Theodore Wirth Park, the largest park managed by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, is home to what MPRB superintendent Mary Merrill has described as a world class facility that serves as the jumping off point for year-round outdoor activities. However, these activities – which include snow tubing, cross country skiing, mountain and fat tire biking and trail running – are inadequately accessible to Minneapolis residents who do not own a car or choose not to drive.
The Trailhead facility, owned by the MPRB but leased by the Loppet Foundation, is nearly brand new: the building is in its second winter season ever. Despite the shiny new building, it appears little thought went into access other than via personal automobile, resulting in a facility poorly served by the local route 7. The northbound 7 bus travels west on Plymouth Ave N. from downtown toward Theodore Wirth Park, making its final stop outside of the park at Plymouth between Xerxes and Washburn avenues. From there, it’s a confusing half mile walk to the Trailhead building: down the remaining stretch of Plymouth, through an intersection with Theodore Wirth Parkway that was not cleared of snow when I visited on January 1, past a parking lot and turnaround for the Chalet that previously served as the center of outdoor activities, down a shared-use path that follows the parkway but gives little indication that one is headed in the right direction, past a private employees-only driveway and finally to a parking lot that abuts the Trailhead. After traversing through the parking lot, the transit rider has finally reached their destination. (Note: the 7 bus had previously turned around at the old Chalet, but as of September 2019 the route is indefinitely detoured as described above.)
The return trip is worse: the south side of Plymouth Avenue N., where the 7 bus picks up passengers, lacks a sidewalk, forcing hopeful riders to wait on the side of the street. Timing the return trip is challenging – how early must one leave the Trailhead building while minimizing the amount of time waiting at an unsheltered bus stop on the side of a road? This calculation is hard enough for my wife and me to make. I imagine it becomes an even greater challenge for a family with small children or for people with disabilities.
This poor experience is compounded by the bus’s limited frequency. Throughout most of the day, the 7 bus runs no more than every 30 minutes, before reducing its service to about once every hour. On a recent trip to Theodore Wirth Park, the 7 bus ran 20 minutes behind. The time I spent waiting for the late bus – excluding any actual travel time – was close to double the total time it would have taken me to drive. And whereas transit users must navigate a half mile by foot or wheel from the final stop to the Trailhead, drivers are rewarded with free parking directly outside of the building.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board espouses sustainability as one of its core values, with the goal of reducing impact on the environment, being more money smart with public dollars and providing opportunities for everyone to experience the benefits of Minneapolis parks. The Loppet Foundation also takes equity to heart, according to its mission: “We create a shared passion for year-round outdoor adventure in the Minneapolis area, focusing on underserved youth and families.” These goals are laudable but are unreachable through the current approach to Trailhead access.
The poor transit experience, combined with easy access to automobile parking, encourages private automotive use during a climate emergency. The City of Minneapolis has a stated goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing vehicle miles traveled. Our parks, of all destinations, should be at the forefront of promoting sustainable transportation, and should not play a role in exacerbating environmental disaster. There is great irony in that the Trailhead encourages participation in fun winter activities, but climate change – caused in part by high carbon transportation choices – is warming Minnesota winters and putting the future of these winter activities at risk.
The Trailhead at Theodore Wirth Park is located in North Minneapolis, which has one of Minneapolis’ lowest rates of car ownership. Perversely, people who live closest to the park may find it most difficult to access its amenities. Across Minneapolis, one in six households are without vehicles, and even more are “car light.” Households without vehicles are disproportionately low income and people of color. By prioritizing automotive use over transit, the Park Board and Loppet Foundation are failing to meet their goals of providing access to under-served communities.
Of course, one player not yet mentioned will be key to addressing this inequity: Metro Transit. As it stands, however, the MPRB discourages bus transportation on parkways. With that in mind, I offer a few suggestions for fixing the Theodore Wirth Trailhead access problem:
- MPRB commissioners should allow Metro Transit to operate the 7 bus on Theodore Wirth Parkway as an essential route to the Trailhead, the primary facility at Theodore Wirth Park
- Metro Transit should run the 7 bus to the Trailhead and turn around in its parking lot, providing convenient access to riders
- Frequency to the 7 bus should be increased, commensurate with the fact that it provides the primary transit access to one of the best amenities in Minneapolis’ largest park
- The inside and outside of the Trailhead should feature prominent digital displays of real-time departures of the 7 bus to ease return trips and highlight accessibility of the park by transit
- Incentives should be offered to people who take transit versus drive, such as discounted or free equipment rentals
- Parking should not be free
If you have other suggestions for improving transit access to the Trailhead, please leave them in the comments.