One weird trick for building successful mass-transit projects

Courtesy of Metro Transit/Eric Wheeler
The highest and best use of transit is to enable a car-free lifestyle. logo

There are a lot of modes of transportation. Save for walking and (hopefully!) cycling, they’re all pretty expensive. You’ve got your $676 million dollar freeway interchanges and your $20,000 Toyota Camries, and your $957 million dollar Green Lines and your $76/month Metropasses. Because it would be a hassle for everyone to own their own road to work and to the market, in western society we have historically and also more recently decided that transportation infrastructure is one of those things that we’ll all build and use together.

There are a lot of different financial arrangements for all the different modes of transportation in all the different jurisdictions of the world. In the United States, none of these arrangements — including roads — involve being completely sustained by user fees, and generally if you’re building any sort of system, it requires large, visible-from-orbit stacks of money from the general and other funds of local, state, and federal governments. (Why do transportation projects in the United States cost far more than in other developed countries? A mystery!)

Local examples

Assuming that the status quo of expensive projects and scarce funding continues, we should weigh transportation projects carefully, especially major mass transit projects that, for the past couple decades, have been rolling out about decennially in the Twin Cities. Good ones, at least — it would probably be fair to say that the consensus on the Northstar Commuter Rail line is “oops” and while it may be politically too soon to say the same for the Red Line, that was also an “oops.”

So we’ve got two local examples of wildly successful transit lines and two duds. Using our experiences with those and examples around the country and also a smattering of uncommon sense, how should we consider mass transit projects and their benefits, when considering where to site a once-in-a-decade line?

Benefits and the best benefit

Mass transit, as a mode, has a lot going for it. In addition to the “carries a lot of people efficiently” part, you’ll hear lots of other reasons to build mass transit and to build specific lines for specific reasons. Assuming we’re talking about rail, any given proposal’s benefits may include:

  • Economic Development/Redevelopment
  • Congestion Reduction/Mitigation
  • The Millennials
  • Air Quality Improvement
  • Less Un-sustainability
  • Reduced Dependence of Foreign Oil
  • Rail Bias

Is anything missing here? Yes, the most important one…

Enabling a car-free lifestyle

The highest and best use of transit is to enable a car-free lifestyle, because if you build transit to enable a car-free lifestyle for as many people as you can, you accomplish every single other item on that list. Building transit for the other goals on the list will not accomplish all the other goals on the list. It will also accomplish bonus goals, like improving the mobility of children, the elderly, the disabled, and other people unable to drive. It will also spare low-income people from the financial burden of car ownership.

Apollo 15 Lunar Rover

(While he himself does not own one, the author is not explicitly anti-car. He took two different cars to and fro a cabin this past Memorial Day weekend. Cars have many practical and real uses, like buying a dresser or more than two tubs of cat litter. Notably, there are even three cars on the moon — bringing an entire light rail vehicle, track, ballast, catenary, etc. were ruled out due to cost and other considerations.)

But when we think about what makes our own transit lines successful and what we need to take into consideration in the future, the real success stories are places where people feel enabled to use transit as a lifestyle, not just a commute. Can tens of thousands of people walk up to your transit line and take it to a park, or a stadium, or a university, or a grocery store? Will a lot of people ride your train, running on fixed tracks at good headways with a conductor eating up most of your operating budget, at 2:00 PM on a Tuesday, or any Sunday in late winter? If so, your transit line will be very successful and a non-bad use of your limited resources.

A local action

And the reality is that this logic will preclude large stretches of the Twin Cities from landing any sort of large rail transit investment. Do we suppose, for example, that any significant amount of people will move to a market rate transit-oriented development in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and forgo car ownership? Seems unlikely!

Not that that restricts us to central city routes — above is the Minnetonka/Hopkins border. It is far more likely that someone would want to live car-free in Hopkins, a walkable town with a street grid and a grocery store and a movie theater and bars and restaurants, than in Minnetonka, which does not have these things. This is probably a good argument for ending the Green Line extension in Hopkins.

Does a city like Minnetonka or Eden Prairie have the potential to redevelop tens of acres of land around stations to be more like Hopkins? Sure, after decades and hundreds of millions of dollars of private-sector investment. Take the local portion of that $500 million dollars you’ll save cutting the line off at Hopkins, and build rail in the Midtown Corridor, a line that many thousands of transit users (including thousands of new transit users) would use every day at all times for countless reasons. You will still get your transit-oriented development and associated new riders along the Midtown Corridor.

It’s pretty simple

The above is just one recent and relevant example. Maybe its limited geographic appeal is an obstacle, but building bad lines which become political fodder for people who are opposed to the entire idea of transit is also not a good plan. Have you ever had Northstar’s operating subsidy thrown back at you by a transit opponent who knows the numbers? It really screws up the whole flow of your argument.

Thinking about the whole universe of transportation costs for governments and individuals, it makes sense to locate billion-plus transit investments in places that will enable tens of thousands of users to skip the thousands of dollars associated with the upfront and ongoing cost of car ownership. If your transit project is planned with the transportation goal of, not even eliminating, but merely shortening the car trips of ten thousand or for downtown commuters who otherwise require a car to buy a stick of gum on a Saturday, then your transit project is a bad idea.

This post was written by Nick Magrino and originally published on Follow on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/28/2015 - 04:58 pm.

    Yes, yes, and yes!

    That is what I have been saying in these columns for years!

    Ask the right question: “How can we make it easy to live without a car?” Not “How can we get exurbanites back and forth to work Monday through Friday?”

    Hopkins (or even Excelsior) would be a great terminus for a light rail line. Eden Prairie, not so much.

    My advice would be to let Southwest Transit or a similar entity take care of Eden Prairie and the other carburbs for the time being. If people want to live in a place where they have to drive everywhere, that’s their choice and their problem.

    Have Metro Transit cut back on service to the outer suburbs and exurbs and concentrate on providing frequent service on all arterials within Minneapolis and St. Paul and the first ring suburbs, ensuring easy transfers and making sure to hit all major destinations, including shopping areas, recreational facilities, and cultural and entertainment venues. Use crosstown services to avoid the absurdity of having to make V-shaped trips through downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul.

    The exceptions to ignoring the car-oriented suburbs should be the old downtowns of former small towns. Not only downtown Hopkins but also downtown Robbinsdale, downtown Edina, downtown White Bear Lake, and perhaps eventually downtown Excelsior, downtown Mound, and downtown Stillwater, among others that I may not be familiar with.

    But please, no more ill-planned ideas like the Northstar, which has always struck me as a passive-aggressive means of “proving” that transit doesn’t work.

  2. Submitted by Fritz Knaak on 05/28/2015 - 05:19 pm.

    “Wildly successful”


    Are we talking about the two light rail lines here in the Twin Cities?

    • Submitted by Nick Magrino on 05/28/2015 - 10:12 pm.

      Sorry, probably should have spelled that out more clearly. Yes, the Green and Blue Lines.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/29/2015 - 01:54 am.

      Beat me to it

      That was my subject line too. Cites please. Over 2 million people attended Twins games last year, does that mean that they were wildly successful?

  3. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 05/29/2015 - 07:18 am.

    The problem…

    …with the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. As we plan for transportation needs and necessarily hope to hit that target of future success in upcoming decades, what could planners possibly do to increase the odds of success? Build a system that is fixed and inflexible, hoping that development will follow it, shaped by observations of how such projects have worked in the past in other locations? Or should it be nimble and have a built in capacity to adapt to change, whatever that might be? We don’t know how the future of work in the internet of everything age will play out, we don’t know how demographics will change our perception of a work/life balance, and we don’t know what our future transportation needs will really be. Sure, we can assume that the next two or three decades will play out like the last, but what if they don’t? That’s when a transportation system that is nimble and able to adapt will evolve to continue serving us.

  4. Submitted by Richard Layman on 05/29/2015 - 08:46 am.

    Re: Patrick Tice’s comment

    I don’t get your point. By definition, roads and rails (and rivers) are relatively permanent structures. You can’t build flexibility into them, except as part of a robust and somewhat redundant network. I guess you are saying indirectly, “buses are more flexible.” Sure they are, in some ways, but they move far fewer people compared to rail, if your community has the urban design conditions that support transit-walking-biking over biking.

    The point of this post is focusing on the characteristics that support transit as an element of daily life (think of it as transit as a utility, just like turning on the faucet for water or a light switch for electricity) vs. a conveyance for distantly located commuters.

    Basically the point is a walking-transit city era (1800 to 1890 and 1890 to 1920) urban design. That type of form is conducive to walking, biking, and transit, density, mixed use so that one doesn’t “have to be” dependent on a car. The longer the trip, the harder it is for transit to be effective with it.

    While the author mentioned he is not “anti-car” he didn’t mention car sharing as a(n assistive/complementary) mode, which is a great complement to transit-biking-walking, and aids flexibility while further supporting the decision to not own a car. E.g. my wife left her job and needed to bring some stuff home. So we used a zipcar Ford Transit van for a couple hours. Did the same thing when we bought a grill from our local hardware store. Otherwise, biking is great for trips to and from the grocery store and most other stores in the area. And it’s a lot easier and more convenient to not have to go to a car rental location, but to a vehicle embedded in a nearby neighborhood.

    In the past, I’ve written about this in terms of the transit and mobility shed. The mobility shed is the flip side of the idea of the walking-transit city.

    The problem though with focusing transit investments is that in a political regime where you are compelled to spread benefits around, it doesn’t work. E.g., I remember an op-ed in the St. Cloud Times around when the Green Line opened, saying for all that money, they could have provided another commuter rail to some distant Minnesotan community. But the number of people who would use it vs. the Green Line was easily 1/10.

    Or in our “area” (I live in DC), there is a light rail in Norfolk, Virginia used by about 7,000 people daily. It is a waste.

    I wrote about the opening of the Green Line here:

    making similar points to this post, but mine is a lot more long winded (a/k/a detailed).

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