Revisiting “The Amazing Race:” LRT Versus Car

lrt_pencil_linesI’m not an unquestioning LRT lackey.  Some questions about LRT strike me as very fair.

For instance, could we have a better overall transit system if we invested the same amount of public money – billions of dollars — in buses, vans, taxis and bus rapid transit instead of trains? Given how sprawled our metro area has become, would an expanded web of bus routes be a better way to serve the region’s far flung citizens than a few mega-expensive fixed rail transit lines?

Those are fair questions that I think the ardent trainophiles are too quick to dismiss.  And just because I ask them doesn’t make me a shallow-thinking Joe Soucheray parrot.

But other questions about LRT strike me as completely unfair. For instance, some are now asserting that LRT is clearly inferior to cars on the grounds that LRT travel wastes more time. The Star Tribune fueled some of these claims when it conducted an interesting “Amazing Race” feature that tested the amount of time it took various modes to travel the length of the Green Line route. The Star Tribune’s Amazing Race feature found that:

  • A car took 26 minutes
  • A bike took 31 minutes
  • The LRT took 42 minutes
  • The bus took 59 minutes

Interesting, but is a car ride really saving more time than train ride?

A car may get me from downtown-to-downtown faster than the train. But on days when I have reading and writing that need to be done as soon as possible, which is pretty much every work day, I can’t safely accomplish those things while driving a car.  But I can accomplish those things while riding the train. Therefore, LRT travel allows for time-saving multi-tasking that is simply not available when I’m driving my car.  On the train, travel time becomes office time.

Of course, time saving is just one factor travelers and leaders have to weigh. The LRT has  advantages associated with the environment, encouraging development density, and reducing parking costs. Cars have enormous advantages in terms of route flexibility, which is a very big deal to people with unpredictable personal and professional lives, and those who live far from our two LRT lines.

But when it comes to saving time, the LRT is the real winner of the Amazing Race, at least for those who live close to the two LRT lines.

– Loveland

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21 Responses to Revisiting “The Amazing Race:” LRT Versus Car

  1. Jeff Klein June 18, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    “Given how sprawled our metro area has become, would an expanded web of bus routes be a better way to serve the region’s far flung citizens than a few mega-expensive fixed rail transit lines?”

    Doesn’t this strike you as buying bigger pants instead of losing weight?

    • Matt Steele June 18, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

      I was going to ask the same thing. I think there’s a case to be made for other investments which would achieve greater mobility for the same price, but in general our two LRT lines are good.

      But the question also needs to be asked: Do all of our region’s far flung citizens deserve transit? The answer is an unequivocal no. People choose where they live, and many people have chosen to live in places that sprawled away from transit and do not have the requisite land value, density, and walkability to justify a transit retrofit.

      This includes Southwest LRT west of Hopkins and Bottineau LRT north of Robbinsdale.

      • Jeff Klein June 18, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

        Right; specifically I often hear arguments along the lines of, “well, you know, trains work in Europe where it’s dense, but not here.” As though when Europeans came to American they discovered vast networks of stroads and strip malls.

        It’s probably obvious to streets.mn readers but apparently not obvious to everyone else that this was a decision. And if it’s ever going to change, we need to make a different decision.

  2. Joe Loveland June 18, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    Re: “Do all of our region’s far flung citizens deserve transit?”

    Setting aside the value judgement about what you personally think suburbanites “deserve”, if regional leaders don’t find a way to serve suburbanites with transit, it becomes pretty impossible to mitigate freeway costs and pollution, issues that affect all of us. When it comes to suburbanization, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

    • Jeff Klein June 18, 2014 at 7:54 pm #

      Sure, yes, it is *there*; but thinking long term you want to both not encourage more of it, and eventually make people pay for its true costs, which will make it less desirable.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 18, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

      Hm. We certainly can make it relatively cheaper and more convenient to live in more dense areas, though.

  3. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel June 18, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    Not mentioned; the race didn’t appear to occur during rush hour, and cost savings (no $10 daily parking downtown)

    • Joe Loveland June 18, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

      Right, other than mentioning avoiding parking costs in the second to last paragraph, I didn’t focus primarily on cost issues because the referenced Star Tribune story was focused on time, not cost.

      But parking cost is certainly a very compelling reason to want to ride LRT into the downtown areas. Good point.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 19, 2014 at 7:54 am #

      If you ask me, parking is amazingly cheap in this town. Most of the time, it’s cheaper than a 2-way transit fare.

      • Nathaniel M Hood
        Nathaniel June 19, 2014 at 11:40 am #

        The low parking cost is very real. I can speak for St. Paul (which is admittedly cheaper than Minneapolis). When I worked downtown and lived off Selby & Milton, it was 50 cents cheaper to drive and park (subsidized employer parking). This is a problem.

  4. Boss June 18, 2014 at 6:04 pm #

    I don’t know why people think that what they call a good bus system would be a reasonably good investment instead of rail. BRT doesn’t work well in places like this where freeways pass far away from urban areas that they can’t connect large amounts of people that need to walk a mile or so to the bridge that freeway is going under. People always give Istanbul as a good example of BRT success. But in Istanbul freeway is in the middle of the city. In fact in one part of the city freeway is on top of a local road. And even then they consider the BRT line as a temporary replacement for a future rail line. In fact they build 3 subway lines since they opened that BRT.

    your other option is building bus lanes on the main roads or expanding limited stop lines. That was done in parts of LA, but the bus still gets stuck in traffic. It’s a lot better of an investment to build a large rail network and use the buses to transfer people to the stations. It works in places like Chicago, NYC and DC. To be fair their network was build decades ago. But they are good examples of this type of transit functioning properly.

  5. Joe Loveland June 18, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    I lived in DC and rode the train to work every day for 7 years. I understand rail makes all the sense in the world in densely populated areas.

    But we have to accept the fact that our development and settlement patterns bear no resemblance to DC, NYC and Chicago. Our topography is different in ways that make it unaffordable to serve the entire Twin Cities region with rail.

    Rail makes sense in the green line corridor, because there is some preexisting density there and good prospects for attracting more. But rail doesn’t make sense in all parts of the Twin Cities metro area, and building expensive rail projects in places where it doesn’t make sense will starve non-rail transit options in other parts of the metro area.

    I’m not arguing against green line. I’m just arguing that we be careful about overusing rail, because it has the potential to starve other useful transit strategies that fit the realities of this metro area.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 18, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

      DC? Is it really that different? Or more importantly, was it really that different before rail?

      Downtown DC is much less dense than it should be (relative to demand) thanks to the height limit. It’s a car-centric town. Many ( most?) workers commute by car. Much of the DC metro isn’t really rail accessible, and even more of it wasn’t with the original metro system. Just comparing 1999, when I moved there, to today shows substantial rail expansion and significant density growth near the rail lines.

      DC seems to me like something we can aspire to.

      I’m less familiar with Chicago, but I’m not sure what so inherently different their either.

      • Joe Loveland June 19, 2014 at 7:24 am #

        I’m only a wiki-level researcher, so I may have this wrong, but it looks to me like Washington metro area = 490 peeps/square mile. Twin Cities metro area = 963/sq. mile.

        If I have that right, the DC metro area has almost twice the population density as the Twin Cities metro area. Transit-wise, it’s a different kind of challenge.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_metropolitan_area
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minneapolis%E2%80%93Saint_Paul

        • brad June 19, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

          You switched the DC and TC metro densities above, but had the right conclusion: DC area is denser. Note that if you look at the cities themselves (DC and Minneapolis) and not metro areas, density gets closer (10,528/sq mi vs. 7,287/sq mi). St Paul is still about half DC at 5,484.2/sq mi

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller June 19, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

            I’d also be curious about how much the density of the DC metro has increased over time and in particular around its rail system.

            Anecdotally, the areas along the Orange line from Ballston in appear to have gotten significantly more dense over the last 15 years or so.

          • Joe Loveland June 19, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

            I quoted the metropolitan area density numbers, because we need a transit system to serve the entire metro area, not just the core cities.

  6. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller June 18, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

    And the car and bike burned more fuel (one bad, one good). The car needed expensive storage after arrival. The biker likely needed a shower and otherwise doesn’t present an option for many who can’t or won’t bike. The car and the bike both require some amount of up-front investment, both to acquire and learn to use. The car benefits from a half century (at least) of infrastructure investment.

    Also, they should have had someone walk.

    But yeah, the idea that speed is the may criteria to evaluate seems off to me. It’s certainly a factor, but only one factor.

  7. Doug Trumm
    Doug Trumm June 18, 2014 at 10:19 pm #

    They should have had all 3 million people in the Twin Cities metro do the Amazing Race at once and see if cars still won.

  8. Lewis Werner June 19, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    I’m excited for the next Car2Go company that comes along with self-driving 1, 2, 4, and 8 person vehicles. I can only imagine it will be cheaper than C2G’s $0.38/min + tax. It will be safer than driving yourself (and the more driverless cars on the road, the safer the road will be for everyone), faster than mass transit, and you’ll be able to read, or browse the internet the whole time.

  9. Monte Castleman
    Monte June 20, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    Interesting. That’s the most I can say about it. In real life, how many trips are from Union Depot to Target Field compared from a house to a job downtown. (And although I think it’s stupid to put a stop every half-mile outside of the downtowns, and that includes the Hiawatha LIne in Bloomington, people who claim that light rail is slow are missing the point).

    As a real trip, although I never worked in downtown and never want to, assume I was forced by the economy to take a job there. I could A) Drive from my garage to a parking ramp downtown, B) Walk a quarter mile in the rain and cold to the local bus on Nicollet C) Walk 3/4s of a mile to the express bus on I-35W, D) Drive the 3/4 of a mile to the park and ride, or E) Drive my car to the LRT, about 15 minutes. A better test might be asking 100 random people to time their commute using different modes, although again whether time on LRT is wasted depends on your perspective. I’d consider it wasted because I’d rather be at home, there’s no business I can conduct on the train and I do not have a smartphone to watch the Youtube videos I want to watch when I get home.

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