How we stack up compared to other cities

MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun
Only 6.5 percent of commuters in Minneapolis walk to work, and only 4.3 percent in St. Paul.

With all the big moves going on lately — groundbreaking for the Vikings stadium, Downtown East redevelopment and a new plan for Block E in Minneapolis, a baseball stadium coming to Lowertown in St. Paul, Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges talking transpo with President Obama and apartment towers rising like something out of “Fantasia” in both downtowns — why pay attention to other cities? We have got a sizzle going on.

But news from elsewhere can tell us how we’re doing when stacked up against the other guys. Sometimes the tidings are jolly, sometimes, well, we may not be as hot as we thought.

Walking making strides?

Lots of localities are trying to prod people to get out of their cars and walk, and Governing magazine recently gave a shout out to 10 cities with populations over 100,000 that seem to be succeeding. No. 1 in the nation is Cambridge, Mass., where nearly 25 percent of residents walk to work. Other high scorers included Columbia, S.C. (21 percent), Berkeley, Calif. (18 percent), Ann Arbor, Mich. (16 percent), Boston (16 percent), Provo, Utah (12 percent), Washington, D.C. (12 percent), New Haven, Conn. (11 percent), Syracuse, N.Y. (11 percent) and Providence, R.I. (11 percent).

By contrast, if you look at Governing’s interactive map, you’ll see that only 6.5 percent of commuters in Minneapolis walk to work, and only 4.3 percent in St. Paul. And you can’t blame it all on the weather. After all, Boston, Syracuse and Providence are hardly tropical paradises.

Governing attributed Cambridge’s walk-friendliness partly to policies that require businesses with parking spots to push employees to walk. I don’t know how much difference such mandates make. As I recall from my college days (in nearby Waltham), Cambridge was always walkable. It was founded in 1630, long before the invention of the horseless carriage. The blocks are small, the streets narrow and stores bunched conveniently close together in squares.  

Ruminating on all that, I realized that all the top-10 walkable cities are college towns. And sure enough, a third of those who commute on foot are under age 25. I’m only guessing, but another third are probably their professors. Even though Minneapolis and St. Paul have several schools, we are hardly as college-dominated as, for example, much smaller Cambridge (population 106,000) with Harvard and M.I.T. or Ann Arbor (116,000) with the University of Michigan.  

Nationally, only 2.8 percent of all workers commuted by walking last year, and that figure has remained pretty much unchanged. So considering all that, maybe we’re not doing so badly after all.

Bragging rights on bikes?

According to the City of Minneapolis — or its website, anyway — when it comes to bicycling, it’s got a lot to crow about. The city has been ranked as one of the best biking cities in the country by Bike Score, the second best by Bicycling Magazine and fourth by none other than the Census Bureau. The city has 92 miles of on-street bikeways and 85 miles of off-street bikeways and had a bike-sharing program long before many other cities and won the Bicycle Friendly Community Award.

But how does the City of Lakes compare worldwide?

Gulp. We didn’t even get a mention in the top 20 ranking compiled by Copenhagenize, a Danish design company that specializes in, among other things, bicycle promotion, research, marketing and liveable cities. It ranked cities on 13 criteria. Chief among them: the use of bikes for transport by the general population rather than by a “marginal group” (whatever that means — bike fanatics, possibly?), the amount of dedicated road space and facilities for cyclists, the presence of a bike-share program, and traffic calming policies.

As you would expect, cities in northern Europe dominated the ranking, with Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Utrecht sweeping the top three. But Tokyo and Nagoya in Japan also edged in as did Rio de Janeiro. (I don’t remember a single bike when visiting Rio, although I did see a lot of helicopters owned by the ultra-wealthy who used them to avoid the city’s massive traffic snarls.) No U.S. city made the top 20, which was a change from the previous list which included the odd choice of New York City, where biking is a death-defying activity, and, of course, Perfect Portland. We’ve got work to do.

Streetcar named not desire

Minneapolis Mayor-elect Hodges has backed the construction of streetcar lines, with the $200 million-plus first phase running from Lake Street to somewhere around the Bulldog Northeast. Cincinnati (population 296,000), however, with rails already planted in its streets and plump federal grants in place, is way ahead of us.

Or is it?

At the beginning of the month, newly elected Democratic Mayor John Cranley, complaining of cost overruns and mismanagement, declared that he would just as soon cancel the project. And the city council voted to suspend it. The Federal Transportation Administration then weighed in: If Cincinnati didn’t get its act together by Dec. 19, the agency would withdraw its $45 million in funding for the $133 million project. Meanwhile, its supporters have estimated that undoing the thing could cost as much as $50 million.

This week, Cranley gave supporters a long shot at reviving the streetcars. If private donors could pay the system’s operating deficits over the next 30 years, well, then he will grudgingly go ahead. Apparently, advertising, fares and other whatnots are expected to cover only 20 percent of expenses. So before the quickly approaching deadline, the philanthropic and business communities are scrambling around for $80 million — or at least enough in promises to sign a contract with the city.

Opponents of the trams say that there should be no subsidies, even though every form of transportation, including and especially roads and highways, receives money from taxpayers to cover costs. Supporters say that the government should subsidize the system completely.

Once upon a time, of course, the private sector operated streetcars; so maybe it isn’t ridiculous to ask for businesses to chip in. But Minneapolis will definitely outdo Cincinnati in developing a streetcar system (or not) by getting its financial underpinnings embedded before its tracks.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/17/2013 - 01:53 pm.

    Falling short

    I don’t qualify as an expert on much of anything, having been a generalist all my life, but of the three metro areas where I’ve spent my many years, St. Louis, Denver and Minneapolis, I’d rank them — strictly in terms of how I view them personally, so there’s no statistical support for these judgments at all — Denver, Minneapolis, St. Louis.

    Minneapolis is actually a handful of years younger than Denver, but it feels to this non-native of both cities like it’s considerably older than the Queen City of the Plains. I’m not sure how much of that feeling is due to the climate, but I’m pretty sure at least some of it can be attributed to that. By comparison, St. Louis IS an old city, founded a century and more before Minneapolis was incorporated. The street plans of river cities reflects that dominant geographic feature in each of the three.

    Downtown Minneapolis makes no sense at all to a stranger, but at least the grid was imposed as the city grew away from the riverfront. Downtown Denver is quite similar in that it’s oriented to the river (the South Platte, for those who’ve never been there) in the heart of downtown, but a logical geographic grid plan takes over fairly quickly once a traveler gets away from that downtown hub. St. Louis is a maze, with arterial streets radiating out from the hub of the downtown riverfront through not just the city itself, but continuing on into the countryside in that same, fan-shaped pattern.

    I happened to live within reasonable distance of light rail in both St. Louis and Denver, and the latter had efficient “express” buses from a terminal near me that also worked as Bus Rapid Transit. I’m nowhere near light rail in Minneapolis, and apparently won’t be, no matter how many lines they build. Nothing about the bus system in Minneapolis is “rapid.” I take the North Star line to the occasional Twins game at Target Field, but the Fridley station is the nearest one, and I have to drive to catch the train.

    Denver has a surprising amount of cycling activity, largely due to a sizable population of mountain bikers. Fewer of those here, but more people in neon-colored speedo gear on skinny-tired road bikes. In my experience, both groups are the nemesis of the pedestrian, so there’s not much to choose between them. I don’t remember seeing an adult on a bicycle in St. Louis except for a single personal friend, who rides in his (very flat) neighborhood regularly and frequently.

    In terms of cultural facilities, I think the Twin Cities win, hands down. I attribute that to climate, as well. Art museums, theater, music venues all do pretty well when the weather outside is miserable, as it is here far more often than I’d like. I’d rank Denver second and St. Louis third in this category. St. Louis has a better music scene, Denver a better theater scene, and they both have fine art museums. The St. Louis zoo, however, is far and away superior to either the Denver zoo or the “brought to you by ‘x’ corporation” Minnesota zoo.

    And on and on. “Liking” a particular city sometimes has little or nothing to do with why someone lives there. People tend to go where the work is, so they often end up in places they’d never live except that those places are where their job is located, and they’ve developed an affection for food, clothing and shelter. Many a spouse or child has (often, but not always) repressed cries of rage or disappointment upon finding out that a spouse or parent has been transferred to, or taken a new job in, city ‘x,’ We make adjustments to our new surroundings, largely because we have to, and life goes on.

  2. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 12/17/2013 - 06:58 pm.

    Biking in the Twin Cities

    When I moved here 20 years ago I had lived in Tucson and biked over 5000 miles a year (I also put 20+ thousand miles on my truck each year). The Twin Cities actually stopped me from riding my bikes ( I had 9 for awhile). It was the car drivers and also the other cyclists. I had never been in a city where people seemed to be so unaware of anything going on around them. My local bike shop had 3 people hit by cars within a couple months.

    In the past few years I have started to ride again as the bike paths have improved. I stopped riding to work once or twice a week due to cars running stop lights and stop signs (it is epidemic). Last Summer I rode to meet my wife for lunch once or twice a week and into work a few times. I have posted comments before about cycling in Minneapolis and I always end with these two: You are more likely to be hit while cycling by a SUV with a 4 carrier bike rack than any other vehicle and I’ve never seen more people drive their bikes to go ride them in my life.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/18/2013 - 10:29 am.

    There’s an essential imprecision in this article: a blurry use, and thus a destructive redefinition, of “commute” when it is used carelessly in reference to those who walk to work.

    Pedestrians who walk to work are not “commuting.” They live near their work. They can come and go to and from their homes to work, even several times during a day (I did, for 40 years as a professor at the University of Minnesota). For them, getting to work does not involve miles and miles of hiking, nor hours and hours of walking each day. They live close, and they are the antithesis of “commuters.”

    A “commute” involves real travel, over distances, by some other means than two feet striding across the ground. So, bikers can “commute,” and those who must use mass transit or a motor vehicle they drive to come and go to work “commute.”

    I see a hilarious suburban bias functioning in this piece. As if eveyone “commutes” because they do.

  4. Submitted by Keith Morris on 12/18/2013 - 08:03 pm.

    Mpls is way ahead of other Midwestern cities…

    However, it still has a way to go to in some departments to compete with mid-size coastal cities. I don’t agree with the “jobs are the only consideration in living somewhere” and quality of living having no weight.

    I could have stayed in Columbus where I had a job and where more are available since it is just about the healthiest city in the state, which relative to the rest isn’t saying much. I could have moved to the coasts for a walkable, bike-friendly city, but before that happened Minneapolis kept popping up in my research and I was very pleasantly surprised after moving here sight unseen that I didn’t have to move that much farther away. If Minneapolis didn’t offer several times more urban amenities than other Midwestern cities from Omaha to Cleveland then I would never have considered moving here.

    You’ll notice on Walkscore that Minneapolis offers roughly 3x more highly walkable urban neighborhoods than others even when they’re a good deal larger (the only we have in common with Indianapolis is that both cities rhyme). That’s because urban business districts have and are further being revitalized for businesses to move in so that residents have places worth walking to.

    If the city wants to up that number to compete with coastal cities, which if scaled down in size would still offer more walkable nabes, it needs to address neighborhoods which are “amenity deserts” such as Shingle Creek and Diamond Lake where you can bet that the lack of walkable neighborhood amenities means residents are spending a lot more money in neighboring burbs and have to drive to them. A smattering of destinations throughout these areas similar to Kingsfield and parts of Powderhorn prove that it wouldn’t turn them into a high traffic area like Uptown.

    As far as biking as a year round cyclist I would like to see more aggressive measures taken like the North Greenway which would convert a street into a greenway for non-motoized traffic and lots more on-street bike corrals like the ones at Northbound and Birchwood. And don’t forget fixing bad bike infrastructure like 10th Downtown where the bike lane is squarely in the door zone and as a result where I won’t ride: door zone bike lanes should be totally eliminated one by one.

    Now with Cincinnati you have to understand that this is Ohio we’re talking about. Cincinnati is doing the standard one step forward two steps back approach to good urbanism. It brought back a couple of neighborhoods from the brink, Over-the-Rhine and Northside, so of course it had to drop the ball on the streetcar. Columbus couldn’t even get streetcars and/or light rail to fruition like Cincinnati did but they did make sure that ODOT could widen a 2 mile stretch of downtown highway for $1.6 billion at the expense of a newly revitalized business district, and then Cleveland is excited about the “Opportunity Corridor” which will level about 100 homes and businesses for a high speed suburban arterial road for $300 million which comes to $100 million per mile to connect the highway to the University Circle neighborhood (and bypass those poor ones along the way).

    Minneapolis simply needs to take big steps forward to measure favorably in just about every category to urbane cities on the coasts and leave its Midwestern competition further behind in the dust. Being ranked among European cities would be nice too.

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