Category Archives: Twin Cities

Then and Now: University of Minnesota |


Streetcar on Washington Avenue in front of Coffman Union c. 1953
Streetcar on Washington Avenue in front of Coffman Union c. 1953
A photo taken from the second floor of Coffman Union on September 26, 2014.
A photo taken from the second floor of Coffman Union on September 26, 2014.

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.

Cross-posted at

Riverview Corridor – Some History

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


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.


Other lines

    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.


The Green Line’s first month is in the books | Star Tribune

Jim Walsh over at the Strib writes  “The Green Line’s first month is in the books“. [quasi-paywall]  He quotes me:

Picking up the pace

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.”


Making I-94 Better: Or Toward 3-D Urbanism |

Cross-posted from Making I-94 Better: Or Toward 3-D Urbanism

Making I-94 Better: Or Toward 3-D Urbanism

Abbey Seitz recently asked What If Interstate 94 Was a Park?. This is an excellent thought experiment. The history of I-94 is well-documented, Matt Reicher vividly described theBirth of a Metro Highway. My own version of the history is below.

A brief history of I-94

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?

Popular Science image of modal separation.

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.

Popular Science Image of Congestion Solutions - The City of 1950

3-D on 94

The solution I still like best is Air Rights / Land Bridges /Freeway Caps.

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.

A hypothetical cross-section of Snelling at I-94 from a student Land Bridge project, 2004

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.


Brief History section adapted from Garrison, W and Levinson, D (2014) The Transportation Experience: Second Edition. Oxford University Press.


Minneapolis-St. Paul is No. 16 on the list of America’s worst traffic cities | Star-Tribune

I was interviewed by Mary Lynn Smith of the Star Tribune for the annual INRIX congestion report article:
Minneapolis-St. Paul is No. 16 on the list of America’s worst traffic cities

Depending on the methodology, rankings put the Twin Cities between the 13th- and 16th-largest U.S. metro area, said David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. “The fact that we’re ranked 16th in congestion seems about right,” he said.

Levinson said demographic trends are helping to mitigate road congestion.

“Travel times are declining in the U.S.,” he said. “People are aging. Old people don’t travel as much, and young people don’t travel as much as what young people used to. Fewer kids own cars. The big picture is that that the total amount of travel peaked in the U.S. a few years ago and it’s been declining ever since. We have some ups and downs during any given year depending on the price of the gas and whether the economy is doing a little bit better or not. Certainly [congestion is] more than in 2009 during the depths of the recession.”

Levinson and others are quick to point out that Twin Cities drivers could be dealing with much worse.

In Los Angeles, home to the nation’s most-congested roads, drivers spent 64 hours sitting in traffic, an increase of five hours from the previous year, according to the INRIX study. In Honolulu, the nation’s second-worst city for traffic, drivers sat behind the wheel 60 extra hours last year, while in No. 3 San Francisco it was 56 hours.

And, Levinson points out, there’s more good news for the Twin Cities. The average speed of travel in the metro area is the fifth-highest in the country.

“You sit in traffic at a particular bottleneck, but then when you’re moving on the freeway, you’re driving at 55 mph,’’ he said. “And when you’re driving on arterials, you’re driving at 45 mph, and that’s better than most metro cities.”

Transit Revolution or a Streetcar to Heck? | The Theater of Public Policy

I am scheduled to appear at The Theater of Public Policy where they will be improv-ing Transit Revolution or a Streetcar to Heck?

The University of Minnesota’s resident civil engineering guru is known around the world as The Transportationist. Professor Levinson will join us to talk about the Twin Cities, traffic, streetcars, and why we don’t yet have hover bikes?

Doors at 6:00 – Show at 7:00

Tickets: $10 at the door OR $7 in advance, or $7 at the door with student I.D., kids under 12, or with a Fringe Button.

Buy Tickets here!

  • Monday, April 7, 2014
  • 7:00pm – 8:00pm
  • Bryant Lake Bowl (map)

  • 810 W Lake St

  • Minneapolis, MN 55408