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.

21 thoughts on “Bring Back Streetcar Living

  1. Tim

    I think the real sin is not in the current planning, but in the lack of density and vision in the original development of the city. The initial streetcar lines helped developers sell the land but the lack of density is what contributed to their demise IMO.

  2. Justin D

    Placing aBRT, streetcars, or light rail on every one of those old streetcar routes would do wonders.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I’ve had the same thoughts over and over again listening to older folks talking. Rarely are people nostalgic or seemingly cognizant of the streetcar / walkable era of the city, and most of the reminiscing and longing is for the free parking / little traffic / cruising and driving era of the Twin Cities.

    And then me? I yearn for the time when you could walk to stores and sidewalks were full of people, and don’t want to spend another hour in a car if I don’t have to…

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      I don’t think we have many people left who lived in the streetcar era city as adults.

      You can experi nice something similar abroad, but not enough of us have had the chance and/or realized what was happening if we did.

      1. Lou Miranda

        Exactly this. “Older folks” in their 60’s and 70’s were young when the streetcars were torn up, so they were the “kids” who loved new stuff—the car and all its accoutrements.

    2. Eric Ecklund

      My dad was born three years before the streetcars were shutdown and my mom was born three years after they were gone, so unfortunately they don’t have stories of the era before we were zooming around the suburbs.

      For the millennial generation we were born with our first light rail line operating and slowly but surely improving transit with aBRT, BRT, light rail, and commuter rail. I don’t know about other people in my generation, but at first I was the typical suburban teen/young adult feeling free with a car and zooming through suburbs. Then as I started going to community college I tried the bus a few times just to see how it was. Quickly I tried almost every route in my area (West Bloomington), and I went to the U of M with transit (and partially or completely without a car) for four years, among other trips.

    3. Mike Hess

      Also dramatic reminder how Downtown was the center of everyting- all these lines with a purpose to bring people to and from shops, doctors, entertainment, jobs…..

  4. Jonathan Foster

    In my 35 years in Minneapolis, I’ve live in Lynhurst, Whittier, Linden Hills, and Bryn Mawr, and every one of those homes was within two blocks of a street car stop. Amazing. Oh the mistakes we’ve made.

    1. Jonathan Foster

      Amazing, in that transit was never a consideration for any of these places, there just happened to be past street car stops mere feet away. I could have been car free without even having to think about it.

  5. Jack

    Great article, Adam. Too bad they got rid of the streetcars.My grandfather used to drive one and was forced to retire when they ripped up the tracks.

  6. Andrew S.

    What’s promising is that the millennial generation seem to embrace and value density, public transit, and walkability more so than the boomers. Hopefully this can be the generation where this shift in development (and mindset) reverts back to “the good old days” of Minneapolis.

  7. Henry

    It’s one thing to say we should liberalize zoning to allow current scale duplexes and triplexes to be permitted vs non conforming. It’s another to call for large scale apartments up and down the length of these streets with discouragement to provide parking for the residents.

      1. Henry

        Not really. Saying we’d welcome 4plexes and saying we’d welcome 4+ story multi parcel apartment buildings are most definitely not “pretty much the same thing”.

          1. Henry

            Try telling a homeowner that having a 2500fsf two story duplex built next door and having a 4-6 story apartment building built next door would be pretty much the same thing.

  8. Scott

    There seems to be an assumption that the transit system in Minneapolis will magically improve if population density increases. Unfortunately, the City has little control over transit as it is directed by Metro transit and ultimately State funding. The City doesn’t even pay for bus benches, shelters, or signage, which could make riding a bus a bit more humane. Infrequent and slow bus service will remain a big barrier to creating a streetcar city.

    The “Transit” section of Minneapolis 2040 doesn’t even mention streetcars. Have they given up on that idea?

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