Map Monday: Existing and Planned Twin Cities Rail versus Population Density

Via Alex Scheiferdecker on Twitter, here’s a captivating map that speaks for itself:

The resulting conversation on Twitter was a critical, as it should be, of the way that the region’s light rail investments skip all the most densely populated parts of the Twin Cities, most especially North Minneapolis and Uptown.

Highlights include:

Alex does offer the caveat that a jobs map would be kinder to the transit planners:

Just using density asa measure, it’s pretty clear that the entirely of the northern half of South Minneapolis, all the way from Lake Calhoun to Hiawatha Avenue/ Highway 55, is the key missing piece of the transit picture. After that, North and Northeast Minneapolis, East Side and North End in Saint Paul, and Southeast Minneapolis and other parts of Saint Paul are the densest places in the metro area. (Note that the Riverview line, if rail is the chose option, would hit a red spot or two as well.)

Most of the suburbs, on the other hand, really lack the density that helps transit thrive. That might change, I suppose. (Brooklyn Park is the big exception, though!)

Anything else about this map jump out at you?

31 thoughts on “Map Monday: Existing and Planned Twin Cities Rail versus Population Density

  1. jeffk

    This map is everything that’s wrong with transit planning. It’s both speculative (“if we build it to a cornfield we can inspire investment in the cornfield!”) and based on an outdated idea of where people want to live (“from the exurban park and rides to the city to ease freeway congestion!”)

    I would not lose a wink of sleep if neither of these lines happened.

    1. cobo Rodreges

      The issue is cost.. Once an area gets too populated it becomes too expensive and disruptive, to build rail there (ie politically impossible, as it would probably add 2 billion $to the sw line to build through uptown..)

  2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Funny enough, look for a refined version of this map in a Streets.MN article that I’m slowly writing!

  3. Mike Hicks

    Back when I was being more productive on here, I made a similar map including bus routes, and highlighting the Hi-Frequency lines. I attempted to show both population density and job density with slightly different colors. The geographic scales were different between the two (I had block-level data for population, but jobs were by ZCTA (ZIP Code Tabulation Area), and I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the output. But, I still made a writeup or two:

  4. Karen E Sandness

    A very telling map.

    This is what you get when there is no overlap between the set of transit planners and the set of transit riders. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the placement of the proposed rail lines.

    Nicollet to the Greenway to Hopkins via Excelsior-Grand would have been a terrific route for light rail, particularly attractive to visitors wanting to sample the delights of Eat Street or have access to the chain of lakes.

    In the meantime, make more buses frequent service (at least every 15 minutes, seven days a week) and for heaven’s sake, figure out which are the most important destinations in Minneapolis and St. Paul are and make sure that they have frequent bus or rail service before you prioritize transporting Northside residents to be underpaid in the fast food joints of Eden Prairie.

  5. Ben

    I you threw in BRT lines wouldn’t most of the red areas be covered? With that said South Minneapolis really should have a 2nd rail line going through it. The streetcars down the Greenway and Nicollet/Central seem a ways off.

  6. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Would you consider posting one of these with the symbol levels and data source? I did just a quick map with the 2011-2015 ACS population numbers, at the tract level, and although it’s still pretty clear that inner-south Minneapolis is a large, consistent area of density, I think the overall effect is different.

    See map here

    One thought is that, visually, showing density at the block/block group level favors the type of consistent density you see in areas like Uptown, while minimizing the significance of higher density areas in the suburbs — a large apartment project might be adjacent to single-family homes on 1/4 acre lots. At the tract level, that often evens out to show the overall higher density of the area. At a block group level, you might see one tiny blip of high density surrounded by larger areas of low density.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

      It’s a screenshot of a five minute map I made from the 2010 census data. Your five year ACS estimates are likely better. This map is at the tract level, I think, I made both, but this looks like the tract one.

  7. Nick Minderman

    Let’s not pretend that this is any different from what happens in “peer cities”. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Denver and Portland and lines there are constructed parallel to highways and industrial rail corridors as well. It’s a symptom of how we fund these large projects, not of the planners that are trying to work within a broken framework.

    The whole premise of the finding formula is producing time savings and generating new rides. That drives a choice between very expensive vertical separation of transit in order to gain speed or leveraging existing underutilized linear rights of way where higher speed at grade transportation is possible. No where in the equation does quality of the transit service figure in well.

    So instead planners that are attempting to add fixed guideway in dense areas have to play a game that tries to hit just the right number of high intensity areas to get the benefits needed in order to pay for the higher cost of construction. What do you get? You get an alternative that would require people that live at 26th and Hennepin to walk away from downtown to catch a train that would take them to Nicollet & Greenway, then the trench next to the Cedar Lake trail, and finally back to 5th and Nicollet. Or they can just take the 6. My basic knowledge of human behavior says that route will sink. But a direct tunnel just under Hennepin, which makes immense amounts of sense as a line on a map, doesn’t come close to the time savings or new ridership needed to make the economics work.

    How do we fix it? Probably need to start by building more lines, not killing the ones already on the list.

    1. SSP

      Exactly correct Nick. The streetcar in the Greenway will not help because the transfer nodes for uptown users to get downtown become Calhoun Village or Hiawatha and Lake. It’s quicker to walk downtown. But a cut and cover from the greenway to 14th Street on Nicollet is only 15 blocks and would have worked very well if SW rail had come into town on the Greenway.

      1. SSP

        Perhaps the assumption that rail is designed to increase transit use is naive and these decisions are driven by different economic interests. The SW Extension and Hiawatha lines accomplish one thing perfectly – they allow people in the suburbs to drive their car to a park and ride lot and avoid paying for parking downtown. This means higher real estate values for downtown property owners who can achieve higher use densities that would be otherwise constrained by traffic or the need to construct more parking.

  8. Paul Nelson

    Nicollet to the Greenway really was not doable from an engineering standpoint. The Midtown Greenway streetcar concept would provide more connectivity and solve the density issue better. See the followng article by John Dewitt and Robert Corrick:

    One of the issues with a LRT rail line is the alignment works best if it is relatively direct with other transit connections to address density.. It makes no sense and kills the function to zig zag the alignment; it no longer works as a rapid transit line. The zig zag approach is better served by buses.

    Quite a few years ago I recall some proposal by Minneapolis planners to build a subway in Minneapolis.

    1. SSP

      The Star Tribune article linked does not support the claim “Nicollet to the Greenway really not doable from an engineering standpoint.” Instead it suggests the opposite – saying that alignment would have cost $300 million more than the planned route along Kennilworth ($1.9 v. 1.6 billion).

      1. Paul Nelson

        There are two references I have read for the engineering design explanation. The following link describes one:

        Here is the excerpt:

        “Of the two possible routes for the SW LRT once it enters Minneapolis on its way downtown from the suburbs, the one that passes through the Greenway to Nicollet Avenue is not favored by the Midtown Greenway Coalition. This Greenway/Nicollet route would block the bike trail in the Greenway, requiring bikers, joggers and walkers to come up out of the Greenway, cross Nicollet Avenue, and then go back down into the Greenway. In addition, 60% to 80% of the south bank of the Greenway west of Nicollet Avenue would be replaced with a high concrete retaining wall. This alignment of the SW LRT would preclude a streetcar in the Greenway that would serve all of the Greenway/Lake St. neighborhoods.”

        There may be a few options for designing the Nicollet-Greenway connection that I am not aware of. But why do something like what is described above? We would not be inclined to do something like that to 35W, I-94, or Hennepin Ave, would we? Two other concept issues to keep in mind are: 1)That a MTG Streetcar would connect all the way from Hiawatha/Lake to Kennilworth, AND connect to Nicollet. That would create a solid stable transit triangle. 2)The LRT or streetcar rail technology transit provides many advantages over bus systems, that occur if the transit ridership potential is present for rail.

        1. SSP

          Paul, I appreciate that you have been an outspoken supporter of the Kenilworth alignment for many years on economic justice issues, but your 2nd attempt at a link to support your engineering claim concerning the Greenway is little more persuasive than your first link.

          You provide a link to a public position of the Greenway Coalition, which did not support a plan that requires the bike lane to come out of the Greenway corridor. I’ve yet to see any engineering report that details why that is necessary, or explains why the Greenway alignment is not possible for LRT but perfect for a street car. Does such a report exists supporting your claim?

    2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

      As an aside, why do people call this project a streetcar project? It won’t run on a street at all.

      1. Paul Nelson

        The term Streetcar designates a more specific category of rail transit or type of rail car. Historically, the term Streetcar is very old and Streetcars were often on streets in cities with just a single car unit. However the streetcar did go places where there were no streets to be on, and there were lines that traversed greater distances out of the city at higher speeds without a street to be on. The Como Harriet streetcar line traversed from the White Bear Lake area, through Como Park to Downtown Minneapolis, to Lake Harriet, and then all the way to Minnetonka at 70 mph (and a special motor). That was a nice line and system.

        The MTG Streetcar would not need a street to run on in the Green-way corridor.


  9. Michael

    If these are the routes built, maybe a subway along Lake Street, or LRT along the greenway, going between the proposed southwest line and the blue line could help serve the densest place in the state. Also, the potential Nicollet/Central streetcar would be nice to help serve this area.

  10. Aaron IsaacsAaron isaacs

    Stop being naive. There is no money for subways. Few arterial streets are wide enough to carve out an exclusive rail right of way without impacting parking, and that’s a political no-go. Also, street running is generally too slow to bring the speed increases necessary to build ridership and justify the large expenses. The planners (many of whom do indeed use transit, so stop the character assassination) are taking advantage of the rights of way that do exist.

    As usual on this website, the perfect is the enemy of the good. You armchair experts need to understand how hard it is to actually get something done.

    1. Sam

      “As usual on this website, the perfect is the enemy of the good. You armchair experts need to understand how hard it is to actually get something done.”

      I don’t think that’s really fair. While better regional connectivity and access to suburban job centers are laudable goals, there are a lot of perfectly valid reasons to take issue with how rapid(ish) transit is being planned and built in the Twin Cities.

      We currently have a very much two-tiered bus system, with comfortable, fast, spacious buses serving suburbanites at over-built park-n-rides (just look at the usage #s in MT’s own P&R studies) in the name of solving congestion. At the same time, we have slow as all heck, dirty, often overcrowded and not on schedule buses serving bus stops that usually don’t even meet basic standards (say a place to stand and wait and route info) in the areas that have the most transit-dependent, highest ridership, and most opportunity for TOD. It’s not unreasonable to say that our capital projects should go towards rectifying that imbalance not reproducing it with trains. I don’t think all rail projects are good any more than all road projects or bike/ped projects are good and I don’t think rail for the sake of more rail is worth $2 billion in public funds…

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I agree with Sam here, Aaron. There’s lots of ways to have a conversation without calling people names or lumping “you people” into a group. Try to keep comments discussions positive, productive and welcoming. That doesn’t mean you can’t have sharp disagreements, just try to live up to the comment policy posted below and also here (


  11. Keith Morris

    It’s insane that there’s not even already aBRT on Hennepin, Lake and Nicollet just for starters. Every major commercial district should already have one.

  12. Keith Morris

    Also, with the construction of the Orange Line along 35 they should have to install an elevated bike path from 15th all the way to Diamond Lake Rd. There is no low stress Midtown Greenway counterpart connecting these areas together that would also connect to existing bikeways on a number of cross streets. There’d be no having to deal with parked cars in the bike lanes and long waits at lights since the entrances and exits would only be where bridges are located allowing cyclists to cover dozens of blocks without having to stop several times in-between and deal with motorists. That project alone would contribute to a notable citywide spike in utilitarian cycling.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      This has a lot more appeal to me after electric cars become more prevalent. As it is today, seems like a lot of exposure to air pollution (and noise) compared to nearby Portland Ave, which is also very fast. I’d rather see this effort going to improving the Portland bike lane gap around Lake St.

  13. Faith

    In a related issue on building transit for park and rides, here are excerpts from a current RFP:

    – Page 5: “The city embraces transit-oriented development principles for the redevelopment of the site”
    – Page 7: “The Metropolitan Council will retain ownership of Parcel D to accommodate a parking structure for transit park-and-ride purposes.” [note: Parcel D is the closes parcel to the future station with the best street access]
    – Page 14: “Sustainability: Inclusion of green building elements that meet and exceed city requirements, on-site energy generation, waste reduction, measures to reduce trip generation and degree to which project meets city’s Net Zero Energy/Emissions goals.”

  14. Scott

    Aaron,: Curious to know if you believe a bus tunnel in downtown Minneapolis would ever be feasible from a cost and political perspective. It is often painfully slow going on a bus through downtown- especially at rush hour- because the buses are stuck in traffic. Do you think a bus tunnel would make much of a difference and be worth the investment?

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