Planning transit takes a long time, and there are so many ways it can go wrong. For my money, the best remaining urban transit project in Saint Paul is the so-called “Riverview corridor” running from downtown along West 7th street down to the airport.
As the latest ridership numbers show, rail has been the key to boosting transit in the Twin Cities. The two light rail lines already account for a quarter of the riders in the whole system, and will only grow as the land use develops to emphasize transit.
At this point, though, there are a lot of options on the table, at least if you take the planning documents at face value. So here are some Riverview observations, from someone who spends a lot of his time on West 7th Street, and on the existing Twin Cities light rail.
#1. Put it where the people are
I’ve written this before, but I believe the Green Line should be the model for transit investments in the Twin Cities. Unlike many of the other transit projects, which are designed around transit-oriented development (TOD) potential tied to sometimes-unrealistic projections, the Green Line follows a very simple recipe: take the bus line with the most ridership and turn into a light rail.
The University Avenue corridor is an ideal example, and anyone can see the change happening on the street by simply sitting down at one of the key intersections and watching people. I’d bet that foot traffic is double what it was five years ago. Sidewalks are coming back to life, and you can feel it at corners like Dale or Snelling. And while so far, much of the development has been subsidized (once you leave the University of Minnesota watershed, anyway) that might start to change pretty quickly.
Rather than “transit cannibalization”, the Green Line, going right through the heart of the city, is transit amplification. Turn up the volume, turn down the cars, and check out some sweet rail music.
2. Comfort trumps speed: direct v. indirect routes
One of the lessons of the Green Line is that ridership is high despite the fact that it’s neither the quickest option (between the two downtowns), nor particularly speedy. One of the (many) compromises planners made was to add three stations (Hamline, Western, and Victoria) in the Frogtown area, and to not have “true” signal priority at stoplights and intersections in downtown Minneapolis, and along most of University Avenue.
But people ride it anyway, and they like it. That’s because many people don’t make transportation decisions according to reductive transportation logic (e.g. “cost + time = transportation mode choice”). Rather, people make choices because of a complex mixture of things, including security, comfort, simplicity, predictability, and convenience. Rather than being peripheral, these factors are highly weighted in decision making, as any car salesman or restaurant designer well knows.
That’s why (so-called) “rail bias” is so powerful. Rail-based transit dramatically improves all these factors when compared to buses, and for many people, the improved “transit experience” is more important than the 10 minutes of extra time they might be giving up in exchange.
3. Comfort trumps speed: mixed traffic
Another odd thing about both existing Twin Cities’ light rail systems is how inconsistent they are when it comes to speed. The Green Line is at least consistently sluggish. It hits its top speed between the Fairview and Raymond stops; according to my unscientific gut, it might hit 40 miles per hour here.
But most of the time the train is pretty slow, about the speed that a car might go through the city following urban (<30 mph) speed limits and stopping at lights.
The Blue Line, with its dedicated right of way, hits faster speeds South of Franklin, especially through the airport tunnel. But the key point is that both of these trains slow to a crawl when they enter the dense parts of each city. The Green Line from Westgate to Target Field probably averages <10 mph, and both trains through downtown move at half that speed. You can easily bike faster than these trains, and I’d bet that many buses exceed their performance.
The point is that these two transit successful projects mix higher and lower speeds, and still manage to appeal to a large number of people. It’s OK to mix it up.
4. “Back door” stations are OK
Another debate about transit planning is whether you need to have a transit station “out in front” in the street or whether it can work if it’s a bit off the beaten track. (No pun intended.)
This is important because Riverview planning involves a choice between “the CP Ford spur” and West 7th (or other streets). How much ridership do you lose if the station isn’t immediately obvious, and is placed more towards the “back door” of a neighborhood rather than out in front?
One good example, though a bit extreme, might be the Cedar-Riverside stop on the Blue Line. For a newcomer to the train, the station is not obvious. It’s tucked way back behind the tower complexes of the Riverside Plaza, and to get there you have to walk quite a bit off of Cedar Avenue.
But it still works. It’s a very well-used station, not just by the inhabitants of the apartments nearby, but by people walking to and from the universities and hospitals in the neighborhood.
The Ford Spur, at least the stretch that’s at street-grade, could work in the same way, providing a back-door access to a large part of Saint Paul without impacting the street.
5. You can combine light rail with walkable streets
Today, the Washington Avenue through the University of Minnesota transit mall is sort of amazing to watch. Go down there and see it sometime, the way that people on foot mix and interact with cars, trains, bikes and buses.
Personally, I think the University of Minnesota campus area is a model for what our urban neighborhoods should look like: density without skyscrapers, calmed traffic, great sidewalks, and convenient transit. When done well, these are the ingredients for a dynamic walkable city. West 7th Street, particularly the stretch from the Xcel Energy Center to Grand Avenue, could look and feel a lot like this if planners do a good job with the design details.
This isn’t to say that everyone should be young and eating pizza all the time, but rather that density doesn’t have to look like a downtown skyline, that you can design streets that safely prioritize pedestrians while including transit and cars, and that a neighborhood can thrive without revolving around free parking and easy access to the freeway.
A hybrid proposal: a rough sketch
The point of all this is to say that there people should think about the Riverside transit debate in the light of what we’ve already done here in the Twin Cities. There are a lot of variables still in play, and options on the table.
My preferred idea (which I should also credit to my friend Cameron Slick) is to have a hybrid approach. The rail would operate in the street, without much of a dedicated right-of-way, until it reached somewhere near Grand or St. Clair. It would be going slowly, but surely, through one of the most thriving parts of the corridor, providing convenient transit access for a great many people.
NOTE: This could be an existing LRT vehicle or a smaller more nimble (and lighter) modern streetcar vehicle. I don’t see huge differences here, and think the lesser construction impacts of the latter might be a good benefit.
Soon afterward, it would turn onto the Ford spur, a dedicated right-of-way that runs parallel to West 7th, and serves all the areas in the corridor without impacting traffic, parking, or sidewalks. This would be a back-door approach, and the dedicated ROW would allow it to have safe higher speeds. (You’d build a bike path here too.) It’s very rare to have an abandoned rail right of way in the middle of a city, but when you get one, magical things can happen.
As Erik Hare suggests, the line should serve the Ford site, dropping a station as close as it can to the corner of Cleveland and Ford. In my opinion, this is hugely important. Unless the Riverview line goes to the Ford site, it will not develop in a transit-oriented way. The ideal situation here is a station that integrates seamlessly with its environment, like the Del Mar station on the Gold Line in Pasadena.
Getting across the river is a challenge*, and I don’t know enough at this point to figure it out. But somehow the train should connect up with the Blue Line service near the 50th/Minnehaha stop, and continue on to the airport, offering a one-seat ride.
This is one of the top 3 transit corridors in the Twin Cities, and certainly the best one in the East Metro. We need to build it, and it can be done without undermining the great things that are already happening in the Ford Road neighborhood. It’s worth taking a long look at how light rail is working (or not working) already in the Twin Cities before jumping to conclusions about what to do. Personally, I think this proposal would be amazing.
* The river crossing is a big deal, and nobody really knows all the details here. If there are going to be massive cost over-runs, this is where they’ll be found.
I’m skeptical about the Highway 5 bridge, whether MnDOT will allow it to go at-grade (no, they won’t) or a new bridge and/or tunnel will have to be constructed (yes, it will). And if it is constructed, how it will negotiate with the Fort Snelling historical site (though I’ve also heard that conversations have gone well between that group and the County).
That said, provided you could figure out a way to connect the Riverview line with the existing Blue Line approach to the airport, I think the “gain” of including Highland and the Ford site would outweigh the extra time it would take. And it would be the only way to ensure that development at the Ford site is done in a way that maximizes its transit-oriented potential.