We’ve all got wheels (and that’s the problem)

Featured, Policy — By on July 16, 2011 3:38 pm

Many of the hot-button political issues recently popping up in this part of the city are the same ones that have kept concerned citizens awake at night since the beginning of time (or at least the temperance movement): bars, liquor stores, and sex shops; drunks, perverts, and the noisy twenty-somethings next door.

But in any city or town, there is another constant concern that always percolates to the surface and yet is seldom discussed in any proactive manner at the local level. That’s traffic congestion. Everybody hates it, everybody complains about it, but for whatever reason, we tend to acquiesce and assume that things will never change.

Traffic congestion is (in some ways) a good thing for a city. Slower-moving traffic can make pedestrians and cyclists safer, and the drivers may notice and stop at local businesses. Gridlock encourages travelers to choose alternatives to driving, or to be more efficient with their trips. And there’s something to be said for the hustle and bustle of a busy city block.

But traffic congestion creates obvious negative outcomes as well. Cars spew pollution into the air. Exasperated drivers make quick, unpredictable movements that lead to accidents. Time and gasoline are wasted. Potential customers may stay away from clogged business districts (like Uptown). Obnoxiously loud music remains within earshot for a longer period of time.

Mitigating the problems associated with traffic congestion requires addressing both its causes (lots of cars, limited road capacity) and effects (pollution, unsafe streets for other users). Often the two are inseparable, but thinking of solutions in this way helps us remember that some congestion is good for a city – and some fixes for the causes of congestion, such as road widening, may ultimately hurt a neighborhood.

In future posts, I hope to discuss some of the solutions that could make Uptown’s streets (and daily lives) more safe, pleasant, and healthy. Today, let’s consider one of the key things feeding into congestion, and perhaps the most obvious: people driving to work.


Map of Commuting Patterns in UptownThe U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey allows us a glimpse into how people get to work, which is a key variable in the traffic equation. Using the ACS 2005-2009 estimates (which provide data at the census tract level, rather than the whole city),  we see in the map at left that around the Uptown area, the single-occupant automobile remains the dominant form of transportation for commuters.

We can do better.

While it’s this author’s view that the quality of transit service in Uptown is frequently overstated, the fact remains that between routes 4, 6, 12, 17, 21, 23, 53, and the 113-115 University of Minnesota services, anyone commuting to downtown or midtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota, or some of the closer-in suburban business hubs does have a reasonable transit option that should not take more than 20-25 minutes each way. Of course there are other variables, like frequency of service, perceptions of safety or comfort, timing of connections, and so on. But with the ACS showing approximately 16% of people choosing transit for their commute, it may be time for elected officials and local leaders to think about new ways to make transit more attractive to choice riders.

There are other trends that could play an important role in relieving some of the congestion on the roads. Broadly speaking, telecommuting and flexible workdays are becoming more popular, and help remove some of the traffic pressure at rush hour. And in Uptown specifically, we are seeing the growth of an office market that could provide area residents with white collar jobs within walking distance. (An example of this is the MoZaic project currently under construction behind the Uptown Transit Station.)

Transportation might not be a hot-button issue at first glance, and it certainly isn’t sexy. But getting around the metro, city, or just the neighborhood, is something most of us do every day, and it’s not nearly as enjoyable, safe, or efficient as it could be. Feel free to weigh in on transportation issues in the comments section below — the intent of this article is to spark the discussion and exploration of the subject, rather than provide any sort of comprehensive assessment. Let’s get this party started.

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  1. Mike Kann says:

    Trains! I moved here December 2009/2010 from Chicago and i’ll never forget going to the Library in Uptown and picking up my first copy of the local paper and reading that Uptown had voted against considering a Light rail to potentially go through most of Uptown – connecting vital areas of the metro. Instead the vote was for putting it through a park away from everyone? in a suburb? I’m sorry but I just don’t get it. I know people here love to rave about being a bike city and thats awesome. But for the average person, biking is a hobby for the weekends, not a mod of transportation. Furthermore if the City or Minneapolis wants to improve their bus system they need to mimic Chicago.

    Chicago A. has an automated announcement system inside the bus that clearly states which stop is next – no more reling on the driver to announce and mumble all the time. B. The signs at the particular bus stop, state 1. the times the route runs 2. bus number 3. and a little map of the route it travels (both ways) All the info you could ever want. C. finally in Chicago since trains are an alternative to the bus, buses run more efficiently, since it gives people the options.

    In uptown, busses have to deal with the same traffic as the cars, causing long waits and delays. Trains don’t deal with traffic. Trains always attract new people to public transit. IF they are built in the right areas.

    In a perfect little world, I dream of the day that I can jump on a train at either 27th and Lyndale or Hennipen and go out for Happy Hour in the Northeast district, then get back on the train and catch some type of performing arts downtown and then finish my night getting back on the train and meeting a few friends at a bar in uptown.

    I really love Minneapolis, it has a lot of things that Chicago is missing. But it is lightyears beyond Chicago in public transit. (yes i understand Chicago is old and was built around transit, but Mpls can create an efficient plan to build for the future)

    • Anders says:

      I think a lot of us share the dream of rapid transit in the area, which is why the Light Rail defeat was such a let-down. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t improve transit so that it’s quicker, more convenient, and more attractive. Since we won’t be getting LRT, we need to think about what factors we can really improve on. Jarrett Walker of the Human Transit blog has done a great job getting into the real, practical differences people care about, rather than just classifying things by the type of vehicle. I recommend checking it out and using it as a starting point for thinking about where our system could be improved: http://www.humantransit.org/2011/02/sorting-out-rail-bus-differences.html

  2. CR says:

    Is the SW line a done deal? I don’t think there is federal funding for it yet, the funding guidelines that they used to justify the train through nowhere have changed with the new administration.
    Many of my coworkers downtown from the burbs have a shorter bus commute then me(express from park/ride) and without LRT to uptown I can’t see this ever changing. Our N/S arteries (lyndale/hennepin) connecting us to downtown and points further are chocked with traffic that will never go away or get better. Without LRT the only alternatives we have are buses or streetcars, both of which have to deal with the same traffic problems we have today. I fear that as we continue on the current path we are going to get choked off by traffic from downtown. Luckily we can bike, but in today’s insane heat, or during winter’s wrath, that’s not a viable alternative.
    I hope something can be done but in my infinite pessimism, I don’t see a viable alternative anywhere on the horizon other than the SW LRT.

    • Anders says:

      Technically speaking, no, the SW LRT isn’t a done deal, but the alignment choice is pretty much set in stone. As for the project overall, it’s on track to receive full funding in a few years, but with politics being what they are these days, a lot will depend on the next federal transportation bill (which isn’t looking great: http://bit.ly/oPe1eg).

      I’ll try to explore some of the transit issues in a future post. While LRT would’ve been a tremendous asset, we still ought to look for improvements to Uptown (and regional) transit service, whether they in roadway design, new technologies, stop relocation, etc. This isn’t a glamorous issue anymore, but it’s still essential, particularly in a growing part of the regional core.

  3. Janne says:

    I think one big challenge for Uptown is that the Hennepin-Lake/Lagoon route is seen as an alternative commute for people passing through to points beyond, not for those who are using the area. It’s seen as a highway (100 or 394) alternative. It’s not a space that designed or appropriate for handling large quantities of commuters alone in their cars. How can we encourage commuters to respect the reidential and local commercial nature of the ‘hood and use our streets when they want to visit, rather than treating them as roads to get them to other places as fast as possible? Would it be possible to make them feel differently (for example, adding a tree-filled median, or bike lanes, or both)? Would it be possible to make them less commuter-friendly (for example by reducing capacity so the trip is slower?) Or by giving buses and bikes some sort of advantage (for example by pulling a lane from cars and giving it to other modes?)

  4. Nathaniel says:

    First of all – good post! Secondly, I firmly believe that Minneapolis needs a “Carmageddon” on Lake Street. Let’s close it down from, say, West Calhoun to Lyndale (and untake a similar project to what was done on Lyndale a few weeks ago). Even if it was merely a day, I’d love to see how people and traffic adapt. Plus, I think these types of activities are baby steps in the right direction as we start to see that our lives don’t need to revolve around the automobile.

    • Anders says:

      A ciclovía type of event would be great, but I think Janne is right that much of the traffic pressure in the area comes from commuters originating in St. Louis Park and the other southwestern suburbs (and the dense area at the NW corner of Lake Calhoun). West Lake Street carries over 40,000 cars a day along the northern shore of Calhoun, which is 10,000 more than Hennepin at its busiest point. Janne hit the nail on the head: We ought to be thinking about how to make that Lake/Lagoon/Hennepin artery safer, more beautiful, and more functional for the users who are not just passing through.

  5. Alex says:

    Is that title a Flying Burrito Brothers reference? I hope so!

  6. Alex says:

    Whoa! I’ll check you guys out at Palmer’s this month! (not in the way that guys are usually checked out at Palmer’s)

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