The Riverview Line is the Best Twin Cities Transit Project in the Works Right Now

I don’t want to step on your shoes too much, folks, because critiquing Twin Cities transit planning is a noble effort. There are lots of nits to pick when it comes to how investment is playing out in the Twin Cities metro area, many of which you can find on this very site.

To make a long story short, there have been a lot of compromises made on the road to modern transit in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Like for example, take this by-no-means-comprehensive list:

Which is to say that it’s not that hard to brainstorm a better transit system in a vacuum. Feel free to do this, and seems to me like a great venue for the floating of politically interesting and horizon-expanding ideas.

But meanwhile, in actually-existing transit in the Twin Cities, the one with many different regional, neighborhood, and street design compromises, I have a point to make. Even with “fully dedicated light rail” off the table, I believe that Riverview is the best project currently in the queue. In other words, this is a better transit project than either of the expensive Minneapolis lines, the Southwest or Bottineau light rails, both of which connect mostly empty parks and mostly car-centric suburbs to downtown Minneapolis.

Four Reasons Riverview is the Best

I have four main points with which to try and convince you why this might be. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the Political Advisory Committee will pick the West 7th streetcar route as the preferred option (though I am on the record supporting a decision that goes on the CP Spur) and that it will cross at a new bridge next to the existing Highway 5 freeway bridge.

First, as Chuck says often at Strong Towns, I believe that good transit should “connect places.” This is a simple way of saying that transit works best when it tries to go to already-existing attractions, rather than create new ones through a long process of “transit-oriented development” or greenfield speculation. While it doesn’t hit the huge transit attractor that is the University of Minnesota, Riverview does connect a whole bunch of actually-existing places where people already are, and also places people want to go. The big ones are downtown Saint Paul (and all its museums and other buildings), the Xcel Center and CHS Field (concerts, sports), the airport, and the Mall of America. All of these are large employment centers and/or attractors, and connecting these kinds of major Twin Cities places is exactly what transit should be doing.

Second, I think transit investments should be built around walkable station areas. My transit philosophy is one that puts walkability first. Planning for park-and-ride style transit seems to me a lost cause that will never have a meaningful impact on our transportation network. (If people have to get into their car in the first place, to drive to a bus or train, why don’t they simply stay in their cars?)

Instead, the key to transit is never having to get into your car in the first place, and thus not having to own one. This can only be done with having walkable station areas that put buildings, sidewalks, and close-knit street grids all around the transit stops instead of parking lots or uncrossable freeways.

And lo and behold, the stops along the Riverview line will almost all be very walkable! (The least best one is probably the planned stop at Montreal Avenue, which is an intersection with tons of busy streets). This is a train that people will walk to and from, more like the Green Line (in a neighborhood) than the Blue Line (next to a highway) in how it will look and feel. To me, that’s a great sign.

Walkable areas with sidewalks and everything (mostly).

The busiest bus stop in Downtown Minneapolis.

Third, I think we should plan transit investments where there is already existing ridership. Ideally, transit investment should be an incremental process. We should be improving and “upgrading” our existing high-ridership transit lines rather than creating entirely new lines out of whole cloth. This is exactly what the aBRT project is all about, and the fact that this route was going to be the 2nd aBRT project (the so-called “B-line”) is a point in its favor rather than a strike against.

The Route 54 bus is one of the most efficient and highest ridership buses in the system, and improving it with rail will only increase its appeal. (How else would you propose doubling ridership on the 54?) Investing in a higher-end transit project here is how transit planning should be done, step-by-step improvements to build ridership and mode share.

The inside of a modern streetcar.

Streetcar looks like this.

Finally, I believe that rail is a meaningful improvement over buses and is worth the investment. Some transit planning reduces decision making to a simple time-and-money equation, and by that logic, everyone should take the bus because it’s cheap and quick and flexible.

But I think a lot is lost in that way of looking at the world, and that rail transit offers measurable improvements that are often discounted by decision-making models. Rail is smoother, quieter, easier to understand, and has more space, and all of these things turn out to be really important for people who have a choice in how to get around. (I wrote all about this years ago on this site.) The reason that people like rail but don’t like buses is not a mysterious “bias”, but based in solid preferences that have everything to do with the actual experience of the two technologies.

That’s why I like rail and believe we should build it along key transit corridors if possible, and why I think it’s the best choice for this project too. It’s expensive, but you’re getting very important things for the money (not to mention the traffic calming benefits of the rails themselves).

West 7th Street back when it was walkable, had a contiguous street frontage, did not have consistent 40mph traffic weaving back and forth between lanes, and also featured streetcars at high frequencies. (around 1935)

Contrast to the Two Extensions

Tunnel in a forest.

I’ve been following the two Blue Line and Green Line extensions (a.k.a. Southwest LRT and Bottineau LRT) as much as anyone should, and I think that by any of these measures Riverview is a better investment than either of those lines. Not to piss in anyone’s light rail cornflakes, because maybe they are still good projects, but outside of downtown Minneapolis itself (and maybe Hopkins or Lake Calhoun?), neither line connects as many “places” as Riverview does. Neither project will be surrounded by nearly as many walkable station areas as Riverview will. And finally, neither project builds on actually-existing ridership. And both are more expensive.

Meanwhile, I’m cautiously optimistic about the compromises that are in the works around Riverview. The biggest one, by far, is the “shared-use” / mixed-traffic section that will go from about the Xcel Center area near downtown to somewhere around Grand Avenue (give or take a half-mile). That’s a big compromise to existing traffic and parking patterns, and I am skeptical about how well it will work through this congested area, especially during rush hour. The train will certainly take longer during those times, and Metro Transit will have to do a lot of work to make sure the streetcar runs well, adjusting enforcement and signal timing to do whatever they need to do.

The other compromise, swapping out the “light rail” vehicle and ROW design for a “streetcar”-style model, is less important to me. The differences in capacity aren’t that great, and the streetcar will be able to go just as fast as a light rail would have. Meanwhile, maybe the street design itself will be more conducive to making West 7th a walkable street again. The devil is in the details, and those are still unclear.

In every transit project, there are some trade-offs. The Riverview compromises remind me of the big Green Line trade-off, where three additional stations were added at Western, Hamline, and Victoria Streets to promote equity. The new stations increased cost, decreased efficiency, and were not “ideal transit planning.” But the extra stations were what people in the neighborhood wanted, and adding them made the project better in the end. The Green Line teaches us that people don’t mind a few more minutes of travel time if they’re comfortable.

I think the compromises on Riverview are similar. The mixed-traffic streetcar is not ideal, but if the consultants are to be believed, they are also not huge difference makers in terms of the overall speed and ridership forecasts. And even with these transit compromises, Riverview is still the best transit project in the Twin Cities right now, better than any of the rail projects going on in the West Metro. I hope decision makers in Saint Paul and Minneapolis can find a way to make it work.

“Widening West 7th” (for more cars) back in the 1930s… note the tracks.

West 7th downtown back in 1935. Note the streetcar.

Looking at the West 7th, St Clair area in 1925 or so.

West 7th in 1955, just after it was turned into a barely-walkable car sewer.


Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.