The Road Less Traveled
Mayor R.T. Rybak
Mayors Climate Change Summit – Seattle, WA
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Minneapolis, like most other American cities, grew up in the Streetcar Era. Our neighborhoods evolved from a world where people got to work by streetcar or on foot, where people did most of their shopping downtown or close to home. Our commercial corridors grew where the tracks ran, and every few blocks people could find corner groceries, drug stores, hardware stores and other services.
Streetcar Minneapolis was filled with life and at its peak right after World War II, the city had about half a million people, about 115,000 more than it has today.
Shortly after World War II, everything changed for Minneapolis and most other American cities. The car became king. Streetcar lines were ripped up. Wide swaths of the city were torn up to build freeways. Jobs moved to suburban office parks. Shopping centers, fast food restaurants and, later, big box retailers lined the freeways. With jobs, housing, and shopping all far from each other, we spent major parts of our days driving.
The evolution of Streetcar Minneapolis to King Car Minneapolis tells you everything about why our country is addicted to oil, but also why Minneapolis and other major American cities are our best hope to solve the climate crisis.
At a time when we need to dramatically reduce the oil we use, we need to find ways to have the places we live, work, shop and play be closer together. We need to build transit that gives us alternatives to always being dependent on our cars. In other words, we need to rebuild the Streetcar City. That won’t be easy but the good news for Minneapolis, and most other major cities is that the framework for the Streetcar City still exists. We just need to reweave the urban fabric.
Reweaving the Urban Fabric is at the heart of the Minneapolis Plan, our comprehensive, long-range plan and our 20 year growth strategy, which has sustainability as one of its key outcomes. The plan sets the aggressive pace to recapture all of the population Minneapolis lost after World War II. We are already there in downtown Minneapolis, where years of focus on new housing, and the redevelopment of riverfront rail yards means we now have 30,000 people living downtown.
The challenge of growth will be more complicated in neighborhoods, where many mayors know residents are not always willing to warmly accept density as a good thing. But our Minneapolis Plan doesn’t say we want to put a 20-story high rise on the same block as a single family home. It says we are rebuilding the Street Car City by adding density on transit corridors so new housing above the corner store means that store has more customers, and you have more services in right your neighborhood.
A key part of this effort is that the neighborhoods need to work with the city to plan for growth, and not get stuck reacting to the visions of outside developers who may not share the values of a neighborhood. So in addition to having the Minneapolis Plan developed with neighborhoods we also have:
• The Mayor’s Great City Design Teams, where volunteer teams of architects and landscape architects work with select neighborhoods on new visions for their commercial corners.
• The Corridor Housing Initiative, which works with community-based teams to identify places where locating affordable housing in neighborhoods can help add needed density to make commercial corridors more successful.
• The Great Streets Program that connects low-interest 2% percent loans to neighborhood based small business and emerging entrepreneurs.
Shops and housing are key parts of a sustainable Streetcar City, but great cities cannot live by condos and coffee shops alone. We also need places to work, and too often neighborhoods do not embrace employers, especially small manufacturing. In Minneapolis we want to be a city where you don’t have to drive 45 minutes in gridlock every day to get to work. That’s why our Industrial Land Use Strategy identifies existing employers and targets where we want them to grow. And to make sure those employers don’t have to move to exurbia to find qualified workers, we have programs like the Health Careers Institute, which placed 1,000 people into health care jobs in the past eight years, and our Neighborhood Employment Network, which placed 7,000 hard to employ residents in good jobs in the past five years. As a result of these and other efforts, we grew 9,000 jobs in Minneapolis last year alone.
We also have to recognize that a significant part of the workforce does not spend 9-5 in a traditional workplace. Home based workers, and telecommuters need the latest tools, and Minneapolis’ new citywide wireless network will enable them to get low cost, high speed Internet access on almost every block of the city.
A pivotal part of recreating the Streetcar City is acknowledging that our worst enemy is often ourselves. Cities rightfully have zoning standards, as this is how we can preserve great neighborhoods. But too often we overact by requiring so much separation between where we live, work and play that we set up land use patterns that require us to get in the car every time we want to do anything. Streets that once were pleasant places to walk become traffic clogged and filled with exhaust.
Streetcar lines did give cities orderly patterns in which to grow but other than that, the expansion of most of our urban centers was pretty random. It was messy. So let’s not treat our cities like manicured lawns or newly coiffed French Poodles. Let’s look for ways to mix uses, especially along transit lines, so people can enjoy a diversity of experiences in one area.
All these plans are moving us in the right direction but we have to acknowledge that if we want to rebuild communities that grew along transit, we have to rebuild transit. We have a long, long way to go, but the first examples of that in Minneapolis have been overwhelming successes. The Hiawatha Light Rail Line opened three years ago and already has 19,000 riders a day, before it’s even been connected to the University of Minnesota or our sister city of St. Paul. It cost $700 million but it has generated more than $1.5 billion in investment, including 5,400 housing units. That’s a better rate of return than any freeway I have ever heard of. A second LRT line connecting Hiawatha to the University and St. Paul, and a third line going to our southwestern suburbs, are now being planned.
The 40-mile Northstar Commuter Rail Corridor, scheduled to open next year, will be our first commuter line to our northern suburbs with a second line being planned to the St. Paul suburbs.
In Minneapolis we know that great transit solutions can’t be built without great transit planning. That’s why we just finished Access Minneapolis, a transportation action plan for the next decade that puts an unprecedented emphasis on alternatives to the car, including bikes and walking, and begins planning for – of all things – streetcars! Putting our Access Minneapolis in place has not only given us the road map for future transit and pedestrian amenities, it has allowed us to respond quickly to new opportunities that arose:
• When the I-35W Bridge collapsed we knew we could not rebuild the same structure. We knew from Access Minneapolis that this bridge was planned to be in a core transit corridor, which gave us the background we needed to negotiate transit capacity into the new bridge design.
• We knew from Access Minneapolis that I-35W to the south was at capacity, and it couldn’t be fixed by just adding car lanes. Working with our suburban partners we put a plan in place for a bus rapid transit system. In September we won a $133 million federal grant to build BRT lanes along the 20-mile stretch from suburban Lakeville into downtown Minneapolis. That money will also allow us to completely remake Marquette and Second Avenues downtown as transit and pedestrian corridors. That, in turn, will let us take about forty percent of the buses off our downtown pedestrian Nicollet Mall, leaving only quiet, low emission hybrid buses and bikes.
• We spent years planning an expanding network of bike commuting routes in the city, and in the past five years have spent $20 million to give us a system that now has 100 miles of trails – among the most of any city. Our bike strategy is so strong that we were the only major city in America to receive $7 million from the Federal Non-Motorized Pilot Program, which we will use to build bike and pedestrian improvements targeted at getting commuters out of their cars.
• Minneapolis residents have also made great progress on other fronts, including Walking Minneapolis, a public-private partnership aimed at improving our amenities for those who walk, especially downtown.
I’m proud of the work that the City of Minneapolis has done on this visionary transportation plan. If we stopped now, we could feel good. But my city has never been about just being good. We like being on the edge of greatness when it comes to transportation and we need to push that further.
This is even more important at a time of greater awareness about the global climate crisis. Without dramatic action, our climate will experience cataclysmic change. There is no single thing that is more important for us to do than to reshape the physical structure of the City of Minneapolis so that we are not car dependent.
Thanks you and good luck.
Last updated Sep. 27, 2011