Dense Ideas: Southwest And Other LRT Lines

One criticism often glossed over by SWLRT boosters is that the alignment lacks density. David Levinson expertly laid out the trade-offs in his recent piece. Low population density will limit the value added by the line. The line could still be a success, but its ceiling will be that much lower. It appears Met Council will succeed in getting the Kenilworth alignment built. However, it’s crucial we select denser corridors in the future to maximize our investment and connect as many people as possible to high quality mass transit. Once SWLRT is built, we need to continue to make improvements to mitigate the shortcomings of a less than ideal alignment. (Matt Steele had some good ideas in his piece Triage Now And Rehabilitate Later.)



Yonah Freemark’s density graphic has been widely sited in the SWLRT debate.


Density can’t tell us everything and there are other factors to be considered in selecting a route, but it’s a damn good starting point–one that has not been taken seriously enough when planning Northstar, Southwest, Bottineau, Rush Line, Red Rock, or Gateway. Why are LRT lines that could serve more density overlooked and delayed while its full steam ahead on suburban commuter rail? We need to start learning the right lessons from our past transit projects.

Do Not Follow The Northstar

Northstar by now is widely recognized as a boondoggle, but who in their right mind was predicting a well-used line given its route? In residents per square mile, Big Lake has a density of 1,455, Elk River: 543, Ramsey: 821, Anoka: 2,558, Coon Rapids: a whooping 2,719, and Fridley: 2,675. Northstar then passes through Columbia Heights, the densest suburb in Minnesota at 5,717, and about five miles worth of Minneapolis (7,019) and inexplicably does not stop until its final destination: Target Field. Wouldn’t want the train to get too crowded!

City and Residents/Square Mile
Minneapolis: 7,019
Columbia Heights: 5,717
Lauderdale: 5,664
Saint Paul: 5,484
Richfield: 5,127
Robbinsdale: 5,001
Hopkins: 4,311
St Louis Park: 4,252
New Hope: 4,035
North Saint Paul: 4,021
West Saint Paul: 3,979
Crystal: 3,832
Brooklyn Center: 3,781
Saint Anthony: 3,656
South Saint Paul: 3,568
Excelsior: 3,473
New Brighton: 3,321
Osseo: 3,240
Mound: 3,165
Edina: 3,103
Mounds View: 3,016
White Bear Lake: 2,967
Apple Valley: 2,911
Brooklyn Park: 2,906
Champlin: 2,826
Coon Rapids: 2,719
Fridley: 2,675
Stillwater: 2,618
Roseville: 2,589
Anoka: 2,558
Little Canada: 2,512
Oakdale: 2,500
Waconia: 2,464
Burnsville: 2,421
Bloomington: 2,390
Falcon Heights: 2,386
Shoreview: 2,325
Maplewood: 2,239
Mahtomedi: 2,199
Hastings: 2,165
Plymouth: 2,159
Eagan: 2,063
Golden Valley: 1,997
Maple Grove: 1,886
Eden Prairie: 1,873
Minnetonka: 1,846
Woodbury: 1,784
St Paul Park: 1,765
Vadnais Heights: 1,762
Savage: 1,721
Blaine: 1,689
Lakeville: 1,551
Prior Lake: 1,476
Big Lake: 1,455
Chaska: 1,400
Shorewood: 1,368
Shakopee: 1,323
Inver Grove Heights: 1,220
Mendota Heights: 1,209
Wayzata: 1,197
Chanhassen: 1,123
Arden Hills: 1,112
Rogers: 1,068
Cottage Grove: 1,028
Andover: 903
Ramsey: 821
Lino Lakes: 716
Rosemount: 658
Forest Lake: 601
Elk River: 543
Orono: 468
Otsego: 459
Ham Lake: 444
Hugo: 398
Chisago City: 396
Wyoming: 384
Lake Elmo: 362
North Branch: 284
Dayton: 200
Afton: 115

The root of Northstar’s problems isn’t that it doesn’t plow through 30 more miles of cornfield to reach that veritable mecca, Saint Cloud. The Granite City has a population of about 66,000 and a density of 1,644. It’s neither enough people nor density to save the line, and most Saint Cloud residents don’t commute to Minneapolis for work, anyway. Plus, the Northstar doesn’t run at night and only sparsely on the weekend, which vastly reduces its use for recreational purposes.

Southwest: A Dense Idea?

A major drawback of SW is that its Minneapolis stations do not directly serve walkable neighborhoods. Overall, Minneapolis has a density of 7,019 residents/square mile, but the Kenwood neighborhood has just 2,200. It’s the wrong neighborhood in Minneapolis to target. Cedar Isles Dean’s density, 4,440, is better but still below average for Minneapolis, and West Calhoun’s musters a mere 2,600. We can project for and plan for growth, but even with 100% growth in these neighborhoods they would still be below average for Minneapolis. Whittier, on the other hand, already has a density of 17,000, as does Loring Park. And they are growing too.

Minneapolis CommunityDensityPopulation
Near North680031192
Calhoun Isles540029913

Meanwhile, the vaunted suburban density of the line is mediocre at best. The first two suburbs are decently dense with St. Louis Park at 4,252 and Hopkins at 4,311. However with Minnetonka and Eden Prairie the numbers drop off precipitously to 1,846 and 1,873, respectively.

The proponents of SWLRT argue that job centers along the line are reason enough for Minneapolis to support the alignment. The Met Council promo video claims more than 200,000 people work along the corridor, with at least 20,000 at Golden Triangle alone. Kudos, but job access is just one piece of the puzzle. The other more important piece is access for dense walkable communities that feed the line throughout the day.

Bottineau? I don’t know…

In February, the Counties Transit Improvement Board threatened to pass up SWLRT for Bottineau LRT if Minneapolis and St. Louis Park don’t get onboard. You’d hope that’d mean a much denser, better thought-out line. Alas, it doesn’t.

As planned, Bottineau does serve Robbinsdale (5,001), Crystal (3,832). and Brooklyn Park (2,906), but skips Brooklyn Center (3,781) and even more egregiously routes through Golden Valley (1,997) rather than North Minneapolis (5,800). Albeit, the Minneapolis stations in the Near North Community (6,800) will be an improvement, and Northsiders can connect from a bus line, but it seems if helping North was truly the Met Council’s motivation, they’d build light rail directly through North rather than skirting around it and spinning it as an “equity” line as an afterthought.

We need to rethink the Bottineau alignment. Penn Avenue is not exceptionally wide, but engineering a way to fit LRT down this urban thoroughfare would pay dividends, especially when compared to the eerily familiar plan to run the train through parkland and low density housing. At the least, we should be looking into a streetcar line to tie North into the huge investments planned just outside its borders.

A Better Vision: Upgrade Planned Nicollet/Central Streetcar To LRT

Minneapolis is forging ahead with a streetcar starter line on Nicollet and Central. Last year, the city council endorsed a plan to build a streetcar from 41st Street in Northeast to 46th Street in South Minneapolis. They haven’t secured funds, and, due to their eagerness to obtain federal money, they plan to build a 3.4-line starter line from Lake Street to 5th Street Northeast to qualify for the Small Starts program which caps federal matching dollars at $200 million dollars per project. By all indications, The Met Council is less than enthused about Minneapolis seeking a streetcar line and not consulting them first.

A streetcar is okay, but LRT provides not only swankiness, but also faster service due to its dedicated lane (and hopefully a tunnel under Nicollet Mall.)

Our LRT plan should focus on connections to our densest neighborhoods, which are mostly in Minneapolis.  Cedar Riverside (15,000) was linked thanks to Hiawatha, but Whittier, Loring Park, Steven’s Square (20,000), Elliot Park (17,000), Lyndale (15,000), Lowry Hill East (15,000), Central (14,000), Phillips West (13,000), Marcy Holmes (12,000), Windom Park (9,600), Bryant (9,500) and Kingfield (9,000) all remain unlinked to LRT.  And guess what? Nicollet/Central LRT would incorporate them all.

If we follow the logic of density, the first suburb we should link to our LRT network would be our densest suburb, Columbia Heights (5,717). Richfield (5,127) would be the next densest choice (excluding tiny little Lauderdale). To the north, Central not only passes through the Columbia Heights, it also goes right by Medtronic’s Fridley Campus. This could be a nice selling point for those obsessed with pandering to big business. To the south, Nicollet goes through the middle of Richfield and within about a mile of Best Buy Headquarters. Maybe Best Buy would sweeten the deal if they got their own LRT stop.

Nicollet/Central would not only serve vastly more jobs than Southwest, but also many times more residents. 130,000 employees use the 11-block-long Nicollet Mall each day alone compared to 200,000 for the whole 16-mile-long SWLRT. Plus is we build LRT from edge of Fridley to Richfield the project seems regional enough for me at least to quality for regional transit dollars, which the Met Council and County Transit Improvement Board seem determined to withhold from streetcar projects.

East Metro Strategy: Scrap Exurban Plans, Build To Denser Inner Ring East Suburbs

Dreams of Red Rock Line to Hastings (2,165) or a Rush Line to Forest Lake (601) have been shelved for now, much to the credit of East Metro officials.  We can’t hastily jump into another bad investment like Northstar by commuter rail into communities not dense enough to support it. Hopes are still alive for approving The Gateway Corridor LRT, but this too seems fool hearted given it passes through a whole lot of Woodbury, density: 1,784. The main rationale seems to be that Interstate 94 is busy along the corridor so we need LRT to relieve congestion, but this would almost assuredly require a massive investment in park and rides given the sprawling land use patterns in the area. has previously laid out the poor economics of park and ride facilties.

Saint Paul CommunityDensityPopulationSquare Miles, estimated
Payne Phalen7700307004
Greater East Side6800272064
Summit Hill660065741
North End/South Como6400254474
Union Park6200184053
Dayton's Bluff4700164343.5
West 7th4400110832.5
West Side3000149595
Saint Anthony Park255076743
Eastview et al24502045310

One promising alternative in the Rush Line study proposed a 11-mile LRT line to White Bear Lake (2,967), which would integrate the Saint Paul neighborhoods of Payne-Phalen (7,700, est.) and Dayton’s Bluff (4,700, est.) and approach the Greater East Side (6,600, est.). This sounds like a solid line to me.

The only east Metro suburbs with some serious density, North Saint Paul (4,021), West Saint Paul (3,979) and South Saint Paul (3,568), are precisely the suburbs overlooked by Rush, Red Rock, and Gateway transitways. A Robert Street transitway (through West Saint Paul) is being studied, but the steering committee has already ruled out LRT (but, in their infinite wisdom, left a Highway BRT line down Highway 52 on the table, since, by bypassing most of the neighborhood, it shaves a few more minutes off transit times).

Finding The Density Between The Commuter Lines

We are stuck with a commuter alignment for SWLRT, but at least our LRT network is growing, and growing upon the solid foundation we have with the Blue Line (Hiawatha) and the soon-to-open Green Line. We should capitalize by building a Midtown LRT and Nicollet/Central LRT to integrate as-of-yet passed over dense urban enclaves in Minneapolis. In Saint Paul, an eastward Green Line expansion via the Rush Line to White Bear Lake seems the most viable and would have the added benefit of bringing Payne-Phalen into the fold. Each LRT line becomes more viable and heavily-trafficked, the more lines we add. So let’s keep adding and adding dense to maximize this multiplying effect.

Minneapolis NeighborhoodDensity/square mile
Steven's Square/Loring Heights20000
Elliot Park17000
Loring Park17000
Lowry Hill East15000
Cedar Riverside15000
Marcy Holmes12000
Powderhorn Park12000
Windom Park9600
East Isles9500
St Anthony East8600
Logan Park8300
Downtown West7600
Audubon Park7500
Windom Park6600
Shingle Creek6100
Lowry Hill6000
Prospect Park6000
East Calhoun5800
Linden Hills5400
Near North5300
Nicollet Island/East Bank5300
North Loop5100
Diamond Lake4600
Cedar Isles Dean4400
St Anthony West4000
Morris Park3700
Downtown East3300
East Harriet2900
West Calhoun2600
Mid-City Industrial2200
Bryn Mawr2000
Marshall Terrace1900
Columbia Park1000
Northeast Park950

Doug Trumm

About Doug Trumm

Doug lives in the Saint Anthony Park neighborhood of Saint Paul, blogs for the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, and freelances as a dogwalker or political researcher, depending on the season. He enjoys living blocks from the U of M transitway bike facility and a mile from the Green Line. He loves to cook, see live music, and travel.