We Must Build More Transit and Better Urbanism

Kate Wolford’s Star Tribune commentary calling for more transit was spot on. Our peer cities (Denver, Portland, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, hell, even St. Louis!) are ahead of us in terms of built rail miles, lines and stations. We must do more than catch up to remain an attractive metro area for all. Rail miles, lines and stations are important, but equally if not more so is the fabric of the city once people step off the platform. That is where we must set ourselves apart, and that requires something much more robust than station area planning. All hands must be on deck to create a competitive transit system with excellent urbanism around it.

Ms. Wolford argues young people considering a move to a metropolitan area seek better connectivity and an urban lifestyle. Absolutely. Let’s pretend for a moment that we find the political will and funding to accelerate the build-out of our system; to get the “connectivity.” What about the “urban lifestyle” we seek? People aren’t moving here just for the train. The connectivity provided by new transit systems valuable, but we leave half the value on the table if we don’t create a truly walkable environment once riders step off the platform. We must not just connect dots on a map but weave a fine web of urbanism that everyone can share and enjoy.

What does that mean? Here’s an example: I just spent a few days with my family in the Eastern Market neighborhood in Washington D.C. From our rowhome, we could walk down leafy, wide sidewalks, across mostly narrow streets with boldly marked crosswalks (some of which were marked with signs reminding drivers it was a $250 fine for not stopping for a pedestrian), crosswalk signals with pedestrian-friendly countdowns, past storefronts with lots of windows and doors, not a single surface parking lot, narrow curb cuts where they existed,  It was easy to get not only to the Metro station but also throughout the entire neighborhood on foot. Sure, the Metro took us all over D.C., but we (my six- and two-year old) also were very comfortable in the city that lay outside the stations. Quite simply, it was walkable.

The Hiawatha Line continues to teach us lessons. Here we are approaching the ninth anniversary of service on the Hiawatha Line (Blue Line) and we’re just starting to address life beyond the platform. This year crosswalks on Hiawatha Avenue will be improved, a good first step, but ideally that occurs the day service begins. The private development market has certainly responded as expected, with plenty of residential and other development popping up near stations (and sometimes at the station itself), but ensuring a high-quality public realm has remained elusive. People stepping off the platform at Lake Street, for example, expect a better urban lifestyle, particularly a dozen years after approval of a plan by Peter Calthorpe. Moving forward, we must guarantee that when development happens the result will be to the high standards we should expect.

Granted, the federal funding process does not help. We have to do it all ourselves. We don’t even get trees. The City of St. Paul had to create a whole separate program for trees along the Central Corridor (Green Line). Who pays for these seemingly elemental things like trees, benches, enhanced sidewalks, crosswalks and better building facades? I think a large portion should come from property owners who benefit most from enhancements – those immediately adjacent to stations. In return, they can be allowed greater density to ensure profitability. Cities and the state should also ensure the right financing system is in place to pay for infrastructure and placemaking improvements even before private development occurs.

We are at an inflection point here in the Twin Cities. Not only must we build out transit system much faster, we must bring our urbanism “A-game” to the table.  Connecting the dots is half the solution. I encourage all stakeholders, including planners, residents, the FTA, traffic engineers, local and state elected officials and of course McKnight to come together and ensure that entire neighborhoods, not just train stations, are ready for people the day service begins. Only when we insist upon nothing but the best urbanism will we be able to provide that elusive “urban lifestyle” and literal value we need to be a successful and attractive metro area in the future.

This was cross-posted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.