MN: Urban Expert to Minnesota Officials: Light Rail is OK, But Trolleys are Better

An urban design expert gave a light verbal spanking to more than 90 Minnesota transit officials and planners Thursday, telling them that a light rail transit approach to moving people will not reap the highest economic and environmental rewards in the long term.

Patrick Condon, a researcher with the Design Centre for Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, used his 90-minute talk at the University of Minnesota to promote tram and trolley-centered urban design. In doing so, he let the assembled Metropolitan Council members, urban planners and local government officials know that they're building a transit system that's too big for optimal urban development.

"You're doing it with heavy iron," he said. "It's about four times heavier than it should be."

The talk, sponsored by the university's Center for Transportation Studies, was Condon's take on how to develop large, dense, low-rise cities by using trolley systems. Pointing to the ubiquitous trolleys and trams before the 1950s as a touchstone, Condon said a well-planned system requires more transit lines and stops than are featured on modern LRT and subway systems.

The goal should be cities that do not have skyscraper-filled centers, he said. In his view, cities should be places where residents need walk no more than five minutes to get on the nearest trolley or tram.

It was this idea that spurred the growth of grid-planned cities featuring neighborhoods of single-family homes in the early 20th century. Trolley companies often built lines into subdivisions they owned then sold property to riders looking to build their own homes.

"The American dream came out of this period where the street car allowed people to have something of their own for the first time," he said.

In the Twin Cities metro, LRT transit will spur dense, new development along transit lines, he said. While this system has shown some promise in his home city of Vancouver, it does little to cut single-occupancy motor vehicle traffic in the city's suburbs, he said. With cities producing up to 80 percent of manmade greenhouse gases — by his figures — LRT does not get enough people out of their cars when traveling between home and work.

"In my view, this is not going to save the planet," he said.

He also said LRT-style transit is expensive. Where $1 billion might build a single, 15-mile transit line in a city, the same amount of money can buy a tram system that puts public transit on every major street in a downtown area.

Transit officials in the room agreed that cities do need more small-scale transit options, including buses that travel arterial streets. Arlene McCarthy, the director of transportation of the Met Council, said the Twin Cities are doing things to create Condon's ideal commute: a 5-minute walk and a public transit ride.

"I don't think we're completely inconsistent with this goal," she said, noting that bus rapid transit lines are being developed along the area's arterial streets.

Population trends over the past half century will be tough to fight. In response to a question from St. Paul City Council Member Russ Stark, Condon said current suburban housing densities of one to four dwellings per acre are well below the ideal of 10 to 40 required to make transit viable. More people continue to move to low density areas far from city centers.

McCarthy said the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area is ahead of the curve on this point. The Met Council's transit plans build facilities that bring density to transit.

"Park-and-rides create artificial densities, she said.

At the end of the talk, Condon acknowledged that his vision of a homogenous urban landscape does not work if access to jobs and affordable housing differs from area to area.

"My ideas fall completely apart if you have one income strata on one side and another on the other side," he said.