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Challenge and opportunity: A Minnesota public/private transit revolution

Let’s approach transportation and transit with the same approach, and the same 100-year time frame, that launched our amazing Minneapolis park system.

I've stood at the intersection of Kenilworth and Cedar Lake Parkway about half of the weekday mornings from July to the present.
Photo by Dorothy Childers/Hill and Lake Press

Whatever this year’s Legislature cooks up, we can’t — simply can’t — keep doing “transportation as usual” – or so chants the light rail “conventional wisdom chorus.”

Let me suggest this: Doing light rail as any kind of a linear, continuous extension of the past might be just as bad — or worse — as doing nothing. We’re not Shanghai, London or New York, and never will be. Retrofitting our lagging, “losing-to-Portland” Twin Cities with 19th-century rail at 22nd-second century prices is a bad idea whose time has come — and gone!

Instead, let’s try something Minnesota used to do really well. Let’s organize and channel our long established political freedom to demand a public/private transit revolution, right here in Minnesota. Let’s use something China doesn’t have: our dormant, doormat, but still-real ability to make state and local governments respond to us.

Coordinating the public and private sectors to actually promote the general welfare — instead of special interests – has always been tough. Our American system was designed from the get-go to prefer stability to efficiency; future revolutions were to be peaceful and Private Sector Only. 

An amazing example: Minneapolis’ park system

But in Minneapolis, and Minnesota, we have at least one truly amazing historical example of a successful public/private revolution: the founding of the Minneapolis park system – and it is a carefully and deliberately planned and organized system. We need to think Transit Revolution with the same hundred-year time frame, the same stewardship and breadth of vision, and let me be blunt: the same speculative savvy taken by the civic leaders who founded our park system.

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Whatever the next century brings, we know it will be automated. The 19th century was rail; the 20th was cars … freeways … buses. The  21st will be Automated Everything. This is our planning touchstone.

Republicans in the state House – keen about automated driving — should probe the assumptions behind the conventional-wisdom chant: 20 years of a $1 billion annual budget gap. Republicans should also challenge the Metro Council’s congested “managed growth” mindset. When cars “know” what adjacent vehicles will do, is congestion necessary? Might we plan for zero slowdowns and delays, and for the competitive advantages that would come from that?

Our real “knowledge gap” isn’t just automated driving per se. Our biggest gap – practically a vacuum – is in thinking through what automated driving will mean for public/private transportation and transit systems – again with the emphasis on system. What new opportunities, and yes, what kind of revolution, might be possible?

Outlines of an automated system

Here are the bare bones of Automated-Everything Transit Revolution:

  • Promote the general welfare” = make everyone better off = uber equity;
  • A massive jobs program, using thousands of Metro Mobility-size buses;
  • A point-to-point service grid, not just a downtown centered hub-and-spoke system;
  • Five-minute service or better, no schedules;
  • Real-time vehicle dispatch as needed;
  • Transit is a utility, driver’s license = Go-To card
  • Property tax pays the base rate;
  • Automate everything ASAP;
  • Car2Go, Uber, bikes and beyond (shhh!… patentable stuff) for “last mile” gaps as needed.

Post-1776 American revolutions have been centered in the private sector because it is designed to be disruptive — to produce “creative destruction.” A little capitalism goes a long way, but too much can be fatal; that’s why we have a mixed economy. The public and nonprofit sectors are in a real sense the “anti-” to an ever upthrusting ATV private sector that wants to run over anything in its way. It’s fair and probably inevitable to ask: How can the public sector be part of a revolution when its essential character seems to be more like “uncreative self-preservation”?

Reality of our public sector

Here’s the reality: The size and scope of existing public sector glaciers — sorry, entities — is essentially a given. These entities are somewhat reformable, and they could melt slowly given enough time (decades). This means for transportation and transit, the existing Metro Transit and Metro Council can and will cooperate only if they are convinced no one’s job, or pay, is threatened.

However, “hold-harmless” is only for current employees. Unions can and have accommodated to necessary compensation and other caps for new hires. Here’s a deal that will work for Metro Transit: first, no threats to existing jobs or pay – in fact we’ll launch a giant jobs program. However, it’s with this understanding: at some point, all the thousands of newbie-driven Metro Mobility size buses will be automated. That’s why the new jobs will be mostly or entirely part time. They might last for decades, but some or most could be gone in as soon as 10 years.

By the way, isn’t this essentially what President Barack Obama did with Obamacare? Lesson one: You have to accommodate all existing interest groups to make any major change in the public sector. Lesson two: Let’s be honest about what we’re doing.

With this approach, a Public/Private Transit Revolution is possible. Now let’s blend in our special Minnesota-made creative-destruction secret sauce: intellectual property. With massive, deliberate, organized public/private coordination, not only does Transit Revolution become possible, industrial-scale inventing is needed. The state that spawns this (hint: starts with an “M”) will have a first-mover advantage as the hub of a new global industrial sector.

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A start, and alternative plans for SWLRT

I’ve made a start – my patent-pending “Transit Cloverleaf” enables bus transfers at a freeway cloverleaf – impossible today due to the inner loops. The “Transit Cloverleaf” includes a quick, inexpensive start-up configuration, with staged upgrade paths to something unique and amazing. I have many more ideas in mind, and I’m eager to work with people on all of them. Let’s launch Transit Revolution right here in Minnesota. Let’s create thousands of new jobs — tens of thousands — including jobs ideal for people now working at public-sector entities, such as, say, the Metro Council.

I’ll be working on this at the 2015 Legislative session. Step one is a petition I’m circulating, calling on MnDOT, Metro Transit, Hennepin/Ramsey and Minneapolis/St. Paul to come to an all-day Transit Revolution presentation, including two alternative plans for Southwest LRT (one is buses only, “Plan B” modifies and improves the Southwest plan, and preserves Kenilworth.)

Let’s approach transportation and transit with the same approach, and the same hundred-year time frame, that launched our amazing Minneapolis park system.

Bob Carney Jr. is a candidate-journalist-politico-entrepreneur-inventor-lobbyist; visit


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