Rethinking the Minneapolis Transit Hub

Transit planners for the Minneapolis – St. Paul region are designing a hub and spoke rail system centered on Minneapolis. Primarily LRT based, the Blue Line (Hiawatha) is complete, the Green Line (Central Corridor) is largely complete. The Green Line extension (SWLRT) is having trouble, and the Blue Line extension (Bottineau) is a few years away.


This plan creates a strong east-west axis through downtown on LRT, and a lesser North-South bus axis on the Marquette/2nd (Marq-2) corridor. Nicollet, Hennepin, and other streets also have bus service.

The city is proposing a streetcar line from Central in NE down Nicollet to Lake Street. There are also other streetcar lines proposed subsequently (down Hennepin, in the Midtown Greenway, among others).

Mick Hicks in a recent Streets.MN post argued in favor of looking at higher-capacity (grade-separated) transit lines, in particular within the City of Minneapolis, and pointed out the LRT extensions are essentially commuter rail.

Can Minneapolis support higher-density transit lines, and if so where?

In the map above (link), I create a fantasy transit map of where I think the primary corridors to consider better transit serving the Minneapolis hub. I have not done a demand forecast or B/C analysis, but these I posit are likely to emerge as dominant corridors. Under certain overall transit demand patterns due e.g. to more expensive automobile travel because of higher gas prices, congestion pricing, high parking costs, lower incomes, etc. they might even be financially sustainable.

  1. On the map, the Blue line extension remains essentially unchanged, but everything else moves some. While I think Broadway in North is a better corridor for demand, it would also be much costlier to construct (unless someone was willing to get cars off Broadway, as has been done in Manhattan’s imitation Broadway).
  2. The Green Line extension follows the Blue Line extension down Olson Highway (55). This saves the Morass of the Kenilworth Corridor, lowers total distance needed to be constructed, and creates double-frequency service on Mn 55. I don’t think this is as good a corridor for Minneapolis or overall ridership as the next two lines, though.
  3. A new “Purple line” is created from Rosedale to Southdale, through the University of Minnesota St. Paul, along the under-used UMN transit-way, into the Dinkytown Trench, down (and perhaps under) Nicollet in a Seattle-like bus tunnel, down the Midtown Greenway, to Excelsior, France Avenue, past 50th and France, through Southdale, and then past I494 for a giant Park and Ride lot at its terminus. I envision this as a Busway on exclusive right-of-way, with electrically powered buses for the both the Midtown Greenway and the Nicollet Avenue corridor. Running under Nicollet is controversial, and expensive, but if any place in the Twin Cities requires a subway (besides the airport), it is Nicollet, with its line of skyscrapers feeding demand. Running buses in the trench is also controversial, but as I note elsewhere, electric buses can be just as nice as Streetcars, and far more flexible with routing. 
  4. A new “Pink line” running from Fridley to Saint Paul shares the Nicollet  “Bus Tunnel”. This follows the Minneapolis Streetcar starter line, running from Central Avenue in Fridley, just north of I-694 (again a giant park and ride lot), through Hilltop, Columbia Heights, East Hennepin, into the Bus Tunnel, emerging at the Midtown Greenway running east, crossing Hiawatha, into St. Paul along the railway tracks and Ayd Mill Road, to Grand Avenue, into downtown St. Paul on 7th. While this parallels the Green Line, it serves a largely different market south of I-94.  
  5. New Routing Opportunities. Transit operators could inter-lace the Pink and Purple lines, so every other train funs from Fridley to Southdale, or Rosedale to Saint Paul, or Fridley to Rosedale via NE, or Southdale to St. Paul via Uptown and Midtown. Since the Midtown Greenway would be an electric-busway, buses could run from the purple line and the Southwest lines to the Hiawatha, not requiring a transfer at the new Lake/Nicollet branching point.

Can Minneapolis support a higher level of transit than it has now? This is where “reference class forecasting” might be worthwhile. What level of transit use and service do comparably sized cities have. Minneapolis currently has about 400,000 people on 151 km^2 and 223,000 riders on Metro Transit bus

Seattle has 636,000 on 217 km^2 (of land) and 390,000 bus riders on King County Metro

San Francisco has 825,000 on 121 km^2 485,000 riders on MUNI buses (excluding BART and other services)

Washington DC has 634,000 on 177 km^2 and 440,000 riders on WMATA (Metrobus) (excluding Metrorail)

(This of course requires a more comprehensive analysis)

One key point is US cities with better transit services are more populous and  denser. Seattle is similar to Minneapolis, just larger, while Washington and especially San Francisco are denser.

On the other hand, when BART  and the Seattle Bus Tunnel were being planned, those cities were a bit less populous. Seattle had 493,000 in 1980. San Francisco had  740,000 people in 1960.  (In contrast, DC has depopulated from its peak,  In 1970 DC had 750,000 people.) So a larger population requires better transit to move around, but building better transit does not guarantee a larger population (transit is necessary but not sufficient for a large core city).

The plan sketched above does not solve Hennepin. In the end, I think that is a secondary corridor to Nicollet, and you probably can’t build both at high capacity (on-road streetcar  is not high-capacity). Unless there is a will to close Hennepin to traffic, there will need to be tunnels under tunnels to provide high capacity service there (which is just expensive, not impossible).

This does not include a completion of my proposed Circle Lines either (1, 2, 3, 4), which clearly won’t draw the level of traffic as radials serving the city center.

These lines are not entirely original of course, some bear resemblance to the transit plans for the region of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Minneapolis as it is now could not reasonably support large expenditures. A Minneapolis closer to its 1950 peak population of 521,000 (and a Twin Cities  metro closer 5 million, if not 10 million), would need a much larger transit system.

Cross-posted at Streets.MN

Automatic Train Operation

In the wake of this summer’s on-again, off-again BART strike, some of us wonder why a transit union can shut down what ought to be an automated train. Why can’t management “operate” (perhaps at a reduced schedule) the vehicles, as happens in many other organizations on strike? It is surprising that, in 2013, modern, grade-separated rail systems don’t all have automatic train operation (ATO). While there are a number of ATO systems internationally, it is rare in the US. At least part of the problem is lack of trust (deserved or otherwise). There have been at least two notable crashes of test-trains using automatic operation.

Fremont Flyer crash (October 2, 1972) – a train under testing with automatic control overshot the end of the track (link). 8143196966 cbee24a4ef b
A Precariously Positioned DLR Train On (March 10, 1987) DLR-overhang

However in one case (BART), drivers were re-inserted into the system (perhaps enabling this summer’s strikes), in the other (DLR), driverless trains remained standard (and safe).

The 2009 Washington Metro train collision was also attributed to failures in a track circuit part of the Automatic Train Control systems, and since the collision ATO has been disabled.

It should in principle be far easier to automate trains (which run on fixed guideways) than cars, which have to track many more moving parts in their environment. The technologies are very different, since the trains are centrally controlled, while any successful automated vehicles will be autonomous. The issue of course is not only design, but implementation, and robustness to faulty designs.