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How we stack up compared to other cities

Sometimes the tidings are jolly, sometimes, well, we may not be as hot as we thought.

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

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.

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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?

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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.