In the past month, the excellent transit blogger Alon Levy has written two posts that have particular relevance for places like the Twin Cities. This isn’t always the case, since Levy is more commonly focused on America’s older and larger transit systems (especially New York). His perspective is shaped by having lived in a number of different countries, and he has an acute and exasperated understanding of how transit in the United States falls short of global standards, particularly in terms of construction costs (too high) and off-peak operations (too little). But in December, Levy took the time to write about some broader principles. Looking ahead to a new decade, I wanted to apply them in the Minnesota context.
His first piece, What I Mean When I Say Cities Have No Transit, is an unsparing review of what passes for transit in most American metros. He doesn’t literally mean that cities have no transit, but that when a city has a transit mode share under 3%, it’s the near equivalent. From a practical perspective, planners working in these cities should feel free to treat them as a blank slate. He also calls out a number of cities, including MSP, which have earned praise for investing in transit in recent decades, but still have mode shares stuck between 3-8%. Most have seen their mode shares actually fall in this decade, in fact the Twin Cities are a rare and minor exception (mode share has increased slightly, from 4% to 4.8%). Of these cities with token transit systems, only Seattle seems poised to break out into a city where transit rises to become a meaningful part of a city’s fabric. Levy reserves Los Angeles for special opprobrium, noting that despite spending more than anyone, the country’s second largest city has seen its mode share decline. A subtitle of the piece is, “Whatever you’re doing isn’t working.”
I do think it’s important for American transit advocates to reckon with this. (This is not really a reflection on the staff of Metro Transit, who do a pretty great job. The primary problem is resources.) If you took a random sample of people in the Twin Cities, the vast majority will have never taken transit or will even know anybody who has taken transit outside of a sporting event. It’s a sad fact that transit in the Twin Cities is completely irrelevant for the overwhelming majority of people.
Levy’s second piece, On Envying Canada, compares American failures to Canadian semi-successes. While the entire picture of north is not entirely rosy, cities like Calgary and Edmonton that have similar growth patterns manage to achieve much higher mode shares than places like the Twin Cities, and Vancouver is the greatest North American transit success story of the past two to three decades.
The most useful part of the piece is framework for building transit mode share (and other non-car mode share). I think most readers of this site understand the principles that he lays out (and can be organized in many different ways, there is not one definitive rubric), but it’s helpful to see it in one place. Levy writes:
I was asked earlier today what a good political agenda for public transportation would be…
- Fuel taxes and other traffic suppression measures (such as Singapore and Israel’s car taxes). Petrol costs about €1.40/liter in Germany and France; diesel is cheaper but being phased out because of its outsize impact on pollution.
- Investment in new urban and intercity lines, such as the Madrid Metro expansion program since the 1990s or Grand Paris Express. This is measured in kilometers and not euros, so lower construction costs generally translate to more investment, hence Madrid’s huge metro network.
- Interagency cooperation within metropolitan regions and on intercity rail lines where appropriate. This includes fare integration, schedule integration, and timetable-infrastructure integration.
- Urban upzoning, including both residential densification in urban neighborhoods and commercialization in and around city center.
- Street space reallocation from cars toward pedestrians, bikes, and buses.
I think Levy’s two posts are best read in tandem with each other. The first should remind American transit advocates and leaders in places like the Twin Cities how far they have to go to achieve even modest success in a global context. The second provides a road map for how to get there.
How Is Minneapolis-St. Paul Doing?
Levy applies his framework to Vancouver, I want to apply it to MSP:
- Fuel Taxes et. al. — Unfortunately, Minnesota makes it relatively cheap to drive. The Twin Cities metro area has no tolls, and the state’s gas tax of $0.2860 ranks 29th in the country. Efforts to raise the tax by $0.20 (which would bring it to 5th in the country if fully implemented today) have been championed by Governor Tim Walz as a way to close gaps in transportation funding, but they have been blocked by the Republican-controlled state senate. Walz won election on a platform that explicitly included a raised gas tax and tried to claim a mandate, but Republicans are dubious and will likely make it a major election issue in 2020. If the state senate flips, the Governor and DFL will have an unquestioned mandate to raise the tax.
- Investment in new service — The Twin Cities are investing in new urban rail lines, (I want to expand Levy’s category a bit here) new BRT lines, and new rapid bus lines, but their roll-out is exceptionally slow, and cost control has becoming a growing issue. Also a concern is whether some upcoming investments are good ones. To-date, both the Blue and Green light rail lines have been notable successes. The under-construction Green Line Extension is not as good as it could’ve been, yet will still be a useful service. But the three other rail routes in various states of planning and design each have grievous flaws. (A) The Blue Line Extension was planned to take a nearly-useless route around North Minneapolis and through the Northwestern suburbs in order to minimize disruption to existing neighborhoods and road infrastructure. But the freight railroad that was expected to cooperate with the plans has instead shut them down. At 90% engineering, the project is in a deep bind. The sunk cost is substantial and any significant changes would send the project to the back of the line for federal funding. But the current alignment is simply terrible (just one station sits amidst walkable urbanism) and the freight railroad isn’t budging. (B) The Riverview Rail project has a good alignment, but has committed to spending a billion dollars in one area with no ridership whatsoever, while saving political capital by having trains share lanes with cars at the point on the route with the most ridership and the highest traffic delays. (C) The Midtown Rail project has been consigned to a holding pattern by the Met Council. Even if implemented, the current feasibility study calls for the route to be little more than a second-class shuttle between existing LRT lines, and not a full-fledged part of the transit system.
- Interagency Cooperation — This is a much greater issue for older cities with a hard division between different types of service, and cities that straddle state lines and have different transit agencies as a result. In MSP, these issues are relatively minor. The interface between trains and buses is strong. But in terms of planning, the Twin Cities are not always on the same page. The region lacks the kind of long-range building and funding strategy that powered transit expansions in Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Having such a strategy does not always mean that the end product will be good (as the former two cities demonstrate), but it has the benefit of solving funding issues and taking some of the decision making out of the hands of clueless actors like Ramsey County.
- Urban Upzoning — Here, the Twin Cities are somewhat ahead of their peers. The Minneapolis 2040 plan has upzoned a number of areas, although not always by enough. It seems quite possible that both Minneapolis and St. Paul will eliminate parking minimums in the coming year. These regulatory changes come at a time when the market for dense urban development is quite strong. Minneapolis alone saw more housing units start construction in 2019 than San Francisco. A number of residential and office towers are under construction or almost there, and St. Paul has recently seen a couple of huge proposals, albeit each with enormous amounts of parking. All of this being said, land use in suburban areas remains disastrous for transit. While a few close-in suburbs like Richfield, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, and Bloomington are taking some steps forward, progress is slow. Meanwhile, connections between the core cities and pedestrian scale suburban downtowns that in an ideal world would be accepting more growth, like in Wayzata and Stillwater, are lacking.
- Urban Street Space Reallocation — Unfortunately the Twin Cities are not moving as fast as hoped on this front. New bus lanes were introduced in 2019 in both cities, but there is no overarching plan guiding these improvements, and the inability of the Riverview Rail project to secure an exclusive right-of-way demonstrate the degree to which local leaders remain enthralled by their cars. Improvements for walking and bicycling are also occurring, but for every ambitious design (the 3rd and 10th Avenue bridges in Minneapolis, Ayd Mill Road in St. Paul) there are other embarrassing replications of the status quo (8th Street in Minneapolis, the Dale Street Bridge in St. Paul). A related issue is an inability to give rail transit service the signal priority it deserves. Green Line trains still get stuck at lights on University, and trains are often stopped in both downtowns while waiting for a handful of cars to pass. This is an area in which the Twin Cities are being lapped by places like New York and Seattle.
In sum, the Twin Cities are not making the kind of progress in these areas that is conducive to creating a true transit city. It is too cheap to drive, transit investments are too compromised, and local leaders are still unwilling to challenge the priority given to cars in virtually every situation. The only clearly positive trend in the Twin Cities is increasing density of residences and jobs in the core city. Even the progress being made in that respect is inferior to what is occurring in peer cities like Seattle, Calgary, and Edmonton, to say nothing of Vancouver.
The Coming Opportunity
And yet! At this moment, a handful of efforts and trends are converging in a way that will make the next two years absolutely pivotal for the future of transit service in the Twin Cities. Most significantly:
- Metro Transit is working on a plan called “Network Next” that may comprehensively evaluate and re-imagine the agency’s bus service.
- Minneapolis is working on a new transportation action plan called “Go Minneapolis” that will translate the ambitious multi-modal goals of the 2040 comprehensive plan into concrete policy.
- St. Paul has just approved a strong climate plan that lays out specific goals for increasing transit ridership.
- The DFL party made significant gains in the 2018 election, which if repeated in 2020, would give them complete control of the state government and make significant increases to transit funding and a gas tax more likely as early as 2021.
In isolation, each of these factors might give transit a significant boost. Taken together, they may offer policy makers, transit professionals, and mobility advocates astonishing momentum. What could that momentum look like?
- Metro Transit could map out a future network of twenty or more rapid bus lines, and put in place an internal assembly line that will speed up the planning, design, and construction of these routes.
- Metro Transit could in the near term identify numerous route branches and jogs that are unnecessary, and straighten them out.
- Metro Transit could in the near term accelerate its process of consolidating bus stops on the busiest, most stop/start routes.
- Minneapolis could implement a network of downtown bus lanes to get service into, through, and out of downtown quickly.
- Minneapolis could demand that MnDOT take an existing travel lane and transform it into a bus lane, with median bus stops at Broadway and Lowry, on any future reconstruction of I-94 northbound.
- Both cities could leave bollards in the 2010’s and get serious about curb protected bike lanes.
- Both cities could make their downtown traffic signals change in response to light rail trains.
- St. Paul could make traffic signals along University Avenue change in response to oncoming trains, ensuring that they are never delayed by lights.
- St. Paul could demand exclusive right-of-way for the entire length of the future Riverview Rail.
- St. Paul could work with MnDOT and the Met Council to raise money for more pedestrian bridges connecting neighborhoods south of I-94 to future Gold Line stations north of it.
- Governor Walz could order a redesign of the Blue Line Extension to avoid freight railroad right of way, and better serve North Minneapolis.
- Governor Walz and DFL leaders could make transit funding one of their top priorities, and raise the metro transit sales tax cap to a full percent.
- Governor Walz and DFL leaders could ensure that transit funding is enough for the Met Council’s “Increased Revenue Scenario” transitways (at least the ones that don’t suck)
- Governor Walz could work to extend the Northstar to St. Cloud, build a passenger train to Duluth and La Crosse, and improve previously goofy efforts to build passenger rail to Rochester. Whether or not these lines come under the auspice of Amtrak or Metro Transit, they should be integrated with both fare systems.
This is not an exhaustive list of ideas. Some of these ideas are very big, some are very small. There are new ideas that may prove useful (mobility hubs?) but aren’t proven yet. The main takeaway is that in the next year, plans that could lay the groundwork for changes big and small will come together.
Much can change in a decade. Nobody in 2009 would’ve thought it possible that Minneapolis would eliminate single family zoning. At the same time, things can sometimes go much slower than expected. Southwest Light Rail was supposed to be running by now. The difference is political choices. Today, the Twin Cities barely have transit. By the end of the decade, MSP could have a transit system that will revolutionize mobility in the region. The foundations for that change will come in the next two years, but the work will last the full ten. That’s my hope, at least.
Happy New Year everyone.
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