Category Archives: Minneapolis

Open Letter re: Hennepin Avenue Redesign

I attended the second public meeting regarding the reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue last night (April 25th) and was quite happy with the way the planning is coming along. I’m excited that Hennepin Avenue has a chance at a makeover, as it’s one of the most important streets in our downtown core.

Personally, I’d like to see some traffic-calming features on Hennepin, such as narrower lanes and bump-outs at the intersections (to make a shorter crossing distance when walking on Hennepin). I also think we should look closely at lowering the speed limit on Hennepin so make this street more appealing to pedestrians, cyclists, and businesses like cafes and bars that want a more pleasant street for outdoor seating.

I’d also like to see physical protection for cyclists in the protected bike lanes, perhaps in the form of rectangular planters on either side, which would help prevent pedestrians from wandering into the bike lane and provide better protection for cyclists from motor vehicles. I like the idea of gradual curbs, but am worried cars or delivery vehicles will climb up on them for short-term parking and block the bike lane. I’d rather not have the ugly “plastic sticks” that seem to be synonymous with protected bike lanes in our city, especially on an important street like Hennepin.

Come to think of it, the protected bike lane design for the 3-lane proposal on 3rd Avenue South (which did not pass city council) would be something that I would support. That design called for planters to protect the bike lanes.

I’d also like some assurance that what happened with the 3rd Avenue design process will not happen to Hennepin Avenue. Plans were developed for a 3-lane design on 3rd Avenue, presented to the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees, then it seems that city staff was directed to push forward a 4-lane design plan at the last moment by CM Lisa Goodman. Is that going to happen here as well?

I’m cc’ing CM Goodman on this email to remind her that this has been the second public meeting regarding Hennepin Avenue that has taken place, and that local business owners are welcome to provide feedback. The feedback I have heard at both meetings indicates that the community is supportive of cycling, pedestrian, and transit improvements in this corridor. I want to make sure businesses are part of this process too, as past experience tells me that they haven’t always been “engaged” early enough in the process.

If the plan is to create a “feel-good” design experience for the community only to have the plans altered at the last second by the unknown demands of local businesses, please let me know so I don’t waste my time with this process. Thank you,

Anton Schieffer

A tiny project

So last weekend I realized that the City of Minneapolis maintains a lot of email lists (I think you need to enter an email address to see them after following that link, but it’s quite a few). I was curious to learn more about what was on them, but there wasn’t an obvious way to read the archives of each mailing list. And I surely wasn’t going to sign up for over 100 mailing lists just to get a taste of what they were sending out.

So I made a new website and twitter account in order to get a better sense of what’s going on in the city. Each email sent out by the city to any of their mailing lists is published online in a new post, and a link to that post is tweeted out. Simple!

I apologize for the Geocities-esque aesthetics of the website, but the emails don’t use consistent HTML and my email parsing utility was pulling some crazy shenanigans with nesting and CSS, so this is the best I cold make it look in about an hour’s worth of time. (I work in infosec, not web design.) Got a better idea? Tweet me or send an email.

Obviously in the future I’d love to have a calendar, and the ability to only see messages from one particular mailing list. Even better, I’ve asked the city to look into doing this for me. Hopefully the folks at GovDelivery can get this simple problem taken care of and increase online engagement between the City of Minneapolis and its residents.

Open Comment regarding the Blueprint for Equitable Engagement

Note: this is a comment I sent to the city of Minneapolis regarding the proposed Blueprint for Equitable Engagement.

The current model for Minneapolis neighborhood organizations needs significant changes in the coming years in order to remain both relevant and responsive to the needs of city residents.

I live in the Whittier neighborhood, where over 80 percent of residents are renters. As of today’s date, there are few, if any, renters on the Board of the Whittier Alliance, which is one of the most heavily-funded neighborhood organizations in the city. As you know, the NRP funding for our neighborhood organizations has historically been determined by factors like poverty rate and the number of renters a neighborhood has.

Over the past year or two, I have participated in several Whittier Alliance Community Issues meetings. (Whittier residents are not allowed to speak at meetings of the Board of Directors, which obviously discourages attendance.) After more restrictive bylaws were passed earlier this year, making it more difficult for renters to run for the board (among other things), I have chosen to stop attending Whittier Alliance meetings and to spend my time as an activist in a more constructive manner. I have no interest in contributing my time and energy towards a neighborhood organization that actively makes it more difficult for renters and newcomers to participate. I hear many of my peers, in Whittier and other parts of the city, express similar frustrations, who decide the process is not worth their time.

The lack of renter representation on the Whittier Alliance board leads to negative outcomes. As a recent example in July of 2015, both the Executive Director and Board Chair of the WA were quoted in the Southwest Journal as requesting higher rents for a proposed “workforce” apartment complex. As a renter in an 83% renter neighborhood, it’s beyond infuriating to have my own neighborhood organization attempting to raise the rents for new housing projects. Of course, I do understand how pushing for higher rents might increase the property values for property owners who routinely dominate the Whittier Alliance board.

Of course, renters are not the only viewpoint lacking in this neighborhood. Census data shows that 20 percent of Whittier does not speak English, and that half this neighborhood is white and half is of color. Is this reflected in the membership on the board?  Has this been addressed by the Whittier Alliance? The WA is in denial when it comes to equity, stating in its June 2015 meeting minutes regarding the Blueprint for Equitable Engagement, “The WA board is diverse but they (meaning the city) don’t see it as diverse.”

Some city initiatives overlook the residents of Whittier, yet the Whittier Alliance does nothing. For example, Minneapolis recently rolled out their curbside organics program, allowing residents to compost organic matter. But it is only deployed at buildings with 4 units or fewer, and 73 percent of Whittier residents live in buildings with more than 4 units. Where was the Whittier Alliance to raise this issue with the city?

I don’t have all the answers, but engagement is something the city, and by extension city-funded neighborhood organizations, should take more seriously. A committee that addresses renter issues would help, as would utilizing more methods of online participation. Not everyone has the time to sit through a 3-hour meeting, and more importantly, that should no longer be a barrier to participation in local politics. Most importantly, if neighborhood organizations refuse to include and advocate for the renters and minorities who dominate their neighborhoods, rather than the property owners who dominate their boards, they should lose their funding.

Hennepin-Lyndale repaving project

After reviewing some of the preliminary plans for the upcoming Hennepin-Lyndale Reconstruction Project, it seems like this is going to be primarily a road paving project.  I was hoping that more improvements would be made for those of us who walk, bike, and use mass transit in this corridor.  I’m honestly a bit skeptical about what can be done to lessen the bellyaches of everyone who travels through this area, regardless of vehicle choice.  (Personally, I’m in favor of something inspired by the Walker – maybe something avant-garde like removing all the stripes on the road and replacing road signage with Kandinsky paintings)

However, a few rather simple changes could make some intersections much more safe and friendly for cyclists and pedestrians.  I live in the Whittier neighborhood, but I have stayed away from biking north or south along Hennepin due to safety concerns, and it’s one of the only stretches of “protected” cycletracks that I tell novice cyclists to avoid.  Let’s look at some problems and (more importantly) some solutions…

Hennepin & Oak Grove:

LyndaleOakGrove-300x230

As a cyclist, there are a few dangerous circumstances here that can be mitigated through smarter street design.  The first is west-facing traffic on Oak Grove attempting to turn north.  While there is both a “No Turn on Red” sign as well as a bright swath of day-glo paint, cars still meander into the bike lane, even if they don’t intend to break the law by turning on red.  This can cause accidents as well as prevent cyclists from entering or exiting Loring Park safely due to the placement and necessity of a curb ramp.

This problem is easier to solve than you’d think, and we can use how drivers interact with the road to our advantage.  One way to do this is to supplement the signal marked at (1) with an additional signal marked at (2).  Cars tend not to move past where they can see all traffic signals which apply to them, so by moving a light closer to where traffic should actually stop (and maybe complementing it with a “Stop Here On Red” sign), it gives an indication that they should not proceed past that point.   One example of this behavior occurs further south, at this intersection where traffic from 94 can get to Lyndale or Hennepin:

94LyndaleSouth

While this intersection isn’t perfect either, cars tend to not stray into sidewalks or bike lanes largely due to signal placement and signage.  (Of course, these cars are exiting off a freeway and into an urban setting, which may lead to more malleable behavior, but I digress)

Looking back at the picture of Hennepin and Oak Grove, another major problem is the combined cyclist/pedestrian lane.  It’s inconvenient and dangerous for a number of reasons, partially due to the fact that it’s on a hill.  As northbound cyclists gain speed on the hill, they must pass groups of pedestrians (whose behavior can be erratic) while monitoring any southbound cyclists who may be also avoiding pedestrians or overtaking one another as they climb the hill.  In addition, before you get to Oak Grove, try to figure out which northbound right-turning cars will yield to you and which ones will cut right in front of you; something that can only be ascertained by observing whether a driver is looking at their mirrors.  (plus there are always the drivers who turn without signaling, which is always a fun surprise) That’s a lot of things to pay attention to!

But we can improve safety by limiting the things a cyclist needs to be aware of.  Removing the area where pedestrians and cyclists share a single lane and extending the sidewalk between Groveland to Oak Grove would accomplish this.  Yes, it means asking St. Marks to give up some space, and that might be an unpleasant conversation, but it’s one that needs to be had if this city is serious about improving alternative transportation infrastructure.   The problem of northbound traffic turning onto Oak Grove is a challenge that I don’t have a better solution for (though I’m open to suggestions).

Hennepin & Groveland:

HennepinGroveland

For cyclists, this intersection sometimes feels more safe than Hennepin & Oak Grove, due to fewer moving parts.  But the near-misses I witnessed here were the ones that caused me to rethink using this stretch altogether.  Each instance played out exactly the same – a southbound cyclist in front of me would approach the intersection and a driver would pull into the intersection completely oblivious of all activity on their right side.  The driver was so intent on figuring out how to turn right into those 4 lanes of oncoming traffic that they completely ignored the green paint and the cyclists they nearly ran over.

The best fix for this is to forbid right turns on red and to implement the same types of traffic signals that I mentioned earlier which discourage turning.  Add a signal prior to the bike path and make a clear “Stop Here on Red” sign to keep the prospect of turning out of the driver’s mind.  As long as I’m making demands, why not push westbound-facing drivers back 5-10 feet, both here and on Oak Grove?

Even if moving the west-facing drivers back isn’t an option, can we at least move the median at Groveland back or make it more friendly to pedestrians?  Pedestrians don’t want to climb over that thing, and instead they walk in the green painted area, and when the light changes it’s hard to find enough room for pedestrians and cyclists going both ways.  Again, this is also a problem that could be solved by extending that sidewalk down the hill to Loring Park.

Franklin & Lyndale:

And while it’s outside the scope of this project, it would be really nice to address that stretch from where the bike lane ends at the 94 ramp to Franklin Avenue.  I know in an ideal world we’d all ride on that cool bridge to our single-family homes in LHENA, but some bike-loving folks live in Whittier too.  To stay law-abiding, these cyclists are encouraged to go out of their way by taking the bridge and then biking down a giant hill on Franklin Ave, through the intersection with Lyndale (an intersection of two county roads – what could possibly go wrong?), then back up a giant hill.

As someone who has lived near this intersection for years, this is encouraging unsafe behavior.  The safe alternative is to illegally ride on the sidewalk past Rudolph’s – so why not come up with a way to make safe cycling legal?  One possibility would be to remove the street-level parking between 94 and Franklin and add a short protected cycle track.

Anyway, those are a few thoughts on how to improve bike and pedestrian experiences with a minimal investment in infrastructure. Once this repaving project is completed, it may be the last time we have an opportunity to address these issues for awhile.

Quick rant on state-issued IDs

Just in case I forgot how easily and subtly the deck can be stacked against certain groups of people, I had to go to the DMV to get my license renewed recently.  It was fairly slow in there, so I was chatting with the nice woman who was processing my paperwork and learned some interesting things.

Apparently you’re supposed to have your driver’s license or ID renewed any time you move.  I knew that you were supposed to, but I’d never personally done that before.  That’s $15.75 (currently) every time you move.  I’ve lived in 9 different places since moving to Minneapolis, so technically I should be out at least $140, not even counting the cost to renew an expiring license, which is $26.25.

So I asked the clerk if anyone actually did that, and she said people do it all the time.  I was skeptical, so I asked her why – pretty sure none of my friends bothered to go to the DMV every time they moved.  As it turns out, if you’re stopped by a police officer and give an ID that lists an incorrect address (more than 30 days after you’ve moved), you can be fined $200.  (So the correct answer to the officer is always “I *just* moved last week”)

If I were some Republican strategist making this an issue, I’d call it a Moving Tax.  Couldn’t make your rent and had to move back in with your parents? That’ll be $15, please.  Finally got a job and moved out of a homeless shelter and into your first apartment?  That’ll cost you another $15.

On a side note, while I was at the counter another man (likely homeless and perhaps mentally ill) needed a new ID issued.  He didn’t have the $15 to pay for it, so was instructed to wait until Friday and to go to 17th and Chicago to get a voucher (apparently Friday is ID voucher day at Catholic Charities).  This guy had trouble moving from his seat to the counter.  I couldn’t imagine him spending the better part of his Friday getting to 17th and Chicago, then waiting to get a voucher, then traveling back across town to the Government Center, so I paid for him.  I didn’t stick around to see what he listed on the address line.

Recap: MN Civil Law Committee Hearing on Surveillance and Privacy

Here’s my edited dump of notes from today’s meeting (apologies if any of it is misattributed or incorrect):

Today the State of MN Civil Law Committee convened to hear testimony regarding state and local government use of surveillance technologies.  At issue was how these technologies impact an individual’s right to privacy, and what legislative steps can be taken to allow law enforcement’s use of these technologies while protecting constitutional rights.

The first person to testify was the ACLU’s Catherine Crump.  She prefaced her comments by mentioning that while many privacy issues have surfaced due to the NSA, problems can also arise at the state and local level.  The ACLU is not opposed to surveillance technologies, but recognizes that oversight is required to prevent powerful technologies from being abused.

(While I would prefer that modern technologies not be used to surveil in the first place, this is a perfectly sane position to take.  Being “opposed” to technology is a pretty difficult proposition, since it’s the actual use of technology that can be problematic – it would be like opposing streaming video technology because you watched a bad movie.)

Crump’s testimony was focused on four areas: GPS tracking of vehicles, cell phone location tracking, automated license plate readers, and surveillance drones.  Crump also noted that extended surveillance often leads to the discovery of very private information about an individual, and that 28 days of GPS surveillance was considered a “search” by the Supreme Court.  Previously, searches like this were limited by the cost of technology, but the plummeting cost of GPS technology requires the state to impose additional legal restraints against this type of use.

Crump also touched on some topics related to cell phone tracking.  The first is all carriers store historical data for at minimum one year, and that carriers are willing to share this data with law enforcement.  This historical data is often much more sensitive than current location, since it can be used to identify patterns of activity.

Current cell phone location data is obviously very useful in the event of an immediate threat or crime being committed, and I do not believe anyone is opposed to police using this data.  Law enforcement can also work with carriers to receive what’s called a “tower dump” which consists of a list of cell phones that have recently connected to a particular cell phone tower.  Both these uses of technology require oversight into the frequency these tools are used, who they are used against, and how they are deployed.

In closing, Crump stated that legislation which adds oversight to the use of technology needs to address where future technology is headed.  For example, surveillance drones will likely soon become a part of our landscape, so it’s important to come up with legislation regarding acceptable drone use before they become widely deployed.

Next, Commissioner of Public Safety Ramona Dohman answered a few questions form the committee.  Most interesting to me was that Kingfish/Stingray (cell phone exploitation devices) have been deployed in Minnesota since 2005 – almost 10 years!  Other interesting points made by Dohman (or her assistants – my notes are terrible) was that data collected by Kingfish was not kept, but that it could be – the claim is that this data would not be very useful.  Also, in response to a question, the identities of the specific officers that access data is not available to the public.

Next up was Minneapolis PD Chief Janee Harteau, who stated that MPD does not have any cell phone exploitation technology and does not have any plans to obtain it.  When MPD has such a need, they get a warrant and make a request to the BCA who handles the technology aspect.  When asked why MPD does not contact the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office (who also has Kingfish), she could not give an answer – personally, I get the feeling that MPD and Hennepin County Sheriff’s don’t always see eye-to-eye.  Harteau also stated that MPD does not own and drones and has no plans to purchase any drones.    Harteau also was questioned over her department’s policy of keeping license plate reader (LPR) data for 90 days (a time period I consider somewhat reasonable).

St Paul Police Chief Tom Smith was a little more active about stating the benefits of consumer location technology, noting that OnStar could find him if he were in an accident in northern MN, and also touting some of the features of Apple’s iOS7.  He noted that St Paul does not use Triggerfish or Kingfish, and that like Minneapolis, when they need to use that technology, they get a warrant and contact the BCA.  Smith also stated that he and Harteau were both members of the International Association of Police Departments, and that that organization might be able to help draft some model legislation.

After some additional testimony from Olmstead County Sheriff Dave Mueller and MN Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Jim Franklin, things got a little more interesting.  Don Gemberling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information raised the possibility of a privacy and civil liberties board in Minnesota (after keenly pointing out that at one point, George Orwell himself was a cop).  He also cited Judge Brandeis’ dissent in the Olmstead case (“if the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law”) as one reason this board might need to be established, and said that it’s not only the bad guys you have to worry about, but also the good guys who lose control.

Rich Neumeister gave some additional comments, stating that law enforcement has been increasingly trending toward secrecy, and that this trend has been going on a long time.  He noted that even the LPR data took 4 years before it was made public knowledge, and that police in the late 80s used handheld scanners to attempt to listen to phone calls transmitted by cordless phones.  He has also been unable to obtain even the names of the companies that BCA has contracts with.

Last, Deputy Secretary of State Beth Fraser spoke.  She talked briefly about the Safe at Home program, which helps shield victims of domestic abuse from their abusers.  She stated her concern of what happens when an abuser is a member of the law enforcement community, and would like a way for certain data to be deleted that does not have a legitimate use.

Overall, the meeting was about what I expected.  Not a whole lot that was accomplished today, but I am grateful for Rep. John Lesch keeping important privacy issues at the forefront of discussion.  As always, feel free to contact me via email or leave a note in the comments.

May 10 2013 Minneapolis City Council Meeting

So I was being a complete loser and trawling through some of the archives for the city council minutes.  Specifically, I was trying to find when/if changes to the ordinance were made to allow flea markets in Minneapolis.  If anyone is wondering, the answer is that this “officially” happened at the April 12, 2013 council meeting.  It seems like everyone wrote an article on April 4, 2013 when the changes were recommended by committee, but there weren’t any follow-up articles after the city council actually voted on it.

This is a little confusing for people who maybe don’t know how our city government works.  Basically, when one of the committees suggests some change, it generally happens.  I don’t know if this is because Minneapolis is a one-party council (I should say, one party + Cam), or what, but that’s how it works and that’s why there are only articles about the flea markets prior to the actual vote.

So as I was looking through the meeting minutes, it turned out that a bunch of nominally interesting items were approved at this meeting.  Honeybees can be kept on rooftops higher than one story!  We spent $130K on tasers!  The Metrodome lease was extended!  Councilmembers gave “Notice of Intent” to file future resolutions!  So yeah, if interesting stuff happens at council meetings, I’ll try to write about it here in the future.  I’ll probably keep it to my neighborhood and places that I frequent, but who knows?

Only a few interesting things happened at the most recent council meeting on May 10, 2013, but I think you should know about them!

First, there’s a new ordinance that says if there’s an air pollution warning for particulate matter, you are not allowed to start a recreational fire.  You should also try to avoid committing arson on these days, as it’s really bad for everyone’s lungs!  So please restrict your fire-related insurance fraud to days when there isn’t already so much crap in the air.

The Nightingale Restaurant at 26th and Lyndale can now have outdoor seating, if you enjoy the roar of Lyndale traffic while eating your bruschetta. I’ve never eaten here actually, so maybe that’s a really good combo.

Car2Go is being allowed to start their car-sharing program.  For some reason, the existing programs were not allowed to use public spaces to park their cars.  HourCar, for example, has to lease their spots from private lots.  Car2Go is intended to be for short, one-off trips, whereas HourCar is for roundtrips.  Fortunately, thanks to activism from the car-sharing community, other car-sharing companies will also be able to use public spaces for their cars.  Not sure how this sharing of spaces among companies will work yet, but glad to see one company won’t get an unfair advantage.

Apparently, recyclable theft is becoming a problem – in June 2013, Minneapolis residents will receive a notice on how to keep their recyclables from being stolen.  Possible remedies include a light “misting” of all recyclables with a few drops of Schlitz Malt Liquor or deer urine.

Well, nothing else crazy going on, unless you consider the denial of variances crazy.