Tuesday, August 9, 2016

An Angeleno visits the Twin Cities

Both in my work and private life (i.e. on this blog), I have spent much of the past two years critiquing transportation and land use planning here in Los Angeles.  A recent visit to the Twin Cities metropolis, a region  that is seen as a national model for multi-modal transportation planning (as well as in affordable housing and economic development) gave me the opportunity to assess Los Angeles' shortcomings with a more rounded perspective. I arrived at the following observations.

1. As in Los Angeles, the Twin Cities' gestating Metro system anchors on the city of Minneapolis' downtown core (the system's planned expansion aims to keep things this way). Besides the fact that such a system marginalizes the downtown of the region's second anchor city, St. Paul (served by a single line leading to Downtown Minneapolis), it also ignores the importance of the numerous urban commercial, retail and entertainment centers outside of either city's downtown, like Minneapolis's Uptown District and St. Paul's Grand Avenue. Indeed, I noticed that much like Downtown Los Angeles of the 1980s and 1990s, Downtown Minneapolis serves primarily as a weekday employment center: outside of narrow corridors along the Nicollet Mall, First Avenue and Washington Avenue, almost all restaurants and shops closed all-day on Saturdays and Sundays and at 6 pm on weekdays. By contrast, when I visited Uptown and Grand Avenue, at 8 pm on a Monday and on a Saturday morning respectively, I encountered a healthy mix of shops, restaurants and bars open to business (and serving patrons), in settings that were just as walkable and compact. Luckily, Downtown Los Angeles is no longer so fixated around the workweek (except in the vicinity of the Civic Center). And, yet, a general problem for downtown-centric transportation planning still applies: by focusing on only one of several regional "centers", each of which may serve as important (or specialized) of a use as the other, a transit system will only capture a segment of one flow of regional commuter traffic.    

2. By running light-rail lines on at-grade (streetcar-esque) alignments through a heavily-trafficked downtown core, a transit operator limits the line's convenience. In Downtown Minneapolis, it takes at least 7 minutes (according to the schedule: It felt even longer each time I rode) for the Green or Blue Lines to travel the 1.5 mile distance from Target Field to the US Bank Center station, almost as much as the amount of time it takes the Blue Line to traverse the ensuing 3.4 miles from US Bank Center station to 38th Street station. At-grade, street-level track layouts have a similarly-retarding effect on the Expo Line's journey along Flower between Pico and Jefferson and on the Gold Line's crawl along Marmion Way in Highland Park. My experiences in Minneapolis reaffirmed my belief that tunneling or bridging expenses are justified for transit line segments through dense or heavily-trafficked areas, where such improvements result in commute time savings (which translate, in turn, to increased ridership) and fatality reductions.

3. Minneapolis's Blue Line also slows dramatically just south of the International Airport, in the stretch between the Terminal 2 and Mall of America stations. In the span of only half a mile, the Blue Line makes 3 stops (American Boulevard, Bloomington Central and 28th Avenue) as it winds through an agglomeration of parking lots and suburban office parks, before terminating inside the Mall of America. That's right: three stops within the classic half-mile walk circle! Since I traveled on a Saturday, the entire district (and each of the three stations) was deserted, but I am sure that even during the week, the copious free parking and lack of pedestrian infrastructure ensure that the vast majority of the persons employed in the district drive to work. Of course, the lack of walkability might be cited in support of placing the three stations (each in proximity to a major hotel or corporate complex) so close together but this begs the question: why build stations to serve an auto-centric, weekday-exclusive business center in the first place (retarding the Blue Line's speed on this stretch)?

 As with Los Angeles' prioritization of the Foothill Gold Line extension over the Crenshaw Line or Purple Line to Westwood, the answer probably lies in politics (i.e. appeasing suburban constituencies), not revenue or ridership.

4. Minneapolis's Grand Rounds Scenic Byway bicycle "highway" is truly impressive, both in its scope and scenery. However, I would hesitate to assert (as the folks at WalkScore do) that Minneapolis is America's most bike-friendly city, based on its bike paths, since the bike lane network seemed lacking. Compared to Portland, bike lanes in Minneapolis were thinly distributed (as far as a mile apart outside Downtown). Many important bike connections (e.g. along Riverside Avenue between the Franklin Bridge and the University of Minnesota's West Bank Campus) teetered rather precariously (none were protected) on the edge of 4- to 6-lane speedways, which teemed with sedans dashing to enter the Interstate. Much like Los Angeles, Minneapolis gave way too much street space too cars back in the 1950s and 1960s and still acts too timidly in reclaiming space for bikes. While the Grand Rounds bike path system is great for joyriding, it fails to provide mobility since it runs mostly through residential areas on the edge of the city, with few urban amenities nearby (Portions of the Chain of Lakes and Mississippi River segments get pretty close to Uptown and Downtown, but lie in parkland areas separated by a few blocks from the main commercial strips). In terms of bicycle planning, Minneapolis is no model for Los Angeles.

5. My line of reasoning in point 4 leads to my final conclusion: That Minneapolis-St. Paul felt (*gasp), on the whole. less walkable than LA. Not only did the region's arterials and local streets devote disproportionate space to cars (like ours) but many signaled intersections in outlying neighborhoods, partuicularly at intersections between arterial and local streets, lacked demarcated crosswalks. The absence of this feature, which I have come to take for granted in my hometown, made it difficult to get right-turing cars to slow down and enabled cars in the through lanes (without a visible reference) to block the pedestrian crossing space. In addition, Minneapolis's Skyway system seems to deplete much of Downtown Minneapolis of street-level retail and dining amenities, making it more difficult to sightsee the city's urban core on foot. Minneapolis's city leaders should take some advice from this urbanist.

The moral of the trip? Maybe LA is not so doomed after all.


  1. Writing as someone who has lived and biked heavily in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles, I have to say that I completely disagree with your stance on the Grand Rounds bike path. Arguing that it doesn't get close to enough urban amenities would be similar to shooting down a LA River/Arroyo Seco bike path because it wouldn't directly take you into the heart of downtown LA or old town Pasadena. The Grand Rounds and other similar paths like the Midtown Greenway allow for bike riders who live in nearby neighborhoods to commute to their jobs in downtown, uptown, the U, etc. rather rapidly without having to deal with a bunch of intersections. Additionally, the entire twin cities bike path system is fantastic. I would bike from central Minneapolis to St. Paul, Eden Prairie, Victoria/Lake Minnetonka, Coon Rapids, and other far out places all on bike paths and hardly any streets.

  2. I agree that a bike path system like in the Twin Cities makes long-distance commuting more convenient by eliminating interchanges. The Grand Rounds system in particular seemed to function much like a "freeway" in this regard.

    I think the gist of my critique is that the Twin Cities need to have better arterial bike lanes branching off from the bike path system, if they are to construct a more functional bike network. I understand that it might be unrealistic to construct Minneapolis Grand Rounds system so that it meanders into the heart of Uptown Center or Nicollet Mall, but there is no excuse for a lack of a bike lane on Lake Avenue (leading from the Chain of Lakes segment into the heart of Uptown).

    As for the Arroyo Seco Bike Path and other bike paths in LA, I find them problematic for largely the same reasons.

    I'm critiquing the idea that Minneapolis-St. Paul is a paragon of excellence for bike infrastructure, not arguing that its as bad as LA.