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|
|Columbia Heights: 5,717|
|Saint Paul: 5,484|
|St Louis Park: 4,252|
|New Hope: 4,035|
|North Saint Paul: 4,021|
|West Saint Paul: 3,979|
|Brooklyn Center: 3,781|
|Saint Anthony: 3,656|
|South Saint Paul: 3,568|
|New Brighton: 3,321|
|Mounds View: 3,016|
|White Bear Lake: 2,967|
|Apple Valley: 2,911|
|Brooklyn Park: 2,906|
|Coon Rapids: 2,719|
|Little Canada: 2,512|
|Falcon Heights: 2,386|
|Golden Valley: 1,997|
|Maple Grove: 1,886|
|Eden Prairie: 1,873|
|St Paul Park: 1,765|
|Vadnais Heights: 1,762|
|Prior Lake: 1,476|
|Big Lake: 1,455|
|Inver Grove Heights: 1,220|
|Mendota Heights: 1,209|
|Arden Hills: 1,112|
|Cottage Grove: 1,028|
|Lino Lakes: 716|
|Forest Lake: 601|
|Elk River: 543|
|Ham Lake: 444|
|Chisago City: 396|
|Lake Elmo: 362|
|North Branch: 284|
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.
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. Streets.mn has previously laid out the poor economics of park and ride facilties.
|Saint Paul Community||Density||Population||Square Miles, estimated|
|Greater East Side||6800||27206||4|
|North End/South Como||6400||25447||4|
|Saint Anthony Park||2550||7674||3|
|Eastview et al||2450||20453||10|
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 Neighborhood||Density/square mile|
|Steven's Square/Loring Heights||20000|
|Lowry Hill East||15000|
|St Anthony East||8600|
|Nicollet Island/East Bank||5300|
|Cedar Isles Dean||4400|
|St Anthony West||4000|