Is usefulness useful? Broadly speaking, the definition of usefulness as applied to transportation was set in stone a zillion years ago as meaning the movement of as many vehicles as possible as quickly as possible. But those of us whose communities all those vehicles are moving quickly through, or who have lost loved ones to that useful transportation system, are starting to think that what they thought was useful may not in fact be very useful.
Even within that narrow conception of usefulness handed down to us by our forebears from the 50s, there is room to wonder how many opportunities there are for greater usefulness in a highly developed automobile transportation system. If everyone is within a 5 minute drive of a freeway, with which they can reach every corner of the city at high speeds, how many more people are you going to be able to move more quickly with any given project?
These factors have converged in streets.mn’s inaugural annual effort to quantify the best and worst things about our city into a clear win in the Best Opportunity to Do Something Useful category for non-automotive forms of transportation. Once you have moved heaven and earth to maximize your automotive infrastructure, the only useful thing left to do is improve non-motorized infrastructure or public transit. Or maybe our readers are expressing their displeasure with the definition of usefulness used by MnDot or the TAB.
The winner in our survey, the Dinkytown Trench Bikeway (technically known as the U of M Bikeway Phase III – I’m assuming Bridge # 9 constitutes one of the preceding phases; does anyone know what the other phase is?) and Granary Road , is a great example of the redefinition of usefulness. A swath of land used for infrastructure that was once but no longer is considered useful (i.e. a railroad) is proposed to be used for infrastructure that isn’t unanimously currently but many think probably soon will be considered useful (i.e. a bikeway). Unfortunately the owner of that land, BNSF Railway, apparently still finds something useful enough about it that they refuse to sell any of it, and so the project sat for several years until someone realized that a piece of seemingly-useful infrastructure (an access road in the trench that’s owned and used by the U of M) was not actually that useful, and may indeed be better used by people who want to bike through Dinkytown without getting killed. But we’re still waiting, and if you read the updates from the City’s project page, it sounds like this delay is due to the construction of an “electrical duct bank”, which both sounds useful for anyone using electricity in the area and also seems like it might end someday, allowing the bikeway to finally be built.
The second half of the winning project, the Granary Road component, would seem to weaken my thesis a bit. As the name implies, Granary Road would fit the classic definition of useful by allowing more cars to move through the area at faster speeds (or with fewer stops). However, the evaluation for this project gives equal weight to economic development and livability (although I’ll grumble that it weights the impact on all other modes as half that of cars), so it at least nods to the new paradigm of usefulness. And ultimately the most highly recommended alternative is the one that consists mainly of the U of M Bikeway and a few unconnected extensions of existing blocks, so it doesn’t really provide much mobility benefit for cars (although it’s hard to say whether the streets.mn readers who voted for this knew that).
The runners-up in the poll also chart new territories of usefulness; adding bike lanes to Franklin would actually allow more vehicles to move through that street – but non-motorized vehicles, of course; closing Hennepin to through [car] traffic is pretty much the opposite of the old-fashioned definition of usefulness. My favorite runner-up is finishing the Grand Rounds because parks really don’t fit into any definition of usefulness, and in fact their very use is to provide an escape from constant usefulness.
The user answers are worth perusing, as they get even more creative with the concept of usefulness, and the opportunities expand outside of the transportation milieu into zoning and land use. If the reader who suggested “rewrite the Minneapolis zoning code” would care to provide more details about what exactly to rewrite it into, I for one would be all ears. I think that Rapid Bus or arterial BRT is actually the best opportunity to do something useful mentioned thus far, as it’s a cheap way to significantly improve transit service. One can’t help but be charmed, though, by the reader who suggested “Bottineau LRT going through mpls not fucking theo wirth” – who can argue with the usefulness of that suggestion?
In closing, I’ll offer a quote from Abraham Flexner, who in 1939 argued against the concept of usefulness in the context of scientific research:
…I [am] pleading for the abolition of the word ‘use,’ and for the freeing of the human spirit. To be sure, we shall thus free some harmless cranks. To be sure, we shall thus waste some precious dollars. But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind and setting it free for the adventures which in our own day have, on the one hand, taken Hale and Rutherford and Einstein and their peers millions upon millions of miles into the uttermost realms of space and, on the other, loosed the boundless energy imprisoned in the atom.