Bring Back Streetcar Living

Minneapolis is a streetcar city. Maybe it’s hard to tell if you mostly experience it by using a freeway to get to downtown, but out on the city’s surface streets, it’s easy to see once you know what you’re looking at.

The Riverview Cafe, in a building built in 1928 along a streetcar line

The last streetcar rails were torn up (or just as likely, paved over) in in 1954. Aside from high rise towers, most of our housing stock was built before that:

Map showing the age of buildings for a large part of the city, by Ethan Osten and used with permission.

Not surprisingly, this also means that most of our housing stock was built within a short walk of the streetcar.

Map of the Twin Cities Streetcar System as of 1933 (Source: MinnPost, apparently via Brett McKean)

The city grew following a familiar pattern. Walk around, for example, Minnehaha Avenue, and you will see larger buildings on Minnehaha itself and a gradual decreasing level of density blending into the neighborhood interior. It’s subtler to see on somewhat smaller streets/routes like Bloomington Avenue, but it’s there too. Bloomington is lined with duplexes that don’t look much different from single family homes of the same age. The pattern appears all over the city.

And it’s not just residential structures. Where the streetcar stopped, we had neighborhood retail. Many of those buildings are still there and stand out as our most visible reminder that the streetcar used to run through our neighborhoods. That neighborhood retail meant that the first inhabitants of pretty much any Minneapolis neighborhood walked, biked (bikes were a common form of transportation in the early 20th century) and took the streetcar. If they drove at all, it wasn’t for all of their daily needs, which they could get at shops in their own neighborhoods.

Then came the era of cars. We tore huge trenches through our city (not coincidentally directly through black neighborhoods) for freeways. We tore down areas deemed “blighted.” We used our transportation policies and spending to facilitated driving into downtown from the suburbs and out of our neighborhoods to big box stores in the suburbs or on the urban periphery.

Meanwhile, the city’s population peaked with the 1950 census and then went on to decline for decades. Whether because of the freeways and the teardowns or just shrinking family sizes, there were fewer residents to support local businesses and less apparent reasons not to zip to retail that’s farther away. Many of those local retail places died.

That’s why I want the city to embrace greater density (like the old days). So that there are more people around to support nearby retail and hospitality. So that there are more riders to support better transit. So that there are more people who can live where they can get to work, school and the stuff they need without having to drive. I want the stores and restaurant near my house to thrive so they stick around and so that people have an interest in adding more. We can even add more grocery stores! More neighbors help.

Buses often run more or less where the streetcars did (even expanding coverage in some areas), but even if buses are equivalent (I’m not sure), our zoning doesn’t allow the old pattern of growth. Instead of replacing an aging or too small single family home with homes for two, three or four families, we get things like this, along the route of the 23 bus and an old streetcar corridor:

Older home flanked by two, large new single family homes.

Under our current zoning, we get two larger single family homes, because that’s what the zoning allows. Meanwhile, just a few blocks to the south we see what used to be allowed:

Duplex built in 1927

This duplex built in 1927, a structure that sure seems in harmony with its surroundings to me, does not conform to the area’s existing R1A zoning.

We’ve been going in the opposite direction for so long. In addition to replacing aging houses near transit with large single family homes we’re replacing cheaper housing with more expensive housing. And missing the opportunity to add families to our neighborhoods.

That’s exactly what city’s new draft comprehensive plan is meant to allow, with each part of the city allowed – not required – to move up to the next level of density. Gradually increasing density by allowing multiple units in similarly sized buildings in the neighborhood interiors and larger buildings near transit helps support healthy neighborhoods with enough residents to support neighborhood businesses, with enough density to support transit ridership and enough housing options such that not every single trip has to be done in a car. The new plan is really the original plan. Let’s try it again.


Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.