UPDATED 8/24/2011 – Transit for Livable Communities has had a busy year lobbying at the capitol and trying to ward off budget cuts to public transportation. As their advocacy work stars winding down, their programmatic work is ramped up during the summer. TLC is busy educating Twin Citians about their BikeWalk program and training people to be better about what Hilary Reeves calls, “mixing it up.” According to Reeves, a communications manager at Transit for Livable Communities, the Twin Cities would be better off if we had better regional planning and if individuals would start adding some walking, biking, and public transportation to their car use. Here’s what Reeves had to say, in person and via email, about transportation in the Twin Cities.
It’s hard to get people jazzed about transportation. What’s the best way to get people to start using more than cars to get around?
You don’t want to sound anti-car because that just pisses people off, but then how do you make it visceral and intuitive and get people to have that “ah-ha!” moment? Part of it is that until you start trying it, and mixing transit, bicycling and walking into your options you don’t realize that the car can be kind of an albatross, something you have to figure out what to do with, where to park. So of course it’s about behavior modification.
How do you make people change their behavior?
Well, one way is to talk about cost. You can save a lot of money if you can find a way to reduce your dependence on cars. Can your household find a way to have one car? That’s about eight thousand dollars a year you can save.
Then think about how, during the housing bubble, we built outward without planning for public transportation, walking and biking. Now that’s predicated on the idea that gas is not going to be that expensive. So, now we have to think about location and housing tied to transportation. For instance, a more expensive house closer to the city center might actually be less expensive for people than a cheaper house further out because they can spend much less on transportation.
What happened to whole “complete streets” movement?
The big policy change was to give the MNDOT engineers the flexibility to change and implement things on the local level. Before, they had to focus on state standards that were totally car-focused. So if someone in a neighborhood or county or city wanted to change their streets, and it wasn’t fully in line with the state’s standards it was nearly impossible to do.
How’s Minnesota doing in comparison to other cities?
The funny thing is that having good transit options is one of the keys to attracting employees and major employers. During this past legislative session, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce came out and gave support for a more fully developed transit plan with better public transportation options and funding. In Atlanta they’ve finally added special additional funding for transportation. There’s a new awareness in many cities that it’s important to have a robust transit system, and many cities are way ahead of us on this front.
I went to a conference recently and there was this guy from Salt Lake City and he was talking about how they’ve been doing new light rails, and they’ve been funding themselves. They decided not to wait for federal funding to match them because they knew how important transportation was. Then there’s Denver and Dallas, and they’re way ahead of us. It’s cold here, and it’s warm there. And when companies are trying to sell employees on Minnesota, they need something to sell them on. If transportation isn’t a part of that then we’ll lose out.
Where are the gaps that we need to fill in transit systems?
We already spend a lot on roads. We have a huge highway system: Minnesota has the fifth-largest road system in the country and the metro area highway system has more lane miles per capita than Los Angeles. We have to try to cut back on expansion and then use the ones we have. Then we’ve got to start mixing in transit corridors and other types of transportation. We’ve made some gains in this area but not enough.
Transit for Livable Communities put out a report in January called Planning to Succeed? and it focuses on the reforms needed, especially at the Metropolitan Council. The Met Council has not done all that it could to unify and lead on transportation vision. We could do a lot if we looked at sewers, housing/land use, and transportation all together.
When you put in sewer lines to the exurbs then people build roads and then they build schools. Something has to pay for the upkeep of those things; but if the only thing out there is roads, houses and schools, and if you don’t have local businesses to supplement property taxes, then you only have property taxes. That’s not enough to pay for those services so, then you have to do things like cut services from those things you built—like cut sports from schools’ teams.
How did we get to such an extreme level of suburban and exurban sprawl?
Well, it’s not a short story. In fact, sprawl has been going on for decades. As the Twin Cities region grew after world war two, builders found that they could make more money by building in the outer fringe where land was cheaper and the community standards were easier to meet. Also, despite our 10,000 lakes, the Twin Cities has no natural barriers like oceans or mountains, that confine growth. In the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, there were few natural and governmental restrictions or incentives to build neighborhoods in a more compact way. Thus, the private market took the path of least resistance and developed outward rather than upward.
With gasoline and highways being subsidized by the federal government, there was little risk to the cities or homeowners to go along with the program and move out to the suburbs and exurbs.
Ironically, as many of these neighborhoods come of age, residents find that they actually do need sidewalks and bike routes so that their kids can get to school safely. They realize that an express bus to downtown jobs and special events is more convenient and affordable than driving and parking in a garage.
We can’t undo decades of sprawl, but we can work together to re-weave our communities to have better connections and to provide more options to get to work without spending our entire paycheck at the gas pump. With profits from $4 gas going primarily to foreign nations, many people are finally starting to see how their choices impact their household budget and the economic prosperity of the region.
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.