The little streetcar that could

When last I contributed to this page, my message was about what politicians could glean from bicycle commuters. That unsolicited commentary happened to be submitted days before Bicycling Magazine declared Minneapolis the best city for bicycling in the country! (Tough love, Portland, Ore.!)

Then, in the intervening weeks, city blocks became festooned with gleaming rows of lime green bikes — Nice Ride — waiting to be ridden by tourists and commuters alike, able to be rented from one kiosk and returned to another throughout the city. Of course, my last contribution was also before a gusher in the Gulf caused millions of Americans to point fingers at executives and bureaucrats while simultaneously idling in rush-hour traffic.

On June 17, the City of Minneapolis released a report entitled “Recommended Approach for Minneapolis Streetcar Implementation.” The planning endeavor is part of Access Minneapolis, a comprehensive plan for improvements across transportation routes and means, including pedestrians, bicycles, and streetcars. Contrary to the title, implementation is likely to be years away, yet I could barely contain my excitement (again, contrary to the title)!

I first heard about this effort in 2005 when the city approached neighborhood organizations to gauge interest and gather information. Those of us gathered in the Stevens Square-Loring Heights neighborhood, learned the benefits of streetcars: an identifiable physical presence, easily understood operation, frequent stops at activity centers and along mixed-use corridors, more appropriate than LRT in densely populated neighborhoods, and less expensive to construct and run than LRT.

Of course, all of these benefits were known in the city before 1954, when Minneapolis had one of the most progressive streetcar systems in the country. Better writers have pontificated on the plight of preservation in our city, I will just say that on a recent trip to San Francisco, I couldn’t help but marvel at the streetcars — curious functioning time capsules of transportation — and wonder which of them had delivered riders across our own Midwest metropolis before being retired in favor of the automobile.

The first streetcar system, pulled by steam engine, to run along Nicollet Avenue began operation in 1879 to deliver riders between Lake Calhoun and Minneapolis.  A comparison of proposed streetcar corridors included in the Access Minneapolis report found Nicollet Avenue to be the top corridor contender for the proposed new streetcar system. The ranking was based on high ridership for a short line, ability to fully replace buses, connectivity to the planned LRT network, ample development opportunities along the corridor, and last but not least, the highest estimated market value, making it also the most likely to be economically feasible. The line, if implemented, would run from downtown to 46th Street South. Personally, I’ll be lobbying for an extension to Liberty Frozen Custard.

No doubt controversy will continue to dog the efforts of public transportation with the ferocity of road rage. While many are comfortable in the solitude of cars, diversity of transportation alternatives can have nothing but positive effects for our community, health and environment. Unfortunately, shortsightedness and greed have already destroyed a successful transit system in this city once. If those aspiring to political office are looking for ways to trim excess spending from government budgets, they might start by identifying progressive, community-serving infrastructures and saving them, because it’s a lot less expensive than rebuilding version 2.0 a century later.

Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects on
East Hennepin.