An island of urbanity (or, “Can you pick me up maybe..?”)

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I, through a combination of factors that are too complicated to explain here, did not get my driver’s license until I was 20 years old. There was a whole thing. As a result, my “default” mode of transportation has never been a car. I rode my bike to work in high school, and even got my school to put in a bike rack, which you unfortunately can’t quite see in the link, but I promise it’s there. That was also a whole thing. Anyway, I then went off to college at the University of Minnesota, lived in a walkable area in the middle of a city with pretty good transit access to the rest of that city, and so on. I now live in Loring Park and work in Downtown Minneapolis. I don’t own a car and actually prefer to walk over biking or taking transit if it’s doable.

It’s great! I love my neighborhood. I have a nice view of South Minneapolis from my window. I walk to the grocery store and the gym. I usually bus down Nicollet Mall to work and then walk home if it’s not hot out. It probably takes ten minutes longer to walk vs. bus. I also have a dangerous/healthy habit of walking home from Up/Dinkytown/elsewhere after a night out, but that’s never been a problem. So stuff is pretty cool. I casually explored the idea of getting a car about a year ago, and discovered that that would cost approximately three to four hundred dollars a month counting the car, parking, and insurance, and not counting whatever gas costs–which reminds me, how much does gas cost again? Totally separated from that whole dynamic.

The thing with the above description of my life is that it only involves me. And as of a couple weeks ago, pretty much all my friends have now graduated from college, so people have started moving to different places–Northeast, Uptown, the suburbs, even St. Paul. And unfortunately, there are really very few places in the Twin Cities where living car free is possible, so very few people do it. You have to have everything line up just right–either you live and work in the same neighborhood, or your residence and place of employment line up along a reliable, high-frequency transit line. And then of course it also helps to be in an area where you can walk to groceries, etc. So very few people I know are able to live car free, even among the relatively urbanist-type friends that I have. People live in Minneapolis but work in the suburbs, or live and work in Minneapolis but too far away from the CBD for transit to be practical for day to day needs.

Even in Loring Park, most people have cars. Only 23.4% of households in Census Tract 1056 (the fightin’ 1056th!) are carless. The tract includes the southern part of Loring Park and the western part of Stevens Square, which taken together may be the most traditionally urban part of Minneapolis, in that if you squint just right when looking down certain streets, it looks like an eastern city. So you have a situation where you have a decent amount of pre-urban renewal urban fabric leftover, i.e. beautiful buildings from the turn of the century with no structured parking built in, but a different metropolitan area where most people need to drive. I put together this before (1957) and after (2006) comparison of the area, because GIFs are so hot right now.

The obvious change on the map is the addition of I-94, which swings around the backside of my apartment building and forms the southern boundary of my neighborhood and one of the several effective freeway boundaries of what most people consider to be downtown. (Writer’s note: Internally I don’t really even think of myself as living downtown, but to your average Twins fan from Fairbault driving north to Target Field for a Twins game, their perception of “downtown” probably starts somewhere near Lake Street on I-35W.) But we also lost quite a few buildings, which have mostly been replaced by parking lots. There has been some infill in the past decade, including a 36 story apartment tower under construction right now on what was previously a half-block parking lot at Spruce Place & 14th Street. Another large project just wrapped up down the street from me, which also replaced a half block of parking and added 119 units.

So things have gotten tight, parking-wise. After fielding many, many complaints from my friends, I felt the need to create a parking map for getting to my apartment–because as I mentioned above, they live in Northeast Minneapolis or Bloomington. It can reasonably be considered a hassle to take the bus to my neighborhood from just about anywhere in the city if you require a non-downtown transfer or if you’re trying to leave downtown at 10:30 PM on a Saturday night. When folks come over, they first drive by my building to see if one of five visitor spots is open (this has never happened before.) but almost always end up swinging around to park back on Clifton and then walk up to five minutes. First world problems, right?

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I’ve also, shamefully, gotten in the habit of soliciting rides to things if I know that a friend is driving anyway. Even things that would be pretty easy to take a bus to. Because they’re driving anyway, so hey why not?

It’s like the neighborhood is an island–albeit one with everything I need, but too small to fit all that many people on it. We had a chance to do a huge amount of land reclamation for the island with the Green Line extension and the 3C alignment which would have gone down Nicollet Avenue, but through some funny math and some inexplicable decision-making, we’re going to put a station here instead of here. It looks like we’re going to do the same thing with the upcoming Blue Line extension, which is literally being routed through a park. The Nicollet-Central streetcar will help a bit, but in terms of the actual quality of service, it’s not a huge improvement.

So for the foreseeable future, the island I live on is going to stay pretty small. Even with thousands of new residents moving into Downtown and Uptown recently, and thousands more on the way in the next couple years, we’re going to have the same transit options that require people to own a car unless they’re lucky enough to score a job in the same locale as their apartment or condo. The poor 3C alignment horse has been beaten to death so many times at this point, but in light of the new problems with the freight rail reroute, you have to wonder what the Cost Effectiveness Index numbers would look like if they were recalculated. Recalculated for the city it looks like we’re going to become in spite of our transit system, not because of it.