E-DEMOCRACY | A streetcar named Density

From: Gregory Reinhardt Date: 11:52am, Jan 29

Which came first? The Chicken or the egg? It would seem logical that if street cars will be part of the cities mass transit, that population would increase first to create a demand for service.

If so, who will be the new citizens of Minneapolis? Empty nest retired Baby Boomers? Millennials with young families? Another group of newly arrived Immigrants? Each set has its own set of needs and demands on government, transit and other services.

And how are you going to keep them in the city? More jobs, more housing or a combination of both.

Streetcars are one part of a density plan, but the other equally important parts need to be fleshed out.

Greg Reinhardt

I don't want realism. I want magic. Blanche Dubois

From: Jim Mork Date: 6:02pm, Jan 29

Streetcars tend to be associated with density. But I'd argue in almost all cases, the density begat the streetcars, not the opposite. And also that where they exist, they rode out the great General Motors project of putting buses in place of rail in center cities. Since that time, cities have experienced sprawl, more of it the further you go west. This was part of the real estate construction industry's plan for staggering growth. A small handful of giant industries got rich by sprawl and buses. Now people come along, ask to reverse this history, and pay for it with high sales taxes. That's seriously wrong. The money should come from sources related to the harvest of wealth since the Second World War. There's no logic to extracting the cost of this who got little or nothing from the suburban and motor car explosion. Nothing inherently wrong with rail, but the proposals for financing pretty much block it in my mind. We have extreme concentration of wealth, and these pro-rail proposals just seem to exacerbate the problem.

From: Earl Roethke Date: 7:41pm, Jan 29

New streetcar lines have been built since the GM project, and there is some evidence that building streetcars increases density. See http://www.portlandstreetcar.org/pdf/development_200804_report.pdf.

From: Carol Becker Date: 1:34pm

The real answer is the organizing principle for land use came first, the principle that sets the whole land use structure. Because transit's success is based on land use. In Minneapolis, we have three kinds of development patterns, ones based on walking (say St Anthony West where my sister lives) with Victorians and small lots; streetcar-based, where no one is more than four blocks from a somewhat major street because that was as far as people wanted to walk from the streetcar and then auto-oriented, which we have small pieces of at the edges of the city. Overriding the fundamental organizing principle of an area is extremely difficult because you have zoning that locks in current development and robust citizen input processes that tend to favor what currently exists over radically different development. And your transportation network virtually never changes. We rarely reconfigure road systems in any radical way.

The idea that a train is going to override or radically change this land use just isn't borne out by history. Take a look at Hiawatha. Have we seen radical change along that corridor? The highly touted Lake and Hiawatha corner still hasn't changed for example. There is no radical change at Franklin and Hiawatha. Cap's, the auto-oriented Walgreens at 46th, the Cardinal Bar - all argue against this idea that transit will radically remake the city. Some ten years later after construction, we are seeing a few condos sprouting up but no radical change along that corridor. And that has way more transit potential than a poky streetcar.

For people advocating streetcars, they point to Portland and Seattle. But Portland has an urban growth boundary that makes its development patterns way different than ours. They basically drew a line around the city and said we are not going to grow beyond this. So they have way more redevelopment and increasing density than the Twin Cities. The dynamics are fundamentally different. For Seattle, they build their trolly where this little company called Amazon was building its headquarters. We don't have an Amazon.

I am very pro-transit but for $200 million, that is 1/5th of an LRT that can haul way more people. At the same time, they are scrambling to figure out how to fund Southwest and Bottineau. It isn't hard to look at this from a macro perspective and wonder if there isn't something we are missing. That is why I put out the simple idea to test the route. Buy trolley vehicles with rubber tires and diesel engines. Figure out if you have a good idea here or not before spending money that could get you something bigger and better. It is simple thinking but hard politics.

Carol Becker

From: Connie Sullivan Date: 5:44pm

Carol's post raises some interesting questions about land use and city limits, in the context of the re-adoption of streetcars in the 21st century.

I don't know the Portland or Seattle areas well, but Carol suggests that streetcars there seem perhaps more viable than in Minneapolis because they address a limited area: tight city boundaries in the Portland case, and an inner-city area around a major employment center in the Seattle instance.

Is Minneapolis different? Our light rail does not serve Minneapolis as a city; it serves suburban areas (the Hiawatha serves the airport and MOA in Bloomington; the new Central line serves St. Paul, the Bottineau will serve the northern suburbs like Robbinsdale, etc., and the Southwest line will serve Eden Prairie's commuters).

Our current transit system is metropolitan; it is not city-based. So, as with parks recently, Minneapolis--which has had the same city limits since at least the immediate post- World War II years--seems to be trying to supplant the Metro Transit system with streetcars as a solely inner-city "solution" to . . . what? Lack of residential density?

I would remind us of the tremendous devastation that was committed on Minneapolis in the 1950s and 1960s in the name of Density! Look around you as you go through the city, to see the lousy two-and-a-half-story walkup apartment buildings that replaced large Victorian homes in those years, and the unfortunate re-zonings of some residential areas to permit this devastation. Zoning ordinances, of course, are the first bulwark of land-use planning.

The Density obsession for Minneapolis has become a mantra. Unthinking and automatic. Dangerous. Especially when it is used as an excuse for un-thought-out development and expensive toys.

Connie Sullivan
Como, in East Minneapolis

E-Democracy forum posts are republished under license by Creative Commons with Attribution. See entire discussion thread here.

  • As for Ms Becker's comments about the Hiawatha Line, density in the form of multi-unit housing has happened along the east side of the line in many locations. And given limited life of miscellaneous industries nearby, future medium density housing can happen here. But also an important measuring stick is that every passenger in those light rail cars takes people off the streets where auto traffic has increased and become slower. Diesel engines in transit vehicles is what we need to replace to reduce air pollution. As for density, more people living in cities is unavoidable and more environmentally sustainable. The objective should be, as seems to be emerging in the twin cities, is to minimize conversion of single family house tradition neighborhoods to higher density, and use zoning tools to increase density in unused industrial and commercial land and other areas along main traffic arteries, where retail and other amenities can provide multi-uses that can work well with street car routes. - by Bob Roscoe on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 7:29am
  • Something needs to be done about transit on Central ave. The bus routes can't meet current demand and projected demand higher. The problem is that the city only plans to go to 5th & cut off the growth happening in Northeast Mpls unless they can come up with more funding. - by Amanda Tempel on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 9:17am

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Fixed-rail limitations

My understanding is that fixed rails don''t have a lengthy useful life. I don't have specifics about this, but one can well imagine the disruption when rails have to be replaced because of wear and tear. I also think safety considerations for pedestrians will be quite a challenge in the event that one would have to cross vehicular traffic if the rails run down the middle of any given street. If there isn't exclusive right-of-way for the trolleys, frequent stops will be quite the vexing for any vehicles "trapped" behind a streetcar. 

An origin/destination study would also be helpful in establishing what the traffic flow on Minneapolis' major streets might be at peak hours. We currently have a glut of motorized vehicles that are expensive to park in the CBD for any lengthy duration but the demand is there and many acres of parking lots and ramps corroborate this. Not just vehicle counts in such a survey, but rather a systematic look at why and how people choose to drive into the heart of town and then return to far-flung destination locations as opposed to lateral commutes using the interstate system.

I gather from a conversation with a visiting luminary from Toronto that that city only achieved their fixed-rail goals when public transportation was given exclusive right-of-way. The admixture of motorized vehicles and fixed-rail assets was apparently unsuccessful until that solution was found. We ourselves have a strong but relatively recent interest in exclusive bicycle lanes on our major streets and that scenario has been confusing and surely dangerous for drivers and cyclists alike. This is certainly the case in foul weather and in particular at intersections where cross-traffic turns are intended.

My same informant points out that popular use of fixed rail assets in Germany and Austria in particular succeed in part because their cities are laid out with this mode of transportation as a top priority. We have grown more haphazardly in the past several decades in the brief history of Minneapolis as compared to European settings and have come to realize our much more diffuse and eclectic settlement patterns have found emerging limitations to their generational allure - their moments of fame, as it were. A fixed-rail system in Minneapolis hearkens back to interesting times in the first half of the twentieth century but IMHO seems to me to be quite short-sighted given the rapid and continuing expansion of alternatives to a very cluttered scene in our central business district (CBD).

Without geography, we'd be lost!