Replacing Disposable Communities

This is a long post.  This has been bugging me for a long time because I think that some of the things we are doing actually discourage the kind of investment that would cause more people to choose bicycles if we could find a workaround.  Here goes…

From 1997-1999, Jan and I lived in a streetcar village on the south side of Minneapolis. The streetcars were long gone, but their presence was still felt. The neighborhood was originally built on a grid to make it easy for residents to access the streetcar network.  It also made it easy to walk or bike.

There was a surviving transit hub on the corner of 34th Avenue and 50th Street…the end of the old line. It included a library, grocery store, post office and banks. There was a bowling alley. There was another commercial node at 28th Avenue and 50th Street.  That was the home of Eric Grube’s Nokomis Cup before his landlord got squirrelly and he had to move across the lake.  We loved the Nokomis Cup.

To this day, I remain fascinated by how  this neighborhood endured the demise of the streetcars that it was built for. It actually looks better now than ever before.  I don’t think this is an accident or coincidence.  In fact, I think that the people who originally developed it had durability and timelessness in mind.  This sort of thing doesn’t just happen.  It is planned for and built in.  When juxtaposed against the disposable “communities” our society accepts today, there is simply no comparison.

Our house in the 4900 block of Nokomis Avenue was built in 1918. I was able to find a 1920 streetcar map for the area and can paint  a metaphorical picture of what life  must have been like.  It was less than a block to the 50th Street streetcar line that connected the village to downtown Minneapolis. Check the map out.  Nobody in south Minneapolis lived more than 4 or 5 blocks from a streetcar in 1920.   I suspect that very few residents had cars.  They likely couldn’t afford them and they simply weren’t necessary.  You could get where you needed to go without one.

The red lines are streetcars, the red star our house. The river to the right is the Mississippi. You could ride to downtown St. Paul as well.

South Minneapolis, 1920.  The red lines are streetcars, the red star our house. The river to the right is the Mississippi. Not much of a walk to a streetcar, no matter where you lived.

The Minneapolis streetcar system wasn’t unique. Every major city and a lot of smaller ones had something similar back then. There was nothing fancy about them. There weren’t even stations…just stops that were similar to a modern day bus stop.  The money wasn’t spent on “the experience.”  It was instead used to lay rails and the system connected everyone, not just a few privileged people who could afford to live in  “transit villages.”  These streetcar systems were, in most cases,  “for profit” enterprises so it naturally made sense to expand the market to include the broadest possible base of potential riders.

The tracks in these old systems ran right down the middle of the street and if you wanted to board you walked out into the road to do so.  They weren’t grade separated. People in cars had the good sense to get out of their way.  They also respected the riders who had to cross active traffic lanes to board and dismount.  I got to see this for myself in Toronto a few years ago when we rode on North America’s only surviving streetcar system. It still worked amazingly well.

Toronto has replaced most of these 40 year old streetcars now, but they were still in service when we visited in 2014.

Toronto has replaced most of these 40 year old streetcars now, but they were still in service (and very comfortable)  when we visited in 2014.

Jefferson Avenue, Ogden.  The old streetcar tracks were brought back when this area became a historic district.  They're strictly for show, though.  There's no streetcar here.

Jefferson Avenue, Ogden. The old streetcar tracks were uncovered when this area became a historic district. They’re strictly for show, though. There’s no streetcar here.

So what’s wrong with this approach to moving people? Why is it that modern systems have to be so over-engineered and over built? Why don’t we focus on building transit systems that aid mobility instead of asking them to help us rebuild our decaying cities?

Beats me. Maybe we should. What we’re doing is not working if we define “working” as getting people out of their cars and giving them other options. It’s not fixing our cities, either.  Portland, a city that was once one of America’s most affordable, is now gentrified and expensive.  It is held out as an example of transit success, but it has nowhere near as much transit as it did 100 years ago.

Portland rail, 1904. Much more than today.

Portland rail, 1904. Much better coverage than today.

Portland today. Less coverage, more money...a lot more money.

Portland today. Less coverage, more money…a lot more money.

The same is true of Minneapolis.  Light rail there is spawning the type of upper end development that is forcing long time residents out.  That’s great for the tax rolls, but not so great for long time residents.  It is dividing people, not bringing them together.  Is this what we want?  Is this sustainable?  I don’t think so.

I think we’re going about this all wrong.  I think we’re building cities and transit that, in most cases, is doomed to fail.  Transit should be about mobility.  It should be easy and affordable and it should make fundamental sense so that it doesn’t have to be explained and people don’t have to be educated about the benefits of using it.  That’s breathtakingly arrogant.

I’m convinced that all the benefits modern transit evangelicals gush over would come to our cities without any effort whatsoever if we simply made transit about mobility instead of all the other stuff.  Maybe we don’t have the resources necessary to put in a line every 4-6 blocks like we did back in the day.  Maybe we don’t have to.  There are two opportunities here, at least as I see it. Both involve bikes.

The first opportunity is in our older, grid-bound cities. Streetcar tracks still exist in many of these places.  They’ve just been paved over. Maybe we should un-pave them and place them back in service. I know it’s not that simple, but you get the general idea.  It’s all about providing real, honest-to-goodness transportation choice as cheaply as possible.

Many of our older cities have blight and abandonment.  Populations have actually declined, which means there is an overcapacity of roads.  Some could be converted to transit boulevards with streetcars and space for pedestrians and cyclists but not cars.  Nobody would notice.  Most of these roads are empty anyway.  Maybe that would cause people to move come back to these neighborhoods. It wouldn’t have to cost much at all.  The impact could be transformational.

This street northeast of downtown Indianapolis could have been in a ghost town when I road past.  There are literally thousands of these streets in every city in America, both large and small.

This street northeast of downtown Indianapolis could have been in a ghost town when I rode past. There are literally thousands of these streets in every city in America, both large and small.

For those who live further out in cul-de-sac land, the old lines can be extended or new lines can be built. Because density is lower in suburbia, it might not be possible to walk to the streetcar but here bikes can really shine. Most people can easily bike four or five miles, so as you move further away from the traditional grid you can space the coverage out. Each suburb might have one station with centralized bike parking much like the village of Lund, Sweden that I wrote about recently.

Trails to rails.  Bicycle and pedestrian resource can and should feed rail transit.

Trails to rails. Bicycle and pedestrian resource can and should feed rail transit.

The streetcar of the future may be smaller than the ones of the past.  In fact, they may look more like autonomous cars than what we think of now.  They may not even need rails, depending on how quickly that technology develops.  But I like the idea of rails.  I like the idea of walking four blocks or biking four miles to grab a ride.  It’s much more cost effective and as a result can be placed in service much more quickly.  It also solves a whole host of personal health problems our society seems unwilling to deal with.

I’m tired of reading about these pie-in-the-sky elaborate transit solutions that only serve developers and politicians. I’m weary of myopic short term solutions when we have the ability to do great things.  Access to mobility is too important.  It should be available to all, not just a select few.  It doesn’t have to cost a fortune.   Let’s go back to the future and build a functional transit system that relies on bicycles to feed it. Let’s make it available to everyone across the socioeconomic spectrum.  We’re making this too difficult. The real solution is easy. We discovered it 100 years ago. It still works. If you don’t believe me, head on up to Toronto and see for yourself.


2 thoughts on “Replacing Disposable Communities

    • Thanks for the link, Brian. I’ll check Jarrett Walker out. Sounds interesting! You’re probably right about buses too. The thing with rails, at least here in Utah, is that it’s much easier to bring your bike along. I think that biases my thinking re:buses. Unintentionally…


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