Lingering Questions on the Nicollet-Central Corridor Project

For those unaware, Minneapolis is planning a Streetcar system, with the first corridor under development being the Nicollet-Central line.  I went to the open house Monday night (9/9/13) in an effort to get up to speed on a few details, ask questions, and challenge the staff on some of their assumptions.  I’d like to use this post as an update on some of the information that may be unknown to most or simply lost in the million-page Detailed Evaluation Report (and accompanying appendices).

Enough has already been written on the general pros/cons of streetcars vs. enhanced bus (or other options), both on Streets.MN and elsewhere on the blogosphere.  I’d like to keep the discussion as specific as possible to this project, so engaged community members can have a nuanced discussion regarding the corridor and the best route forward.  I’d also like to praise the City and Met Council staff (notably Peter Wagenius and Charleen Zimmer) on their work to this point, all the details they have considered, and openness to the public thus far.

So, what were some key issues, responses, and my take on the situation as an amateur urbanist/transportation geek?

Mobility Enhancer or…?

One of the primary goals of this corridor is to “Connect People and Places.”  The question we should all be asking, whether it’s built as a streetcar or enhanced bus, is if it’s actually improving the mobility or residents and visitors along the corridor.  Both technologies will feature easy and fast boarding thanks to platform-vehicle floor interaction (with the streetcar scoring a bit better due to the fixed-guided rails), off-board payment, and multi-door egress that all help reduce dwell time and improve the rider’s experience.  Additionally, both projects would get a certain level of signal priority to help increase average moving speed as well.

Notice the similarities in how these feel

With that said, an Enhanced Bus or Streetcar will only save current riders between 6 and 7 minutes for the full 9.2-mile corridor compared to existing bus service.  This isn’t nothing, but most people won’t be taking the bus/streetcar the entire length on a daily basis, and therefore will only see a time savings of 1-2 minutes depending on the segment they travel on, with some seeing no improvement whatsoever.

I’ll put on my Jarrett Walker hat and note that travel speed isn’t everything; in fact, it can often become insignificant relative to other factors, most notably frequency.  Frequency was a major selling point at the meeting, with Mr. Wagenius rightly pointing out that “frequency is freedom,” especially for younger people looking to live car-free (or at least car-light).  Unfortunately, the streetcar and enhanced bus are proposed to operate at the exact frequencies as the current bus schedules – 7.5 minutes in AM/PM peak and 10 minute mid-day.  Similarly, issues with today’s packed buses will be solved with nearly identical articulated bus and streetcar rider capacities of roughly 115 people per vehicle.

On net, neither technology drastically improves residents’ ability to get to the things they do on a daily basis (work, grocery, day care, etc) any faster or more reliably than they can expect today.  In fact, it would still take someone 20 minutes (excluding walk-time at the beginning and end of their journey) to travel from Lake St to the Blue Line connection.  So what are some options out there to help with this?…

Strategic Dedicated Right-of-Ways?

Giving transit strategically placed dedicated right-of-way (ROW) throughout the corridor may have potential to impact travel times.  When asked about this, staff responded it’s a project non-starter, mainly because of parking, and therefore wasn’t even studied.  For a corridor of major importance, investment, and ridership, I question this notion.  While we cannot suggest wholesale removal of on-street parking (particularly in front of businesses), we need to ask the tough questions with a good level of rigor:

  • Do businesses know what % of their customers arrive by what mode?  (studies have shown they overestimate importance of lanes and parking, is that true along Nicollet and Central?)
  • Do they know what this share would be with bus/streetcar improvements and increased local population base?
  • ..with additional travel reductions through dedicated ROW?
  • How price sensitive their customers are to parking rates per hour vs. walking distance,
  • The pricesensitivity of car-parkers on Nicollet or Central along residential stretches
  • How much time savings would be achieved by block or segment if a bus or streetcar were given a) a parking lane, b) a center turn lane (where present), or c) a thru-lane (ex. Central Ave north of 18th Ave)

None of this has been evaluated yet to get a better idea of the potential benefit and cost tradeoffs.  Additionally, staff stated that parking meter/rate changes are not in scope as part of this project.

It seems to me that this is a missed opportunity.  Station dwell time will always slow transit down relative to other vehicle traffic, but even so the Traffic Impact appendix shows that a car traveling the corridor will be able to do so much faster than transit: 33.2 minutes compared to 45.9 minutes for the improved bus.  With signal priority and strategic bus/streetcar lanes in low-impact areas (read: doesn’t take away from business parking), this time could be reduced to car times (or even faster!).  The problem is we haven’t seen an analysis done to say whether this is true or not, and where appropriate locations would be.

The Economic Development Bogey

As others has been pointed out (also at Streets.MN), the city is definitely viewing this as much of an economic development project as a mobility project.  The project documents and staff responses to my questions don’t provide too much detail beyond stating that developer feedback is overwhelmingly positive toward streetcars.  They thus applied a development potential rating of “medium” to enhanced bus and “high” to streetcar. The economic impact analysis does a great job analyzing the entire corridor’s maximum development potential based on current zoning, comes up with a potential value to paint a broad picture, but falls short and simply leaves it at that.

To me, this qualitative feedback is not enough to hinge a major decision with additional costs ranging from $100-300 million.  Developers typically state that permanence of a streetcar line is a major reason to develop.  I question this: why would a city move a bus route that cuts right through 2 of the most currently developed streets (which has been running there since the Streetcars were last removed)?  Did the developers surveyed take in to account the platform capital investments as a sign of permanence?

Regardless, we can at least try to quantify the likelihood of development based on a streetcar vs. enhanced bus.  Ridership projections for the two show a 50% adder for the streetcar, so it stands to reason that if developers base their investment decisions on future tenants’ affinity for streetcars relative to buses, then they would be 50% more likely to build along this corridor.

I ran some numbers to find out what the “economic development” ROI would look like, assuming two different scenarios.  The first has a streetcar attracting 50% more development (as assumed above), the second with the streetcar doubling the development (the “marketing stretch goal”).  I have no idea how much development as a percent of the maximum potential (based on zoning) would occur, so I ran it with the enhanced bus generating 5 and 10% of the value calculated in the study by year 30 of operation:

Obviously this doesn’t paint the entire picture of return, as development spurs many things: construction spend, new jobs may take hold in newly created spaces (more than likely most will re-locate from elsewhere in the region), new purchases, new residents that may have chosen another region, etc.  State and federal dollars will also be funding the project, and thus receiving some of the return through sales taxes and state/federal individual/business income taxes.  This proves how tricky using public funds for “economic development” can become – do we ever go back and calculate what investments had positive return?  How sure are we that this would not have occurred without the transportation infrastructure (for example, Hennepin/Lake have seen a boom in housing without the guarantee of transit improvements in the pipeline).

The point is to illustrate the comparative ROI, assuming that economic activity per $ of development is the same in either scenario (a fair assumption to make).  It’s obvious that an enhanced bus provides a much better bang for the buck over both the starter and full streetcar lines.

I say this not to whittle down the amount we spend on transit.  I say this to propose spending similar amounts on other corridors.  For reference, the combined capital cost of all the Metro Transit Arterials under consideration (in $2013 relative to the Nicollet-Central corridor analysis) is $470 million, and would serve over 170k weekday riders.  Is there a document that compares the benefits of providing ~20% faster and (typically) more frequent service to these people vs. the cost of one 9.2 mile, $393m streetcar corridor?

Other Opportunities and Questions

A few other quick thoughts regarding this corridor that I either didn’t ask the staff or couldn’t get an answer to:

  • Will this project come with zoning changes to support development that is transit-supportive and affordable?  Things like removing parking minimums, form-based codes, laneway house allowances, FAR changes, etc to reduce cost of construction and encourage well-designed residential and business density.  City officials said this would be left to the small-area plans … when will these be done?  What happens if Kingfield does a SAP but Whittier doesn’t – does Kingfield ever get the line extension?  Why is there not a more direct link between land-use and transportation planning?
  • K-Mart site – how far out is this re-connection of the grid?  Does it make sense to re-open the public ROW as a short transit/bike/ped mall to keep N-S thru traffic to a minimum?  I’ll throw out an idea (for a later post, perhaps) and ask if the success of the downtown ped/transit mall could be extended further south?
  • Nicollet Mall re-construction – is there any chance that the sunk costs and time of a building face-to-face redo can include a tunnel through downtown to improve transit times and possibly integrate with future regional LRT lines serving this spine?  Are the city, county, Met Council, and other bodies thinking holistically?
  • Stop spacing and corridor length – Metro Transit’s arterial study for Nicollet and Central corridors have different, and often wider, stop distances, along with service reaching American Blvd on the south and Blaine’s Northtown Transit center to the north.  For example, why stop the proposed line 3 blocks short of a major public school complex along Nicollet (Washburn)?  It also provides 7.5 minute headways throughout the day along Nicollet , rather than 10 minutes mid-day and evening.  What elements of Metro Transit’s plans would be beneficial to the city’s proposal, and why did they discard them?

Final Thoughts

We need to be asking our leaders these questions (among many more).  We should challenge the total possible benefits of the investments we’re making and how they’re implemented.  In the end, my takeaway is that $94 million is the basic cost to provide people along this entire corridor the dignity of being treated humanely when waiting for transit with appropriate shelters, information, time-reductions, and ADA-accessible boarding (all VERY important things), while improving mobility a little through slightly speedier service.  Anything above that is an amenity “easy to quality, difficult to quantify” attributed to things like ride quality and development potential with a streetcar.  This isn’t to say those things aren’t important or real benefits, just that the tradeoff of not funding other corridors, businesses, and people may not be worth it.

Agree with me?  Don’t?  Let the project team know by this Sunday (the site says Friday the 15th, so Sunday the actual 15th should count!) so they can make informed decisions on what to consider for the project moving forward.

28 thoughts on “Lingering Questions on the Nicollet-Central Corridor Project

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    great questions. those are very important, the details that really make the difference with TOD. I always worry that streetcar doubters are discounting the qualitative aspects of rail transit v. rubber bus wheels (look at Boston’s Silver Line v. their other transit for a good example) due to simplistic time / efficiency models. Streetcars, IMO, are a game-changer for how roads are used and designed. They fit neatly within the ease-restriction field for cars and non-cars, to change streets to benefit transit and walking overnight. I still think streetcars in Mpls and St Paul would be “game changers” on those corridors, a difference that would pay for itself quickly in terms of development and travel behavior change. It’s not magic, but there are qualitative reasons for this that can be measured (if you’re willing to go outside time/money measures). It’s an experiment worth running in Minneapolis, and Nicollet/Central is a perfect spot for it.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Completely agree with the benefits the streetcar brings. I personally prefer riding in a LRV/Streetcar over a bus, and I’m sure the majority of the population would agree. Mike’s previous post regarding ride quality opens up some great ways to qualify some of those ride quality benefits, and we should absolutely do those (either a bottom-up approach of citizens doing it or Metro Transit doing some of it and releasing a formal study).

      I also agree that rails in the ground being a natural traffic calmer. But beyond that, I question what the streetcar does to change the street to be more walkable or pedestrian-oriented vs the platforms and streetscape improvements that an enhanced bus also brings? Further, are there other means of calming that don’t require rails in the ground? Narrowing lanes, more trees, better intersection treatments, etc.

      Further, my point on the economic development side was to question the logic of fast return. I built in the rail bias of 50 to 100% ridership and development. From an economic development perspective, the streetcar would need to attract ~4x the development of the bus to provide a better return ratio, something that may be quite difficult given the streetcar doesn’t move people faster than the bus.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        Alex, you ask what does a streetcar versus bus do to change the street to be more walkable? My answer: the two aren’t necessarily linked unless the city demands it (and the transit agency allows it). The city has a checkered track record in this respect but it is fundamentally important to the success of this project.

        If we get the mode and conveyance right, we improve our transit system. If we also get the street and urbanism right, we improve our city.

        1. Faith

          I would be surprised if streetscape improvements are included in the project from what I have seen to date. I think it would add some bumpouts where there is on-street parking so that the streetcar (or bus) stops in the travel lane, but that’s about it. The only streetscape that is planned to change is the Nicollet Mall segment and the reopening of Nicollet at Lake.

          If we want improvements to the street to improve our city, the project will need to broaden its focus to look at the redesign of the street too.

  2. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    In response to Nick. Copenhagen doesn’t have streetcars as far as I can tell. The buses work very well, even with on-board payment. (It does have a 1 line + spur subway, with more under construction).

    I suspect Bill would trade “Streetcars” for the streets of Copenhagen.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

        I wish it were possible to politically aspire to a full-assed job on bus projects. What would it take to make this happen?

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      Which ones? Because the ones near the city hall and train station are wide, high speed and not at all pedestrian friendly.

      The ones in the old city center are, like roads in all old cities, small, windy and much more pedestrian friendly. Especially those that are pedestrian only (hey, we could do that with the Nicollet Mall!).

      But there’s nothing like being largely designed before cars to make a city pedestrian friendly.

      1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

        Yeah, Copenhagen has its share of wide roads, especially outside the location of the old walls. But I would point out Minneapolis was laid out before cars as well, and doesn’t make the pedestrian-friendly list except on maybe St. Anthony Main and Nicollet, and pedestrian-acquanted on a few other places.

  3. helsinki

    I also disagree with the conclusion that enhanced bus service is a superior investment to streetcars.

    Streetcars are a ‘game-changer’ if placed in the right corridor. In addition to the ‘rail-bias’, perceived permanence, route simplicity, un-water-downable amenities, smooth ride, quiet traffic-calming effect, and being a development selling-point, they have the potential for much higher ridership capacity, even if initial frequency and carrying capacity indicate otherwise. Minneapolis was built as a streetcar city, with distances separating moderate density nodes too great to traverse rapidly on foot but just far enough to lend themselves to a hop-on, hop-off method of transit use. With a plurality of trips originating and terminating within relatively short distances from downtown, anchoring these inner neighborhoods to downtown with a game-changing transit mode makes sense.

    By contrast, widely dispersing transit investment in hopes of winnowing down travel times over long distances between decreasingly dense points of origin seems like chasing rainbows. Remember this project forms the first link in a network intended to serve the urban core. Adding schedules, well-lit shelters, and less derisive benches to bus stops is critical anyway. Making off-board payment the standard should be a high priority regardless. Labeling these necessary improvements as the sensible man’s alternative to streetcars is misleading. Our bare-bones system requires comprehensive, not piecemeal, treatment. The Nicollet/Central streetcar is a different animal; a rail line for a uniquely well-positioned corridor that, arguably, has the potential (like Hiawatha, and hopefully, the Central Corridor), to increase public support for the system at large by transforming the particular experience of individuals.

    So, yeah – just looking at time, cost, and raising eyebrows at talk of development strikes me as too simplistic. These aren’t technocratic questions that lend themselves to data-driven solutions from expert consultants. They are political questions about what kind of transportation system we want to have, and ultimately what kind of city we want to live in – meaning, how we want it too look, feel, and function.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I agree with you on noting the difference between a technical question and political one, and the outcome we could have in 30-40 years on how our transportation system looks, feels, rides, etc. Unfortunately all the things we both agree on – the basic amenities that make riding transit palatable (the off-board stuff) would be tough to fund over the next 10 years for even the most basic, high-return corridors. Even if the half-cent sales tax gets passed.

      You make a good point on chasing rainbows with increasingly less dense service locations. But I’d hardly say any of the major arterials under consideration by MT are suburban in nature or justifiably less-deserving of investment. Chicago-Fremont, Penn, Snelling, Hennepin, Broadway, even W/E 7th St are all worthy of faster service with quality streetside amenities. If you told me we could build the 9.2 mile Nicollet/Central streetcar AND build out these other locations by 2020 (or so), I’d be ecstatic. But as it is, we barely have the money for just ‘the basics’ for the most important areas, to say nothing of the rest of our local-service bus routes.

      I agree that a future ridership that has drastically increased would pose some operation challenges to an articulated bus whereas streetcars can just tack on another car. Not disputing the technical advantages of the streetcar in many of these regards (though there are other technical/operation categories where a bus clearly wins, like flexibility, lane passing, and integrating to the existing O&M facilities). With that said, my post brings that ridership piece in by asking how we’ll even hit that if we’re not tying land-use to the transportation planning. I’d be curious to see what Whittier and Kingfield would think about changing their zoning to allow the amount of population that would require a second car on a streetcar in the first place, and how they would accomplish it. What would the businesses say? Does the area become less important from an equity perspective if said development displaces lower income, transit-dependent residents who the study identifies as a major beneficiary of this corridor?

  4. Karlie Cole

    I beg to differ with “While we cannot suggest wholesale removal of on-street parking (particularly in front of businesses),” Why can’t we suggest wholesale removal of on-street parking? It’s already been done on Nicollet -> downtown. It could be done the whole length of Nicollet.

    Nicollet already has one-ways bordering it – Blaisdell going south and 1st going north. Car traffic already uses those efficiently and many drivers don’t use Nicollet unless they are going into a business.

    If parking was shifted to behind business which is already where much of it is – pedestrians, bikers and bus/streetcar could claim the Nicollet corridor and Minneapolis could claim a new tourist attraction – largest outdoor mall!

    Eat Street could extend all the way to 46th! And people might actually connect with others they meet on the street if there were not cars to avoid and there were places to sit. Kind of a mall/park/community center – all in one.

    Of course there is the big block in the way at the KMart site but that area could be turned into an artisan depot and become a twin local business incubator to the Midtown Global Market.

    If we’re going to make the shifts we need, we have to stop thinking car-centric. Have you been on the freeways lately? They’re over-populated to say the least. We’ve had nearly a century of giving cars priority over everything – its time to give priority to people and bikes and buses/streetcars and spaces where people can be car-free and safe from being hit by cars at least in one area of our city.

    If this turns out to be just adding bus service, an incredible opportunity to innovate, spur new local small business development and set a new direction for a sustainable future will be missed.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      Transit, bikes, and walkers should have a clear shot through Nicollet for the entire stretch. This would still leave room for cars for local business access and parking, while simultaneously expanding ROW dedicated to people and amenities. 29th to Lake can be a transit/pedestrian plaza when K-Mart comes down. This will connect the planes of Nicollet without encouraging through-traffic. Then, as time goes on, there can be discussions about woonerfizing blocks north or possibly south of the greenway as a way to make the street even more appealing to local users.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author


      You actually hit on a potential future post of mine. With Nicollet already not being a major auto through- route (thanks to the K-Mart on the south and mall in downtown), would it be a huge deal to make the entire stretch from the end of the mall to the Greenway something like this:

      As Matt points out, local access for autos is preserved via the woonerf with parking. Bikes can feel comfortable using this space as it will rarely have cars pulling in/out and those that do move slowly thanks to 9′ travel lanes. transit moves efficiently down the center. People may scoff at the idea of 8.5′ sidewalks, but the reality is that the entire area from building front to the median is more of a pedestrian space. I’ve been on many boulevards in Paris with similar sidewalk width that don’t feel overly constricted and have commercial space all along it.

      While I 100% agree we’ve over-supplied the on-street parking market in our city and almost always question the *need* for on-street spaces (see the section of my post where I question the business community’s knowledge of their client base as it pertains to mode of arrival), this might be a great compromise that serves all local transportation modes – foot, bike, auto, and transit. The true definition of a “street.”

      1. Froggie

        Wasn’t 1st converted back to 2-way for a stretch north of 28th? That would complicate your proposal. Would also be complicated turning it back into a one-way if the goal is to get more traffic off of Nicollet.

  5. Matt SteeleMatt

    Well, now we have the gold standard of BRT lines as an example: Crossing 10+ lane intersections on Cedar Ave in Apple Valley sure makes for a world-class BRT experience. And they think they’ll get TOD down there. Ha!

    Whether it’s streetcar or enhanced bus, Nicollet is a different animal because it’s a different street. The technology choice is just a small determinant of the outcome. What’s far more important is that Nicollet and Central are streets that can actually be inviting to people rather than cars.

  6. Karlie Cole

    I like your thinking Alex. Here’s more how I would envision it though – just take the cars and the parking out of there. The streetmix tool is great though it won’t let me put bike racks and transit shelters on the same space so there would actually still be more space for people.

    Spurring business development – this could become an amazing local food hub not just restaurants but small co-ops, fresh groceries, etc like some of the great niche areas in New York or San Francisco.

    Wonder if it would be possible to put a “roof” of solar panels over the streetcars and bike areas? Provide both shelter and power to the streetcars perhaps. Retractable awnings over the area near businesses could provide some shelter for walkers in winter weather.


  7. Adam MillerAdam

    This analysis seems to leave out entirely the notion that rail will increase ridership over buses. Why? Because there isn’t planned marginal capacity to allow it?

    Rail is just easier to use. You know where to find it an where it goes. That means more casual or sporadic riders, and more ridership overall, no?

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I feared this conversation becoming one of streetcars v enhanced bus, and I sort of led it down that path by comparing the 2 in terms of economic development. My post was more meant to ask some unanswered questions regarding the corridor to actually significantly improve mobility above and beyond what signal priority and reduced dwell time bring (both of which are present in the bus and streetcar proposals). Dedicated ROW, stop spacings, corridor length, lack of land-use plans, etc.

      I brought in the bus v streetcar only to really raise the question of the relative value of economic development, transit attractiveness, and mobility enhancement in terms of total population served. $400m spent on all the major arterials does these much better than $400m on one streetcar line (IMHO). It also would bring better transit amenities to areas of the city very under-served by transit today (3 lines in North alone).

      As to the argument that rail is easier because you know where it goes. I disagree. One can only see down a street for so far. You have no idea (by looking) where it goes beyond the 5-6 block draw distance you can see (even less if vehicles and trees block the view). A person at Lake and Nicollet has no idea where the streetcar goes (and how far) once it hits downtown. People will resort to information at the station, their phones, computers, Google Maps, or printed schedule cards for information, which would be the same for a bus line or streetcar.

      1. Adam MillerAdam

        Let me try it a different way. You can go to the station, look at the map and see where the train goes. You don’t need to have brought anything with you. And with pretty casual knowledge, you can do it without having to look too closely at the map (MOA’s that way!).

        Compare that to walking to the bus stop and trying to figure out how to get where you are going based on the information provided. It really can’t be done. You have to look it up online or pray there is a decipherable schedule card (which probably doesn’t include a map) available, which there probably is not.

        Now, maybe you could provide similar levels of signage for buses, but I’ve never seen it.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          “Now, maybe you could provide similar levels of signage for buses, but I’ve never seen it.”

          That’s because we’ve never done it. But if you can draw a thick bold line straight up Nicollet and then up Central on a giant map with small circles showing streetcar stops in a heated shelter for a streetcar station, the exact same thing could be done for a bus stop with the same amenities.

          Again, I don’t want this post to be about bus v streetcar, but I’ve made the point that basic off-board amenities are identical for both technologies. There’s no reason system legibility wouldn’t be the same for both to the casual user.

    1. Nathanael

      By the way, it’s going to be a bus. If they didn’t even bother to consider exclusive right-of-way along any of the corridor (!!!) they lose most of the benefits of rail. Then rail will look “too expensive” and they’ll just put in some decorative bus platforms.

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