The Answer Won’t Be Found Further on Down the Road

Last summer I filled my gas tank on June 30th and didn’t have to fill it again until September. I’ll let that sink in a little. This is the only way I have to explain to my relatives about how my “alternate lifestyle” pays off. By alternate lifestyle, of course, I mean “urbanist.” I figure that in conversations with my extended family, they imagine me aspiring to a crunchy, car-less urban hell, going for joyrides on light rail, owning a bike – it’s all very abstract until I toss in the anecdote about filling my tank so infrequently, and they suddenly snap to attention. And this is why two opinion pieces in last week’s Star Tribune were so discouraging and call in to question how little we are moving down the “road,” if you will, on providing meaningful transportation options. It’s not an abstract concept of trains versus driving, it’s about choosing to live in a place that allows a variety of choices.

One Star Tribune story was about navigating a notoriously dangerous stretch of Highway 65 in Ham Lake, and witnessing the carnage of driving there. I give a lot of credit to Ben Greene for helping at the scene of a pretty awful car wreck. I also have sympathy for him raising children in a world filled with stroads like Highway 65. But he concludes by stating his hope that his girls will one day drive and choose to go the extra mile to the traffic signal. The problem is he’s already transporting his girls in his own vehicle on this dangerous roadway. My hope is he considers moving to Minneapolis, where it is possible to live without needing to drive everywhere, much less on Highway 65. Furthermore, moving to Minneapolis means his girls won’t have to wait until they turn 16 to move independently about their lives – they can bike or take transit earlier.

The other is a 10-point plan by Kevin Turnquist to save money on highway construction by becoming better drivers. I’ll reserve a shred of credit for Mr. Turnquist’s premise. He’s right, if humans weren’t such idiots, we’d probably have slightly better traffic flows on our highways. But if the choice is between driving and better driving, I want neither. How about not driving at all, or driving less, or building our cities so we’re not dependent on arterials and highways for daily life? Mr. Turnquist, moving to Minneapolis might measurably reduce your need for frustrating highway driving.

I can’t help but notice the residences of the two writers – Ham Lake and Shoreview. Both are decidedly car dependent when compared with a location like Minneapolis. The land use pattern of separate uses combined with few practical options for getting around other than the car result in frustration. But both writers seem to indicate there isn’t another choice. There is! Call me a smug, elitist urbanist, but keep in mind, like any free American, I have a choice about where to live, and my wife and I chose to buy our house in south Minneapolis, with its parks, good schools, and light rail. We wanted a lifestyle that didn’t require too much driving and we chose it, far from being forced in to a high-density transit-riding existence. I encourage both Mr. Greene and Mr. Turnquist to consider joining me in the city so they, too can enjoy the many blessings of urbanism.

Already today I have dropped my kids off at school, met a colleague, went to lunch and a seminar (three separate trips, no less) without needing my car. If that sounds smug, fine, but it’s also a lifestyle choice – I haven’t paid for gas yet today, I’ve gotten a little exercise, and have not risked life and limb on or near a highway or freeway. Sure, I have to drive for many things, but when I do it is typically on a slower-moving, sane, sometimes crowded city street.

All choices have tradeoffs, and sure, you may have to give up a larger yard, among other things, in exchange for benefits of city life. I respect Mr. Greene and Mr. Turnquist’s decisions to live where they do – I can sincerely say I understand the positives. I also want them to understand, that by virtue of where they live and the land use and transportation options available, options are limited, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Choose to live in the city and your transportation options improve in terms of safety, sanity and finances. My relatives understand, through my lower bill for gas, just how valuable that choice is. It is also safer (for me and my kids) to drive less, and my well-being is greater because I get a little more exercise and don’t sit in traffic on highways as much. If Mr. Greene or Mr. Turnquist ever want to visit my neighborhood, I’ll be glad to show them around, by bike, of course!

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

36 thoughts on “The Answer Won’t Be Found Further on Down the Road

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Yeah, I’ve been biking everywhere this week and loving every minute of it. I think I’m not alone. Stopping at the Seward Co-Op yesterday and seeing a sea of bicycles parking and going down Franklin Avenue was amazing.

    As Yoda once said, “No… there is another [way to live a life where you don’t drive a car all the time and instead get to enjoy looking at the] Sky [and gradually becoming a regular] Walker.”

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Well said, Bill. We’ll see how many choose the dark side, though.

      1. Matty LangMatty Lang

        You obviously ignored The Emperor’s advice when writing this piece. You didn’t, “Use your aggressive feelings, boy. Let the hate flow through you.”

      2. Matt Brillhart

        Guys, Star Wars Day was Sunday, May (the) 4th (be with you).

        Props on the “Help us Gil, you’re our only hope” at the event downtown today, Sam! Oh and this post is fantastic. I hope MinnPost picks it up. Have you thought about submitting it to the Strib as well?

  2. Ron

    South Minneapolis? I thought you were going to say you live in downtown. Friend, you’re 1/2 way to Burnsville. The only reason there is a bus route by your house is to take to you someplace worth breathing in.
    I, on the other hand, live in the crystal court of the magnificently designed (by phillip johnson, don’t you know) IDS Center. I don’t need any transportation options because I’m in the best place in the city already.
    Maybe you should think about all the money you’re spending on bus passes and didn’t you say you still put gas in a vehicle? and come live downtown where the true urbanists live.
    What’s that? What’s that you say? There’s TWO downtowns in this array? Well how would one ever choose? And which one is the true downtown to live in? Can someone please tell me the right answer, or do I need to decide for myself and let others do the same?

  3. Kevin

    Ron’s bringing some wisdom here. There’s this sort of irritating urbanist tic where the focus is largely on how people get around versus what they do or what they prefer. If you do shift work in a factory or at some Anoka County big box store, you may not have the freedom to live where you choose. And even if you have all the money in the world, lots of people aren’t too traumatized about having to drive a lot. It’s naive to think that people don’t live in the city because they don’t understand how great it is or ‘the blessings of urbanism.” More likely, they just don’t want to. Ham Lake is right for you if you want to see the stars and not see your neighbors. South Minneapolis is perfect if you want to live in an urbanish environment and feel proud of yourself for riding a bicycle. Both places are homogeneous in different ways, and cater to a different market. And besides, if people are free to choose and the “right” choice is inevitably the most urban, why bother with paltry Minneapolis at all? Go to New York and never drive again. Go to San Francisco and walk everywhere year round.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Or maybe people live in those car dependent areas because we’ve spent seven decades enforcing car dependence through infrastructure investments, regulation, and other forms of social engineering.

      1. Ron

        Massive population growth was social engineering?
        Ever see the buildings they were putting people in back in the 50s and 60? It wasn’t exactly paradise. Check out Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis. So they could all live in places like this or they could move out to, gasp, Shoreview, or close to White Bear Lake.
        There are 10,000 lakes in MN and people want to live by one. There are soccer fields, velodromes, cross-country skiing, you name it. People want to live next to it. Some people have stuff they need to store and fix. They are doing you a favor living in Ham Lake w/ a barn. They put the refinery out of town so you don’t have to live next to it. Should the workers live in South Minneapolis and drive to work out there? Same w/ the power plants.
        It’s not a conspiracy or social engineering. At the time it was common frickin sense. Now it’s common sense for more people to live closer to the city and policy is changing to make that more accommodating. LRT, Bus rapid transit, bike highways. Is this social engineering too or just common sense that fits the times?
        Off the high horse, folks.

          1. Ron

            I just don’t buy the notion that if not for the man behind the curtain we’d all be walking, biking and busing everywhere. Yes, car companies were marketing and the we built the highway system, but compared to being dependent on public transportation and the routes they chose to take people a personal automobile practically sold itself.
            It’s the same reason a horse is more fun than a merry-go-round. Optionality.

    2. Matt Brillhart

      “And even if you have all the money in the world, lots of people aren’t too traumatized about having to drive a lot.”

      I think this is something that urbanists/planners need to make more clear. Sam noted very clearly that he went months without filling up his tank, but left out the relatively low cost of gas. I tend to agree with Kevin that most folks don’t think very much about the price of gas. Past increases from $3.00 to $3.50 and back and forth are not what I’d call traumatic. $4.50/gallon in the near term might start to change some minds. $6/gallon would probably be enough to see society shift more focus and funding to transit. Would $8/gallon be enough for Kevin to be “traumatized”?

      If anyone thinks the cost of gas is going down, rather than (way) up, in the next decade or two, I’d love to hear your reasoning. I hear there’s a few billion people in China and India that are going to be driving more than ever before and competing for oil as their countries’ economies continue to develop and grow a middle class that can afford to drive. The days of sub-$4.00 gas are likely just about over.

      Unfortunately, those that have “all the money in the world”, as Kevin states, will be the last ones to feel the pain. It will be the shift workers at factories and big box stores in Anoka County that get squeezed. Which is precisely why we need to dramatically increase funding for transit, biking, and walking infrastructure NOW and retrofit the land-use patterns in our suburbs to make transit use productive. When gas is already at $6+ it will be too late for those folks.

        1. Kevin

          I agree there needs to be better, more diverse transportation infrastructure in the suburbs, and I personally hate having to drive places. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to leaving the Twin Cities for warmer shores. The issue from my perspective is that city living isn’t for everyone, regardless of how much me or anyone else on this site might love it. Given the choice and the opportunity, many people will opt for the privacy, space, and seclusion that suburban living supposedly offers. It’s not my cup of tea, but lots of people seem to really love it and choose it (genuinely, they aren’t simply fooled by “social engineers” or whoever). If fuel prices go up immensely and our economy struggles, they may choose to move to more dense places. But as soon as there’s a feasible alternative (like cheap electric cars), I think lots of people are going to decamp for the countryside or subdivision or lake house of whatever.

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Electric and hybrid cars are going to make a very big difference. European emission regulations are going to drive the technology for cars to be much lighter and much, much more efficient, which hopefully will trickle across the pond (to mix some metaphors).

          1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

            Driverless cars will help drive transactional efficiencies associated with the one person one car paradigm. Electric and hybrid cars will help reduce the massive environmental impacts that our daily use of cars have. But these technologies, while beneficial in their silos, will not solve the problems inherent to the automobile as a primary driver of our land use and infrastructure investments.

  4. Monte

    I agree with Ron. It seems there are two types of urbanists- those that just want to do what they feel is best for the city, and those that feel they have the moral high ground over the suburbs, and think the people in the suburbs have made the “wrong” choice, and want to remake the suburbs into their version of urban utopia, maybe cycletracks and a multiway boulevard on highway 65, and a cute organic coffee shop in place of Wal-Mart, and not give people that want to live in the suburbs the choice of what environment to live in. But to be fair there’s people in the suburbs that want more freeways in the city too.

    Crime is a reason people might live in the suburbs to. I had my car broken into in south Minneapolis. Several of my friends have had similar experiences. In 40 years of living in the suburbs the worst that’s happened is a kid stole my bicycle when I was 10. And while panhandling isn’t illegal, it’s another reason why I stay out of the central city.

    Overall, thought I agree it was a fair and balanced article. Personally I’ll take the risk of dying in traffic on Highway 65 over living on a tiny lot in the city having to walk everywhere because there’s not a lot of “free” parking.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I don’t think most urbanists find fault in people who live car dependent lifestyles that are parasitic to society as a whole. They are reacting to the market that is presented to them, which makes it an easy and obvious choice to have a big yard, drive long distances to work, and shop at WalMart. Our scorn should instead be directed at the folks who were involved in the massive social engineering that led to the landscape we have today. It’s an illusion to think that car dependence is a result of the free market.

      1. Eric

        “I don’t think most urbanists find fault in people who live car dependent lifestyles that are parasitic to society as a whole.” You don’t find fault in the lifestyles of people which are parasitic to society? Your entire posting history here (which I enjoy reading and often not always agree with) says you do find fault.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          People respond to the choices they are given. The choice to live a suburban life is fine, but the reality is that it is highly subsidized: The MnDOT Commissioner notes that the user fees pay less than half of road and highway costs, and those places are dependent on multiples more road/highway infrastructure per capita than other places. In low-density high-amenity neighborhoosd (amenities being paved streets with water and sewer) the revenue generated by all property taxes over the lifecycle of the infrastructure never even comes close to paying the replacement cost, which then are borne by society at large. Auto dependency is also enshrined by laws and ordinances such as euclidian single-use zoning, minimum parking requirements so people never pay the actual cost of their car storage habits, and laws that favor a hierarchical road system which creates a car-dependent land use. There are plenty of incentives and subsidies for the individual too, the primary one being the mortgage interest deduction. There are also plenty of government-mandated underwriting formulas that make investment in mixed/multiple-use land uses close to impossible. This is just the start of a long list for how the hand of government is pushing down hard on the scales to make the suburban lifestyle more affordable and appealing.

          Thus, as I said before, I don’t find fault in people who make the rational choice to take advantage of all those subsidies and incentives. Rather, it seems the people who aren’t interested in that lifestyle (despite all the incentives) are the ones who are swimming upstream. Thus I find fault in the policies and mechanisms which are skewing the scales so heavily.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I don’t care at all if people prefer the suburbs. I just want people who prefer the city to have the option to live in the city, and I want the city to be as inviting as possible.

      And while you’re right about crime, people’s perceptions of crime tend to be very different from the actual numbers.

      1. Froggie

        The fly-in-the-ointment with Adam’s argument is that residential development in the city isn’t even coming close to meeting the demand. You can thank neighborhood activists (and even a few out-of-towners) in part for fighting even mid-size apartment units in their neighborhoods over fears of traffic and whatnot.

        2320 Colfax, anyone? Classic example.

  5. Gabe

    “…and sure, you may have to give up a larger yard,…”

    You call that a tradeoff? I’ve got more yard than I can handle on my single mid-block lot in Kingfield. If anyone “needs” more space to weed and mow than they can find elsewhere in the city, they’re welcome to rent some of mine cheap.

  6. ad

    I find the “just move to Minneapolis” response to be so overly simplistic as to boarder on being laughable. Even if you convince these two authors to move, what do you do with the roughly 3 million other trapped in the heavily car dependent twin cities’ suburbs? You have to convince people to re-design the areas they currently live to break free of car dependence, not present the false solution that its all just a matter of choice as to where one decides to live in the first place.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      True, we need our suburbs and small towns to embrace being walkable nodes, rather than embracing car dependency. It’s not a lost cause for most of them. And we don’t need to focus as much on the residential side of things. People will make good decisions if we allow market forces to influence those choices – right now, we are far from folks paying for the true cost of their automobile use. If there’s one thing that we should work to do, it would be to stop job sprawl. We currently subsidize it (look at Shakopee or Brooklyn Park) but before we skewed our land use reality, jobs naturally located in the cores, along transit spines, and in the hearts of small towns. All walkable places.

      1. Eric

        Matt, I enjoy your posts and get the sense that we share a similar vision for what would be proper land use. With that said, “ad” makes a great point here that I’ve not ever heard you respond to. We can’t just get from here to there by changing incentives a little. I am assuming that “there” means more density which paradoxically results in less traffic because with density comes shorter and more shared trips.

        Is there any path forward that you are aware of? Creating incentives is often thrown out there, in other words a gas or road usage tax, but those will just ghettoize the suburbs. No doubt many on this forum would welcome that, but it changes almost nothing about the density of our city, it just really adds burden to the poor. When poor neighborhoods are in the city, at least those neighborhoods have the advantage of density to offset financial constraints of getting to work or buying groceries. Simply moving poor people out of the core and moving well-to-do people in, the natural conclusion of increasing car-travel costs, does nothing to change the density of MSP. Increasing density to that of a major city would require the construction (and demand for) thousands of units of multi-family housing. Simply increasing MSP density to that of what we call dense neighborhoods, those of .125 acre lots, would require the demolition and rebuilding of entire neighborhoods from the sewer up. Wouldn’t it?

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          We did that up until the 1950s. It happened organically. Neighborhoods would intensify incrementally, and it didn’t require massive planning or organization. We just let people do what they do. It was “chaotic but smart” as opposed to our post-1950 way of organizing our built environment, which has been orderly but dumb.

          1. Eric

            No, massive suburbs were not carved up and repurposed prior to the 50s. Open land was. We don’t have that anymore. We have suburbs full of .33-.5 acre lots with massive existing transport-water-sewer infrastructure and huge investments in the SFH buildings on those sites.

            To achieve what passes for density in MSP (about .13 acres per SFH with some medium dense MFH here and there) would require massive overhaul of utilities along with massive investment in turning those homes into tri-plexes. You cannot look me in the eye with a straight face and tell me you see that happening in our lives.

            The only way to achieve true density in this city will be to zone, approve, build, and fill large-scale high-density residential in or near downtown. Maybe the only way to “fill” those properties is to create the incentives you speak of, but there will be a crises for the cities lower-income to poor residents when they can only afford to live in light-density unwalkable transit-poor suburbs. Not sure the answer for that.

          2. Eric SaathoffEric S

            He’s referring to what happened in the cities, not the suburbs. They didn’t all start with multi-story, multi-use buildings. Consider how many of the original structures still exist in city centers.

  7. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    “People will make good decisions if we allow market forces to influence those choices.”

    This still leaves out the fact that people have already made choices. I chose to move from a farm to one of the most urban areas of St Paul- the Midway. I chose it because it was central to most any job that I would ever apply for, convenient access to buses, walking distance to most every need I had- several grocers (large and mom/pop), pet stores, hardware stores, etc. Like the author, I have had times when I’ve gone months without filling up my car with gas. This lifestyle that I chose (that the author seems to have also chosen) was an option when I moved to the Twin Cities 15 years ago, and it has always been an option.

    Yet, where do my co-workers choose to live? Subburbs, more residential areas of St Paul or Minneapolis. Why? I don’t know- many reasons I suppose like yards, homogenous neighborhoods, school systems, crime stats, etc. I don’t know why they want to drive to work or drive to all of their shopping needs. But, they’ve always had a choice and they seem content with their choices.

    Even longer ago, the small town where I went to school was probably at most 2 miles to anywhere from the core, where most jobs and shopping were. I walked everywhere there, too, after school, but I was also in the minority. I don’t know why fellow classmates insisted on being picked up by their parents or why parents drove to work rather than walking. There were plenty of sidewalks and streets had bike lanes. But people chose to do that and still do.

    So, back to my original point, people have always had choice in where and how to live regardless of whether they own a car or not. We could make automobile use less affordable, but I’m not sure that would be a positive in the long term in terms of helping people. The old saying that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar applies here, too- how can we provide an incentive for people to try new modes of transit without punishing them through their pocket book?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      What you say is very true! But, the “choice” is weighted. How you frame the decision has massive effects, and so far we’ve tilting the scales in favor of sprawl and driving.

      People can still choose to opt out, but they have to pay a price in terms of sub-standard transit systems, poor schools, etc. etc.

    2. ad

      I agree everyone has a choice, and my family has made the same choice you did by living in a dense urban area with multiple rapid transportation options. We did so knowing we would get drastically less square footage for the price and pay higher taxes, but would receive what to us was a better quality of life and access to what we love to do.

      I just disagree with the idea of presenting that “choice” as the workable solution to the problems of a car-centric society. It works on a mirco level for many types of people, but it is simply not a macro solution to this country’s issues. Even if suddenly every person that lived in a car-centric suburb had a light bulb go off and decided to move into a city like Minneapolis or St. Paul, there literally would not be sufficient housing stock and infrastructure to accommodate the influx of those millions. But, what we can do, is push for designs in suburbs that make them more transit friendly places–such as designing with walkability in mind and building regional transit that removes the need for driving.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        We’re already seeing the solution – people are building thousands of new units of housing in Minneapolis. Despite our best efforts to prevent intensification, through things like use-based zoning, parking minimums, prohibition of accessory dwelling units and the like… people are still making it happen.

        The other thing is, not every square block of the suburbs are doomed. Just as Minneapolis and St. Paul grew organically as walkable places, suburbs can do the same. These organic intensifications happened around railroad stops, which were initially placed due to some strategic advantage (water, natural beauty, importance for shipping/agriculture/industry, desire to locate industry) and we naturally developed around them. This will happen again in the suburbs. There’s an entire field dedicated to this: Sprawl Repair. We will have to triage our places. For some, we’ll just salvage them and move on (we already do this with plenty of abandoned commercial and industrial places). Some will be repairable, where we slowly convert them into places that are financially viable with a rational economy of land use and infrastructure.

        The results will be very progressive. Not sure why people are opposed to the idea of embracing organized chaos as a way to achieve progressive, yet efficient, outcomes.

    3. Eric SaathoffEric S

      I, too, grew up in a small town. Population of less than 3,000, nice Kansas climate. I lived two blocks from the middle school and high school, and I almost never walked. There were a lot of houses and nice trees to look at along the way, too.
      The first excuse for a ride from my brother was carrying instruments to band practice, but that wasn’t every day. I can’t remember ever riding a bike to school. This little town’s high school had parking lots on three sides for the students. Cars were part of social status among peers.
      Bottom line? I was lazy. I lived on the computer at home, and I hated sports / physical activity. And I didn’t want to look poor.
      I certainly had choices, but some were clearer than others.

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