.io.com/~bumper/ada.htm).

Sanville says his department has now done its homework on speed bumps: "Studies, very scholarly studies, have been done--you know, how to slow people down without pissing them off. The newest reports say [a speed bump should measure] 12 to 14 feet at its base, about 21Ž2 inches at its highest point. They're not very abrupt, so they reduce the amount of jarring action. Motorists' derrieres are sensitive. Studies say drivers can tell the difference in height by a quarter-inch."

The pizza man can, anyway--and he can also tell a neighborhood that welcomes delivery drivers. As the Honda chatters along LaSalle Avenue, Donovan speculates on why Whittier, the Wedge's neighbor to the east, never embraced speed bumps. Maybe, he postulates, traffic-calming is an indicator of social status, which is why speed bumps are found chiefly in neighborhoods where people tip a dollar for a large pie and a Coke. Or maybe Sixth Ward city council member Jim Niland, who represents Whittier, is "the only guy in city hall who understands cars with screwed suspension."

Niland seems flattered by the theory. "There could be a class element to it in some sense," he offers. "Some speed bumps are paid for by assessing property owners, and rich neighborhoods probably have more of them." Then the council member reveals something Donovan seems to have known instinctively: He is a "brother of the road," as the pizza men say. "Before I was on the council, during college, I delivered for Rocky Rococo in La Crosse. So I certainly have sympathy for pizza-delivery drivers everywhere."

Eighth Ward City Council member Brian Herron never delivered pies, but he also believes in bump-free pavement. "We just have seasonal speed bumps on the alleys in my ward. I don't like them on the streets. And I've got a decent vehicle."

 

Herron has been an advocate, however, of altering the streetscape in other ways. He is among the initiators of an experiment near Chicago Avenue and Lake Street, where city engineers are trying out a technique they're calling "cul-de-sac-ing." Just east of the intersection, streets and alleys have been blocked off with construction barriers and orange pylons; in effect, drivers can't go south from Lake for three blocks. The barriers were installed in November, says Herron, in response to residents' complaints that customers from the liquor store and the rest of the busy corner brought drug dealers and prostitution into their streets. "Cul-de-sacs create a sense of one way in, one way out," explains Herron. "Most people with a criminal mindset don't like that they don't have an immediate escape route."

Underlying Herron's explanation is a philosophy called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which in the past two decades has fueled a wave of street closings in cities across the nation. CPTED, explains a 1997 U.S. Department of Justice study, assumes that "many offenders are rational and will not commit crimes where they perceive the risks to outweigh the potential benefits." CPTED was popularized in the 1970s; one of the earliest studies supporting it was conducted in 1977 in St. Paul, where researchers found that through-streets experienced higher rates of burglary.

In the 1980s and 1990s, several dozen U.S. cities experimented with various degrees of CPTED-inspired street closings: Boston shut off pedestrian tunnels, Oakland and L.A. fenced and gated communities, and Charlotte limited auto access to a poor neighborhood. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley promised to "cul-de-sac the city."

Locally, the technique wasn't used until two years ago, when north Minneapolis's Willard-Hay neighborhood had barricades installed near the intersection of Broadway Street and Penn Avenue, home to a busy liquor store. Herron says he first considered the cul-de-sac concept because of the north-side project, which he says brought down crime rates and improved relationships between local businesses and residents. So far, he says, it seems to be working: "The feedback I get from residents is that, since the cul-de-sac, there's less hanging out at the liquor store, less trash, and drug traffic is down."

Not everyone, though, is thrilled with the dead ends. Jay Warmington, owner of the Vend-A-Wash laundromat on Chicago and Lake, says the dead ends seem to create a new safety hazard: "People turn where they can. They barrel into the U.S. Bank drive-through lane the wrong way. Or they cross our parking lots and exit onto Chicago Avenue.

"About a third of our customers arrive on foot, pulling wagons or carts," Warmington adds. "I had one guy in a dogsled one winter. We're very concerned with our customers with kids who could get hit as they go out the door."

Some critics have raised more philosophical concerns about street closings. The U of M's Martin says cul-de-sacs are "really about trying to privatize what is essentially public space. It's part of cities trying to achieve a level of privacy that is more typical of suburbs." In some cities, advocates have also charged that the barriers serve to keep poor people out of more affluent neighborhoods, or to segregate races. "You have to be careful about that," confirms Herron. "People can think that blocks are becoming gated."

In some places, the barriers have already worn out their welcome. In 1993 Bridgeport, Connecticut, installed dozens of cul-de-sacs, but all of them were removed last year. Residents said the barriers were ugly and tarnished the image of their neighborhoods.

Whether the orange roadblocks at Chicago-Lake will be replaced with more permanent barriers is still up in the air. At the moment, says Herron, no one knows how much such a project would cost or how it would be funded, though there is talk of using NRP and local economic-development monies. Either way, adds the council member, "I don't foresee any more of these. We get more requests for traffic circles and speed bumps."

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