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To combat climate change, public transit usage must double within the next decade. It will be difficult for the Twin Cities to achieve this.

To combat climate change, public transit usage must double within the next decade. It will be difficult for the Twin Cities to achieve this.

Sam Rockwell

When COP26The big global climate change summit,, concluded a few weeks back. It threw another spotlight onto the gap between goals, and action. Other than the United Kingdom no wealthy country has even come closeto the Paris Accords’ goals five years ago. And despite recent policy ideas floated by the Biden Administration, it’s hard to be optimistic about the United States meeting its climate targets because so much would have to change.

Transport is the most difficult climate action challenge for cities.

The transportation sectorMinnesota’s largest source of greenhouse gasses and fastest-growing portion of the pollution pie is transportation. Because transportation depends on long-term massive infrastructure and the individual actions of millions of people, it’s hard to change quickly.

Urban transportation must change quickly in order to reduce carbon pollution. During the COP26 conference a group of cities was called C40 CitiesWe collectively pushed for climate action in cities all over the globe. In one high-profile report, the group declared that, “public transport usage must double in global cities over the next decade.”

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Imagine for a second that this was a legitimate goal that city decisionmakers were trying to achieve. What would it take to double the transit ridership of the Twin Cities in the next ten-years? What would have to be done?

Rapid, reliable, frequent

“It’s pretty basic,” said Sam Rockwell, the Executive Director of the transit-advocacy non-profit, Move Minnesota. “People are going to ride transit if it works well. We need to be real and admit that it has to work as well in transit-amenable areas as a car. That means it’s fast, really frequent, and reliable.”

Sam Rockwell

Sam Rockwell

Move Minnesota (formerly Transit for Livable Communities) is a St. Paul-based nonprofit that’s been focused on boosting transit ridership in Minnesota for twenty-five years. By “frequent”, Rockwell isn’t talking buses that come every half-hour, where if you miss it (and this often happened to me) you’d be stuck in a limbo for quite a while. Instead, Rockwell envisions 5-minute headways along the city’s key lines. Rockwell envisions that people taking a train or bus should not need to look at a schedule before they get to their stop. They should be able to know when a bus will be near them.

“In the Twin Cities, we’re defining ‘high-frequency’ transit as a bus or train every 15 minutes,” Rockwell said. “That’s not what I mean. At rush hour, I mean five minutes maximum. It has to come all the time, because you can go get in your car anytime you want.”

Doubling Twin Cities’ ridership would require both short-term and big-picture thinking, or what Rockwell describes as a two-step process. There’s things that can be done right away, and other things that would take a bit longer. In the short-term category, he’s a big fan of dedicated bus lanes.

“In the next two years, we should paint 50 miles of bus lanes,” said Rockwell, pointing to the new red-striped bus lanes on 7th Street in downtown Minneapolis. “It’s not like this is pie-in-the-sky stuff. This is exactly in line with what other cities are doing, at the speed they’re doing it.”

New York City recently announced that it is expanding upon its pioneering bus-only routes on 14th Street, Manhattan. striping 20 miles of bus-only lanes in 2022.

“We are just not doing it [and] we need to get serious,” said Rockwell. “we need dedicated street space for transit, explicit bus lanes so they can move really quickly, and so there’s a visual cue to people that we’re prioritizing transit.”

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Rockwell is also a big admirer of transit signal priorityThere are stoplights that turn to green when a bus is coming. So far that’s been a challenge for local transit routes, including many intersections along the Green Line. Metro Transit is looking at signal prioritization for future arterial Bus Rapid Transit corridors. B LinePlans for Marshall Avenue and Lake Street

“In years three, four and five, we should really double down on the Bus Rapid Transit capital build-outs,” said Rockwell, referring to the Metro Transit’s ambitious aBRT system plans. “Those take a little longer: you have to buy the buses. [But] it’s ridiculous we’re not doing this. These are really low-hanging fruit.”

Metropolitan Council

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“We’re focused on having a fully fleshed-out vision for a long-term system, Rockwell told me. “A metro-wide transit system that comes every five minutes, not just increasing speed on existing bus lanes, but a BRT network which has all the benefits of BRT including the easier boarding, and moving really quickly. We think we can do this in about ten years.”

Rockwell estimates that a system of this nature would cost just over $6Billion, roughly three times the current cost for the Green Line light rail extension. That’s  a big number relative to past transit investments.

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Barriers that are both short-term and long-term

The $6 billion estimate is an interesting number because it’s almost exactly the amount of money Minnesota is receiving in the just-passed Federal Infrastructure bill. Problem is, only $818 millions of that money will go towards transit. While that’s still a great start, the bulk of the spending will send $4.8 billion to MnDOT for highways and bridges.

This discrepancy demonstrates the obstacles to systemic climate change, as advocates for it claim. Our unstable political system tends to favor short-term projects, ribbon-cutting, and other short-term initiatives. The polarization of state and federal governments means changes made by one administration are often quickly reversed.

Charlie Zelle

Metropolitan Council

Charlie Zelle

The second challenge is that agencies like MnDOT and Met Council have relied for decades on 20th century planning assumptions in order to plan for the future. Both MnDOT and the Met Council have been interviewed recently. MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher Met Council Chair Charlie ZelleTalked about the need for change in the values and practices of their respective agencies. However, investments that have reflected climate change reality on the ground have rarely reflected the reality of climate change.

Metro Transit is currently in crisis. Ridership was high even before the COVID pandemic. falling nationwide and locallyBecause of a drop in gasoline prices. Ridership has fallen along many routes after COVID. This is making it difficult for Metro Transit to bounce back. Metro Transit is poised to make significant changes due to staffing shortages. their biggest service cuts in decades.

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Progress is still possible with Federal funding. Even though the system is unlikely to double its ridership at this point, it is possible to make progress in the future.

“At this point people don’t have a real transit choice,” said Rockwell, describing the plight of most people in the Twin Cities.  “People can get in their car if they can afford one, or get on the bus and it takes five times as long to get anywhere, and you never get to see your kids.  It’s certainly not a choice anyone would hold up as a great vision for our community.”

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