The Limited Potential for Transferring Twin Cities Travel Demand from Autos to Transit

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The Minnesota Department of Transportation released a study entitled, Building Our Way Out of Congestion, which identified the freeway expansion that would be required to eliminate traffic congestion from Twin Cities area freeways. A report author put the price tag at $20 billion. The enormity of this amount led some to suggest that the area needs to invest more in transit, as an alternative for improving transportation. The assumption behind such views is that transit is a less costly option for dealing with traffic congestion than highway expansion. Indeed, this philosophy is behind much of transportation planning in U.S. urban areas.

But, beyond the rhetoric, there appears to be no studies or model runs that estimate what would be required to “ride our way out of congestion,” much less any plans that would begin to accomplish such a goal.

People from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Paris and Tokyo like transit. They will use it where it is the best alternative for travel. Americans will do so just as residents of urban areas in Western Europe and Asia do when it takes them where they want to go in the shortest possible time. Thus, approximately one-quarter of downtown Minneapolis workers use the local and express bus system that focuses on that core from all over the metropolitan area. But nowhere in the high-income world — whether to outside downtown destinations in Minneapolis-St. Paul or suburban locations in Paris or Tokyo, will be found a populace that “leaves their cars at home” in preference for transit service that is less convenient or materially slower than the automobile.

Any strategy that seeks to attract drivers from cars must provide transit service that is “automobile competitive.” And, to eliminate traffic congestion on Twin Cities freeways, as the $20 Billion highway program would do, would require providing automobile competitive transit as a viable option throughout the Twin Cities area, not just to the two downtown areas. This paper attempts to estimate the cost of providing such a transit system.

An automobile competitive transit system would provide service for virtually all trips in the area. Service would be frequent, virtually on demand. Transfers from one route to the other, where required, must take little more time than it takes to walk from the first transit vehicle to the second. Service must be available throughout the day. Service must be available from within walking distance (1/4 mile) of every potential origin in the service area to every potential destination. Finally, service must be time-competitive with the automobile. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as fast, but it must be nearly as fast. People will not abandon their cars that take 30 minutes for a particular trip for a transit ride that takes one to 1.5 hours.

An automobile competitive transit system for the Twin Cities would likely best be designed as a one-half mile grid of grade separated routes (all crossings by pedestrians or roads would be over or under the transit lines). Grade separation would be required to attain sufficient transit speeds, and so that the high level of transit service does not make the very traffic congestion it seeks to eliminate worse. Service would be provided by an automated rail system, operating with one, two or at most three cars at one-minute service frequencies. This would minimize transfer times and make it possible for most trips to be made in no more than 1.5 times what would be required by automobile. Vehicles would be similar to the Skytrain rapid transit system in Vancouver and the airport rail vehicles that operate between the Lindbergh and Humphrey terminals at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (and at many other airports, such as Atlanta, London-Gatwick, Las Vegas and Osaka).

It is estimated that an automated rail system of this description would cost 89 percent of projected personal income in the Twin Cities in 2020 if in subway and 59 percent if elevated. An elevated busway system meeting the same criteria is projected to cost 25 percent of personal income. Elevated alternatives, however, are not considered realistic because of their visual intrusiveness (a north-south and east-west overhead structure would be within one-quarter mile of virtually very home and business in the area) and noise.

However, mass transit projects routinely escalate in cost, and if the international experience holds, the subway automated rail system would cost 115 percent of personal income, the elevated automated rail system 72 percent of personal income and the elevated busway system would cost 30 percent of personal income. Further, it is not considered likely that the community would not generally accept the intrusive overhead transit alignments. Obviously, it is not feasible to implement transit options that would require such a large percentage of metropolitan income, either elevated or subway. Today, all transit spending in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area represents less than 0.3 percent of personal income. Even where transit market shares are 20 to 40 times that of Minneapolis-St. Paul, in Western Europe and Asia, total public and private spending on transit is less than 1.5 percent of personal income.

Urban areas are more economically efficient and tend to be more affluent where their citizens are able to access a larger share of the destinations, especially work locations. Mobility is an important determinant of metropolitan affluence. Portland, which has regulated land use more strictly than any other area and has seen both housing costs and traffic congestion rise much more than elsewhere is already facing difficulties in attracting new business development. Recently, Portland has substantially weakened its “smart growth” policies in response to these factors by expanding its urban growth boundary (analogous to the Twin Cities “municipal urban service area” by more than had been planned for the year 2040.

If traffic congestion continues to worsen, it will take a serious toll on the economy of the Twin Cities and the qualify of life of residents. It is thus suggested that future progress in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area requires solving the problem. While it is not inexpensive, expansion of the highway system is the only affordable approach. And expensive as it is, the cost is small compared to the projected increase in personal income, and is likely to be substantially less than the economic benefits.

Originally published: 2004

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