The Trailhead at Theodore Wirth Park Has an Access and Sustainability Problem

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.)

Map from 7 bus stop to the Trailhead at Theodore Wirth Park

Which way do I go? The confusing and unnecessary walk from the 7 bus to the Trailhead at Theodore Wirth Park.

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.

The southbound/eastbound 7 bus stop closest to Theodore Wirth Park has no sidewalk.

The southbound/eastbound 7 bus stop closest to Theodore Wirth Park has no sidewalk.

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.

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20 Responses to The Trailhead at Theodore Wirth Park Has an Access and Sustainability Problem

  1. Elizabeth Larey January 9, 2020 at 10:39 am #

    The end of the first sentence struck me as odd……. “who choose not to drive”. Then don’t go. It is not the government’s responsibility to provide transportation everywhere you want to go. There are plenty of buses that take you close enough. So walk the rest of the way. If you expect me to walk 5 blocks to the nearest bus stop, you can walk also.

    • Anon January 9, 2020 at 11:03 am #

      We are a government by the people, for the people; ergo, the government’s responsibility is whatever we collectively say it is.

      Does the government have a responsibility to build roads to everywhere you want to go? if not, then who should? if so, then why not provide other modes of transportation as societies adapt to changing circumstances and preferences?

      Driving to appreciate a snowy park is high irony; the former perils the latter. But tragically, our current trajectory eliminates the problem: our grandchildren will marvel at our old photographs of snowy trail-heads and equally at our our negligence.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller January 9, 2020 at 11:11 am #

      The government pays for you to drive there. Why shouldn’t they provide for transportation other than driving, or at least take it into considering when planning to spend resources on things like park facilities?

  2. Drew Hurley January 9, 2020 at 10:51 am #

    Thanks for this post! Fascinating. I actually ride my bike west on Plymouth and pass the Trail Head every day on my commute. I often see 7 busses waiting at that first stop and had no idea that’s where the route started, I thought they were just chilling there after the end of the route or something because there’s NO WAY that could actually be a stop. I love all the suggestions, especially getting free or reduced rentals if you don’t drive to the Trail Head. I’m trying to think of other prime park amenities that are poorly connected to transit but there’s no other example I can think of like this.. Harriet bandshell maybe? What a failure, especially when it was constructed so recently.

  3. Risa Hustad January 9, 2020 at 11:31 am #

    Thanks for writing this, David.

    Couple quick thoughts:

    -I understand why you didn’t touch on bike transport here, but I just want to say that Theo is very accessible by bike, and the things between me and riding there is the absence of storage. Would love to pay for a ski locker at the facility.

    -I think the design of this facility do encourage access by modes other than SOV. The parking in minimal at the new building and I always choose to ride over driving when possible. I think a bus stop could be included next to the new facility without any updates. It would be IDEAL if there was a route between Bde Maka Ska and the Trailhead. When the chain of lakes is open, anyone could complete the “full loop” without the hassle of a pick-up.

  4. Scott January 9, 2020 at 1:05 pm #

    The Metro Transit route map shows a #7 bus stop at the old Chalet in Wirth Park. Is that not correct? From there it’s a 4 minute walk on a plowed multi-use path, which doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal for someone presumable going to the new chalet to partake in outdoor activities such as cross country skiing, snow-shoeing, or winter hiking.

    • Alex Grill January 9, 2020 at 1:16 pm #

      Here is the alert from the MetroTransit website detailing the stop closure outlined in the article.

      Detour: Starting Sept. 10 at 7 AM – Theodore Wirth Chalet Turnaround Closed to Buses
      For the following route(s): 7, 32

      When: All hours, all days

      Board/alight at:

      -Eastbound Plymouth at Washburn

      Northbound Route 7 and westbound Route 32 E buses will travel on Plymouth to Washburn, right on Washburn, left on 14th Ave, left on Xerxes, left on Plymouth to between Xerxes and Washburn.

      Eastbound/southbound buses will leave from Plymouth between Xerxes and Washburn and travel regular route.

      https://www.metrotransit.org/route/7

      • Scott January 9, 2020 at 1:47 pm #

        Curious as to the reason for the detour and if it is permanent. Is it seasonal? Also curious that the Metro Transit trip planner “We found 1 trip for you” page currently takes the rider all the way to the chalet. That seems like a big miss. Metro Transit’s software should be able to handle stop closures, no? I guess the moral of the story is that, if you are taking an unfamiliar route, it’s a good idea to thoroughly research it.

  5. Renee January 9, 2020 at 4:34 pm #

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this article! Since I live in St. Paul, I’m not as familiar with bus routes near The Trailhead. That being said, I have a few comments:

    Theo Wirth is one of the only outdoor recreation areas I regularly bike to and, in my opinion, does a fantastic job at having bike-accessible routes from every direction: Golden Valley, North Mpls, Uptown, etc.
    I recognize that plenty of other city parks charge for parking, but I worry that charging for parking at The Trailhead would make skiing, mountain biking, and youth programming even more cost prohibitive than they already are. Perhaps that would be mitigated with free parking for individuals who are signed up for programs and/or bought certain trail passes? I suppose it also depends on the cost as well. In my mind, paying for parking is a transportation barrier (which can have a positive outcome if transit is reliable), but could also be a participation/financial barrier.
    As far as taking the bus goes, I think Metro Transit needs to increase the tire size on the front racks. Many modern day mountain bike tires exceed the allowable width of those racks so cyclists can’t take the bus with their bike. I’d imagine taking cross country skis and poles or a snowboard on the bus would be a pain as well, but I haven’t done it.

  6. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson January 9, 2020 at 5:28 pm #

    Park users aren’t the only ones who need to get to park facilities.

    So do employees. Do these buildings have staff? Does the MPRB require employees have personal vehicles when hired? Does pay help cover cost of necessary car ownership?

    Transit would help employees get to work and save money.

    This kinda came up this week for me when I learned MPRB objected to Hopkins installing a sidewalk linking the Excelsior Blvd bus stop to the Meadowbrook club house. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  7. John January 9, 2020 at 11:55 pm #

    Can they fix the chronically flooded bike trail too? Makes a lot of the trail inaccessible since there are no great detours around it.

    • Dennis January 12, 2020 at 6:43 am #

      The #7 ridership is extremely low many buses are arriving downtown almost empty even rush hour.The route is mosty duplicated They even cut the weekend for short time .#22 5 19 C lines all intersect with #7 and operates 10 to 20mins why would one wait 30mins for the 7?

  8. Evan Roberts
    Evan January 10, 2020 at 9:21 am #

    Totally agree with all of this post. In a previous phase of my life I used to sometimes end a run around Theo Wirth at the Chalet and then take the #7 home. I’ve also taken the #7 to the Chalet carrying two heavy bags of camera equipment for a wedding, approximating what it would be like with skis. Taking the bus back from Wirth, It was super convenient to be able to see the bus from the Chalet. If it was running late you could wait inside and just head out when the bus came. Replicating that service at the Trailhead would merely restore what used to be the service provided to this park.

  9. Eric January 10, 2020 at 9:33 am #

    Sounds like most of the problems are that the bus service isn’t good enough? Like most MSP bus service deficiencies there is a serious chicken-egg supply-demand problem very likely at the heart of it.

    Shame some billionaire doesn’t just fully fund a city’s transportation as a vanity project instead of some doomed run for president. Would love to see what would happen if we had a reliable, efficient, intuitive transit system for a year.

  10. Dennis January 12, 2020 at 6:42 am #

    The #7 ridership is extremely low many buses are arriving downtown almost empty even rush hour.The route is mosty duplicated They even cut the weekend for short time .#22 5 19 C lines all intersect with #7 and operates 10 to 20mins why would one wait 30mins for the 7?

  11. Mike January 12, 2020 at 11:38 am #

    It seems like the root of the problem/complaint is the bus service. You can’t build an amenity like the trailhead and expect it’s going to be 100 feet from a light rail station. If the bus came into the park further that would be a good solution. As to the frequency of the bus that should be determined by the demand. I think the park board with it’s private partnership approach has built a really good amenity for our park system, so focusing on metro transit and others to obtain access I think is more productive than accusing the trailhead designers of abandoning accessibility and sustainability.

    • Monte Castleman January 13, 2020 at 9:45 am #

      If people want me to pay for parking I will, but like any user fee or non-indexed tax unless some discount or even free parking is offered to poor people, it hurts them a lot more than me since I can easily afford to pay it. Despite the map I’d point out there’s still a lot of poor people that drive cars.

      The bulk of the problem seems to be on the MTC for their provision (or lack thereof) of bus service rather than the park board for the design choices they made

  12. Liam Glover January 15, 2020 at 9:18 am #

    I am wondering if instead of focusing solely on the #7 bus, MetroTransit/MPRB would be better off implementing a sort of Electric “Connector” Bus, possibly paid for/owned by MPRB but operated by MetroTransit. Free connections from MetroTransit Buses or .50 cent fare within the park

    This could run East from the Trailhead to Penn & Plymouth (with a stop at the golf course) allowing connections to both the #7 and the C-Line. It could also be considered to run South from the Trailhead to the Theo Wirth Beach to connect with the #9.

    Maybe service with just 1 bus ever 30 minutes during the day, and then service with 2 buses every 15 minutes on weekends/evenings/summer.

    • Liam Glover January 15, 2020 at 9:28 am #

      Also, charge for parking. It doesn’t make sense that everywhere else you go within the parks you have metered parking, but at the Trailhead you don’t..

  13. Scott January 15, 2020 at 5:23 pm #

    FWIW, this is the response from Metro Transit to my inquiry as to the status of the #7 bus stop at the old Wirth Chalet: “The Theo Wirth turnaround is closed to Metrotransit buses at this time. Metrotransit, the golf course and Mpls Park board are working on a written contract to ensure its continued use. There is no time line for when the contract will be completed and service restored to the golf course turnaround. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

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