Two Cities, Two Times

Pioneer Press, 2 May 1965

Pioneer Press, 2 May 1965

Check the date! No fooling today. In May 1965 Saint Paul actually did do daylight saving time differently than Minneapolis. At the time the Twin Cities’ discordant time change was the best example yet of absurd inconsistencies across America in recognizing daylight saving time. Today the story is both a cute curiosity of local history, but also offers some parables about the downsides of having too many levels of government involved in decisions.

Like the Southwest light rail decision, the path to Minneapolis and Saint Paul ending up on different times was a long one. Until the nineteenth century most people lived by sun time, with their hours of labor and leisure governed by when the sun rose and set. Clock time was unnecessary on farms and in small villages where people could rely on encountering each other frequently. But towns and cities needed clock time for coordinating peoples’ daily encounters, and railroads needed clock time to ensure safe operation. Without great need to co-ordinate across places, towns and cities set their own time, and by the 1870s America had hundreds of different standard times that varied by mere minutes as one moved east or west. In theory it was easy to adjust, but in practice it was a lot of work, and particularly unsafe on busy railroads. Thus in November 1883 the railroads adopted the four basic time zones we have today. Notably, no government promulgated the new time zones. It was not until World War I that the federal government passed any legislation establishing America’s time.

Daylight saving time was also an urban invention. Misunderstood at its birth, as it still is, daylight saving time was an efficient solution to a problem urban workers living about 35° and 55° north (or south) of the equator faced in the summer. Without daylight saving time, the hours of daylight got longer in both the early morning and the late evening. Yet because many people have a strong preference to socialize and amuse themselves in the evening, the early morning light was wasted. Uniformly changing the clock to summer time could solve in one stroke what would otherwise be a co-ordination problem of everyone agreeing to get up earlier or re-schedule activities to allow more evening leisure time in the daylight.

After being proposed for several decades daylight saving time received a major boost in World War I when it was adopted as an energy saving measure by both Britain and Germany. When the United States entered the war it too introduced daylight saving for the summer of 1918. At wars end the federal government retained control of standard time, but left daylight saving time as a local matter.

Between the world wars Minneapolis, not Saint Paul, was more enthusiastic about daylight saving time. With London financial markets observing daylight saving time informally, the New York Stock Exchange followed daylight saving time, which meant the Chicago Board of Trade did, which meant the Minneapolis Grain Exchange did. In 1920, the city of Minneapolis even held a one-off referendum on adopting citywide daylight saving time. While the measure passed overwhelmingly, the City Council felt turnout had been too low to justify enacting the ordinance. Yet city businesses, particularly those connected to the financial markets were compelled to follow daylight saving time business hours while businesses further east did so. World War II again brought daylight saving time to the United States as a energy saving measure, and was extended year-round for the duration of the war. Still unpopular in rural areas, and not widely popular in cities, Congress reverted daylight saving time to local control in 1945.

Divided fairly equally between its urban and rural areas daylight saving time was a controversial topic in 1950s Minnesota. Farmers were heavily opposed, and dominated the legislature, which had not been redistricted since the early 1920s. Eventually in 1957 Minnesota passed a statewide daylight saving time bill, which made two compromises to state passions on the issue. It established the nation’s shortest season of daylight saving time, from Memorial Day to Labor Day; and allowed counties to set their own daylight saving time if they wished. The discretion for counties to set their own time was seen as an option that Hennepin, Ramsey, and St Louis counties might take up. But drive-in movie theater owners—who had a very obvious stake in maintaining an early sunset—sued and the State Supreme Court eliminated counties’ discretion to set their own time. Minnesota’s short daylight saving time solved its own political problems, but put it out of sync with its neighbors. Wisconsin had daylight saving time for six months from April to October, while North Dakota had no daylight saving time at all.

In 1965 the issues came to a head. On the western side of the state, Moorhead and Breckinridge stayed on standard time. In the east, confusion reigned. Winona, Duluth, Two Harbors and Silver Bay moved onto daylight saving time when Wisconsin did on the last Sunday in April. Duluth’s actions prompted the Iron Range towns of Tower, Ely and Soudan to move onto daylight saving time the next weekend. In Hibbing the city council waited until Friday, 30 April to vote to start daylight saving time on Sunday. The next day they voted again, and decided they should wait until May 10.

While the confusion in Minnesota’s smaller cities was comical, the Twin Cities’ disagreement attracted national attention. Prompted by the increasing integration of the metro area’s eastern side with western Wisconsin, the Saint Paul City Council voted on Tuesday, May 4 that the city would move to daylight saving time on Sunday, two weeks ahead of state law. Disregarding the fury of the Governor, the majority of the state legislature, and Minneapolis mayor Arthur Naftalin, Saint Paul carried out its time change. For two weeks the two cities were on different times. Naftalin admitted Minneapolis would like to move to daylight saving time, but argued fidelity to state law was more important. For neither the first nor the last time, it seemed the two cities were determined not to co-operate.

Thus Saint Paul held firm on its change. Most Saint Paul businesses moved their clocks ahead one hour, but those that claimed to remain on standard time had their employees start an hour later. The local bus company, the Twin Cities Lines, printed timetables that recognized the new times prevailing in each city. Greyhound kept to Central Standard Time. At the airport airline ticket counters maintained two clocks, one showing each time. A United Airlines ticket agent said “We just ask people what time it shows on their watch and give them directions according to that.” If anything, the airlines and buses handled the confusion better than other industries. Even in the city of Saint Paul adherence to daylight time was not complete. The fire department moved to daylight saving time. The police, mindful the city was breaking state law, stayed on standard time. The Ramsey County board scheduled their meeting on standard time, but met in the Saint Paul council chambers where the clocks showed daylight time. After a confusing two weeks the rest of the state joined Saint Paul on daylight saving time on the Sunday before Memorial Day. But the absurdity of a major metropolitan area unable to agree on what time it was prompted widespread support for national legislation to standardize daylight saving time observance. Minneapolis Congressman Don Fraser introduced legislation to bring greater national and state uniformity and control over daylight saving time, and in 1966 the basic system of national daylight saving time we have today was passed into law.

Today it seems absurd, an April Fool on streets.mn, that Saint Paul and Minneapolis could adopt a different time. But the American system of multi-layered government has plenty of scope for decisions to end up at the wrong level of government. In the Twin Cities we have five layers of government—multiple municipalities, multiple counties, the Metropolitan Council and the Counties Transit Improvement Board, a state with two legislative chambers and a governor, and a similarly complicated federal government. Is it any wonder that the Southwest light rail line has been debated since the 1970s, but never built? With so many layers of government, we probably have many unrecognized absurdities on a par with adjacent cities keeping different time.

One lesson of the Twin Cities daylight saving time confusion is that one level of government should make a decision, and be accountable for it. In a large metropolitan region, it is unlikely that cities, states, or the federal government are best placed to make these decisions. The Twin Cities could benefit from empowering a single elected regional body to be in charge of regional transportation, including the transit network, major arterial roads and freeways.

Public policy for transportation, like the establishment of uniform time and daylight saving time change, should help people co-ordinate their activities, and not stop at arbitrary and historical borders. Done well, policies for time and transport reduce private costs, and help people get about their daily lives more easily. For example, car- and ride- sharing services like car2go, Lyft, and Uber have great potential to enhance mobility. But car2go only operates in Minneapolis, and Saint Paul and Minneapolis have taken different approaches to regulating ride-sharing. Taxi regulation is dispersed across cities. If we applied the same approach to car registration, it would be illegal, costly or difficult to drive between cities within our region. It sounds absurd, but so were twin cities on different times, and that happened here. One might also ask whether the panoply of fire, police, and emergency service bodies in the Twin Cities is optimal.

Our multi-layered system of government does a great job of giving people an opportunity to have their say, but it doesn’t always help get things under way. While we have to improve our cities and region with the governments we currently have, people interested in good urban design and transport should also try and get the decisions made in the right places.

And whatever happens, at least the meetings will be scheduled on the same time zone.

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2 Responses to Two Cities, Two Times

  1. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell April 4, 2014 at 7:06 am #

    Fun stuff. I’ve read a couple of books on time and longitude and one of those scratched the surface a tad on DST. Interesting to think how recent in history the concept of a set time really is.

    I agree with you about the over abundance of layers of government. I do though think that decision making needs to be at the lowest level possible and that is closest to citizens. Not only does this result in better decisions, but also provides for safer trial & error and experimentation.

    Marijuana laws may prove a good example. 48 states will be able to watch the outcome in 2 states. Will the entire populace go crazy? Traffic fatalities and crashes increase? Murder and mayhem reign? I say ‘may prove’ because with only these two disparate states they will also see an unusual influx of pot tourists that will skew things a bit and that would not happen if every state or even a majority of states legalized it.

    I’m a huge proponent of services like Uber and think that every city in the metro should fully embrace them. On the other hand, I also think it good that each city make their own decisions and experiment to find out what works best and then hopefully come together on a metro-wide consensus. Yep, this is a bit messy for a while, but the end and long-term result may be massively better than if one level of government makes a blanket decision for the entire metro. This process will hopefully result in a decision that does a better job of taking in to consideration the needs of each city’s citizens and poses much less risk since wrong decisions only impact single cities instead of the entire metro and everyone can see what works and what doesn’t.

  2. Evan Roberts
    Evan Roberts April 8, 2014 at 9:08 pm #

    I agree that local experimentation is good (having seen the ill-effects of too little in other countries), but I’d argue we have plenty of metropolitan areas in the country, and those are the right level at which to regulate these things and learn from each other.

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