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Tuesday Talk: Why street cars?

October 08, 2013 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have ambitious plans to incorporate a street car line into their cities’ transit plans. Metro planners are finalizing the groundwork for a third light rail line. And more Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes are coming to the region. While there are many positives to expanded transit, the policies aren’t free from opposition.

Some transit advocates believe street cars at hundreds of millions of dollars don’t provide enough of a transit expansion for the money, favoring BRT instead. The Southwest light rail line is also facing environmental and safety opposition.

Today between 8 and 9:30 Charlie Behr, Minnesota 2020 policy associate, will moderate a discussion about what’s the right transit mix for Minnesota communities.

Where should we be spending limited transit dollars? 

What are your thoughts on street cars?

Where should the next light rail line run?   


Post your comments or questions in the box below, scroll down to see the ongoing conversation, and use "refresh" to see new comments. 

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Rachel says:

    October 8, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Good morning! Charlie will join us at 8. In the meantime, share your thoughts: what’s the right balance of transit modes for your community?

  • Charlie Behr says:

    October 8, 2013 at 8:11 am

    Welcome to Tuesday Talk. We’re looking forward to taking the temperature of our community on this today, since transit often seems to elicit some surprising debates between different progressive goals. I want to specially emphasize that we’d like to talk Minnesota beyond just the Cities, too—-things in the metro have been getting more ink lately, but transit is a compelling issue for the whole state.

  • Andrew Wambach says:

    October 8, 2013 at 8:19 am

    I am a hard core rail transit groupie but am highly skeptical of streetcars for our market simply due to population size density etc. I would like to know what the costs of improving the local bus service to the highest standards; modern, clean,level loading buses made by New Flyer of St. Cloud versus major changes to the built environment in Minneapolis.  BRT I am also highly skeptical of simply because of the few successful examples in our region, Metro Transits Red Line in Apple Valley has been received as a failure but then IMO any transit south of the river would be a tough sell.  Looking forward to checking back on the comments throughout the morning.

    • Charlie Behr says:

      October 8, 2013 at 8:31 am

      Well, the Red Line is hard to really characterize as true BRT for a couple of reasons. Even though it can use shoulders along Cedar which are at least partially dedicated to it, those don’t cover that much of the route’s length and they also become right turn lanes used by other vehicles. Partially because of that, it’s also slow enough that it really has to compete on price alone, which is not representative of how a fully effective BRT line should operate. The Snelling BRT project also has only limited right-of-way advantages, but it seems likely to provide a more meaningful time savings over current bus routes through the same area, which should have a more noticeably positive impact than the Red Line.

      • Andrew says:

        October 8, 2013 at 10:18 pm

        Working in Lakeville, I am surrounded by Fully loaded F-150s and Silverados zooming from the exurbs along with mostly single occupant commuters diving in out of traffic; makes me miss Chicago where I lived for the past two years. They have an ageing but fully built out Transit network with multiple redundancies and modes: The L and buses operated by the CTA, Metra - the commuter rail system. Chicago is also floating its first true BRT line down the Ashland Ave Corridor running North to South that has been championed by city officials but contested from residents and business owners who don’t want to give up highly coveted surface street parking. But enough about them; I was excited for the Red Line, who doesn’t like shiny new buses and the architecture Apple Valley used for is stations, I just don’t observe a lot of people using the service and the critique from writers from gave me an unfavorable opinion. I hope to be more impressed with the Snelling BRT, and I think it’s great that towns in the Southern Metro want to add these services, because we can’t build our way out of congestion.

  • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

    October 8, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Hi Charlie,
    Can you tell us a little bit more about why streetcars are such a great option for some routes? They just seem so much more expensive than other options and I don’t understand what the benefits are.

    • Charlie Behr says:

      October 8, 2013 at 8:43 am

      There’s two questions embedded here, I’d say: what can make streetcars a good idea as transportation, and what makes them appealing as investments.

      On the transportation level, streetcars are mostly as useful as you make them. They’re pretty well suited to a dense area like downtown Minneapolis because their more frequent stops (often ~1/4 mile) can be more convenient to more people and places than a more spread-out light rail lines (stops often ~1/2 mile or more apart). To a certain extent that can be achieved with standard buses as well, but streetcars can in theory save a bit more time, especially by stopping only at predesignated stops and by having passengers pay fares before they get on, like they would with light rail. Payment on a bus before it starts again can really cut down on the amount of time the bus spends moving.

      The thing is that most of this can be done with BRT as well, including the dedicated, predesignated stops and the off-board paying of fares. Here’s where the investment factor comes in: the city of Minneapolis argues that with streetcars being so much more popular with developers and companies than even BRT lines, there’s more potential for downtown economic development with a streetcar line. David Levinson over at the U of M has a good summary here of how the evidence for that argument is inconclusive: 

      Probably a third issue comes out of this too, though: with the Nicollet Mall redevelopment project, the city of Minneapolis has been acknowledging their interest in asserting a higher national profile for the Twin Cities, to showcase them as the kind of place where young creative people, and the businesses which employ them, would like to be located. A streetcar may have more cachet toward that end than other types of transit, although I have to think full-scale light rail is pretty competitive in that idea as well. Portland got a lot of national attention for its recently built streetcar.

  • Charlie Behr says:

    October 8, 2013 at 8:21 am

    One of the key questions for any type of transit is whether the appeal of the type of transportation, all by itself, can get people to change what transportation they use. Whether you would take a bus instead of your own car is one issue, but would you take, say, a streetcar instead of a bus is a question Minneapolis is particularly interested in right now. I think very often we figure that price or speed of travel is the biggest driving force there, but the Minneapolis streetcar is an interesting issue because it’s not planned to be much faster than existing buses, or to run more often than them. We can likely anticipate that riding the streetcar would cost somewhat more than existing buses, but there are other factors here which could get people to change how they get around. Streetcars do convey a different image, which could be a factor as well, either for drawing people in or, possibly, for getting them not to ride a streetcar.

    • Michael Roden says:

      October 8, 2013 at 8:38 am

      Street cars are able to convey a sense of place in a way that buses are just not able to. Many of the hidden gems of commercial property in the South Minneapolis neighborhoods came to be because they were the intersections of streetcar lines. Having lived downtown, I can attest to the convenience of a bus stop in which you don’t need to check the schedule because they are so frequent, and an improved bus system would be a great boon to Minneapolis, but street cars can solve problems of identity and place in a way that buses are just unable to.

      • Charlie Behr says:

        October 8, 2013 at 9:02 am

        Sure enough, yeah—-one of the reasons Nicollet was under consideration for the Southwest LRT route in the first place, in particular, was the density which grew up decades ago around the old streetcar.

        This is a real interesting point to take note of here—-with streetcars or larger rail lines, building those does mean making a new place and/or affecting existing places in a really tangible way, which can make people actually feel more connected to the rest of the city, too. Some of the arguments for favoring rail over buses focus on the permanence of a rail or streetcar line and the message that sends to anyone planning to do anything in the nearby real estate, although in the case of Nicollet, it’s so hard to imagine public transit completely leaving such an important corridor that I’m not sure that point means much: buses at minimum are going to be on Nicollet for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, that tangible remaking of a place is of course something which is causing continuing frustration along the Southwest right-of-way.

  • Kyle says:

    October 8, 2013 at 8:34 am

    I think part of the idea which makes a push for the Street Car systems feasible is that it will most likely overlap with existing roadways. Other transportation can use those same lanes, and the cost isn’t left to maintaining a completely separate rail line. Makes a lot of sense until you hit winter in which case I would like to see what the system plans are for that.

    Have you found any city planning estimates on usage for the street car system?

    • Charlie Behr says:

      October 8, 2013 at 8:52 am

      This is true: as far as up-front expense to build new infrastructure, buses have the least, followed by streetcars, and then light rail costs the most.

      The most recent edition of the city’s Detailed Evaluation of Alternatives is here:  Look at pages 15-16 in particular. They’ve estimated pretty far out, for 2030, about 20,000 weekday boardings on a streetcar with 12,000 boardings taken up by buses within the same area. This is as opposed to some 35,000 weekday boardings of buses only, if no streetcar were built. It’s difficult to make a thorough look at it since they used a modified version of the Met Council’s future ridership model, the details of which I don’t know yet. They mention “different calibration assumptions” without being too specific.

  • Amber says:

    October 8, 2013 at 8:45 am

    I currently live in Portland, OR and would say the streetcars are a fantastic addition to the city’s transit system. To Kyle’s point, the streetcar integrates well with existing roadways (something that may be appealing to car drivers in the Twin Cities). And to Andrew’s point about density, the dedicated route of a streetcar provides corridors for transit-oriented development which can spur greater density. On the flip side of that same coin, the initial investment is high and the system offers less flexibility than a BRT line. I see streetcars as a way to help shape the development future of the Twin Cities but I also have significant concerns about making sure transit dependent individuals, families and neighborhoods have access as well.

    • Charlie Behr says:

      October 8, 2013 at 9:13 am

      Amber, it’s really great to hear from someone familiar with the Portland system. What can you tell us about how you think it’s changed the area around the streetcar line?

      • Amber says:

        October 8, 2013 at 9:22 am

        Absolutely! I’ll point everyone to this 2008 study of the Portland streetcar system:

        I’ve never known the South Waterfront area as underused or vacant industrial land; now, it is an area of public gardens, a large wellness facility, restaurants & cafes, a river walk with wide bike/walk lanes and excellent views of the river, and dense housing development. It is a thoroughfare for bicycle commuters and recently, food carts have been popping up throughout the neighborhood. It still feels like a new area, but it is on it’s way to being a very transit-oriented and accessible neighborhood with it’s own character.

        The streetcars even have their own music festival—>  grin

  • Gregg Harcus says:

    October 8, 2013 at 8:50 am

    I fully support light rail and BRT lanes but the street cars are a waste of money and a tourist gimick.  I think the SWLR should be completed and then a line NW toward Brooklyn Park/Center Maple Grove or West toward Victoria. Building more lanes to roads is going to be very expensive and will run out of capacity before they are completed.

    • Charlie Behr says:

      October 8, 2013 at 9:18 am

      This raises another interesting question: how expandable is any particular transit mode, in the future, as ridership goes up? Buses tend to have more flexibility here, but there’s another way to think about: expensive thought it can be, rail lines can be built to exceed current demand in order to situate the transit system to hold up under greater demand in later years.

  • tony says:

    October 8, 2013 at 8:58 am

    In response to Andrew’s comments to the Apple Valley Red Line being percieved as a failure. For one, it is still in the process of being completed & secondly, that route is very heavily used with squabbles already between the cities over park and ride issues. It was built to respond to the overcrowding of the old bus system. I trust that upon completion, additional buses will be added & Farmington & Rosemount are already clamoring to be added. According to the state, the next most heavily used lite rail line would be the Dan Patch Line thru Burnsville. They stated that it would have higher ridership numbers than Minnehaha. Problem is that a law was passed banning the use of those already existing line for lite rail but now it looks like the railroad that owns it will be using it for heavy rail.

    • Charlie Behr says:

      October 8, 2013 at 9:11 am

      tony is raising a good point here: additional buses (or trains, or streetcars) along the same route can make a substantial difference in how viable and appealing the route is. Metro Transit’s standard for “high frequency” bus lines, for instance, is a maximum of 15 minutes between buses, which is hard to square with a claim of high frequency, even when those buses are almost always running more frequently during rush hour. The Red Line is already claimed to have “Trips so frequent you don’t need a schedule” (, which I don’t think I’d agree with myself, especially on weekends when they only run about every half-hour at the moment.

  • Jack Ray says:

    October 8, 2013 at 9:00 am

    I am a fan of street cars, but I want us to be more open-minded and experimental when it comes to transit in Minneapolis. Let’s try to imagine how we will be getting arround the city 50 or 60 years from now and think backwards from there. I suspect we will have a variety of electric, autonomous conveyences that move about the city like a combination of prt, jittney taxis, airport trams, and busses. Their movement and interaction will be controlled by software. I suspect we will still have light rail, and streetcars, and there will be some interoperability between the systems. I don’t know about monorails and Jetsons cars. I wish I knew!

    I don’t think many people will own private cars. There will be too many better, cheaper solutions to mobility.

    So, working backwards from a scenario like this, what do you build today that serves today, but will fit in with a very different mobility future? It’s not an easy question, but concrete we pour today is a half-century investment. We need to put on our thinking caps so our investments will have enduring utility.

    • Charlie Behr says:

      October 8, 2013 at 9:08 am

      Indeed—-ridership projections for 2030 may seem like a premature thing to include in a feasibility study, for instance, but it seems necessary to think at least that far out. Decisions made out of short-term pragmatism and decisions which can have robust long-term positive impacts are not always the same.

    • Amber says:

      October 8, 2013 at 9:14 am

      Great points, Jack! I wonder what a transit system designed by a working group of artists, urban planners, public health experts, and college students/community members would look like…? Something to think about! Plus, I’d be keen to make sure the visioning process integrates walking & bicycling corridors and neighborhood equity.

    • Charlie Behr says:

      October 8, 2013 at 9:15 am

      Jack, have you ever taken a look at the single-rider automated car system (for reference, this is an example of personal rapid transit, the PRT that Jack is talking about) in Masdar City, over in Abu Dhabi? What do you think of that one? Certainly a huge, huge capital expense for anyone right now, but a provocative area to think about.

      • John says:

        October 8, 2013 at 12:31 pm

        You don’t have to go to Abu Dhabi.  Drive up University Avenue to Fridley and stop in to see Ed Anderson who, as a engineering prof. at the U, developed a fantastic PRT system.  Or go to and see what it would look like.  Imagine catching one of these babies in Uptown and having it drop you off on the Skyway with no stops in between.  Also check out the Heathrow Pods for a system that is up and running.

  • Chip says:

    October 8, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Hello Charlie,

    I am fortunate to live in town and only six miles from my office.  I have several bus lines that I can use to get around.  Plus bike, walk, hour car and a private car when we need it.

    I support street car, LRT, rapid bus, etc.  I especially like the idea that local property taxes or fees or some sort of charge – not sure what exactly the Mpls approach is called – will generate revenue to be used for a street car.  To me, this is an encouraging expansion of an approach that often is used to support parking or road-space for cars. 

    Nevertheless, I am apprehensive about the potential for these various forms of transit to improve life here as long as the current regional system that produces low-density, segregated land-use, and auto-oriented development remains un-changed.

    How about the Minnesota constitutional dedication of revenues from the gas tax and tab fees to ‘highway purposes?’  How about the very large investments we make in the provision of ‘free parking’ for cars?  Can we talk about the revenues from ‘non-user’ sources that go to pay for local roads?



    • Charlie Behr says:

      October 8, 2013 at 9:34 am

      Minneapolis’ funding plan for the streetcar is only partial as yet, but the part they’ve laid out so far is called a value capture district. It amounts to redirecting a portion of property taxes from the properties along the streetcar route, moving those revenues from the general fund to the costs of the streetcar construction in particular.

  • Charlie Behr says:

    October 8, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Amber has mentioned the issue of integrating transit with bicycling and walking corridors, which is definitely one of the central issues of the debate over the Southwest LRT right-of-way. This is where the costs of capital investment versus the payoffs down the line really come to the fore. Subways do cost an awful lot but they do make a lot more things possible on the surface. Many times the path of least resistance (geographically, at least—-not community-wise) for a new transit route, especially rail, happens to have been bequeathed by an older rail line, like the Kenilworth corridor or, for that matter, the Midtown Greenway, where other studies of transit possibilities have been done. These make for very tricky debates in which we often can’t equally serve different goals—-Minneapolis is really starting to blossom as a bicycling city, for which it’s rightfully getting national acclaim, but supporting that can definitely make it harder to find right-of-ways for new transit infrastructure.

  • Charlie Behr says:

    October 8, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Thanks everybody—-this was a real good discussion, brought up all kinds of important points which aren’t always getting as much press. Looking forward to continuing the dialogue with all of you, in comments and hopefully in future Tuesday Talks as well.

  • John says:

    October 8, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Why is the Southwest LRT routed through Kenwood rather than down Hennepin Ave. where people are?

    • Phil Gulstad says:

      October 8, 2013 at 1:00 pm

      So, to sum up, some people like LRT, some people like BRT, and some people name streetcars desirable.

  • James Anderson says:

    October 8, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    I have watched the developments on the SW light-rail with interest.  The tunnels and other proposals to resolve the Kennilworth Corridor issue suggest, contrary to your assertion that transit dollars are in-fact unlimited.  Are the trails involved really worth the 100 to 160 million?  We seem to have lost track of the fundamental economic notion of opportunity costs.  Or, if we can actually afford the tunnels then surely we can go back and, through acquiring surface lots or ramps, provide a series of low cost or free parking options along University Ave to help the small businesses.

  • Catherine Coult says:

    October 8, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    As a native Minnesotan and a graduate of the U of MN, I remember well the good old days when street cars
    were the prevalent mode of transportation in the Twin Cities. I moved to New York City after I graduated from the U in 1958, with the intention of returning after spending a year or two in the “big city.” But I returned to MN - finally - approximately 40 years later. And, after all those years of riding the very efficient subways to any location in Manhattan,  I was amazed to discover upon my return to the Twin Cities that the street cars had been replaced by car traffic, while the population pressed more and more residents to the suburban areas. Having had the opportunity to take advantage of NYC’s efficient, economical rapid transit, I was at a loss to imagine why the Twin Cities had chosen to close down the streetcars. I retired a number of years ago, but I can hardly imagine the problems that those who are employed within the concentrated downtown areas manage to get to work on time. And, as our metro areas continue to grow, the transportation problems will also grow, with increasing inconvenience for both employees and the businesses who maintain their offices in the downtown areas.

    I do not feel qualified to address the three other issues about which you asked for input. But I thank you on behalf of all of us who - hopefully - will soon have the advantage of more efficient and economical modes of transportation than
    our automobiles provide.

  • Josephine Vaughn says:

    October 8, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    WHY DOES ANYONE WANT STREET CARS?  IT IS A GREAT WASTE OF MONEY AND IT IS RIDICULOUS, TAKE A BUS OR LRT!  We need to extend light rail all over the area, and we need to keep transit money for repairs, new LRT cars and new buses over the long haul.