Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Missing the Point on Transit and Land Use

Dateline: 3:43 pm August 29, 2014 Filed under:

I took exception to a few reader comments in today’s Strib Opinion page.

First off, Carol Adelmann Linders of Arden Hills applauds the improved transit hub at the Minnesota State Fair, as well she should. However, her beef are with park-and-rides that are “bursting at the seams.” She calls for parking spaces at park-and-rides that match the number of riders. And who will pay for these additional park-and-ride spaces that are used just 12 days a year? From a perspective of capacity, perhaps the best State Fair park-and-ride locations are shopping malls with excess parking. Or just suck it up for 12 days per year. Ms. Adelmann Linders also points out the need for an education campaign about how to use public transit without the need for the family car. I find this odd in the same paragraph as a discussion about more capacity for the family car at park-and-rides. What isn’t mentioned is how living in Arden Hills or any other of the pedestrian and transit-unfriendly places so many of us live require the use of a car, even if just to drive it to a park-and-ride. This serves to illustrate just how intricately good transit service is dependent on a dense, urban, walkable environment, and Arden Hills just doesn’t provide it.

In the fraught back and forth about Southwest LRT, David C. Smith of Minneapolis points out how Minneapolitans might have opposed the construction of I-94 and 35W, but they are now thankful for the access to the freeway and downtown Minneapolis. Mr. Smith is a transit advocate, so I don’t want to pick on him too much, but I have to take exception with the idea that Minneapolitans are thankful for I-35W and 94. I frankly think they are a curse. My mother lost her home to the freeway in 1960, and entire neighborhoods have been and still are negatively impacted by freeways through pollution, loss of real estate value (and taxes), and the severing of social bonds. The only benefit may be for distant suburban commuters who can drive in to downtown Minneapolis, drive directly in to a parking ramp, take the skyway to their office and never actually set foot on a downtown street. A perverse benefit to be sure, but one that exacts a huge toll on the social and economic life of the city. Mr. Smith notes that the tax base of downtown Minneapolis benefited from freeways. I don’t buy it, and furthermore how much tax base did we lose in the rest of the city to accommodate land-intensive freeways? The notion that freeways help downtowns is bogus. Look at Vancouver for a good north American example, or any number of cities around the world that don’t have freeways serving their city centers and tell me with a straight face that building one would help.

Lastly, Tony Jones of Edina complains of being in the “vortex” between the Blue Line and proposed Southwest LRT (Green Line extension), and benefits from none. Just because the powers that be didn’t choose to build a light rail line that directly benefits his home doesn’t make it a boondoggle (would he really embrace a station less than a block from his home? Really!?). On this point he’s right; light rail doesn’t directly benefit him. That’s’ why so many people have chosen to move to live near light rail and take advantage of its car-free benefits. Mr. Jones goes on to explain his faith that driverless cars will solve all our problems…”vorshprung durch technik.” I applaud the supposed benefits of driverless cars like fewer accidents, better fuel economy and reducing drunken driving (I can finally keep that bottle of bourbon in the glove compartment!). But other than minor improvements on traffic flow through queueing and car spacing, vehicles will always require an outsized amount of space (storage and movement) that does nothing to make our urban places more walkable. Like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, whether or not there are drivers, cars are not good for cities. Just see the image below.

Space needed to transport 60 people

The common thread here? There is a misunderstanding that we can wave a magic wand and bring walkability and transit to suburban areas without changing their physical nature. Like it or not, low-density suburban development patterns (buildings and roads) consume a lot of space and preclude walking and transit use. Adding space at park-and-rides, freeways to downtown and the use of driverless cars won’t meaningfully help this problem, either physically or economically. Good, dense, walkable, transit-served development will. Unfortunately for many this means it won’t come to them but rather they will have to move towards it.


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