Traffic Calming will be the Secret to Green Line Success

[Originally published on Twin City Sidewalks.]

“It almost feels like living in Europe.” he told me.

I was standing on the Hamline Avenue platform this weekend, chatting with another man waiting for the Westbound train. It was around sunset, just past the passing of a rainstorm. It was just the two of us.

“Honestly, this is just the beginning,” I said.

Later, slumping into the seat on the brand new train, I had a funny feeling. Somehow, I was already used to it. Maybe it’s the long three-year construction, but to me the train already felt a part of my background, a comfortable connection, blending into the city like a fire hydrant, a billboard, or an onramp.

Green Line vs. I-94

green line 1

Images courtesy of Mike Hicks

There has been a lot of great reporting on the Green Line over the last few weeks. Maybe the most interesting for me was Iric Nathanson’s historical digging about the grand opening of I-94 in 1968. It seems so difficult to imagine a time when the freeway was new. And to read the quotes from the newspapers, the freeway was met many of the same kinds of kvetching that you’ll find today with the LRT.
Here’s an example, from a 1968 newspaper:

“Monday afternoon an $80 million concrete trail with a bewildering series of interchanges will open to drivers willing to risk travel between St. Paul and Minneapolis. […]

The I 94 loop-to-loop link, constructed on the proposition that people in one city wish to visit people in the other, has no less than 18 interchanges. At some of the intersections you can get on and off. At others you may be able to get off while traveling west, but you cannot get on and go west. At others, you can get off while traveling west, but on only if you chose to go east. The entire thing is baffling to the point where the State Highway Department’s public information in not quite sure of anything except that, with great ceremony, the long awaited roadway will open.”

All of these small design details turned out to be massively important. For example, the missing Westbound 94 to Northbound 35W connection meant that Cedar Avenue on the West Bank became a nearly unwalkable traffic funnel. The fact that anything remains of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood today is a testament to resiliency and diversity. Fifty years later, MNDOT is just now beginning to fix the problems that its design created by implementing a road diet on the street.

There are a thousand like examples: St. Anthony Park, all the razed density between Franklin Avenue and downtown, the acres of “urban renewal” in Saint Paul, and a hundred others. The freeway catalyzed massive changes in the hearts of our cities, scooping out a dingy emptiness that quickly became normal. Who is left to remember what Seven Corners was like?

The Green Line will become normal too, and to ride along it is to feel the impending pressure on the land nearby. Just as the freeway eroded the value of anything it touched, the Green Line is going to change University Avenue. Parking lots will become apartments. Dilapidated buildings will be remodeled. This is all going to happen, and sooner than you think.

The Green Line’s Double Edge

green line 3Unlike the other LRT projects, the great thing about the Green Line is that it’s in the middle of a major street. Some people might see this as a huge disadvantage, causing delays and congestion for cars and transit riders alike. For me, this is the Green Line’s secret weapon.

Unlike Hiawatha Avenue, or most of the proposed SWLRT or Gateway corridor routes, here the train transforms the street. University Avenue does not feel remotely like it used to. Cars drive slowly. Eventually they’ll begin stopping for pedestrians. There will be crowds and clusters of people at street corners, crossing to and from the platforms. Unlike our city’s other transit plans, this is an urban environmentalgamechanger.

Riding along the train, I can envision the virtuous cycle taking place. As more and more people ride the train, more and more buildings will be built or improved along it, and more and more people will ride the train… With each turn of the screw, the great choking mass of cars will slowly evaporate until you have a walkable urban place. This is how to plan a transit system. It’s not enough to simply add a quick transit option, you must calm traffic at the same time. Doing one without the other is weak sauce.

Transit should be planned not with a whimper, but with a bang. It should run down the middle of the road, not through a park or a freeway margin. Kinks aside, the Green Line will show us how it’s done. Eventually, and perhaps not too far from now, it might just feel like living in Europe.*

green line 2

* Like Bulgaria or something, not the really nice part.




15 thoughts on “Traffic Calming will be the Secret to Green Line Success

  1. Wyatt Miller

    Bulgaria is spot-on: “neo-Communism” would more aptly describe the architectural trends in Twin Cities development, anyway. Minus the state funding and affordability, of course.

  2. Tony HuntTony Hunt

    I said this on Twitter but will put it here as well.

    I am, of course, a mere layman, but that’s never stopped me from making grand predictions. I think the Green Line will be a resounding success. And this will make pushing through other such lines much easier, politically. The Central/Nicollet has gotta be a sure thing now, amiright? And it’s already so developed the streetcar will only enhance that corridor. I’m excited for the direction we’re heading!

    (As an aside, we should refuse to extend the streetcar to Medtronic until it stops all this tax evasion bullish*t)

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Heh, how long would it take to get from Downtown to Medtronic via streetcar? 2 hours? Let ’em have it.

  3. Keith Morris

    I think the Green Line made sense exactly for the same reason why a Central-Nicollet rail line, LRT or streetcar, makes no sense: urban business district revitalization has already occurred on Central and Nicollet while University has huge gaps and revitalization of existing urban storefronts had been stagnant. Central and Nicollet are the opposite in both respects.

    Central has now been blocked off by construction on the bridge over the summer and the number of customers north of 18th is noticeably lower: Diamonds Coffee Shoppe scaled back their closing time from 10PM to 8. Not only that, but empty retail spaces have already been filled in: Maya,Bloom and Buttercup, Mill NE, Doña Anita’s, Pico de Gallo, Aki’s, the new brewery/brewpub moving in next to that, Recovery Bikes, and now to tear up Central for a year after businesses will have already suffered from bridge construction diverting traffic?

    This stretch of Central simply needs a road diet with only one traffic lane for motorists and a nice tall raised median in the middle to aide crossing pedestrians and to calm traffic while keeping the bike lanes and parking. Nicollet likewise has been filled in north of Lake: Nicollet Diner is opening by the end of the month,Copper Hen opened near 25th while Glam Doll and Ice House have opened up near 26th and Hai Nguyen is soon to be an extension of The Wedge. There are opportunities for development, but businesses have already moved in to make that prospect more attractive without any need for a rail line. Likewise Nicollet should simply be more outwardly friendly to cyclists and pedestrians and again these businesses on Nicollet won’t want to deal with months-long construction cutting off already low traffic volumes thanks to the K-Mart on the south.

    1. Tony HuntTony Hunt

      But doesn’t this line of thinking mean that the purpose of putting in a rail is development? But I’m not sure that this should be the goal. It is often be a positive side effect of such a line but it seems to me a rail ought to be about facilitating movement along ‘desire lines’, connecting large numbers of people to the places they need and want to get to. The Central/Nicollet development already going on practically begs for a rail because it’s already a place – or rather many places – that people want to go to. Putting in a rail will serve to mitigate the inherent problems in automotive travel and facilitate long-term continued investment.

      1. W. Miller

        It’s not just that Nicollet has already largely “filled in”–it’s that too much continued investment in the area (relative to other commercial corridors elsewhere in the city, that is) will almost certainly displace the lower-income residents in neighborhoods adjacent to the street. The South Whittier and Stevens Square neighborhoods are basically the last remaining bastions of diversity west of I-35W–and a major part of why Eat Street is such a “vibrant” destination in the first place. Even without a streetcar, that diversity is already under threat: the Hai Nguyen supermarket getting gobbled up by Wedge Community Co-op is probably something of a harbinger of what’s to come.

        To be sure, as the move away from cars progresses, the city would probably benefit from there being a streetcar on Nicollet–someday. But right now we should focus the development-spurring infrastructure projects on corridors that aren’t generating significant investment on their own. How about building that Broadway-Washington-Chicago streetcar line first?

    2. Xan

      First, streetcar construction is nothing like light rail construction. The entire street would not have to be dug up. The disruption could be minimal.

      Second, you cannot make a 50 – 100 year decision based on a 1 – 2 year inconvenience. There are financial mechanism to alleviate the present day losses by diverting future gains. Any business that remodels knows this. It should be no different when a street remodels.

      Third, neither Central nor Nicollet are “already filled in”. Both streets have massive development gaps. On the one mile stretch from I-94 to the greenway there are (counting generously) about 126 shops or offices. This comes to an average of about 7 shops per 600 foot long block per each side of the street. By contrast, the Mall of America has 265 shops per linear mile, which approximates to about 14 shops per block.

      As for residential development, the number of units on Nicollet itself comes to about 12 units per acre, which according to the standards of the City of Minneapolis comes in between low and medium density (

      The numbers for Central Ave are not even this good.

      A properly realized transit system would allow the development potential of these streets to be realized. Currently they are woefully lacking.

      1. W. Miller

        So you’re advocating for knocking down a whole lot of buildings, displacing a whole lot of existing businesses and people–and using the Mall of America as the model for what Nicollet should be like? The reason Nicollet is thriving right now is because of what’s already there, not its “development potential” in a vacuum.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

          Central Avenue is too wide in many places. A Central streetcar would have exactly the same calming effect as the Green Line does on University, only more so because it wouldn’t retain the dangerous two-lane designs that they kept on University (and will likely pose problems for people crossing the street).

          For thriving local businesses and a robust economy, the key is to design streets around walking. These kinds of transit projects are a great way to accomplish that goal.

        2. Xan

          Really look at Nicollet. Most of the structures are one-storey post-war crap. There are more single-storey cinder block buildings than there are multi-story brick buildings that the street is identified with. The businesses that moved in there did so because it was cheap, thanks to K-Mart, not because it was a great street. Much of the real estate is parking. This is very much the same situation as University Ave.

          Because buildings are replaced does not mean businesses have to be displaced or lost. Similarly, retaining the businesses there, which I think should be done, does not mean retaining the buildings that they are in.

          I am not suggesting that the street be modeled on MoA. The Mall was modeled on city streets. Each side is a pretend street. Nicollet (and University) are real streets that have been decimated by post-war “development.” Expunge the crap and replace it with urban structures.

          The trouble is, if you follow the rules that are currently in place this will never happen. The rules we have now give us the crap we have now. Look at the crap that has been built on University near Prospect Park. They have ruined that segment of University for decades. But it followed the rules, so it got built. There are segments of University and Nicollet where one has to walk 600 feet (or more) to get to the next shop. That is not an urban street. That is not going to get people out of their cars. That is not going to make a walkable street. Yet the same people who will not walk a block or two down the street will walk a mile or more at the Mall without a second thought. (Not just because of weather. They make the same choice even if the weather is beautiful.)

          A street cannot be shop – parking – closed shop – cinder block wall – fence – parking and expect to be a predominantly pedestrian space. It must be shop – shop – shop – shop – shop, with windows and wide sidewalks. This is why the mall works. This is why Nicollet works downtown. This is why the skyway works. This is why the old streetcar streets worked.

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