An Island of Urbanity (or, “Can you pick me up maybe..?”)

I, through a combination of factors that are too complicated to explain here, did not get my driver’s license until I was 20 years old. There was a whole thing. As a result, my “default” mode of transportation has never been a car. I rode my bike to work in high school, and even got my school to put in a bike rack, which you unfortunately can’t quite see in the link, but I promise it’s there. That was also a whole thing. Anyway, I then went off to college at the University of Minnesota, lived in a walkable area in the middle of a city with pretty good transit access to the rest of that city, and so on. I now live in Loring Park and work in Downtown Minneapolis. I don’t own a car and actually prefer to walk over biking or taking transit if it’s doable.

It’s great! I love my neighborhood. I have a nice view of South Minneapolis from my window. I walk to the grocery store and the gym. I usually bus down Nicollet Mall to work and then walk home if it’s not hot out. It probably takes ten minutes longer to walk vs. bus. I also have a dangerous/healthy habit of walking home from Up/Dinkytown/elsewhere after a night out, but that’s never been a problem. So stuff is pretty cool. I casually explored the idea of getting a car about a year ago, and discovered that that would cost approximately three to four hundred dollars a month counting the car, parking, and insurance, and not counting whatever gas costs–which reminds me, how much does gas cost again? Totally separated from that whole dynamic.

The thing with the above description of my life is that it only involves me. And as of a couple weeks ago, pretty much all my friends have now graduated from college, so people have started moving to different places–Northeast, Uptown, the suburbs, even St. Paul. And unfortunately, there are really very few places in the Twin Cities where living car free is possible, so very few people do it. You have to have everything line up just right–either you live and work in the same neighborhood, or your residence and place of employment line up along a reliable, high-frequency transit line. And then of course it also helps to be in an area where you can walk to groceries, etc. So very few people I know are able to live car free, even among the relatively urbanist-type friends that I have. People live in Minneapolis but work in the suburbs, or live and work in Minneapolis but too far away from the CBD for transit to be practical for day to day needs.

Even in Loring Park, most people have cars. Only 23.4% of households in Census Tract 1056 (the fightin’ 1056th!) are carless. The tract includes the southern part of Loring Park and the western part of Stevens Square, which taken together may be the most traditionally urban part of Minneapolis, in that if you squint just right when looking down certain streets, it looks like an eastern city. So you have a situation where you have a decent amount of pre-urban renewal urban fabric leftover, i.e. beautiful buildings from the turn of the century with no structured parking built in, but a different metropolitan area where most people need to drive. I put together this before (1957) and after (2006) comparison of the area, because GIFs are so hot right now.

Loring Park

Click the image for the comparison

The obvious change on the map is the addition of I-94, which swings around the backside of my apartment building and forms the southern boundary of my neighborhood and one of the several effective freeway boundaries of what most people consider to be downtown. (Writer’s note: Internally I don’t really even think of myself as living downtown, but to your average Twins fan from Fairbault driving north to Target Field for a Twins game, their perception of “downtown” probably starts somewhere near Lake Street on I-35W.)  But we also lost quite a few buildings, which have mostly been replaced by parking lots. There has been some infill in the past decade, including a 36 story apartment tower under construction right now on what was previously a half-block parking lot at Spruce Place & 14th Street. Another large project just wrapped up down the street from me, which also replaced a half block of parking and added 119 units.

So things have gotten tight, parking-wise. After fielding many, many complaints from my friends, I felt the need to create a parking map for getting to my apartment–because as I mentioned above, they live in Northeast Minneapolis or Bloomington. It can reasonably be considered a hassle to take the bus to my neighborhood from just about anywhere in the city if you require a non-downtown transfer or if you’re trying to leave downtown at 10:30 PM on a Saturday night. When folks come over, they first drive by my building to see if one of five visitor spots is open (this has never happened before.) but almost always end up swinging around to park back on Clifton and then walk up to five minutes. First world problems, right?

Parking Map

If you ever need any help with MS Paint, call me, I’m an expert

I’ve also, shamefully, gotten in the habit of soliciting rides to things if I know that a friend is driving anyway. Even things that would be pretty easy to take a bus to. Because they’re driving anyway, so hey why not?

It’s like the neighborhood is an island–albeit one with everything I need, but too small to fit all that many people on it. We had a chance to do a huge amount of land reclamation for the island with the Green Line extension and the 3C alignment which would have gone down Nicollet Avenue, but through some funny math and some inexplicable decision-making, we’re going to put a station here instead of here. It looks like we’re going to do the same thing with the upcoming Blue Line extension, which is literally being routed through a park. The Nicollet-Central streetcar will help a bit, but in terms of the actual quality of service, it’s not a huge improvement.

So for the foreseeable future, the island I live on is going to stay pretty small. Even with thousands of new residents moving into Downtown and Uptown recently, and thousands more on the way in the next couple years, we’re going to have the same transit options that require people to own a car unless they’re lucky enough to score a job in the same locale as their apartment or condo. The poor 3C alignment horse has been beaten to death so many times at this point, but in light of the new problems with the freight rail reroute, you have to wonder what the Cost Effectiveness Index numbers would look like if they were recalculated. Recalculated for the city it looks like we’re going to become in spite of our transit system, not because of it.


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10 Responses to An Island of Urbanity (or, “Can you pick me up maybe..?”)

  1. Margaret June 3, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    I was 30 before I got a license, and I’ve still never owned a car, and I still don’t see how people HAVE TO have a car. If your job is far from your home and one or the other is far from a transit line, either change jobs or move homes. I’ve managed this technique for decades, and the only time I ever ask for rides is when someone suggests that we go out of town (aka to the suburbs).

  2. Kasia McMahon
    Kasia June 3, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    Love this post. There are not many people that get to live like this (walking to work, groceries, entertainment, etc), which is unfortunate because it’s really a great way to live. But one of the reasons I moved out of downtown was the unbearable noise of highway 94. My boyfriend and I could barely hear each other speak when the windows were open. I would always look out the window and dream about what it would be like if highway 94 were buried in a tunnel and covered with parks. I think it would really open up downtown to the surrounding neighborhoods and create a more sustainable density (getting density where we still could use it, and relieving the pressure off of areas like Loring Park.) I know there are several European and US cities that have done this (though its probably pretty expensive).
    http://cityparksblog.org/2012/02/24/benefitting-from-a-cover-up-how-concealing-urban-highways-can-create-parkland/

    This post also addresses what I am afraid of–that light rail is being treated solely as a technical project without the benefit of any vision or design. Its a “free market” engineering philosophy, as in, “we will build it and the urban environment will just sort itself out.”

    • Mike Hicks June 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

      What’s most frustrating to me is that Southwest LRT may have had a different outcome if only the routing decision had happen 3 or 6 months later. The Cost Effectiveness Index (which biases travel time ahead of population served) ruled supreme in late 2008, but the fresh Obama administration in 2009 reduced the importance of the CEI, which helped get three extra stations added to the Central Corridor line. The rules have changed, though I don’t know if the 3C alignment would still have come out ahead if it was re-evaluated. Unfortunately, I think the experiences we’ve had with Bottineau may show that there isn’t enough being done to serve the greatest number of people, or the most transit-oriented areas.

      But in the face of continuing to wait versus actually building something, I think it’s best to move ahead. In my mind, there’s little reason (other than time and money) why a 3C “extension” couldn’t be built at some point in the future. Perhaps the Kenilworth alignment would end up carrying trains which branch off in Hopkins to go along the Lake Minnetonka LRT Trail.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 3, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    The decision making is explicable if you factor in political leaders unwilling to take risks.

  4. Mike Hicks June 4, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Regarding the rarity of truly walkable/transitable areas in the Twin Cities, I think a lot of people have made the tradeoff of living in car-dependent areas because they didn’t really understand what they were missing. Sites like WalkScore — even though they have their limitations — have really helped quantify and visualize the areas of good urbanism. Edina Realty and other real-estate agencies even include those scores on their websites — I bet it increases demand for many of the more profitable properties they sell.

    • Rachel Quednau June 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

      I couldn’t agree with you more. People who have never had the chance to walk to the grocery store don’t realize the benefits of it. When I visit my hometown of Minneapolis after living in top-notch public transit cities like Washington DC, I try to convince my parents to ride their bikes or take the bus to work/shop/church/etc but with the car parked right in the driveway, it always seems easier for them to just hop in. And Nick is right, these islands of accessibility are sadly a rarity in the Twin Cities. I think we can do better.

  5. David June 4, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    My God, how many times do we have to go over this? It’s *not* “inexplicable.” Uptown already has decent transit service. What, exactly, would be improved with LRT? Really, do you think spending $300 million more to bring LRT to the Greenway would really improve service that much for most people? Especially when a Greenway streeetcar or enhanced bus on Lake is almost certain?

    There are very good reasons to route SW LRT through Kenilworth and these have been explained ad nauseum. You may disagree, but please stop disparaging those of us who are quite happy with the current alignment.

    I really have never heard a reasonable explanation for why a SW LRT Greenway alignment would be so great. All I’ve heard is, “that’s where the people are.” Well, yes, they are, but so is some of the best current transit service we have. What is the marginal improvement with LRT? Who would use such an alignment that could not also use the LRT on the Kenilworth alignment? It isn’t people going downtown. We laready have frequent buses for that and we’re going to get more in the future.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 4, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

      Gotta disagree with your first sentence there. Getting from Lake and Hennepin to downtown should be super fast, but it isn’t. Riding the #6 is painful. If that’s the best we can do, the TC is in trouble.

      • David June 4, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

        Bus service on Hennepin is going to get an upgrade.

        If the 6 is too slow, take the 12.

    • Nick Magrino
      Nick Magrino June 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      I mean, if I wanted to, I think I could put together a really good argument for why all 32 NFL teams should be in the same city (it would probably–well, definitely–have the word synergy in it) but that doesn’t really mean it should be taken seriously. There are lots of reasonable justifications for the 3C alignment, I think I may have mentioned a couple in the article you’re commenting on. Just anecdotally, I’ve taken the 5 and the 6 in rush hour many times, and it’s a heckuva lot easier to get to West Broadway than to Lake Street from downtown.