Go. Stop. Wait. Lurch. Wait. Go. Stop.
That’s the daily experience of bus riders along Hennepin Avenue where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour and buses travel at 6 mph.
The City of Minneapolis recently published a draft city plan that focuses largely on two great challenges: disparities and climate change. To address these challenges, the plan calls for “equitable and ample access” to transit options and stresses that “even with the adoption of electric cars, a 37 percent reduction in automobile trips is needed” for the city to reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas pollution by 80 percent by 2050.
In a nod to these goals and data, Minneapolis and Metro Transit piloted a bus-only lane along a few blocks of Hennepin Avenue in Uptown this month to inform rebuilding of that stretch of Hennepin in the coming years.
Yet before the Uptown-Hennepin reconstruction project, Minneapolis is planning to reconstruct Hennepin Avenue through downtown Minneapolis without dedicated bus lanes even though downtown’s Hennepin is home to millions of bus rides each year.
It stretches credulity to the breaking point to think that the City of Minneapolis can reduce car trips by 37 percent — or provide equitable access to transit — unless the city, Metro Transit, and other relevant players dramatically improve Minneapolis’ transit experience. This means rides need to be comfortable, pleasant and, most important, fast.
Right now, much of our local transit system is woefully inadequate when it comes to speed, particularly when compared with car travel times. According to Google Map estimates, driving a car along Hennepin Ave is 47 percent faster than taking transit. In an analogous car-to-transit matchup in New York, transit is 30 percent faster than a car. In D.C., transit is 18 percent faster. In Chicago, transit is fully twice as fast. No wonder those other transit systems are so well used!
Dedicated lanes for select lines in Minneapolis and St. Paul, combined with other strategies like giving stoplight priority to buses, would go a long way toward balancing the practicality of transit vs. car travel for a wide swath of citizens. And it really would have very little relative impact: If dedicated lanes were provided on all Minneapolis’s High Frequency network (the former-streetcar backbone of Minneapolis’s local transit system), that would total about 46 miles of streets with dedicated lanes, or only 4 percent of total city street miles. This is a minor repurposing of lane miles considering that the city must reduce car trips 37 percent to adequately address climate change.
Local climate solutions needed
Without strong local action in areas like transportation, our climate crisis will continue to get worse. The private market is unlikely to save us (Ford Motors recently announced the company will discontinue production of many of its fuel-efficient models in favor of more profitable gas-guzzling SUVs) and the current federal government doesn’t even acknowledge the problem (the EPA is actively rolling back fuel efficiency standards).
Collective abdication of duty is so great that the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently decided to allow a “necessity defense” in a climate activism case, meaning defendants who turned off oil flow in a pipeline can argue their action was legally justified because it was necessary to address climate change.
Are activist trespassers turning off pipeline valves really the best hope we have for combatting climate change? Minneapolis can, and must, do better. And while the city has made progress, including establishing a 100 percent renewable energy goal just last month, climate work cannot be sequestered in “climate” legislation — it must be integrated throughout all city decision making.
Earth has already warmed about 1.1 degrees C, with the majority of that warming occurring since 1975 and projected warming of 1.5 degrees C by 2030. Continued warming could be catastrophic. Researchers calculate that every one degree of warming costs about 1.2 percent of global GDP. In the U.S., GDP loss distributes unevenly — heightening inequality — with southern states losing up to 20% GDP per year under business-as-usual scenarios over the next six decades, potentially wildly destabilizing the country during our lifetimes (for comparison, consider that the Great Recession resulted in a just over 4 percent GDP loss between 2008 and 2009).
A generation ago, in 1988, NASA scientist James Hanson testified before the U.S. Senate about the existence and dangers of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed later that year. Then in 1989, Bill McKibben published “The End of Nature,” a seminal early book on global warming. Despite these resources and warnings, Americans continued to pollute the climate at breathtaking rates, making the path to stability much more limited. Yet there is still a narrow path and strong transit is an essential part of it.
Moving the needle on equity
In addition to playing an essential role in addressing climate change, a faster and more convenient transit system is essential if Minneapolis wishes to fulfill the city’s equity goals.
Several years ago, I worked in the suburbs and reverse commuted by bus most of the way. One morning in 2015 I overheard and transcribed the following conversation between fellow commuters:
“I really need this job.”
“It’s too bad they don’t help you get there.”
“It’s almost as though they expect everyone to have a car. You know, if I had driven I would have gotten there in 15 minutes. [points at trip planner]. It’s taking me two hours. I was desperate this morning.”
Lack of sufficient efficient transit access does real damage to citizens’ lives. It means that people who cannot afford a car have less time to spend with their children and friends, less time to cook a healthy meal, less time to pursue learning or alternate career paths. As inadequate transit steals time from these important activities, opportunities for social and economic mobility — bedrocks of the American dream — dwindle.
And many people must ride transit because they simply cannot afford to drive. In America, the average annual cost of car ownership is over $8,400, or an astounding 70 percent of an individual living at the federal poverty level’s income.
Of course in Minneapolis and Minnesota more broadly, which host some of the worst disparities in the United States, those living at the federal poverty level are overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color. Minneapolis’s draft city plan cites Census data that show that 45 percent of black Minneapolitans live in poverty (the highest-poverty race/ethnic group) contrasted with 12 percent of whites (the lowest-poverty group).
Building systems that guarantee slow and inefficient transit deprives whole swaths of our community equitable access to opportunity, furthers injustice, and weakens our collective social fabric. We can do better.
Because of inaction to date, addressing climate change and building a more equitable society requires that we all urgently alter the way we live our lives and relate to our community. At the local level, our commitment to climate action and equity, or lack thereof, manifests in decisions like whether to put a bus lane on a highly traveled but excruciatingly slow bus route. With each decision, we collectively decide whether to move toward a more stable future or whether to double down on a status quo that surely leads to a less hospitable city and Earth.
We know what to do. Now let’s do it.
Sam Rockwell works in community development and sustainability and is a member of the Minneapolis City Planning Commission.
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