Friday, November 11, 2011

Streetcars and Light Rail as Transit Options for NoMi

Post and photos by the Hawthorne Hawkman.

So the last post was, I admit, really not well-written.  Let's start from a little farther back in regards to northside transit options here.

Most folks may know the basics, but just to be sure:  "D1" refers to the route along the Bottineau transit corridor that would come from the northwest suburbs, down through Theo Wirth Park along existing rail lines, then connect with Highway 55 and head to downtown Minneapolis.  D1 has several advantages, in that it disrupts the least amount of housing, it doesn't cut off east/west streets, costs less, and does not take away parking.  The disadvantages would be that it does not have a connection to North Memorial, making jobs access more difficult, it wouldn't allow for as much economic development, and it would require a "feeder system" to bring residents to the light rail stops.  And people from outside of NoMi would be less likely to get onto that feeder system to come into our communities than if they got off on a light rail stop at Penn and Broadway.

"D2" refers to a variety of lines, D2a, D2b, D2c, D2d, and D2w, if I'm getting them all in.  Those options vary in terms of whether they go down either Penn or Oliver, and would need to take different amounts of housing/street right-of-way.  The purpose of the last meeting was to take a vote on which of the D2 alignments would be compared to D1.  The project is moving forward and the appropriate entities need to start doing cost and environmental/community impact comparisons.  In order to do that, they need to compare D1 with one of the D2 routes.

My notes are back in Minneapolis, so I guess this will have to be a three-part post when I return and write about which D2 route won out.  I personally favored D2w, as that would have disrupted the least amount of housing out of all D2 possibilities.  D1 still outdoes D2 in that regard.  Other D2 pros and cons are photographed above.

And although the conversations have been almost exclusively about light rail, I'm glad to see the Northside Transportation Network's website reference the northisde streetcar plan.  That's what I'll get into now...

...The current proposed streetcars on Broadway would stop at or near North Memorial, solving one deficiency of the D1 route.  There is a 169-page feasability final report from December 2007 and a 109-page final funding report from March of 2010, although the funding report only addresses the downtown-area lines.  Both contain a disclaimer that the reports are available in alternative formats.  I'm thinking of requesting them in origami or interpretive dance formats, in the hopes that they will be slightly less boring.

In a recent community meeting, one of my colleagues observed that there still seems to be a stigma around taking the bus.  If you're on a train, that's kind of hip.  Bikes encourage fitness, and cars are of course the norm.  But somehow if you're on a public bus, there is a perception that there must be something deficient about you or your situation that would put you there.  We need to change that or find alternative methods of mass transit.  Streetcars empirically do that, increasing ridership between 15-50% over bus ridership along the same corridors.  Why is that?

In Toronto, one of their busiest bus lines was replaced with a streetcar, and ridership went up by 15%.  The Toronto Transit Commission estimates that up to 60% of their streetcar riders are "choice" passengers - that is, they own a car but elect to travel via streetcars instead.  Among the reasons for this:  streetcars don't have to move in and out of traffic and are therefore perceived as faster (even when commute times are not measurably different) than buses, and a smoother ride allows passengers to write or type on streetcars, which they could not do on the bus.

Lest we dismiss Toronto's system as a byproduct of the desire to get away from the insane cold and/or Celine Dion music, we can head south to Memphis, Tennessee.  In 1993 they started with a 2.5-mile line downtown.  Since then, another 4.5 miles were added and ridership has gone from 500,000 in 1993 to 1.5 million in 2004.  In Memphis ridership was a mix of workers and recreational users, but contrary to common perceptions about mass transit, ridership was heaviest on Saturdays.  Surveys showed that almost half of the riders could have made the trip by car, but chose streetcars "for the experience."  Eighty-three percent of riders said they did not ordinarily use public transit.  In an interesting contrast to Minneapolis, Memphis streetcars paved the way for a light rail system.

Based on user surveys, it does seem that streetcars would bring economic development, and provide access to jobs, and be less disruptive to existing residential/commercial corridors.  So even though I started out on the D1/D2 issue as a strong proponent of bringing LRT down Penn/Broadway, I've since changed my tune.  I believe the best course for transit in NoMi is a D1 light rail route, with a streetcar system along Broadway, and other feeder corridors throughout the neighborhood.


  1. You know D2w might disrupt the least amount of housing but i'm concerned about the impact on the residents in surrounding areas. I think we need to think VERY carefully about our options even if the final choice is D2w over D1 or D2b. And don't apologize about your other post. This transit stuff is tricky and dry so anyone who has the balls to right about it is alright in my book. I'll keep plugging for D2w as well but I think we still need to look further at all the options.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, anon 11:30. I still am not happy with the quality of that post, but there is a balance between waiting too long for the perfect post and putting the info (or my perspective) out there for discussion's sake. I opted to prioritize the latter that time and I'm grateful that others appreciate that.

    I personally prefer D1 over any of the D2 routes because of its limited disruptions to NoMi. And I like D2w because even though it would take 8-10 feet from each property along Penn it would have the least amount of full property "takes" (read: demolitions). As much as I believe light rail is not an appropriate transit mode for a residential corridor, I do believe there would be people who would want to live next to that. So instead of demolishing homes, we could view the line as adding an amenity to the corridor that prospective homeowners want.

    HOWEVER...that's still fundamentally unfair to the property owners who bought along Penn because of what it has been. They may not want a house next to this, or on a cross street that no longer exists because LRT turned it into a cul-de-sac. Even IF they were properly compensated for the partial loss of their properties, it's still a forced sale.

    Light rail might bring significant development to the Penn and Broadway intersection. But I'm looking at what we say we want along the southbound corridors that LRT would then pass through, and I don't think those values and desires line up with what LRT does. It's the classic "square peg, round hole" conundrum.

  3. The light rail opinions and divisions in Nomi have become so predictable I've begun putting people into categories:

    - those that live too close for comfort to one of the options, so they advocate for the other one that doesn't affect them

    - those that live close enough to one of the options to benefit, but yet far enough to not have house/property/daily live affected in a negative way, so they advocate for that one *disclosure, this is me in regards to Penn/Broadway option*

    - those that live close enough to D2 to want it there, but don't want their house/property/daily life affected so they advocate for an alternative D2 option

    - those that don't live close enough to D2 to benefit, so they start advocating for D1 because they don't want to see Penn Ave change.

    They are all selfish positions. And I include myself in that. And everyone can debate ad naseum for the reasons they think their position is the best and most logical.

    In October, JACC invited Council President Barb Johnson to our board meeting to talk about her public statement she recently made about D1. I believe she made the statement on a bus tour, and it was published in a Finance Commerce article. So she came to JACC to discuss it with us. Her position is that with the way funding and budgets and forecasts are looking these days, it's become pretty predictable that these types of projects and options to projects are funded by the Feds almost strictly based on cost. And that D1 is a bit less expensive than any of the D2s. And her reasoning is that if we don't all get behind the D1 option, we could very likely end up with nothing, with the whole line not being funded by the Feds. She has a valid point, I can see the reasoning. So I actually brought up the possibility of the street car line being resurected along WBro and feeding to the D1 line at whatever the best/closest/most practical point was with the D1 LRT. She gave a safe political answer of how exciting it was that street car lines are being rebirthed around the city and she doesn't think the Wbro line was a definite, and didn't know when it would come up in the time line, etc. A safe answer. I tried to push a little bit, asking "if northsiders alligned behind the D1 option can we some how be promised or negotitate and definite promise for the street car line in exchange for conceeding on the D1 LRT line? She wouldn't give a straight answser. Which makes me skeptical like John expressed above that we would end up with D1 and no street car line.

    I think it should a promise made to the northside in exchange for alliance and unity on D1 - you know - considering all those early years of planning by the City in which they mapped out North Mpls as the designated area for what was considered inferior citizens.

  4. Moving here a couple of months ago from a city where this would never happen (the streetcar discussion only covered one favored part of town), it's great to see an investment like this is being discussed in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city.

    I agree with the streetcar to light-rail version, since it has been made quite apparent that light-rail does not revitalize business districts like streetcars do. Of course, that's due to the fact that a streetcar can provide coverage of an entire commercial street, while a lone light-rail won't have a positive impact outside of the immediate area.

    I can't say I've been impressed with light-rail development whether it's the Hiawatha Line outside of Downtown (when I looked south from the E 46th St station Hiawatha Ave is lined with typical suburban strip malls: no new urban development, let alone a brand new shiny "downtown" for the Hiawatha neighborhood) or DC's Blue Line which has some stops with really dense residential development a long way from Downtown, but its suburban building design serves to negate the walkability potential of residents living in developments next those stations. I came across this interesting read on the lack of light-rail development in Longfellow.

    I'm thinking the streetcar segment in Downtown Minneapolis is what spurred the new development a few blocks away on Washington SE. Of course, W Broadway is a different animal, since it faces the higher-crime factor and the bad image that comes with it, but really I couldn't think of another street in the city that *needs* a streetcar as badly. For a number of blocks on one side of the street you have some underutilized urban buildings offering easy walkability and they're directly across the street from set-back strip malls which obviously did nothing to renew the area: yet another nail in the urban renewal quackery coffin. A streetcar would reinvigorate the commercial activity there and there are numerous sites for redevelopment. As it stands, yes, I would ride a streetcar from NE to Donny Dirk's on W Broadway.

  5. @NoMi Passenger,

    As I look to get back into home ownership, I'd say I fall into a slightly different category. Of the homes I'm looking at buying, two of them are close enough to D2 that I would benefit from living in proximity to a station on Broadway and Penn. Hooray for me, right? Except that I do not want to benefit from bad design.

    I'm also not terribly interested in a political tit-for-tat regarding the various routes. I want a West Broadway streetcar line to succeed based on the quantitative merits of the line itself. I don't think that will happen with D2. And then we'll be left either with no streetcar system in NoMi or overspending on minimal streetcar results because we overspent on the wrong LRT route in the first place.

    @Minneapolisite, thanks, and I agree quite heartily.

  6. There is so much that is wrong about the D2 alignment. It only creates one stop on West Broadway. And that one stop comes at a high cost in terms of destruction and disruption to our neighborhoods. There likely would be either an insane amount of demolition, or a scenario in which trains are whizzing right outside people's windows (which is sure to blight the housing along the line). Neighborhoods would become bisected, barriers created. There would be parking issues. And of course, it would likely kill the future possibility of street car reintroduction on West Broadway. LRT is designed for regional connectivity anyhow - not high frequency service in dense urban neighborhoods. We get very little, but pay a very high cost.

    I highly doubt it is going to happen anyhow - it is not supported by the mayor, is not supported by Barb Johnson, and the comments during the scoping process were overwhelmingly negative from the community. Not to mention it is the more expensive option and takes more time. The writing is on the wall - it's not going to happen.

    I personally think it's time to put our focus and energies rallying around things that can happen. I think the D1 alignment needs to have a park and ride that is accessible to Northsiders. And we need to create energy around the Broadway Washington Street Car Alignment. We need to advocate that in order to counter act past disinvestment in North Minneapolis, the Washington Broadway alignment should be made the next priority behind the Nicollet alignment (which has already been chosen as the first line of implementation). An upside of D1 bypassing North Memorial is that street car reintroduction can get a boost from having a large institution such as North Memorial backing it.

    Those are my thoughts. Some may disagree.

  7. Streetcar up Broadway is the way to go. Unfortunately, making that a reality will take 15 years if it happens at all. I hate to be Debbie Downer, but it won't happen anytime soon without some major sea change in transit funding. Our only hope for building out our rail network rapidly is $10/gallon gas.

  8. What North Minneapolis needs is integration with the rest of Minneapolis's economy. This brings opportunity into what is now a very isolated community.

    The LRT is a long term permanent transportation fixture that will connect North Minneapolis with outlying suburbs. This exposes NoMi's undervalued properties and retail opportunities to a market with the expendable incomes to create jobs and services in the community.

    A streetcar is a system which connects NoMi with short range destinations that will be used primarily to shuffle current residents over the same paths that the bus service now serves. It continues to segregate this area from the main stream economy. It will not attract additional consumers or business development into the area and no one from outside the area will ride it (they will opt for the LRT which bypasses NoMi).

    These street car routes will be highly dependent on local usage. They may be initiated to give an "alternative" to inclusion in updated transit developments, but can be quickly cut when ridership no longer is economically advantageous.

    Proponents who want to avoid the negative aspects of potential crime and minority ridership of an LRT stop in North Minneapolis have done a masterful job of feeding on the divisions in community leadership who fear their neighborhoods may not get an equal share of potential benefits by proposing this glitzy alternative that offers no economic benefit beyond our current bus service.

  9. I personally don't even care if it take 15 or more years for Street Cars to return to West Broadway. The built form of a city exists in timelines longer than any individual lifetime. The best way to make the best city possible is to invest in the best design. It doesn't matter if I will personally benefit. If the best design for West Broadway is Street Cars, it is best to stay the course and hold focus on that goal. Otherwise, that 15 year (or more) mark will pass anyhow and we will in the meanwhile "settled" for something less (or worse - destructive) and will lament that we didn't make the right choices 15 years prior.

  10. I can honestly say that Annonymous 10:29 has made the best argument yet against Street Cars and for LRT. I'm not convinced, but I can honestly say that I respect the frame of their argument.


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