Getting around the Twin Cities can sometimes be a challenge. Whether it’s getting stuck in car traffic, mapping out the safest bike routes or waiting for an overdue bus — the good and bad of the metro’s transportation system affects us all.
Last week, we asked MinnPost readers on social media to share their biggest questions about driving, biking, busing or walking in Minneapolis and St. Paul. From biking speed limits on Minneapolis trails to declining bus ridership, here’s a few of what they asked, along with answers from transportation engineers, city staff and other experts.
What’s the story behind the 10 mph limit on Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board trails? That is achingly slow. —Drew Kerr, Minneapolis
First, let’s welcome everybody to the History of Minneapolis Parks 101! The board established the limit in 1981, around the same time a new superintendent took the helm and voters elected a new parks board commissioner, Sherman Malkerson, whose mother was fatally hit by a bicyclist on a walk around Lake Harriet back when the system’s trails did not separate pedestrians and bicyclists; everyone shared the same paths.
In a phone interview Thursday, Malkerson said the board’s decision to create bicycle-only and pedestrian-only lanes after his mother’s death was a major step to improve safety, and establishing a new speed limit for bicyclists was just an additional system-wide change to avoid collisions.
“I can’t recall exactly how we all came together as a board to introduce it,” or why it decided on 10 mph instead of 12 or 15 mph, he said. “Just for safety reasons … The trails are set up for families. … They’re set up for recreation, just like the walking trails. … Kids would be running into bikes on those trails.”
But, Drew, you’re hardly the only person who disagrees with the speed limit. For years, avid cyclists have raised issue with the 10 mph rule, saying it doesn’t make sense within the region’s network of trails under different rules and no one enforces it. Police themselves have said they don’t monitor for the violation or issue tickets for it.
An effort to change the law materialized in April 2015, when the board’s former superintendent Jayne Miller introduced a proposal that would have eliminated the 10 mph ordinance with language that would have required bikers to use “reasonable and prudent” judgment on the trails given their conditions. At the time, the park board rejected that idea for its vagueness.
Two years later, voters elected six new members to the board, and a couple of them said recently that they’re open to changing the speed limit law.
Board Member Jono Cowgill said the board is in the process of going over ordinances that it should remove or change, including those that other laws supersede or are unenforceable. Board Member Chris Meyer said he is open to revising the speed limit, potentially raising it to 12 or 15 mph.
“I’m not aware of a single case where it’s been enforced,” Meyer said in an email. “But I would still want to keep a limit on the books to nudge people who are biking really fast to use the road part of the parkway. That will become increasingly relevant as more people use electric bikes.”
Is bike share permanently dead in St. Paul? If not, how will next year be different? —Jim Ivey, Lowertown neighborhood, St. Paul
In August 2018, St. Paul contracted with a Silicon Valley startup that also runs electric scooters, called Lime, for dockless bike sharing. The company essentially took over the market; Nice Ride, which is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit and had been operating bikes in St. Paul for years, removed all of its docks.
Then, in early 2019, Lime announced it would only operate scooters in the capital city going forward, as part of a broader effort to scale back its bike-sharing business in cities across the country. That means there’s now scooters, buses, scooters, trains and more scooters as far as government-sanctioned options for getting around St. Paul.
But, no, the city does not want that to be the new normal. According to Lisa Hiebert, a spokesperson for the city’s public works department, transportation staff are talking with potential bike-sharing vendors about providing service in 2020 and beyond, and the city is committed to providing the peer-to-peer transportation option under new contract terms.
Unfortunately, though, she said bike sharing companies are more interested in larger cities, where they can make more money. “This is a challenging period for cities nationwide,” Hiebert said in an email. “While bike sharing vendors continue to invest in large urban markets, mid-size markets such as St. Paul struggle to find vendors.”
I’ve been wondering if the Met Council has a plan or strategy for reversing the continued decline of local bus ridership. —Jake Steinberg, Tucson, Arizona.
It’s true: all kinds of regional transit — from the University of Minnesota’s campus shuttle to MVTA in the suburbs — have seen fewer riders each year since 2015.
For Metro Transit, specifically, the downward trend seems to be accelerating. From January to March — the most recent period for which passenger data is available — the transit agency tallied roughly 19 million train and bus rides, a 7 percent drop from its 20.5 million trips during the first three months of 2018. That decrease included local buses, commuter and express routes and the bus-rapid-transit A Line between southwest Minneapolis and the Rosedale Center, as well as light rail trains.
Leaders of the Met Council, the regional governing body that oversees Metro Transit, have cited a range of possible reasons for why less people are choosing bus transit — including a system-wide fare increase in Oct. 2017, a bus-driver shortage, national bus-riding trends, “lower-than-usual” gas prices and a lack of funding support from the state.
“We have been doing the divesting, but we haven’t been doing the investing. So, no wonder ridership is lagging on the bus system when we don’t have the money that we need to invest in truly promising service,” Metro Transit’s general manager Wes Kooistra said earlier this year.
In other words, regional transportation leaders say the key part of attracting new riders is having more money (from county agencies, the state or federal sources) so they can fund faster, more reliable service and add new routes. “Everybody at Metro Transit is working hard to provide the best service they can with the money they have,” said Will Schroeer, who is executive director of East Metro Strong, in June. “Without more funds, you can only do so much.”
Electric coaches, for instance, are expensive, though they offer smoother and quieter rides than older buses. And bus rapid transit lines, which give riders a light-rail-like experience with increased frequency and fewer stops, are also costly.
The question is which should come first: New routes and infrastructure, or new bus riders? Will a more efficient, bigger system bring in new customers like Met Council and Metro Transit leaders say? Or, is spending public money on improvements too risky for policy leaders considering declining ridership trends now?
Those questions were at the forefront of transportation debates among state lawmakers last session. Gov. Tim Walz sided with transit supporters in his February budget proposal and asked lawmakers to pass a metro-specific sales tax and a higher gas tax, as well as new fees, to expand the Twin Cities’ regional bus network. But legislators said no to that idea, and the 2019 state budget deal omitted any money for new transit.
That means a request by the Met Council to build new bus-rapid transit lines died. But the council plans to keep advocating for the investments going forward. “We are confident ridership will respond, helping begin a new era of growth in bus ridership,” Metro Transit spokesperson Howie Padilla said in an email.
Are Metro Transit and the Met Council having any kind of conversation around free fares to increase ridership? —Amity Foster, northeast Minneapolis
The short answer: No.
The long answer: Fare revenue makes up a significant chunk of the transit system’s budget, Metro Transit spokesperson Padilla said, and “without this funding, Metro Transit would need to reduce service levels.” In last year’s spending plan, for instance, estimates showed customers’ bus passes generating more than $104 million, or about one-fourth of Metro Transit’s total revenue. But Padilla also said the transit agency knows the cost of fares can keep some low-income residents from using public transit, which is why it offers discounted rates for qualifying riders.
What is the update on a timeline to extend the Midtown Greenway over the river? —Peter Schmitt, Minneapolis
For more than a decade, some residents and city leaders have wanted the Midtown Greenway, the bicycle and pedestrian path that runs parallel to Minneapolis’ Lake Street, to extend east over the Mississippi, which would allow it to link to the Twin Cities’ network of bicycle-pedestrian routes.
But supporters face an uphill battle due to failing infrastructure and the need for buy-in from agencies that would need to be involved.
At the eastern end of the Greenway is the century-old Short Line Bridge, which currently only carries freight and, supporters say, could be converted into the trail link with enough support from state and local politicians. In 2006, Hennepin County, which owns the former railroad corridor in Minneapolis, commissioned a study by URS Corp. to explore whether or not the county should assume ownership of the bridge and if it’s safe for a single rail track to run beside a recreational trail. But URS Corp. recommended that Hennepin County back away because of the bridge’s structural deficiencies.
Then, in 2016, the Midtown Greenway Coalition sponsored a fundraising effort to hire an engineering firm to do its own study of the bridge. Using drone footage and other data, that analysis lays out several ideas for rehabbing the bridge or building an entirely new one. Those options ranged in cost from $7.4 million to about $27.5 million.
Another key character in the saga is the bridge’s owner, the Canadian Pacific railroad. It has a contract with the Minnesota Commercial Railway that uses the corridor to serve several businesses in South Minneapolis, according to county spokesperson Carolyn Marinan, and neither company has indicated they are open to allowing an extension of the Greenway.
“Hennepin County has no current plans to extend the Midtown Greenway over the river,” she said in an email. “Any effort to extend the Greenway will need collaboration from these railway companies as well as government agencies on both sides of the river.”
What is happening with protected bike lanes on Summit Ave.? —AJ Jahnig, Midway, St. Paul
Last year, a man on a bicycle was hit and killed by a car at the intersection of Summit and Snelling avenues, near the Macalester College campus. His death ignited a movement among street-safety activists to put pressure on the city of St. Paul to improve the corridor, especially since it’s one of the city’s most heavily-trafficked routes for cyclists.
Right now, Summit has painted bike lanes, but cyclists want more protection to separate them from vehicles such as bollards or delineators, buffer street space or concrete islands.
But here’s the catch: Summit Avenue is within a Historic Preservation District, which means new infrastructure projects must follow certain rules that aim to maintain the area’s historic character. That means some dramatic street redesigns are off the table, pending the decisions of the Heritage Preservation Commission.
Hiebert, of the city’s public works department, said while there’s no formal proposal to install protected bike lanes across all of Summit, the city is hoping to have buffered bike lanes between Mississippi River Boulevard and Lexington Parkway next year.
With the city of St. Paul doing a mill-and-overlay of every single downtown street, will they create new safe spaces for bikes and scooters? —Eric Saathoff, Payne-Phalen, St. Paul
The city says it will. In 2015, the council adopted a citywide bicycle plan as part of its routine long-term planning for housing development, green space, infrastructure and transportation. The council has updated the document since with new ideas for biking facilities and pathways, saying it wants to make biking conditions in St. Paul easier and safer in the future so more people do it. In theory, additional bike lanes would help scooter riders, too, since they’re supposed to stay off sidewalks.
But in terms of more immediate changes, St. Paul is preparing to add bikeways on Ninth Street east of Jackson Street, Tenth Street west of Jackson and on either St. Peter or Wabasha streets, in coordination with other construction plans for the downtown roadways, according to Hiebert, of the city’s public works department. She said crews are set to roll out those changes in 2020 and 2021.