Twin Cities TOD photo tour

As I’ve been putting humpty dumpty (aka my phone situation) back together, I was able to recover a number of photos from my Twin Cities train tour. Here is a link to the original post, which I will edit to add these photos.

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Green Line route between Minneapolis and St. Paul

The Green Line primarily runs straight down University Avenue, except for a few turns around UMN and downtown SP. I made it to Saint Paul Union Depot, where the Green Line terminates, though my phone died at Dale Street (in Frogtown, west of the State Capitol). Downtown SP is less flashy than downtown Mpls, and mostly comprised of government and office buildings linked by a skyway system.

Immediately east of downtown, the Green Line crosses I-94 on a decorative bridge, and then goes through the State Capitol area – big historic quad, big open space, lots of surface parking. While both downtown and the Capitol area are attractive, historic areas – neither are very walkable or vibrant, except for a few bright spots. However, between the State Capitol and UMN campus, the entire corridor has been quickly transformed by TOD. The entire corridor is marked with new businesses and new mixed-income housing developments, alongside preexisting historic buildings (like the green Spruce Tree building at Snelling Ave) and retail strips. I have pictures at downtown Mpls’ Nicollet Mall, Downtown East, UMN’s East Bank and Stadium Village, grain mills at Westgate, revitalization at Fairview, Snelling, Hamline Midway, and Victoria and Dale (Frogtown in SP). These were taken after first taking photos of TOD along the Blue Line, along Hiawatha Avenue – with photos of stations between the MSP International Airport and Midtown Lake Street station, which have also seen substantial TOD though not as much as the Green Line.

Blue Line (Hiawatha Line) through Minneapolis:

Downtown Minneapolis (Downtown East and Nicollet Mall):

The UMN campus area:

The Frogtown area of SP, which encompasses Victoria, Dale, and Western avenues – is known as the Little Mekong District, and at Western Avenue is a public art installation called “River Dragon” comparing the Mekong River to the Mississippi River. While this area is known for its Vietnamese community, I also saw visible signs of Somali and Hispanic immigrant settlement. Since the completion of light rail through this area, the corridor has solidified with light rail, pedestrian amenities, and ethnic restaurants. It’s kinda cool.

The western side of St Paul, including the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, and eclectic Frogtown, has been perhaps the main focus of TOD throughout the Central Corridor.

And with that, this completely the photo tour of the Twin Cities light rail TOD, up to this point. I imagine that the Blue Line will continue to develop steadily, while the Green Line continues its frenetic pace of development.

Twin Cities Lesson: Transit can be “Nice!”

Edit: Since 20 additional photos were uncovered from the cloud, they were posted subsequently, at this link. I will also integrate the recovered photos into this post, while leaving as much of the original text.

So, a very bad thing happened, amidst how long it has already taken me to get these pics up. On Thursday I clumsily obliterated my iPhone, which was really a long time in the making. Four days removed from the tragedy, I have finally stopped trying to retrieve my 5,000+ planning/design/travel photos, and have a replacement phone in the mail.

Just minutes before the incident, I luckily posted all of my Denton pics, which are arguably more valuable as a rarely-documented rail fail. I also instagrammed four pics of Minneapolis’ light rail system, plus one aerial from flying in (Captions visible if you click on the photo):

Moving Everyone Forward

These trains are just incredibly nice. I occasionally butt heads with the most well-intended fellow planners, over whether or not transit has to be nice. Many of them deliberately believe it should be not nice. If there’s one unique thing I ever say, it’s the importance of providing dignity to disenfranchised citizens. The assumption that transit users are disenfranchised citizens almost seems like a baseline acceptance just in order to open the door and have a discussion with self-titled equity planners.

The problem with this whole assumption is that it disregards two very important things that successful cities do: 1, attract choice riders; and 2, offer a desirable experience that drives ridership. A frequent objection to urban rail projects is that light rail is “too nice” and that the money would be better spent providing more basic service to low-income communities exclusively. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias is one of these screeds who oppose nice transit in the name of equity, and it’s actually a POV that’s becoming typical of urbanist writers who make inroads into the national punditry. Locally, whenever I talk to COTA, this is the refrain. I think it’s awesome that an agency has gradually adopted a holistic activist mentality toward its customer base, at the exclusion of anyone else.

Another thing I often bring up, but have also heard others use as well, is that social service and transit service are two different things. Columbus provides transit as a social service. Minneapolis isn’t shirking its social duties, but is providing transit in the form of a real transit system. This is shockingly revolutionary. The Twin Cities’ most-utilized assets can not be picked up and moved by anyone, and while they were planned to respond to density and transit dependency where it exists, that density is also being proactively generated by the transit agency itself. It wasn’t “If you build it, they will come.” They built it, and then they committed to a long-term program to drive transit-oriented development along the LRT lines.

Central Corridor

250px-metrotransitmncurrentmetromapMinneapolis is just a nice city. In fact, Minnesotans are nice people, and they say “Nice!” a lot. I saw a few hoodies with a cute little outline of the state alongside such a caption, so it must be official. It befits this nice city that their transit is also very nice. It should be very nice because their most recent expansion, the 11-mile Green Line (which traverses University Avenue, through the UMN campus, between modern Downtown Mpls and historic Downtown St. Paul) cost $957 million, or roughly $87 million per mile. This project cost includes everything from rolling stock (47 new train vehicles), new sidewalk treatments, bike lanes, and even new car travel lanes. The Metro Council, the Twin Cities-area MPO, has found a 50% cost savings by doing all of this at once. Adding all of this work to the LRT project inflates the cost by which LRT is evaluated, but reduces costs across the board in the long-term. It’s a smart thing to do if you can get away with it, which requires public leaders who aren’t scared by a billion-dollar price tag.

The following are photos I took of the Green Line through Downtown Minneapolis (where it shares a transit mall with the Green Line) and the UMN campus (gateway to the Central Corridor):

 

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Wikipedia photo on the Metro Green Line article (Green Line shown traveling past UMN)

The Green Line is projected to have 40,000 riders by 2030. In its first year of operation it averaged 34,500 daily riders, 25% above projections. It will grow employment concentrated in the area by 90,000 jobs by this time, bringing the total (Downtown Mpls + UMN + Downtown St. Paul) to 375,000. It is also responsible for $2.5 billion in private development, which according to this Metro Council fact sheet accounts for 100 projects. According to this 2010 report from the Funders Collaborative, a non-profit group tasked with funding the Central Corridor Vision, the entire build-out potential of what is possible along the new Green Line totals $6 billion, just focusing on private investment potential. This more recent NPR article, calling it the Money Train, actually cites $3 billion in TOD, including 12,000 housing units.

To supplement my abridged photo tour, here is a 2014 run-down of projects along the Central Corridor from The Line. (Tip: You have to wait for the photo slideshow to start at the top of the page) CNN has a remarkably sophisticated photo tour, titled How the Twin Cities Got Transit Right. The annoying drop-down at the top actually tracks your progress along the route, as you progress through the photo tour. The article shows a surprising depth of subject understanding, for a national media piece. A few highlights:

Map overview of Central Corridor TOD, with Downtown Mpls on the left, and Downtown St. Paul on the right:

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Stantec’s master plan of Central Corridor TOD

To achieve this, the Metro Council and its non-profit partners, including the Funders Collaborative and affordable housing consortiums, hired the transit engineering firm Stantec to identify every possible investment opportunity. They identified 500 potential investment opportunities in total, shown above.

As these sites are heavily concentrated in the area between UMN’s campus and the State Capitol, encompassing the entire Central Corridor through the west side of St. Paul, here are the photos that I took through this area:

 

Blue Line

Minneapolis is not new to light rail. Its Blue Eine, formerly known as the Hiawatha Line, has ran from downtown Mpls to the Mall of America since 2004. The line was expanded from the Mall of America southward through suburban Bloomington, MN – where the market has driven a lot of TOD. The original line opened amidst construction, offering a non-stop connection from the Warehouse District around Target Field and Fort Snelling, which is just before you get the airport. The total price tag of this project was $715 million. The line has already far-exceeded its 2020 goal of 24,000 avg daily riders, which is now around 28,000. According to this METRO fact sheet, 50% of its daily riders were new to transit before trying the light rail.

Here are the photos I took of TOD along the Blue Line:

The Twin Cities have been so successful with transit by amenitizing stations, which I found to be in excess of what their own factsheet claims). The following is a list of bells and whistles you encounter as a METRO transit user, regardless of your socioeconomic background:

  • Sheltered platforms
  • Public art (integrated as you’d expect)
  • Push-button heaters (absolutely brilliant)
  • Ticketing kiosks (modern forms of payment)
  • Free on-board WiFi
  • Onboard restrooms
  • Work tables at stations and onboard
  • Prominent connection schedules
  • LED ticker for next train departure
  • LED screens with ads and community info
  • Electrical outlets (impossible to find on other systems)
  • Bike storage onboard and at stations
  • Great skyline views all around

These amenities go a long ways toward driving transit choice in the Twin Cities, which isn’t exactly Chicago. In fact, Minneapolis-St. Paul’s urban fabric is really more comparable to Cleveland or Columbus. A lot of old neighborhoods around a revitalized downtown or two, with a heavy emphasis on the “eds and meds.” It’s really not all that different from the Ohio cities. The difference is bold public investment and bolder progressive policies. The trains in and around Minneapolis are packed, and the faces truly represent the fabric of their community. It’s not all transit dependent users. You see diversity, including its upper bounds. You see a lot of choice riders. Most importantly, you see a lot of people whose lives have been bettered by the light rail: they are living visibly healthy, active lifestyles, which have been made attainable to anyone in the Twin Cities.

This is why the Twin Cities have been perhaps the nation’s strongest light rail success story. They could have cut corners, saved some pennies here and there, and saved themselves the political blowback that you’d expect with a $715 million and another $950 million light rail project. They didn’t do that because they were unfazed by the cost. Other states are unfazed by the cost of new freeways and prisons, so why should they be fazed by the cost of modern rail that they need? To the contrary, the Twin Cities looked for any additional connection they could create between communities and these rail corridors. No stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of developing quality mixed-income housing, adding active lifestyle amenities like adjacent bike trails, and optimizing the user experience regardless of why they’re catching a train on that particular day.

In my case, I caught the train at the airport’s Lindbergh Terminal, which is essentially a shiny-new subway station. It was $1.75 for a day pass. The route was truly optimized for my experience as a short-term tourist: Got to see Midtown, a quirky Riverside neighborhood, an iconic bridge and bike trail, the revitalized downtown area, had a latte near campus, saw the stadiums and associated redevelopment there, saw St. Paul’s Little Mekong neighborhood, and met lots of friendly Minnesotans. By the time I had to get back to MSP to catch my return flight to Columbus, I had more than enough resident recommendations to last a week in the Twin Cities, made some friends who held the door open while I jumped out at each station to take photos I would later lose, and had been told twice that seeing these “light rail tourists” had become a daily occurrence on the Central Corridor.

I am in awe of how Minneapolis exemplifies how a rail project can truly build community. I believe that is what we are all working toward, it’s just that sometimes we disagree about how to get there. I think Minneapolis (and St. Paul too!) have exemplified how investing in transit is one way to get there.