Transit priorities

I have mixed feelings about streetcars. But if we’re going to pick on them, let’s do it for the right reasons, like the fact that they don’t have dedicated right of way.  Yesterday the Pioneer Press reported that the Met Council was presented with a report about streetcars that “questions whether the costs outweigh the gains”.

Dollars are one way to measure cost, and if we’re spending too much to get gains, that is bad. How much money do we spend on transit elsewhere to get gains?

The proposed Nicollet streetcar in Minneapolis will cost $200 million and serve 9,200 riders in 2030. Bus Rapid Transit proposed for the Gateway Corridor will cost $469 million and serve 9,300 riders in 2030.  That’s double the cost per rider.  The Met Council has already adopted its Transportation Policy Plan, which includes the build-out of Gateway in the “Current Revenue Scenario” (meaning they don’t need any new money from the legislature or others). Bottineau and Southwest LRT also come in with price tags significantly higher per rider than the Minneapolis streetcar (Southwest is more than double).

Yes, we could be choosing arterial bus improvements on Nicollet instead of streetcars. That might be good.  But we could also be prioritizing expenditures across our regional transit system – looking at projects that have the highest cost-effectiveness per rider, or that most effectively address current inequities in job or destination access.

If we were really serious about costs and benefits, we’d be building projects like Hennepin Avenue Bus Rapid Transit tomorrow, which has a cost per rider 55 times lower than Gateway Corridor.  Instead, it’s on the “Increased Revenue Scenario” list, waiting in the breadline with the other high-value bus improvement projects, for the legislature to maybe, someday, hopefully fund.

Minneapolis seeks funding for analysis of streetcar “starter” lines

The City of Minneapolis is applying for TIGER II grant funding from the US DOT for an alternatives analysis for Central Avenue and Nicollet Avenue, two routes the city prefers for a new streetcar system.  How they can prefer streetcar as the mode without an alternatives analysis is puzzling to me since the previously completed streetcar study did not consider any other transit modes.  The Metropolitan Council also recommends arterial BRT, not streetcar, for the Nicollet and Central Avenue corridors in the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan.  As explained by a guest here at Net Density before, arterial BRT can offer significant travel time savings and increased ridership at a much lower cost than either LRT or streetcar.

According to the FTA, an alternatives analysis is supposed to answer some key questions: What are the problems in a corridor? What are their underlying causes? What are viable options for addressing these problems? What are their costs? What are their benefits?  If all of these questions are fairly explored and answered and streetcar turns out to be the best option, so be it.

Anna Flintoft, a transportation planner with the City of Minneapolis who is quoted in the Minnesota Daily article linked to above, told me in an email that the city does plan to evaluate multiple modes, including streetcar and “enhanced bus”.  This is a good sign, but the City Council seems to have already made up their mind about the mode without having seen any alternatives.

Minneapolis picks streetcars over busway improvements: spending more for less?

The South Lake Union Streetcar Line in Seattle

Minneapolis is taking one more step toward putting street cars in major transit corridors in the city.  Friday the City Council voted to adopt the 30-year vision for these rail transit corridors. It also appears that the city is considering a “starter” corridor, and determining whether they should enter into the “federal project development process”.

Even though these corridors could certainly use transit improvements, and streetcars may in fact be appropriate for some of these corridors, more analysis of alternatives is called for before a streetcar is chosen as the best mode, especially along the transit-heavy corridors of Hennepin and Nicollet (which seem to be the favorites for selection as the “starter” corridor).

The long-term vision for these corridors is based on a 2007 Streetcar feasibility study, which seems to take as a given that streetcars are the preferred mode for bolstering transit in the corridors.  The study contains no alternatives analysis, but instead contains a few pages answering the question, “Why Streetcars?”  Many of the report’s conclusions about the advantages of streetcars (assumed over buses, and in the case of cost, over LRT) could also likely be said about enhanced bus service.  But the report never explores this, since it is dedicated to streetcars.

Potential "starter" corridors for Streetcars

Different vehicles, better signage (or some signage at all), real time arrival information, and higher amenity stations could all be said to achieve the benefits presented in the study, whether using a streetcar system or an enhanced bus system.  In a guest post by a Metro Transit planner here on Net Density, two examples of arterial Bus Rapid Transit, a form of enhanced bus service were highlighted.  These examples, from Kansas and LA, showed that ridership can be improved dramatically (60 and 40 percent, respectively), with a much smaller expenditure than streetcar or LRT would require.

Travel time savings of over 20% was also realized in both Kansas and LA.  A new streetcar system on Hennepin or Nicollet will likely have little or no travel time savings over existing bus service.  The study admits as much saying that buses are more flexible, being able to maneuver around parked or stalled vehicles, and that the only travel time savings with streetcars would be advance boarding, something that could easily be implemented with bus service.

One characteristic that we can compare is cost.  Minneapolis staff prepared a Funding Study, to explore potential options for funding a new streetcar system and looking at potential “starter” corridors.  According to this study, a Nicollet line would have a capital cost of $75 million, while a Hennepin line (only extending to the Walker Art Center) would cost $70 million.  A similar (but longer) line along Nicollet using enhanced bus service may be closer to $30 million.  Neither of these new streetcar lines would extend much beyond downtown initially, likely provide little or no travel time advantage over existing bus service and would likely cost double what a longer, faster enhanced bus service would cost.  The full Streetcar study also identifies a significant issue at Franklin Avenue for the Hennepin Avenue line, a grade over 6%.  Once the line was extended into Uptown, would the intersection need to be totally rebuilt?  This would likely bring costs even higher.

While it is clear that Minneapolis needs improved transit service, alternatives need to be studied.  Can we build a better, faster, more legible bus system for half the cost of a new streetcar network?  And one that will dramatically increase ridership and improve the experience for those who already ride?  If so, then this is the better option.  Building what basically seems like a downtown circulator, which moves people barely further than the distance of a comfortable walk, does not seem like the best investment of city or federal tax dollars.

Creating Real Transity Improvements in Uptown Part 2: The Potential of Arterial BRT

Kansas City MAX Station. That's a nice bus stop.

Kansas City MAX Station. That's a nice bus stop.

In a previous post, I promised some insight into creating substantial transit improvements in the Uptown/LynLake areas of Minneapolis now that LRT is basically off the table.  In what is hopefully the first in a series of guest posts by different transit experts, I’ve asked a Metro Transit planner who is involved in transitway planning throughout the region to give his (or her) insight.  As our guest will reiterate, the opinions seen here are personal (although professionally informed) and do not represent the opinions of Metro Transit.

As a reminder, I’ve asked our guest to limit the response to improvements that could really be implemented, and are not wildly expensive or politically infeasible. And, of course, ideally these improvements should have the potential to significantly increase ridership and make the overall transit experience in the area better.

First I’ll thank Brendon for the opportunity to contribute to this excellent blog. Net Density does a great job offering posts that are understandable and approachable, but also of sound technical merit and well-reasoned professional planning. I will aspire to match these qualities in my post.

Second, I will note that the information contained in this post is meant only to advance the transportation planning professional discourse. It is my own work, and does not necessarily reflect the policies of my employer.


Many residents of Minneapolis neighborhoods, and those in the planning community were frustrated by the HCRRA decision to pursue Southwest LRT on route 3A, via Kenilworth corridor. Given the current greater density and increased transit usage along Lake Street, Hennepin, and Nicollet, many came away with a desire for rapid, high quality transit improvements. This post does not revisit the many, justified reasons for 3A. Instead, it focuses on the many, justified reasons for transit improvements in several additional corridors in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

High quality improvements are warranted in south Minneapolis. In this post, I will respond to Brendon’s request to detail planned improvements. I’ll also point to other regions’ experiences with realistic, implementable investments in transit speed and quality.

Continue reading

Creating Real Transit Improvements in Uptown: Part 1

The future? photo by flickr user: Mulad

The future? photo by flickr user: Mulad

The routing decision for the Southwest LRT is basically done.  I’ve previously bemoaned what seemed like the inevitable choice of Route 3A by the County because I (and others) had unanswered questions about ridership and the long-term logic of bypassing Uptown.  Critics of 3C suggested that a more appropriate transit solution for Uptown would be a Greenway streetcar, and that transit advocates in Uptown should really wait their turn for what was surely a better alternative.  However, this argument doesn’t make sense, because the major destinations LRT would connect are the U of M and Downtown with Uptown, not Hiawatha Avenue with Uptown.

After some disparaging for the future, I decided that I should try to be positive and proactive, rather than gloomy and snide.  So Uptown and south Minneapolis are not going to benefit from the new LRT line.  So what would it take to get substantial improvements to the transit system in the Hennepin/Lyndale/Nicollet corridors?  Is there a cost-effective way to overcome, or at least minimize, the limitations now faced by the bus system (traffic congestion, inclement weather and slow fare collection)?  Can we create a bus corridor that would rival LRT for speed and desirability?

I have some ideas, but I don’t pretend to be an expert.  So, in a Net Density first, I’ll be asking a few very knowledgeable (and gracious) individuals to describe how they would improve the existing system in the Uptown/LynLake area.  I will ask that they restrain themselves to improvements that could really be implemented, and are not wildly expensive (no subways). And, of course these improvements should have the potential to significantly increase ridership and make the overall transit experience in the area better.

The first guest post comes from a Metro Transit planner who has been involved in transitway planning throughout the region.  From the conversations we’ve had so far, his post promises to be intriguing and give clear strategies for greater ridership and better service.  He’ll also have some good real world examples of how improvements he is suggesting have been implemented in other cities.  Stay tuned.

Beautiful Map of Historic Twin Cities Streetcar Lines

What, no Kennilworth alignment?

From City of Lakes Urbanism, a link to Brett McKean’s map of the 1933 streetcar routes in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.  We do still have a lot of this infrastructure, it’s just in the form of buses now.  If someone could dig up the old time schedules, that would be an interesting comparison.  The busiest routes in the metro look to be Hennepin Avenue north and south of downtown, with three lines running all the way to Uptown and East and West 7th Street in Saint Paul.