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.
The 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.