Minnesota boasts one of the nation's most extensive rural transit networks, but expansion to reach statutory goals has stalled with virtually flat funding in recent years, and it's unlikely that coverage over the state's vast open spaces can ever grow to meet all the needs of disadvantaged residents.
As a result, lack of mobility for job opportunities can hold back the poor living in the countryside. In south-central Minnesota, however, the antipoverty agency has found a way to provide cars to low-income people at affordable prices by soliciting donations of fixer-upper vehicles. Since 1998, the Minnesota Valley Action Council's Wheel Get There program has put hundreds of folks a year behind the wheel for as little as a few hundred dollars.
With wider awareness among potential contributors, the program could do even more. After all, it makes more sense to donate an old car to a transportation program than to the public broadcasting stations better known for seeking that kind of tax-deductible charity. As it is, according to Cynthia Boyd in MinnPost, Wheel Get There attracts many more calls for help than it can meet.
"We've never had to advertise," Dan Jones, the program's director, told Boyd. "Word spreads." As of last week, she reported, no high-mileage cars that typically go for $400 to $600 were available. Pricier later models the program gets are out of reach for many potential clients. For those with a bit more resources, there's a no-interest, new-car leasing program that started with a small federal Recovery Act grant to buy 16 economy cars and continues as lease payments and payoffs finance purchases of more autos.
Wheel Get There sells a few of its donated cars for junk, repairs many more and sells others "as is" to people who can get them fixed up on their own.
If there are any qualms about this program based in Mankato and serving nine surrounding counties, it would be its surface resemblance to a wacky suggestion by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota during a Twin Cities bus strike several years ago: Shut down transit for good and spend the public money on free cars for all the riders. If you don't like metro traffic and air pollution now, you'll hate it if that ever happens.
Fortunately, that's not likely. But Wheel Get There offers no freebies, and it makes excellent sense as a hand up, not a handout, to people struggling in sparsely populated areas where scaling up transit is a tough slog.
My recent article extolling the high-quality transit progress of deep-red Utah got some blowback from a critic of sales tax funding. While that's a question for debate over its relative economic fairness and the feasibility of alternate revenue sources, the larger point about the Beehive State's success in building a multimodal transportation system for the 21st century in a sprawling, conservative metropolis should be beyond dispute.
Confirmation of this came when a Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce official told a November gathering of transportation advocates in Washington, D.C., that "Salt Lake is eating our lunch when it comes to transit investments." Will Schroeer's comment came after Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams explained to the Transportation for America (T4A) meeting the strong link between transportation investment and economic growth.
For example, Utah government, foundation and business leaders recently combined to develop an ambitious 30-year transportation plan and project that closing an $11.3 billion funding gap to implement it would generate an additional $183 billion in local economic output.
And it's been metro Utah's ability to get public buy-in for that kind of thinking that sets the Wasach Front region apart from the left-leaning Twin Cities and much of the rest of the country as well. Now transportation boosters from all over are looking to Utah to spearhead bringing those arguments to gridlocked Washington, where consideration of new revenue for transportation has been off the table for years.
"Local business leaders recognize that the right transportation infrastructure is a matter of economic life and death," Minneapolis' Schroeer was quoted. "But we know we can't go it alone, so it's important to join with leaders from other communities to ensure that we have a strong federal partner."
Good publicly-run transportation facilities, from roads, bridges and complete streets to transit and airports, shouldn't be a partisan issue. Done right, they can benefit all constituencies. So, by all means, let's argue about how to pay for them, but not about whether we should.
St. Paul’s Transportation Committee last week recommended a route for the city’s first streetcar line, meant to be the first building block of a future streetcar network. Seventh Street, from Randolph Avenue in the west and through downtown to Arcade Street in the east, is the route the committee favors, which will now go to the city’s Planning Commission and then the City Council for review early next year.
With funding options still uncertain and a long planning timeframe left before construction would get going, now is our chance to look at the current proposal and bring the community input it needs if it’s going to be refined into a productive, equitable, high-quality transit option.
Streetcars still catch a lot of reflexive grief from some onlookers, as if that transit mode is just not a serious option no matter what. (The St. Paul feasibility study, perhaps worried about that kind of accusation, takes pains to describe streetcars as more like “scaled-down light rail service.”) No one transit mode can be evaluated in a vacuum. The way a specific transit line functions in practice is what really matters--whether it has a positive economic impact, and whether it helps make a city more accessible and more equitable.
As I’ve noted here before, development potential for transit is tricky to forecast, and may be more closely linked to pro-development policies than to the transit line’s presence itself. The continuing fascination of developers with streetcars, however, and the possibility of using a value-capture district to fund a St. Paul streetcar line, means there’s certainly potential in this proposal. Bill Lindeke at Streets.MN, who’s part of the Transportation Committee that worked on this proposal, is particularly hopeful about an economic boost for East Seventh Street between downtown and Metro State. St. Paul and its consultants expect right now that the proposed line would generate $134 million in increased property value from development, and applying a value-capture district to that could take a big bite out of the intended $246 million budget for this line.
The other main reason that transit lines improve urban economies, however, is improved connections between people and businesses. So whether the streetcar line works as a transit service is not only important for the accessibility and equity of St. Paul, but also for the economic impact of the city’s transit network. Just because the proposed Seventh Street line was predicted to have the most riders of the 17 alternative streetcar routes which St. Paul planners considered doesn’t guarantee that the proposed line would provide riders with a new or improved transit service.
Streetcars are slower than most light rail, but depending on the execution, they can provide a genuine savings in travel time over existing transit options--the longer, although more expensive, “full” version of the Minneapolis streetcar proposal would actually do just that. The problem in Minneapolis is that the shorter “starter” version, all by itself, is not a big enough improvement to the transit network, and it’s still debatable whether the more expensive “full” version will ever be completed.
Similarly, we don’t know from the feasibility study completed so far whether the proposed St. Paul line would make enough impact on travel time or availability of service. Seventh Street is a major road with existing bus service along the vast majority of the length that the proposed streetcar covers. If this streetcar is going to be a valuable addition to the transit network, it matters whether it would be faster or more frequent than the existing service, since it isn’t aimed at expanding the range and coverage of transit.
A more detailed ridership study will come next, along with open houses and public hearings in the next couple of months. Let’s press for more detail, as soon as possible, on how this St. Paul streetcar line would measure up as transit.
While controversial new extraction techniques have quieted predictions of imminent global "peak oil" production that were rampant just a few years back, it's becoming clear that another kind of petroleum maximum was reached nearly a decade ago.
Since 2004, through boom and bust economic cycles, U.S. consumption of gasoline has steadily declined along with parallel drops in miles traveled and the overall number of light-duty cars and trucks on the roads. According to University of Michigan automobility researcher Michael Sivak, American drivers burned almost 15 billion gallons less in 2011 than in the peak year of 2004, a decline of 11 percent.
"Given that the maxima in the fuel-consumption rates occurred several years prior to the ... economic downturn, these maxima have a good chance of being permanent peaks," Sivak was quoted in Scientific American.
Along with less driving spurred by rising urbanization and transportation alternatives, plus communications and retailing advances that can replace travel altogether, sharply improved vehicle mileage is also behind petrol's waning. And that's been driven by a combination of higher prices at the pump and federal fuel economy standards that tighten to fleetwide averages of 34.1 miles per gallon in 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. The latest figure across 2013 models: 29.8 mpg, a bit ahead of what's expected to stay on pace.
This is all terrific news for both the environment and the economy. It also rebuts claims that better fuel efficiency would only result in more driving. "It seems to turn the conventional wisdom about a rebound effect on its head," Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council told Scientific American. "Basically, efficiency and reduced driving are in the ring with oil dependence, and they've struck a double blow against it."
And the only obvious downside can be fixed with smart policy shifts. Less gas consumption means less fuel tax money to operate a road system that remains an important key to our prosperity. It's a problem at both the state and federal levels, with the U.S. Highway Trust Fund headed for bankruptcy next year, no thanks to per-gallon tax rates that haven't budged in two decades.
Besides de-linking transportation revenue from dependence on "ever more driving and fuel consumption," as Lovaas put it, a greater emphasis on maintaining existing roads and bridges and less on expansion is needed. That, along with development of more alternatives, is just common sense if we're driving and burning gas a lot less than before.
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It's well known in the wonkosphere, and little understood elsewhere, that higher transportation costs can negate the financial savings supposedly reaped by the sprawling "drive-to-qualify" trend of home-buying that peaked up to the past decade's housing crash.
But practically no one expected the recent news that the average Twin Cities resident now spends almost as much getting around, nearly $9,900 a year, as on a place to live, $10,359. Over the past five years, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show, the former has risen and the latter has dropped, both much faster than the national average. It's left our metro with a cost gap between the two that's much smaller than in the nation as a whole.
Reasons for this include our sparse, transit-challenged settlement pattern and its resulting dependency on driving cars that the AAA says cost nearly $9,000 a year on average to own and maintain, plus high homeownership and relatively low housing costs. As the Star Tribune article pointed out, it's common for low-income people to spend more on transportation than on housing, but rare further up the economic ladder. So it's highly unusual to see an entire region's costs of transportation edging up on those for housing.
Probably even rarer is the person who thoroughly analyzes the costs of getting to and from a home when deciding where to live. That can be unpredictable considering fluctuating fuel prices and employment instability. But now, two federal agencies have launched an online tool to estimate transportation costs for any address in the country.
The Location Affordability Portal from the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development allows users to customize their financial and travel information or use location-specific averages to predict transportation costs. For housing seekers, or even anyone just curious about what they spend getting around, it's a handy source of the information we need to make smarter economic choices.
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In six counties of west-central Minnesota, residents don't need bus schedules or route maps to get around by public transit. They just call the Rainbow Rider dispatcher to schedule a pickup. It's a common dial-a-ride system for rural transit, but one that's become more efficient and economical thanks to recently introduced software called RouteMatch.
Every day Rainbow Rider transit vans ply different routes with their daily average of 634 passengers. But constant change doesn't boggle the drivers because "they are very pleased to see their routes and destinations on the tablets which are equipped in each of our 31 buses," transit services director Harold Jennissen told November's in-transit, the newsletter of the Minnesota Public Transit Association. "We have plans for the future that will allow riders to schedule rides directly using their phones and tablets as well."
RouteMatch, based in Atlanta, claims more than 600 clients worldwide, including not just public transit agencies but private businesses and university and shuttle systems. Since its founding in 2000, its dynamic scheduling and dispatching systems are claimed to have saved users millions of dollars by optimizing routes, increasing riders per revenue mile and reducing administrative costs, fuel consumption, customer complaints, no-shows, idling and driver overtime.
In Rainbow Rider's vast service area of Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens, Todd and Traverse counties -- nearly 4,000 square miles of woods, lakes, farms and prairie inhabited by barely 91,000 people, thousands fewer than the population of Rochester, Minn., alone -- state-of-the-art routing software is a must for riders, drivers and taxpayers who support the system. Any Minnesota rural transit system that isn't using RouteMatch or equivalent software ought to look into it post haste.
As the contrarian University of Minnesota transportation thinker David Levinson has pointed out, the main problem with American suburbs isn't where they are, but how they're laid out. After all, everything and everyone have to be somewhere.
The scattering of more buildings and people far from urban cores, of course, is hardly the work of free-market forces that sprawl apologists imagine, but rather the result of massive government investment in underpriced roadways. It's a kind of exurban welfare that piles up congestion on inner-ring highways.
But Levinson, always ready with another counterintuitive idea, lately has theorized that traffic jams will dissolve over the coming decades thanks to broad economic trends such as a shorter workweek, conversion of city office buildings to apartments, decentralized manufacturing and shopping, plus widespread expansion of car-sharing, profitable transit and non-motorized transportation.
What this means for the suburbs, Levinson says, is a crash in property values that attracts low-income immigrants and sparks "reverse white flight" back to the city. In this scenario, suburban populations might keep growing but cars would be fewer, with "many a 2- and 3-car garage being transformed into a workshop or small store."
That's one possible solution to what Levinson has labeled "a bad 5 or 6 decades of urban [and suburban] design." A different, front-end fix comes from another Minnesotan, site planner Rick Harrison. His Golden Valley practice has pioneered a tweak in the design of conventional cul-de-sac subdivisions that reduces pavement by 25 percent or more while smoothing vehicle movement and creating more premium lots, an obvious plus for developers.
Some say that just makes walking or bicycling more dangerous, and Harrison's "coving" scheme doesn't transform sparse suburban density or auto dependency. Still, it's likely that demand for that kind of single-family housing will persist as long as existing highways provide access to distant greenfields. For that matter, detached houses surrounded by yards predominate even in the Twin Cities core, but amid a street grid requiring twice as much asphalt as Harrison's concept.
Virginia smart growth advocate James A. Bacon said Harrison's advances in efficiency can make the suburbs "less expensive and more fiscally sustainable," even though "it's still sprawl" that doesn't "accommodate mass transit." Still, he added, it's innovation that "forces New Urbanists and smart growthers to up their game."
Maybe, just maybe, city folks and edge dwellers can learn something from each other to make all our systems of living and mobility more sustainable. At least it's worth thinking about.
It's a policy truism that elections have consequences, and last week's local plebiscites around the country confirmed some strong positive trends when it comes to transit, especially for rural areas.
In four rural counties of Michigan, Ohio and Washington state, voters opted to raise their own taxes to expand, or even create, transit service. Each of those initiatives passed with wide majorities, according to a compilation of elections by the Center for Transportation Excellence.
Recent public opinion polling points in the same direction. HNTB Corp., a national civil engineering and construction firm located in Kansas City, Mo., found in a September email and online survey that 76 percent of Americans "are open" to taking public transportation instead of driving, an increase of 7 percentage points since 2010.
In addition, according to a summary from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, more than 9 out of 10 respondents said the nation's transit system needs improvement, and many said that would be the key to their own patronage. And the strongest support for upgraded bus service came from people in the Midwest.
The only clear transit setback on Nov. 5 came in Cincinnati's mayoral election, where the landslide winner has vowed to derail a $133 million streetcar project that is already under construction. "We are going to get out of the streetcar," Mayor-elect John Cranley said, promising instead to "put more cops and firefighters on the street" and "balance the budget."
This result may reflect a wider debate, happening in Minneapolis and St. Paul as well, over whether modern streetcars are genuine transit or more of a development-oriented amenity. In some places, though, they may reconnect underprivileged parts of a city cut off by freeways. At MN2020, we have doubts about the Twin Cities streetcar proposals, but remain open to persuasion of their benefits.
It was inevitable sooner or later, but a California woman has been ticketed for wearing Google Glass spectacles while driving. Cecilia Abadie allegedly violated a state law against watching TV while operating a motor vehicle. In Minnesota, she might have run afoul of a similar statute regarding a screen "visible to the driver," with exceptions that include backup camera assistance. Our law against Internet use and texting while driving could also apply.
Abadie, one of a limited number of Google Glass users in early testing release, originally was pulled over for speeding on Interstate Hwy. 15. According to another report, she claimed the tiny computer perched on her nose was turned off at the time. Her pleas on social media for advice and support drew hundreds of responses.
This is just the latest example of the complex interface between traffic safety and advancing technology. While modern gadgetry offers the promise of virtually collision-free motoring -- think today's anti-crash sensors and tomorrow's driverless cars, another Google project which some futurists believe will be the norm within a decade -- many current applications can distract us from Job 1 behind the wheel.
The threat of Google Glass to traffic safety follows a line of technological complications to driving that started, perhaps, with car radios and ramped up to basic cell phones and then textable smartphones. Who knows where it ends? In the meantime, though, best to leave those Internet specs off when driving or else risk killing someone and becoming a real Glasshole.
Berkeley and Rutgers researchers crunched data from over 300 American metropolitan areas, and found investing in improved transit pays--and in fact, it pays you.
Daniel Chatman and Robert Noland’s article this fall found that increasing the number of bus and rail seats per capita, or the number of rail miles per capita, by 10 percent boosted cities’ gross metropolitan product by 1 to 2 percent. Expanding transit by that much also raised wages between $53 and $194 per worker per year in a metro area’s city center. This is huge for communities and planners.
The bi-costal duo write that these numbers suggest “current benefit-cost frameworks in the US undervalue the benefits of transit-service improvements.”
The researchers explain that it’s all about agglomeration, which just means cities bringing in more people to work there and to live there. More people in the same spot, or who can affordably and efficiently get to that same spot, means more jobs there. And by providing access to jobs for a broader workforce, more workers can get to the employers where their skills are needed, benefiting both.
The distribution of those wage increases from transit is a critical question here, though, and Chatman and Noland haven’t yet dug into it. Higher average wages may not necessarily mean higher wages for everyone city-wide. A rise in the gross metropolitan product is great news, but that measurement doesn't show us what kind of rise and who exactly benefits from it.
For that matter, the economy makes up only one dimension of transit’s impact. The line drawn between more transit seats per capita and higher wages can't tell us how well the transit system works. Which people are riding in those seats, where they’re riding to and from, and how affordably they can get there are essential factors too for evaluating the effectiveness of transit.
With that caveat, though, we have here a rigorous look at why it pays to invest in transit, and how it pays all across a whole city. Boosting a city’s economy is only one reason to support transit but it’s a big one, and this new research is one of the most solid cases yet for smartly expanded transit.