What are we trying to accomplish with transit? Or: Another reason BRT is great.

Streets.mn has an important post questioning Minneapolis’ plan for a new light rail line through the southwest of the city, pointing out that its current alignment would serve very few people in the dense inner-city areas where the need and potential value of enhanced transit service are greatest:

Do we champion any transit expansion even if its benefits are questionable and opportunity costs very high? Why support a major project that benefits a relatively small group of people while doing nothing for anyone else?

The Twin Cities have had a mixed record on this – their first light rail project (first Hiawatha, now the Blue Line) traveled largely along an industrial/highway corridor where, as I learned when I visited my brother in St. Paul three weeks ago, it is not very pleasant or easy to walk to residential or commercial neighborhoods.* But the Green Line, scheduled to open in 2014, is almost perfect: it gets its own right-of-way down a major commercial street that passes through both regional downtowns, a major college campus, and a good number of fairly dense neighborhoods.

Blue Line: Don’t want to walk here.

You will be able to walk to delicious Vietnamese restaurants from the Green Line.

Nationally, the trend for most rail projects over the last 10-15 years has been similarly mixed. There are at least two major ways that these things get perverted: One, cost considerations push cities to run their trains in places where tracks already exist, or where buying land will be cheap, which tends to be industrial corridors where no one lives or shops. (This is why you can’t walk anywhere from the Orange Line in Chicago.)

You have to walk through a quarter mile of industry before you get to the first house or pedestrian-friendly shopping district from the Kedzie Orange Line.

Two, because rail is often explicitly marketed as a way to attract the middle class to cities**, proposals often fall into one of two categories: downtown or entertainment district “streetcars” that are actually less efficient at transporting people than buses, and which are so short – often between one and three miles – and come so infrequently that it’s often faster to just walk from one end of the line to the other; and light rail lines with widely-spaced stops that stretch waaaaay out into the suburbs and are endowed with massive park-and-rides so white-collar workers can commute into downtown. These are actually the least useful projects possible. Better, of course, would be the creation or reinforcement of a grid of service downtown and in the outlying walkable-ish neighborhoods where transit service might actually be useful as a way of getting around. But those tend not to be the neighborhoods where the middle class lives, and so they usually languish. As, for example, with the Southwest Corridor in Minneapolis.

This is another reason BRT is great: no one thinks it’s cool enough that tech workers will move to your city just to gawk at it, so you don’t get useless downtown “economic development” routes***; and since it runs,  by definition, on major streets, you’re almost guaranteed to have stations in the middle of major activity centers.  Or, at least, that’s much more likely than with trains.

* Although I will say that Minneapolis has allowed some fairly impressive development around some of the stations, which partly makes up for that. More on this in a later post.

** It’s incredible, actually, how frequently people will openly admit that a given rail project is less about transportation than about economic development and making downtown friendly to “creatives,” as if trains were rolling Banksy pieces.

*** Chicago has a downtown BRT project right now, but it actually fulfills a need: transporting the hundreds of thousands of people who arrive in the Loop on commuter trains to their jobs in other parts of downtown a mile or two away.

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5 thoughts on “What are we trying to accomplish with transit? Or: Another reason BRT is great.

    1. That’s amazing, and so damning that the transit agency would basically admit that the streetcar never had much usefulness to begin with. Such a colossal waste of money.

      1. I visited Portland and Seattle in the same trip in April 2010. I rode the Portland Streetcar. Then I got to Seattle. I took a bunch of pictures of the streetcar, but I never rode it. It was faster to walk that extremely short distance.

  1. Was the Portland streetcar better? I’ve heard it’s also miserably slow, although I guess at least it’s much longer, right?

    1. It seems to more places. It starts in the Pearl District at the north end of downtown and goes all the way to South Waterfront District.

      The most useful segment is probably between downtown and South Waterfront – I think that’s where the least traffic is. The north-south streetcar line is in almost all mixed traffic (probably 100% but I’m not certain).

      Portland has an east-west streetcar, also in mixed traffic. Broken down car? Delayed. Parallel parker ahead? Delayed.

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