Minneapolis Should Skip Streetcars

Streetcars: They’re hot right now. However, in Minneapolis, in 2014, in the places they are proposed, they are also probably not a good idea. Or at least, they are certainly not a good use of hundreds of millions of dollars in transit funding that’s already too scarce and ill-budgeted.

Will Not Improve Mobility

The specifics will vary from city to city and project to project, but at its core, the entire concept of a “modern streetcar” is to trick middle class people into getting on board with local route bus-quality transit service. Again, the specifics will vary, but that will generally be the case.

The starter streetcar proposal for Nicollet and Central Avenues in Minneapolis, budgeted in the neighborhood of $200 million dollars and recently fleshed out quite a bit (pdf), has single streetcar vehicles mixed in with traffic stopping every couple blocks. The project page notes that the streetcars will have 7.5 minute peak headways. The vehicles will be a bit larger than the articulated buses Metro Transit uses on its busier routes. The streetcar does not fully replace local bus service, and the Route 10, 11, 17, and 25 will presumably still travel along Nicollet Mall, and I would reckon the 18 will as well (forcing a transfer at Lake Street would be dumb, but I didn’t go to grad school). In any case, the streetcar will regularly be bunched up behind several buses on Nicollet Mall, to say nothing of cars and snow and other obstacles elsewhere on the route.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are held up behind this Toyota Matrix (Source: City of Minneapolis)

Hundreds of millions of dollars to be held up behind this Toyota Matrix (Source: City of Minneapolis)

Development Potential Remains Theoretical

What’s funny is that people appear to realize that streetcars aren’t a significant mobility improvement over existing buses, and so they’ve been sold as, at best, a real estate development tool, and at worst, a tinker toy for our fairly minimal tourist population. The thing, though, is that no one is learning the lesson of the past ten years, where we’ve had very high quality transit service with the Blue Line, and a pretty insignificant amount of transit oriented development has actually occurred. There have been a couple projects, one with “station” in the name even, but there are still surface parking lots and literal open fields adjacent to many stations. The area around Lake Street Station hasn’t taken off, there’s a giant surface parking lot on Hennepin Avenue next to the Warehouse District Station, and it took a decade to put something a little underwhelming on the parking lot next to the Nicollet Mall Station, which is probably the exact spot on the graph where the “transit accessible” and “high value downtown real estate” lines intersect.

An excellent case study: 3A vs. 3C on the Southwest Corridor! (ducks) In 2009, we opted to skip Uptown when plotting out our actual transit mobility improvements, and you know what’s happened since 2009? The area along the Midtown Greenway through Uptown has exploded with new development! Thousands of new units, without any transit improvements.

New residential development along the Midtown Greenway.

New residential development along the Midtown Greenway in June 2014

The thing is, in the Twin Cities, it’s not actually that hard or expensive to drive. People complain, because people complain about everything, but I was in DC a couple weekends ago, and it took two hours by car to get to Reagan on a Sunday afternoon. By and large, people who can afford newly-constructed housing in the Twin Cities are going to want to have a car, and as such, transit accessibility isn’t all that important. Which isn’t to say that we should be planning to accommodate that, but we also shouldn’t be building an transit project entirely because of rail bias–which is what this is, and it’s kind of the same idea. “People don’t want to take the bus, so we’ll replace the bus with an expensive streetcar that essentially replicates the same service.”

And on rail bias, hey, I take transit in the Nicollet-Central corridor everyday, and it is seldom fun. It is at capacity during rush hour. In the back of the bus, there are chickens clucking and babies crying and me sweating and people with the fingers cut off their gloves huddled around barrels with trash fires in them. Out the window, you can see SouthWest Transit buses, two-thirds full, speeding towards Eden Prairie. Even in the morning, and I work pretty early, it’s standing room only; in the afternoon it’s a giant mass of humanity and baby strollers and heightened emotions.

…so what happens when we put a streetcar there, and suddenly it’s attractive to Target employees who live in those hypothetical TOD apartments at Lake and Nicollet? It will be at its functional capacity the day it opens. We will have added yet another line on our map–though this one will probably be thinner than the Blue and Green Lines (maybe even dotted?)–but we will have not improved transit service for actual transit users.


Most (71%) of Metro Transit’s budget goes towards paying its employees to do things, and about half of their 3,000 employees are bus drivers. I usually like to throw around capital costs (hundreds of millions of dollars!) to make points, but it’s also worth pointing out that, per rider, streetcars are more expensive to operate than the next couple higher rungs of transit service.

A comparison of the sizes of 40- and 60-foot buses, a typical streetcar, and 2- and 3-car Blue Line trains. 3-car trains are current standard weekday service.

Each mode and configuration has one driver. Streetcar is spelled incorrectly. (Source: City of Minneapolis)

Somewhere in there, there’s an overall system argument to be made about operating costs and fiscal responsibility.


The whole business with the fantasy maps and what ifs has certainly gotten old, but in this case, we’re putting $200 million dollars of shiny bus on top of what really ought to be the north-south transit spine of our growing city. Someone, somewhere, heard about streetcars and that Portland was doing them, and so now we have to also do them. But we don’t! We can do better, actually! This plan is very 1999, but it is 2014, and it will be 2029 very quickly. Tens of thousands of people have moved into Minneapolis since someone first wondered aloud “what about doing streetcars?” and slapped it on Nicollet Avenue. Tens of thousands more Minneapolitans are on their way. I, for one, would pay a 1% sales tax to fund real, live transit; I would probably pay a 5% sales tax for it. That’s on top of the extra sales taxes I pay, as a downtown resident, to support regional amenities downtown. I would probably volunteer to spend hours with a shovel digging a tunnel under Nicollet or Hennepin Avenues, thereby saving hundreds of dollars on gym memberships.

…gang, let’s build a subway.

This lightly-researched argument was stuttered vs. Bill Lindeke’s pro-streetcar argument before a live audience at Rail~Volution last month; I think consensus was that Bill won.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.

35 thoughts on “Minneapolis Should Skip Streetcars

  1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    I’m not opposed to streetcars per se, but we currently can’t afford them. Given the current inadequate funding, streetcars would compete against much higher priority LRT and bus projects. This really is a case of emulating Portland without Portland’s funding commitment. Because streetcars cost more to run than the buses they replace, without additional funding it would be necessary to cut service elsewhere to fund their operation.

    1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

      I’m pretty sure streetcars are cheaper to operate than buses per passenger. Way more expensive to install, but you’ve also got a fixed guideway (more efficient energy usage per passenger) as well as higher capacity per driver.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Going from memory I think every long-term analysis I’ve seen indicates that streetcars are less expensive (in current dollars even) per rider or rider/mile than buses? As Cameron points out, the up front capital cost is greater but long-term operational savings more than make up for that as well as the cost of funds.

      Layer on top of that the advantages Bill’s article discusses and I’d think it’d be a winner.

  2. Ben

    I’m just kinda meh on streetcars. They’re gonna get built, so fine, whatever. The funding model is borderline negligent though.

  3. Andrew Balfour

    I just can’t see putting in streetcars when a BRT would provide essentially the same-or-better service at a fraction of the cost. And the bus can get around vehicles blocking the tracks.

    1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

      According to the highly questionable criteria used in the alternatives analysis, streetcar comes JUST in ahead of enhanced bus (BRT would have required an exclusive guideway which wouldn’t have flied).


      We really need to change the criteria we employ when conducting alternative analyses, or at least change the way we reach our conclusions with the existing format. Why aren’t ‘reliability in the face of growing congestion,’ or ‘degree to which the project increases transit relevance for the surrounding community’ categories we’re considering?

      Any smart folks know why we’re using such unsophisticated criteria?

    1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

      For some context, Seattle has a relatively similar relationship with its parent county when it comes to transit planning. I can’t say that this strategy has demonstrated effectiveness, but I think we could do well to work towards taxing Minneapolis for Minneapolis-specific transit projects. I’m thinking particularly about lines that don’t leave the city limits.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Why would this be more beneficial? The streetcar project is, my understanding, Minneapolis-led. Although MTC wastes money on exurban park-and-rides (including defunding upgrading to the 5 to aBRT to pay for a bigger parking lot on the Green Line!), I’m not sure going it alone makes sense or serves people better.

        1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

          In a world where a majority of Minneapolis residents actively demand high quality transit that the Met Council isn’t funding in favor of suburban boondoggles, I think we need to look at what’s possible working alone. The fact that Minneapolis is still so half-engaged as to produce a streetcar as a preferred mode for this corridor is proof that we’re not there yet, but we’re a even further from when the met council will actually be prioritizing the region’s highest return transit projects.

        2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          I guess I’m reminded of Scott/Carver County refusing to participate in CTIB. “We’re not getting what we want from regionalism, so screw everyone else.”

          The reality is that there is interdependency on all transportation systems, including transit. The City of Minneapolis-proper has no east-west bus lines south of Lake Street. The Mall of America Station connects several Minneapolis and St. Paul lines.

          Land use is also tilted toward many things that Minneapolis residents depend on being just outside the city limits — commercial centers in Southdale, Brooklyn Center, SLP, Richfield (Cedar Point), and Bloomington.

          1. Joe

            What about the 46? Or are we saying that extends beyond Minneapolis on either side so it doesn’t count…

              1. Josh

                And the 156 does bounce around east/west through Windom/Kenny/Armatage, but only express times of course.

              2. Josh

                But if we discount lines that extend beyond the Minneapolis borders then Minneapolis has no east/west lines at all except for the 2.

            1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

              I’m not excluding lines for being going outside Minneapolis. I should have said major transit lines — that is, long, direct, and frequent. The reality is that both the 23 and 46 are both somewhat circuitous, and the 23 doesn’t cover the full western half of the city.

              The 515 is a high-frequency between the 6, both branches of the 4, the 18, and 5, the 14, and MOA connections (and the express lines). But it’s 4 blocks outside Minneapolis. Should we invest more in the windy, slower 46 instead simply because it’s inside the city limits?

  4. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Subway? Hmm, okay. Can build it the way Europe seems occasionally capable of doing it without exploded budgets?

  5. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Except for Nicollet Mall, the 18 bus rarely hits traffic congestion, so I’m not sure being in mixed traffic is the problem.

    A subway would be great, but wouldn’t that still invite one of the basic problems with the streetcar: a forced transfer at some point? It seems enormously unlikely that there would be the money, or even community support, to build a line all the way to South Bloomington Transit Center, which is the terminus of the 18 line.

  6. Chava

    Took the words right out my mouth.

    This is more slow “transit” that seems cool. What purpose does this serve? Serve citizens first, and give them the means to create robust communities, and tourists will follow.

    Build a subway. Be done with it. Go big, or everyone go back to their cars.

  7. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    A few random thoughts:

    – The only way we should allow streetcars on the Nicollet Mall is if buses move elsewhere. Even then, we should probably be moving to pedestrian only, but I don’t have any hope of that actually happening.

    – As to Blue Line development, let’s be a little careful as some really terrible things happened to real estate and credit markets in that intervening decade and there seems to have been a bit more progress in the last few years. I think we’re going to see a lot more still to come.

    – As to DC, unless it’s rush hour or there is a special event happening, it’s not so hard to drive around downtown DC either (although I see you were coming from the suburbs). Is 94 West toward St. Cloud really that much different, though?

    Finally, isn’t a street car just the “compromise” position between, “you can get buses for a lot cheaper” and “let’s build a subway?”

  8. Al DavisonAl Davison

    I remember someone talking (I think Andy S.?) about pre-metro lines in my also admittedly lightly-researched article on LRT planning earlier this year, could we at least do that? Using streetcars for some of the urban subways may allow better turning options and better frequencies (i.e. every 5 minutes during rush hour) to offset the capacity issue. At the same time, that would require a billion dollars to build and would require more drivers (though I’m sure a politician would use that as a “hey I helped get us more middle-income jobs, vote for me again in the next election”).

    In the end, I just wanted a streetcar tunnel under Nicollet Mall at least that could be built to be LRT-ready so any future north-south transit lines could use that tunnel as well. My guess would even a short tunnel in downtown would be $300 million (probably more), but honestly we were willing to blow half that amount on a shallow tunnel next to a bike path, so at least let’s build tunnels in actually densely populated areas like Nicollet.

    But I will admit, much of my ideas are pipe dreams given it’s still too easy to drive nearly everywhere so it’s hard to convince people to switch over to transit to justify the expenses of tunnel-based transit.

  9. Chava

    If you build a subway, they will come?

    I don’t think we can compare any available transit options to the experience of a train running on an exclusive grade separated ROW.

  10. David MarkleDavid Markle

    The main advantages of streetcars appear to be (1) ease of boarding and exit, and (2) bright and shiny. They are attractive, but I tend to agree with the points made above by Magrino, Lindeke and Isaacs. Limited funds must be used wisely. The much trumpeted example of Portland’s streetcars looks questionable when examined closely. For our area, well planned rapid LRT (or even HRT) should be a top transit priority, tunneled where necessary to maintain transit speed and avoid traffic problems..

  11. David

    – streetcar should be limited to single-LRT Blue-Green equipment, so the streetcar can use the LRT track alignment
    – local LRT rolling stock has low enough floors, they work for street cars; is an LRT off the street a much bigger step up than a regular transit bus?
    – tracks have to not be mixed traffic; whats the point. for streetcar, keep them single lane in say one way pairs, there is room, a single car traffic lane
    – Nicollet in the core should yes prob be peds only — not sure the people density, it perhaps it starts a tipping point w/ the Nic Mile
    – yes the train’s appeal is snobbery when bus can accomplish better service

  12. Emily

    As a biker , buser and LRTer who lives one block off of Nicollet, here are a few quick comments:

    Playing leapfrog with buses on the mall on the mall and south of the mall is the worst part of my day. Drivers, open you window next time you’re stuck behind a bus, its awful. A the very least, electric buses with platforms that allow for a bike lane on the inside would be an improvement.

    Currently, buses are crowded, slow, difficult to move on and off of and need to be lowered at almost every stop. For a major North/South connection, buses are incredibly inefficient along Nicollet compared to the car and platform layout that above or below ground rail offers.

    Can an enhanced bus system can overcome these barriers as well as provide the service and capacity that we will need for many years into the future?

    Also- I’m all for making at least several blocks of Nicollet Mall pedestrian only.

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  15. Nathanael

    Don’t fall for the “subways everywhere” madness. That way lies the problems of Toronto politics, which Steve Munro has documented extensively.

    On the other hand, don’t fall for mixed-traffic streetcars. Any streetcars should not be sitting behind cars. They should have exclusive lanes, just like light rail.

    It’s OK for them to have grade crossings with other streets, though, just like light rail. You do not have so much traffic that you need a full-fledged subway. Not anywhere.

    To put it another way, what you need is more LRT. A lot more. Eventually you’ll have enough that it’ll make sense to put a *small part of it* in a subway.

  16. Chris Stefan

    As someone who lives in Seattle and has been to Portland frequently let me say streetcars really aren’t worth the bother unless they have their own lane. Building new mixed traffic rail is the height of insanity.

    Rail can share a lane with buses without too many problems but don’t let non transit traffic in the same lane as rail.

    The primary advantages of rail over a bus are:
    1. Capacity. You can move more people with rail vs. buses, also rail generally allows shorter headways without bunching.
    2. Reuse of existing ROW or extending an existing line. Commuter rail on existing freight lines is the classic example but rail can also make sense for extending an already built transit line.

    Things that may be easier with rail vs a bus but aren’t inherent to rail:
    1. Ridership. Rail bias is a real thing, at least in the US. Still people have shown they will ride well-designed high-quality bus service.
    2. Ease of boarding. Buses can level board, use platform doors, and use multiple doors but it is harder than with rail.
    3. Smoother ride. Again this can be done with a bus but it is harder to achieve than with rail.
    4. Exclusive lanes and signal priority. Very easily done with buses, but politically may be much more difficult than with rail.
    5. Marginal cost difference. At the very high end of BRT and other grade separation for buses the difference in cost between rail and buses may be minor. Likely if you are building this level of grade separation you are already looking at ridership volumes that buses really can’t handle.

    If the ridership volumes in this corridor justify rail I say go for it, but only if you can give the line an exclusive lane or grade separation.

    If the goal is economic development or building a tourist attraction then let the money to build and operate the streetcar come from somewhere other than limited transit capital and operating funds.

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