Accessibility to jobs by transit for every Census block in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, between 7 and 9 AM. From the Accessibility Observatory.
Other movies for 46 metropolitan areas can be seen on Vimeo
MoveMN, the local infrastructure lobby, has a second major proposal. This one is for transit funding in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. They propose:
Increase the Twin Cities seven-county sales tax ($342 million)
The current ¼ cent metro sales tax has helped build the new Green Line (Central Corridor) and Red Line (BRT from Apple Valley to Mall of America), and fund half the cost of operating the region’s transitways. The sales tax is not enough to build the transit system the region needs to foster long-term economic development. Move MN proposed increasing the current sales tax by ¾ cent, applying the sales tax in all seven counties and using a small portion (10 percent) of the tax to fund safe and accessible bike and pedestrian connections in the metro. The seven-county sales tax for transit would become a full one cent.
The additional transit funding would essentially complete the current Metropolitan Council transit plan within 15 years, including expanding bus service hours and coverage creating faster commutes for Metro Transit and suburban transit bus systems, as well as a wider network of bikeway and pedestrian connections.
The Sales Tax
Ideally transit would be paid for by user fees. But given roads are not, this would result in there being very little transit, since fares would be very high, and users driven away. Still, these could be higher.
So if you can’t use user fees, what’s the next best solution? Land value capture. This is nowhere to be seen. Why not? Concentrated losses for concentrated benefits.
And if you can’t use land value capture, what’s next best? An employer tax perhaps, since low transit fares subsidize workers (as well as non-workers) and allow firms to offer lower wages than they would if transit fares were full cost. Concentrated losses for concentrated benefits.
And if you can’t tax users and can’t tax land and can’t tax employers, maybe you can tax competing modes. After all, everyone on the road wants everyone else on the road to use transit. This is more viable for suburban-downtown serving transit routes, but that certainly describes the Twin Cities region’s proposed transitways.
And if you can’t do any of the above, then general funds might be appropriate. Especially since transit has a social function for moving people who have few choices. This gives us diffuse losses for concentrated benefits, and is so politically more palatable.
But if you want to use general funds, surely you would want to have a tax that wasn’t regressive, like a progressive income tax rather than a sales tax.
USC Professor Lisa Schweitzer says (about Toronto and LA, but it applies here as well)
California-based urban planning expert Lisa Schweitzer
Ms. Schweitzer, who has studied the politics of sales taxes in the context of L.A.’s transportation infrastructure, said as with any funding measure, there is a “tradeoff.” Cities such as Los Angeles and Toronto can raise substantial sums through sales taxes, which are more politically palatable than some other revenue generators, she noted. “They’re easy to collect, they’re easy for people to pay; you don’t have to deal with the taxman, you just pay at point of purchase,” Ms. Schweitzer said. A major concern, however, is volatility. “They go up and down based on the business cycle and they run parallel with the business cycle, so when retail sales plummet, the take that you get from retail sales taxes also goes down,” Ms. Schweitzer said. “That can be a problem for transit agencies that are dependent on these sales taxes.”
Again, we are now at a high point in the economic cycle (6th year of expansion), so it looks like sales taxes are a great idea from a revenue perspective, but when the next economic collapse comes, oh, about 1 or 2 years into the next Clinton/Bush administration, and revenue tanks, just when we should be building infrastructure for macro-economic stimulus, we can’t. This is not as unstable as the sales tax on gas, but it is hardly a bedrock on which we should fund the system. (Perhaps if we are selling bonds backed by sales tax revenue, that worry can be diminished, but bonds are more risky and thus costly than pay-as-you-go, see the idea of interest rates).
Now, let’s say you have this new pot of money. The MoveMN folks bought off the all-powerful bike lobby (who seem to be on-board with this proposal, as card-carrying members of MoveMN) with a 10% share for a “safe and accessible bike and pedestrian connections in the metro. ”
So though biking and walking has a higher mode share than transit, it only gets 1/10 of the total funds. Someone is not negotiating well. [Hint – it’s the completely unorganized pedestrians.]
Obviously pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is relatively inexpensive, so from one perspective it doesn’t “need” as much. But from an efficiency point-of-view, since it is so inexpensive, walking and biking should have a much higher return on investment.
Whatever really has the highest rate of return should be the highest priority for investing a new pot of money. The problem is establishing this, since there is so much economic development Voodoo floating around that no one believes.
If your aim were to maximize the number of people using modes other than auto for a given trip, you would take your pot and spend it on relatively inexpensive separated cycletracks and improving the local urban environment to increase walking and then local arterial BRT before you spend it on high-capital, high-risk projects with low rates of return.
The City vs. Country mismatch (where we plan for transportation systems seemingly independent of the context: city or country (suburb)) is especially relevant in metropolitan areas constructing expensive medium and high capacity transit lines to presently undeveloped places, or (re-)constructing and widening freeways in the midst of core cities.
If we are building a city, that means focusing resources closer to the center than the edges, since that is where more of the growth will be.
So the question arises in Minnesota: Are we building a city in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region or not?
Some would argue the region is already a city. Clearly the downtowns and some nearby areas resemble cities. But much if not most of the population lives in single family homes with a yard. Not there is anything wrong with that, but that yard increases spacing between neighbors, lowers densities, and makes it harder to operate a successful transit system in the automobile era.
The decisions we make regarding transportation investment rest on what our collective vision is for this place. If we are building a city, going “all in” on transit is a lot more sensible than if we are not, and a lot more sensible than half-measures. If we are not, going even partly in on fixed rail transit is fairly pointless.
The evidence to date is fairly mixed. The region is growing at about 1 percent or so per year in population. That is a bit under 30,000 people or so per year. (Investing in transit will not put a measurable dent on this, as it is hard to imagine it either increasing or decreasing the birth or death rate noticeably or significantly affecting migration patterns).
Where are those people going? Most of them are not being added to the center. If all of them were added to Minneapolis and St. Paul proper, the populations of the core cities would rise from 667,000 in 2010 to about 950,000 in 2020. If more than half of them were added to the core cities, their population would be around 810,000. Current forecasts suggest the population of the core will be closer to 732,000. In other words, well more than half (around 80%) of the region’s growth remains outside the core cities, and not terribly urban. While the center is projected to grow at a faster rate than the edges, it is not growing faster in absolute numbers.
This region collectively much more resembles Broadacre City than Greenwich Village, and probably more Broadacre City than even Welwyn Garden City or Letchworth. While the density at the edges after development must (by definition) be higher than before development, the average experienced density (e.g. the population-weighted density) may continue to fall as the region expands.
In this dispersed suburban landscape, point-to-point transportation predominates.
In the not-quite-a-city urban areas, point-to-point transportation still predominates.
It is only in full-fledged dense cities (the level of density required depends on income, technology, and other factors), and dense cities that sustain, that full-fledged dense (fixed route, fixed infrastructure) transit is warranted. Loosely, the transit-city threshold is on the order of 10,000 persons per square mile, sustained over some region. This implies a Minneapolis population of 540,000 and a St. Paul population of 520,000. While those numbers are achievable in principle, they require significant changes in market demand and reduction in supply constraints to achieve. If it were to be achieved, still under 1/3 of the region would be in the transit city. The remainder would be the country, or its suburban simulacrum.
Certainly, some parts of the core cities already sustain this density, and there is no requirement that all of the core city achieves the density, just that a sufficiently large part does. Most doesn’t.
For the Metropolitan area, fixing the total space, this threshold implies a population of 63 million, or relaxing the space but fixing the population, a shrinkage to a developed area of 345 square miles. I would consider either outcome highly unlikely.
The car-free lifestyle is sufficiently uncommon that the local newspaper does a feature on it.
In less dense cities, less transit is warranted. But if the transit is insufficiently dense (in space (coverage) and time (frequency)), anyone with a choice will anchor to the on-demand, point-to-point mode, which will be sufficiently faster to outweigh any additional expense
Creating Transitopolis: the Transit City
Building the transit city (Transit-opolis) requires most of the region’s central city residents (20% today) to willingly abandon the automobile in the first place: creating an environment where car ownership can be voluntarily foregone because it is to the benefit of all concerned not to own the car. The more transit users there are, the better the transit service is, in a virtuous cycle. (And of course, the fewer transit users there are, the worse the service, in a vicious cycle).
This implies focusing transit investments in the central cities, and not diffusing scarce capital like peanut butter across the region.
Why can’t we have the best of both worlds? There are a variety of interim or transitional strategies
Park and ride lots accessed by private car may serve the center-working/surburban-living suburbanite, which transfer the worker to a radial transit route. This serves a small fraction of workers, since most people don’t work downtown, where these radial services terminate, and the frequencies are typically not high enough (especially mid-day) to rely on for anyone with irregularity in their life.
Single Car households with multiple workers splits the difference, where presumably at least one of the workers does not use a car for travel to work, or the two workers carpool to the same location. This is certainly the most common hybrid case.
Weekend Car households in which the work trip is conducted by walking, biking, or transit, and the car is used for the weekend and special trips.
Car sharing (on-demand car rental) allows the car-less transit user to have a car when needed for the less frequent trips. Taxis (and so-called ride-sharing services) serve a similar function.
These attempts at melding can serve specific niches and are potential transitional steps to the transit city, in that it is more likely to give up a car for some trips than all trips, or portions of trips than all of the trip. They are not however the end state.
My own prediction is that we are not in fact building a transit city. The densities that will emerge in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the next 20 or 30 years are insufficient to support a transit-based city for a majority of residents of even the core cities. (And, simultaneously and not coincidentally, the transit investments are insufficient to support a city where most people are car-less).
This explains my pessimism about the use of expensive (high fixed cost) city transit tools now. The right decision if you are certain you are building a transit city (or already live in one) is different from the decision if you are not.
While it is argued that never making the investments will ensure the transit city does not emerge, we can continuously ratchet up, rather than doing it in enormous steps. Not investing now does not mean never investing. “No” is reversible (in other words, “no” does not mean “no”).
On the other hand, “yes” is irreversible for a long time. But making the investment does not guarantee the transit city will emerge, plenty of cities, including our own, have invested in rail without seeing accompanying development, leaving an enormous pale proboscidea in its place.
My own prediction is that the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are on a path towards Transitopolis. The necessary population densities to support transit are within striking distance, especially in Minneapolis, and the leadership of both cities is keen on achieving that. The big question is whether the demand for higher density housing is there in the cities, and with changing demographics, preferences, and technologies, the demand for suburban lifestyle is diminishing relative to that for urban living. Most people won’t spend their entire lives in either suburban harmony or at an urban tempo, but rather migrate between the two over the years.
The investments in the cities to support transit at a level that most people can avoid the car for most trips are still too low to make this work, there is a marked lack of ambition on the part of regional transportation officials to serve the transit cities they are building with actual rapid transit. This dysfunction has several causes, not the least of which is the leadership of planning organizations that don’t use the modes they manage, which we can attribute to the strange politics of regional organizations.
While at this point, we are almost assuredly beating a dead horse, until the Green Line Extension (Southwest LRT) is actually under construction, there remains the possibility it can be improved. While the best improvement (given the existence of an LRT to fourth ring Southwest suburbs) would be to route it along a path where people actually live, if we cannot maximize benefits, surely we should minimize costs.
I speak of course of the tunnel under the park.
The stated reason is the right-of-way is insufficiently wide to accommodate two tracks of LRT, one track of freight rail serving about 3 trains a day, a bike path, and the buildings that were built where it would have been convenient to run some more track.
There are two obvious solutions to this problem which have not been given serious consideration as far as I can tell.
First, the freight and LRT can share the track at different times. The experience with Northstar certain demonstrates why having a few passenger trains on a freight railroad can create lots of passenger delay, but this is different, it would be a freight train on a passenger track owned by the public.
Everyone says “But, FRA”. I realize there are institutional barriers which need to be overcome. Perhaps those are more expensive to overcome than $130 million, or whatever the difference in the surface solution and what the tunnel will cost.
Second, if one-track is good enough for freight, why is it not good enough for LRT for a short section? (This is an idea previously considered by Matt Steele at streets.mn.) This of course is a tight fit, and may require waivers from appropriate regulatory authorities, but is physically possible from the drawing I have seen.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume we want to single track 1.5 miles, with trains going up 45 miles per hour (say an average speed of 30 mph to make the math easy). This would take 3 minutes. The trains are on 10 minute headways in each direction, or one train every 5 minutes through the bottleneck. (Note, Matt assumed 2 minutes, and higher speeds. I am using conservative assumptions).
If timing were perfect, there could be zero delay from this scenario. This is a deterministic case. That is the assumption underlying Matt’s post.
However, as we know, timing is rarely perfect, so we need to look at stochastic delay. Stochastic is engineering jargon for random. Random is engineering jargon for a case where multiple outcomes have an equal likelihood of being chosen (or some are more likely than others, but we cannot be sure that would be the case).
Even when things are random, that doesn’t mean we cannot ascertain the average of the distribution.
Let’s suppose we have an arrival rate of 1 train every 5 minutes (our arrival rate lambda=0.2 trains per minute), and a server rate of 1 train every 3 minutes (mu=0.33 trains per minute). If the systems is completely random (and we certainly hope it is better than that), we can use stochastic queueing theory to estimate the delay.
Worst case (aside from someone actively and maliciously controlling the trains so they do arrive at the same time (which implies that deterministic solutions with zero delay are possible)), we can model this as an M/M/1queue (meaning, as wikipedia says: arrivals follow a Poisson process and job service times have an exponential distribution) . This assumes Markovian (random) arrival and departure processes and a single channel.
The utilization rate (rho = lambda/mu) is 0.6, meaning the server is busy 60% of the time.
Math gives us a formula for the average queue size:
Average queue size = rho/(1 – rho) = 1.5
Math gives us a formula for the average wait time :
At 1 million passengers per month (12 million per year) for 30 years, this is 360 million people delayed 4.5 minutes=1.6 billion minutes of delay. At $20/hour, this is $533 million.
Clearly this value is larger than the cost of the tunnel.
On the other hand, perhaps we only need to single track for 0.5 miles.
In that case, the server time is 1 minute, so mu=1. Capacity utilization is 20% (i.e. rho is 0.2). Average queue size is 0.25 trains. The average wait time is 0.25 minutes.
Our 360 million people are delayed 0.25 minutes at $20/hour is $30 million. This is considerably less than the cost of the tunnel.
The train speeds could be adjusted so no-one would know they were delayed (i.e. trains would slow down approaching the switch, or be held at the previous station, as needed. And remember this is worst case, delay should be less than this with any competent schedule adherence. With perfect schedule adherence, they are indeed zero (our deterministic solution).
Single-tracking is a solution to high capital costs. It is not optimal, it has delay costs that depend on the length of the stretch, headways, how much control Metro Transit has over running times, and so on.
Everything involves trade-offs.
There is of course a concern about running LRT next to (near) freight trains, carrying lots of explosive ethanol. I say, don’t do it. Run them at different times, even if on different tracks. If freight trains are only permitted at night, or in a mid-day window when an LRT is held upstream of the pinch-point for a few minutes, or ideally in a scheduled break, there should be zero chance of collision. There is always a chance of derailment – that doesn’t change, but derailment is less hazardous than collision for what I hope are obvious reasons.
In the long run, maybe freight will go away (e.g. once people stop using ethanol), go somewhere else, or another solution will be found. At that time, the line can be double-tracked if needed.
In the short term, the money saved could be used to temporarily relocate the trail to quiet residential streets nearby, compensate the neighborhood, give money to the Park Board, or any number other socially worthwhile goals.
These images show very little change on the main Mall of the University of Minnesota campus. Coffman still looks down at Northrup in the distance. There is a tree in the middle, so the landscape is slightly less formal. Some new buildings have been built at the edge of the Mall and Washington. Washington is deeper entrenched.
But lots of more important changes have occurred. After about 60 years without rail transit on Washington Avenue, it came back in 2014. Private cars no longer drive on Washington – which is now a mall. The wooden bridges across Washington are now metallic. Sheltered bus stops grace Washington.
But the unseen scene shows lots of changes.
Students dress more casually. The ethnic composition of students is very different. I am taking a picture with a camera in a mobile telephone, which every person in this scene probably has. The truck in the foreground is due to the bookstore sidewalk sale. The transit is publicly owned. There are “Health Partners” which manage your health instead of private doctors. The world is now in color.
While I await my copy of the 2000 Riverview Corridor major investment study : draft report, which I cannot find online, I will remind of the history I can scrape together from a quick web search:
The Star Tribune August 27, 2000, Sunday, Metro Edition reported (via LexisNexis):
St. Paul asks: Light rail or busway?;
Public hearings in Ramsey County soon will be airing various transit options for a corridor linking the East Side, downtown and the airport.
Kevin Duchschere; Staff Writer
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1B
LENGTH: 1135 words
As plans for the Hiawatha light-rail line in Minneapolis move forward, officials and residents in St. Paul are getting ready to jump into a light-rail debate of their own.
At issue is the best way to shuttle people between St. Paul and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
A $1.15 million study released last week lists seven transit options for the area known as the Riverview Corridor, a 12-mile swath that runs from St. Paul’s East Side to downtown and along W. 7th Street to the airport area.
The choices include three light-rail scenarios and two plans for a traffic-free busway. Several community hearings are planned in the next few weeks before the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority recommends one of the options to the Metropolitan Council in November.
The study, conducted by private consultants, draws no conclusions. But its facts and figures indicate that a busway, while expected to draw fewer new riders than a light-rail line, also would cost far less than light rail and have less impact on homes, businesses and parks.
Those findings may give Riverview an edge when Met Council officials decide this fall which metro transit route should receive $44 million in state funds for a busway, a lane set apart for speedy bus travel. While not the top route in terms of ridership potential, Riverview may get the nod from state officials eager to mollify St. Paul after awarding the first light-rail line to Minneapolis.
Tony Bennett, chairman of the rail authority _ which consists of Ramsey County Board members _ said some may be surprised that the study considers options other than light rail, and that not all of the routes follow W. 7th Street.
“A lot of people did not think we were looking at all the alternatives, but this report should put that issue to rest,” he said.
The outcome for Riverview is important not just for St. Paul, but for regional transit needs.
The Riverview Corridor is the second leg of an anticipated transit triangle that, along with the Hiawatha light-rail line and the Central Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, would link both cities with the airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington.
The study, 80 percent funded with federal money, was done not only to aid local decisionmakers but also to help federal officials decide whether future spending on Riverview is justified. Federal funds will be used, with state and local money, for $1.75 million worth of bus shelter and lighting improvements next spring along 7th Street and in downtown St. Paul, said Kathryn DeSpiegelaere, director of the rail authority.
Bus vs. rail
The Riverview study outlines proposed routes, station locations, costs and expected ridership for five options involving either light rail or a dedicated busway. It also includes a “no-build” option and a low-cost strategy to improve and increase regular bus service along W. 7th Street.
According to the study:
– A light-rail line would cost $370 million to $405 million, depending on where it is built. The most expensive route would be along the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, followed by a route linking the tracks with Interstate Hwy. 35E. The least expensive would be the W. 7th Street option. Annual operating costs: $13 million to $14 million.
– A traffic-free busway along the tracks would cost $120 million to $130 million to build; the other busway option, along W. 7th Street, would cost $75 million to $85 million. Eitherbusway option would cost $10 million annually to operate.
– About 1,100 new riders each day would use the light-rail line, as opposed to 600 to 700 new riders daily on the busway. Daily transit trips would range from 67,000 on the busway to 70,500 on light rail, and travel time between Earl Street on the East Side and the airport would range from 33 minutes on the busway to 36 minutes on light rail.
– The light-rail options include 13 planned stations and five to six optional stations, while the busway would include 11 planned stations and an additional six proposed stations.
Bennett said he likes the idea of a busway route on the railroad right-of-way.
“Human nature is to say, ‘I don’t like buses,’ but they’re talking about what’s on the street today and we’re talking about something on a dedicated busway, with new and different buses . . . stopping once every mile or two at key intersections,” he said.
Riverview is one of three transit corridors under consideration in the East Metro area. A study on transit choices for the Central Corridor will be ready in late 2001, DeSpiegelaere said.
And early next year the rail authority plans to release early next year a transit study on the Red Rock Corridor, which stretches along the railroad tracks between St. Paul and Hastings, she said.
State transportation officials and legislators agreed last year to earmark $69 million over a five-year period to develop the Riverview and Central corridors, in exchange for Ramsey County’s support for $100 million in funding for Minneapolis’ Hiawatha line.
The FTA summarized the case below …
Twin Cities – Transitway Corridors (Riverview Corridor) St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority (RCRRA) has selected a busway alternative as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the Riverview Corridor Major Investment Study. The corridor extends from downtown St. Paul along the west bank of the Mississippi River, and connects the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Hiawatha Corridor light rail line (currently under construction) and the Mall of America retail complex in Bloomington, Minnesota. The RCRRA has allowed the Metropolitan Council to undertake a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Riverview Corridor busway project. Although a DEIS was completed in 2001, a Final EIS has not been prepared. The Metropolitan Council (the local Metropolitan Planning Organization) adopted a local resolution that chose the busway alternative as the LPA for the Riverview Corridor. However, lack of state funding has rendered this project inactive. Through FY 2002, Congress has appropriated $4.61 million in Section 5309 New Starts funds for this effort.
In brief, it wasn’t even worth building a busway in the corridor 10 years ago, but now it is so valuable as a billion-dollar LRT possibility (10-15 years from now, maybe) that the ready-to-go arterial BRT B-Line in the corridor must be delayed indefinitely.
One number that continues to vex Metro Transit, however, is a slower-than-advertised travel time.
According to timetables released before the line opened, a trip from Union Depot to Target Field was expected to take about 48-49 minutes. Metro Transit officials said last week that the westbound Green Line is averaging about 54 minutes, end to end and that the eastbound train is averaging about 53 minutes.
On a Tuesday morning last week, a westbound trip took 67 minutes while an eastbound trip took 57 minutes. The next morning, a westbound train took 61 minutes while an eastbound trip finished in an hour.
Traffic lights along the route — even at quieter cross streets — are clearly slowing travel times, said David Levinson, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in transportation. Officials decided not to give the Green Line what is called pre-emption — the ability to change a light to green when a train approaches. Doing so would speed the train, but probably slow car traffic.
Trips taken Tuesday and Wednesday included several minutes stopped at traffic lights.
“That is just seriously bad engineering,” Levinson said. “If you are serious about transit and encouraging people to take transit, you need to make it as efficient as possible. My guess is that politicians don’t understand the intricacies of traffic signal design.”
John Siqveland, a spokesman for Metro Transit, said officials continue to look at making improvements, including “the sequencing of Transit Signal Priority to allow light-rail trains to continue through these smaller cross streets continuously.”
Between 1947 and 1950 vehicle registrations in the Twin Cities increased 58 percent. St. Paul officials realized that they needed to solve congestion and other transportation problems. Previously, city officials dealt with increased congestion by widening existing links. This option was becoming increasingly expensive as the city grew. Freeway plans were developed connecting downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, but it wasn’t until the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was implemented that it became certain a freeway would be constructed. The Federal Aid Highway Act ensured there would be funds available (90 percent federal to be matched by 10 percent state). With the construction of some freeway ensured, the next step was to determine which route it should follow.
St. Paul and state officials recommended that the route follow St. Anthony Avenue, a largely residential city street parallel to the busiest route between the two cities (University Avenue), which happened to run through a minority neighborhood (The Rondo).
George Herrold, St. Paul’s Chief Planning Engineer until 1952, argued against the construction of a freeway along this route. He proposed a plan dubbed the “Northern Route” about a mile to the north of the St. Anthony Route. The Northern Route, because of its use of existing railroad right of way and industrial land, would not displace many residents or sever neighborhoods. In St. Paul, the St. Anthony Route divided the state capitol and government buildings from the central business district. Despite Herrold’s advice, St. Paul and state officials would not deviate from the proposed St. Anthony Route.
With the St. Anthony route all but built, concerned residents began speak out. The St. Anthony Route would displace nearly one in seven of St. Paul’s African-American residents. African-American community leaders quickly concluded that it would be nearly impossible to divert the freeway, so they devised a list of actions they requested government officials to comply with: Help displaced residents find adequate housing, Provide proper compensation, Construct a depressed (below grade) freeway to enhance aesthetics. The displacement of the African-American community members was especially significant because there were few options available to them. At the time (the 1950s, before fair housing laws were enacted), most white communities would neither sell homes to them nor rent property to them. For this reason, officials feared that the African-American community would become over-crowded. In the end, only the second and third actions were followed through.
The Prospect Park Neighborhood in Minneapolis was also severed by the St. Anthony alignment, and residents were worried the freeway would turn this diverse upper middle class neighborhood into a low income one. Residents claimed that having a low-class neighborhood within close proximity to the University of Minnesota would make the University unappealing to students and faculty. The community had one request: that the freeway be placed over an existing railroad spur; however, limited funding disallowed this idea. The freeway did however skirt the Malcolm E. Willey House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite the freeway separating the neighborhood from the Mississippi River, the neighborhood did not deteriorate. The freeway was completed in the late 1960s.
Aesthetically, the I-94 freeway is a scar across the surface of the city, which in addition to having displaced residents, disconnected local streets, moved traffic from a relatively even distribution to a more hierarchical one, so that movement depends on fewer, now more critical links. While certainly more people are moving longer distances everyday on the urban freeway, congestion has far from disappeared. One can ask in retrospect whether building the road was the right thing, or whether building it there was the right thing, but there is no real “control” for this experiment. Asking whatifs are easy, answering them is harder. But no-one seriously is calling for the removal of this element of the Interstate system, suggesting the collective intuition of those who think about the road daily suggest that “sunk costs are sunk,” and while in retrospect not everything was done perfectly, leaving it in place is better than removing it.
Can we make it better?
The question then, is, if we can’t live with it, and can’t live without it, can we make it better? From the point of view of drivers, creating a giant tunnel is unattractive, though this is clearly better for the neighbors. From the perspective of the community, it is also extremely expensive. Barney Frank once quipped about Boston’s Big Dig “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to raise the city than depress the artery?” Indeed it would have. The good fortune the Twin Cities has is that I-94 is already depressed (not to say depressing). Thus bridging over it is relatively straight-forward (not cheap or trivial, but nothing like Boston had to do).
Why so Flat?
3-D Urbanism, thinking about the city not just from a 2-Dimensional plan view, but in multiple dimensions, where each elevation does something different, would be progress. Early 20th century visions of the future thought about 3-dimensions, not just of buildings, but of travel. We seemed to have lost many of those visions in present-day urbanism, which proposes to tear down skyways and put people on the street with cars. We should think carefully about where cars and people mix, and where they don’t. If you are going to continue to have cars and cities, why must they mix with pedestrians and bicyclists.
We seldom built such things as shown in the accompanying pictures, but we have opportunities to take advantage of 3-dimensions to benefit all travelers. First, it increases capacity per unit space. There is more density to the transportation infrastructure in these 3D rendering then our current flat-land. This is only worthwhile if density is high and crowding occurs. Second it increases pedestrian safety by eliminating pedestrian/vehicle conflicts.
Land is not so scarce in the Twin Cities that the market feels the need to go creating much new real estate over the freeway system. The examples we have in Minnesota were publicly financed (parking ramps and a stadium in Minneapolis, Parks in Duluth. However, if we did bridge over the freeway, in addition to creating more real estate to defray some of the cost, we also have potential spillovers raising the value of nearby land by some amount (i.e. some capturable value from both Air Rights and appreciation). How much more would you pay to be one block from a park or a freeway cap with some street frontage than one block from a freeway. This is quantifiable. Whether this is sufficient benefit to pay for the costs is an empirical question (for which I don’t have the answer, but know that it is possible). There are further benefits possible from noise reduction, better pollution control, and the like which are also quantifiable.
As with anything, this has to be done somewhere before it can be done everywhere. Previous discussion suggested I-94/I-35W at Nicollet Avenue (rather than I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul) was a good place to start. So as part of the rebuild Nicollet discussion (ranging from the project downtown, to Streetcars, through K-Mart and Lake Street), let’s put a Freeway Cap into the mix.
And of course, there is the Iron Law of the Twin Cities: if Minneapolis gets it, St. Paul wants it.
The busiest street crossing I-94 in St. Paul is Snelling, which is complicated by a freeway interchange. But with new (walkable?) development nodes at Snelby and University, the A-line BRT, potential freeway BRT/HOT lanes on I-94, and a fix to Ayd Mill Road, Snelling could be reclaimed from its current state as a pedestrian hell with good design. Pedestrians will still presumably be crossing freeway entrance ramps (hence the site is not as easily implemented as Nicollet), but this need not be “at grade” pedestrians elevated above the fray in a skywalk carved out of buildings in an air rights configuration as someone might have dreamt of in an 1920s issue of Popular Science, or other creative designs can enhance safety, experience, and throughput.
Instead of thinking of Midway as a Big Box Mecca, a plan running into the buzz-saw of modern shopping behavior, we should think about Midway City, a high density urban amalgamation with some of the highest transit and freeway (and eventually pedestrian) accessibility in the region, running from University to Selby along Snelling and from Snelling to Lexington along University and I-94.
The area is as close to a blank slate now as it ever will be. Some imagination is in order.
David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, said the problem with the intersection comes down to one thing: “The problem is too many cars, and there’s too much traffic for the capacity there.”
And it’s not a new problem.
There are two ways to remedy the deluge of traffic, Levinson said: Increase capacity or reduce the number of cars.
He is one of a group of local transit enthusiasts who’ve come up with a variety of ideas for improving the bottleneck, from removing some freeway access to transforming the intersection into a roundabout.
Levinson has suggested eliminating through traffic on Hennepin and transforming the space into a transit mall with space for pedestrians, bicyclists and a fixed mass-transit route.
Even if those ideas were implemented someday — they’re not part of the project that will begin next year — it’s unlikely that Hennepin’s importance as a transit corridor would change.
“It’s always going to be a bottleneck of some kind because it’s a critical intersection, and there’s a lot of people who want to get from downtown to Uptown,” Levinson said.