Saturday, March 7, 2009

Streetcars on the Greenway

There's been some differences of opinion over the type of transportation best suited for the Midtown Greenway. Some people would prefer it to remain bikes and pedestrians only, others hope for a light rail line through part of it, while still others still hold out hope for a Greenway streetcar line, ideally using vintage trolleys. At one point there was even talk of creating a designated busway, although common sense seems to have prevailed and that plan has lost its traction.

A 2001 Greenway Trolley study was commissioned by the Midtown Greenway Coalition. A different streetcar study, issued by the City in 2007, lays out a 20 to 50 year potential streetcar plan for Minneapolis; this study also incorporates a potential streetcar line up the Greenway.

There are many people out there who have been following this issue for years, who have a high level of expertise in transportation issues, and who know all the ins and outs of the proposed Greenway Streetcar. I'm not one of them; I admittedly have a lot to learn. Still, based on what I know so far, my opinion boils down to several key points:
  1. Uptown needs light rail. A streetcar connection to the Hiawatha line and to a Kenilworth alignment of the Southwest line does not serve the residents of Uptown well. Uptown needs quick, direct rail transportation to downtown. Those who believe a streetcar connection would be an adequate substitute are probably not transit users themselves. Those who use the bus for daily transportation (and not just to go to the airport, sports games, or for a fun day out and about) want their transportation to be efficient, easy, and fast. Screwing around with a Kenilworth Connection just to get from Uptown to Downtown is none of that.
  2. I agree that the neighborhoods along the Greenway Corridor need and deserve improved transportation options. Lake Street is a heavily traveled artery, and taking the bus up its length seem to take forever. Some sort of rail transportation would speed up transportation time, attract new riders, and spur development. These are all good things.
  3. Streetcars are cool. I love streetcars. I love the idea of a vintage trolley. The Greenway report has lots of examples from other cities, and I think it could be a great addition to Minneapolis. The Midtown Greenway Coalition and I agree on that point.
  4. Can't we have both light rail and a streetcar? Does it have to be an either/or proposition? The City's plan shows a proposed line that connects Hiawatha with the Southwest line. I want a streetcar, but not at the expense of light rail.
  5. Does it have to be IN the Greenway? This is my biggest question. I think a streetcar would be wonderful, and I think they'd be an asset to South Minneapolis. I don't understand why it needs to go in the Greenway. Why can't we put the line up Lake Street instead? I realize that construction is disruptive to residents and to businesses, but ultimately it seems to make more sense to have a streetcar run up a major commercial corridor. People can easily get off to run errands or grab lunch. If riders are zipping along the Greenway they'll have a pleasant ride, but it won't help local businesses if riders don't know the commercial wonders located just a block away. A Lake Street route would be convenient for riders as well as benefit the local economy.

I fully support the idea of the Greenway as a transportation system. I hope that Uptown gets its light rail line, which of course would run on part of the Greenway. I love the concept of the Greenway as a bicycle and pedestrian path. I have no problems with the idea itself of a streetcar sharing that space. I'm just not convinced that the Greenway is a logical place for a streetcar line.

Transportation issues seem to move at a snail's pace in Minneapolis, so for better or worse I suppose I have plenty of time to investigate this in more depth and to be convinced one way or the other that a Midtown Greenway streetcar is the way to go. I'd welcome any and all thoughts on the issue.


  1. Lake Street businesses won't stand for any more tearing up of the street in the near future. The last 5 years of reconstruction have been a burden, and going through that again would send many more of them under. The only fair time to do that would have been during the reconstruction itself, but that ship has sailed. You might be able to broach the subject again in 10 years, but that's a heck of a long time to wait and even then I'm not sure there would be much support for it.

  2. Uptown absolutely needs a direct, efficient connection to the southwest suburbs and downtown Minneapolis -- and the only way to do that is LRT. Talking a streetcar from Uptown to the west side of Lake Calhoun to transfer to a train that goes up the Kenilworth trail makes no sense, and current bus trips from Uptown to downtown can take 25 minutes in traffic. Even a Hennepin or Nicollet streetcar would take that long, because streetcars generally don't have separate ROW (Greenway excepted). That's why we need to fight to bring the Southwest LRT through Uptown.

  3. I'm 100% completely behind the Uptown LRT route, it's just the possible Greenway-based streetcar connector (between the the Southwest and Hiawatha lines) that I'm not sure about.

    I can understand the business community's concerns about construction. What's the level of support out there among Lake Street business owners for a Greenway streetcar? Would it hurt business by removing (some, anyway) people into the Greenway and away from the businesses, or would it help by improving traffic or bringing in new visitors via streetcar?

  4. The Streetcar Feasibility Study breaks down projected ridership for the Greenway streetcar in a lot of detail. I don't feel like digging through it right now, but I do recall that a very low percentage of riders are predicted to take the streetcar to an LRT line for a transfer -- probably because there are few routes where it would be more efficient than using a bus (or not riding transit at all).

    A streetcar in the Greenway would be nice, but who will pay, and when? What other routes might come first (E Hennepin, Chicago Ave, etc)?

    It's a shame Lake Street just got redone, and poorly, I might add. It would have been a good place to introduce non-highway BRT in this city. It's an ideal candidate, a lot like Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. A long, straight shot with consistent ridership generators and magnets, and with insanely slow local bus service that tends to be heavily used.

    But that's not going to happen here, and I doubt a Greenway streetcar will either, at least in the next decade. And Lake Street is worse off for it.

  5. If the City is working with a 20 to 50 year streetcar plan maybe the Greenway versus Lake Street streetcar or BRT or other transit options will be revisited in the distant future.

  6. The question about Lake Street support for a Greenway light rail is a very open one. Again, one issue is cost -- the surrounding properties are the ones that end up paying for it. It wouldn't be disruptive on the street, but Lake Street business are facing rising property taxes and are just now getting the assessments for the street reconstruction. Getting yet another assessment would be painful, but maybe worth it if it did bring in a lot of traffic. But would it? As things stand now, maybe not. Lake Street and the Greenway Coalition are working on a plan to get in place better wayfinding between the two corridors, and maybe that would help. But I'm not aware of any studies done on how a streetcar like one for the Greenway affects a nearby commercial area. It would be nice to see one.