Limited transit resources reduce ability to manage city growth

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MetroTransit's Heywood bus garage facility and transit police station. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Shifting demographics and values in American metropolitan cities make maximizing available transit a higher priority. Anticipating a growing population means city planners must develop long-term plans to improve the system’s efficiency with limited funding. Traffic congestion and air quality will degrade further if nothing is done. However, cities manage to slowly update infrastructure that prioritizes pedestrian safety and maximize transit accessibility to reduce congestion and air pollution.

Twin Cities provides good example of a region strategically working to build a highly-accessible transit system. The area is expected to grow 824,000 people by 2040 and limited funding requires leveraging existing resources to invest in planning for rail extensions and increasing bus efficiency.

Segregated lanes boost efficiency of slow buses

Bus transit system in downtown Minneapolis includes Nicollet Mall, a segregated road exclusive to buses.
Nicollet Mall is a segregated street designed to improve service in a highly-congested area by making it exclusive to buses. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Nicollet Mall is known as the location of the IDS Tower, where the Mary Tyler Moore Show took place. It is also credited with being the first transit mall in the United States. MetroTransit offers free bus rides on select routes that run through this portion of downtown. The avenue only allows buses between two wide sidewalks that hold many sitting spaces and pedestrian traffic.

Although American infrastructure still mostly favors the automobile, cities like Portland incorporated busways modeled after Nicollet. Buses operating in mixed traffic are the slowest mode of transport but they are the least costly to implement. Segregated streets maximize route efficiency through congested central business districts.

Light rail slowly replaces lost street car infrastructure

Transit in Minneapolis. Light rail car outside of US Bank Stadium station.
Park and ride facilities allow fans to take light rail to see sportsball at downtown fields and stadiums which reduces congestion during these busy events. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Americans relied heavily on public transit during the early 20th century and industrial technology like farm machinery reduced the cost of basic needs. Real estate speculators developed street car systems to facilitate sales of newly available property. Passenger fares did not cover the cost of operations but increased accessibility to new housing plots made the practice profitable.

Twin City Rapid Transit Company burned streetcars to demonstrate its commitment to progress and innovation. Image courtesy Hennepin County Library.

Assembly line production and new banking practices made goods like the automobile affordable. Urban renewalists implemented grand auto-centric city plans to accommodate them throughout the United States. Public interest in transit plummeted.

Buses replaced street cars but many cities now see light rail with renewed interest in order to discourage single-occupancy vehicles. People prefer trains because service is faster and more reliable.

The Twin Cities currently has two lines that run from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul (green) and to Mall of America (blue). Ridership projections for the Hiawatha line exceeded expectations and plans for the green line began immediately. Today the region is planning extensions of both lines to the suburbs. However, rail projects are a large capital investment and there is political resistance.

Arterial bus rapid transit offers cheaper alternative

Transit in Minneapolis. MetroTransit A Line aBRT picks up passengers at the Snelling and University stop.
Bus rapid transit provides faster bus service on busy Snelling Avenue in St. Paul without the typical dedicated lane. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

A goal of public transit is maximizing accessibility but demographics of metropolitan regions are shifting dramatically. As suburban housing ages, minorities move into these homes as they become more affluent. White suburbanites are now moving to exurbs or gentrifying neighborhoods in the urban core. The shift means that meeting new demand in the urban core and suburbs require updates to transit infrastructure.

Arterial bus rapid transit (aBRT) systems are a lower cost solution than rail and service is faster than normal buses. aBRT lines generally run in segregated lanes through busy transportation corridors and receive priority at traffic signals. Despite not having a segregated lane, MetroTransit’s A Line sees ridership high enough to begin planning for the C, D, B and E lines.

Transit-oriented development boosts design efficiency

The Reflections is a transit-oriented condominium in Bloomington, MN built around the same time as the light rail. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

As cities realize that transportation design influences behavior, they adopt policies like Complete Streets. Exclusively building the right-of-way for the cars discourages walking and biking. Designing roads to comfortably accommodate pedestrians and cyclists encourages transit use. These changing values leads to the greater use of transit-oriented development (TOD) to maximize cost and network efficiency.

TOD redevelopments use mixed-use zoning policies around stations in transportation corridors. Mixed application of zoning allows the development of dense and medium residential complexes, single-family housing and commercial spaces. The right-of-way facilitates pedestrian and cyclist traffic without restricting access to motor vehicles.

Commuter rail brings suburbanites to urban core

Transit in Minneapolis. Northstar commuter rail car stopped at Target Field Station.
Northstar commuter rail brings passengers from the exurbs and suburbs to downtown Minneapolis, which reduces congestion on Interstate 94. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Heavy rail is the most efficient mode of transit because separated tracks keep them away from intersections with roads. Commuter rails generally run from the exurbs and suburbs to a single station within central business districts during rush hours. These trains carry a high-capacity of passengers and have few stops.

Northern Lights Express is a planned passenger rail line connecting Duluth to Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis. After a finding of no environmental impact, the project was recently approved to apply for federal funding.

Future transportation projects funding uncertain

According to the Thrive MSP 2040 regional plan, funding for light rail extensions and aBRT projects are secure but there is nothing currently available for further development. Transit systems require government subsidies because they are unprofitable, which means that politics plays a role in the approval of money. Financial constraints prevent cities from developing more costly projects that save money in the long-term. Documenting the urban environment helps leaders to make cases for additional funding.

The region still vividly remembers the collapse of a critical Interstate bridge. Not investing in long-term projects has consequences. Most cities are strapped for cash. Where do they get the money? How are the transportation systems in your city? Are city leaders taking the steps to develop long-term plans and working to increase the efficiency of the existing system?

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