Why I Love the Green Line: an Open Letter to my Fort Road Neighbors

[A car-choked street.]
Hello neighbor.

I live across the High Bridge from you, and spend a lot of time in your neighborhood. Plus, I take the bus and train an awful lot. Just wanted to drop a line.

Look, I get it. Many of you vividly remember the debate over Riverview transit back in the 90s. And you were right! Widening the street by 4' would have been a bad move back then, and would be a bad idea today.

But this is the year that Saint Paul's leaders, and that includes many of you, are going to make a huge decision about a transit line along the Riverview Corridor. It’s the kind of thing that, once made, is almost impossible to change.*

[A poll from a neighborhood Facebook page.]
There’s a lot of debate in the neighborhood along West 7th Street, or "old Fort Road." Many people have been very vocal about not wanting to see any rail on West 7th. And some people I’ve spoken to have said that the opposition from business leaders and community groups is so strong that planners are considering bypassing the 7th Street neighborhood in favor of a route along the river.

Alternately, some people would prefer a bus rapid transit investment that would minimize impacts to  today’s car-centric street designs (parking, higher speed travel lanes, difficult pedestrian crossings).

Personally, I think either of those two options would be a huge mistake. Bypassing West 7th Street would leave thousands of people out in the cold, and waste Saint Paul’s best chance to build a great transit city.

[Riverview doesn't have to look like this Green Line station, but the idea should be the same; give people secure, pleasant places to take transit.]

For me, a lot depends on how you feel about the Green Line. Reading through the neighborhood comments over the past month or two, I've noticed that many people seem to think that the Green Line is a failure. Or that it's too slow. Or that it's ruined University Avenue.

My experience is just the opposite. I take the Green Line (from end-to-end) all the time, once or twice a week for over a year now. When you spend time actually riding on the train, it changes your mind.

[Putting a bike on the bus rack.]
See, when compared to riding the bus, the Green Line is amazing. When you sit and watch the people around you, you see relaxed, comfortable folks. They might look bored, yes, but they're allowed to move, sit, and travel through the city without a car, but with respect.

Rolling up in a wheelchair, or with a stroller, or with a bunch of shopping bags, or with a cane, or with two kids, or with whatever burden you carry, the train is just so much better.  You can see a measure of relief in the faces of the thousands of people from the diverse Frogtown, Hamline-Midway, Downtown, and University-area neighborhoods trying to get around.

Even though we have a decent transit system, riding the bus around the city can sometimes be a disheartening experience. Stepping up over snowbanks, huddling in a shelter, scooching through cramped aisles, struggling to put your bike on the front rack...

Don’t get me wrong, taking the bus is a perfectly fine way to get around, and I often do it myself, but a predictable smooth-running train with level boarding and plenty of space is a huge step up in the quality of life for everyone on board. It's a sign that our city is treating the transit-dependent, the elderly, the young, the poor, and anyone else who wants to shed some car trips with some much deserved dignity.

[A pretty full Green Line car.]
That's important because Saint Paul is a diverse city with many of areas of concentrated poverty. Over 40% of our 280,000 people are people of color. Over half of the people living in the West 7th neighborhood rent their home. 35% of neighborhood households make less than $35K a year. Yet all through Saint Paul, and all though this planning process, almost all the people making decisions around the table are white owners of homes or businesses. This isn't to cast blame, but just to point out that lots of people are being left out. What about them?

Don't get me wrong. I have questions too. There tons of details about exact routes, modes, and design decisions still on the table. (Check out my suggestion for one possible route that would serve huge parts of the West 7th and Highland neighborhoods without having major impacts on parking or car travel on 7th Street).

[Wheelchair, guy in the companion seat, bike rack on the Green Line.]
By all means, people in the community should be debating how best to design and build rail transit in this corridor. Can a streetcar-style vehicle work? Should we use the Ford Spur? How do we get across the river? What are the trade-offs between stops and transit speeds?

But bypassing all the people whose lives would be meaningfully improved by a major transit investment would be a disaster. That’s what they’re doing with the two Minneapolis rail lines, skipping the heart of the city. And it’s a shame. Saint Paul should do better.

Try the Green Line. Take the bus. Think about who lives here, all your neighbors, not just the ones who show up to meetings.

The future of the Fort Road neighborhood depends on what choices we make this year. Let’s give our transit riders a great future.

See you on the sidewalk.

Yours truly,

[A man with a cane and an unleashed dog crossing West 7th Street.]

[Guy on the Green Line with an elaborate wheelchair setup.]

[Riding the Green Line on Halloween.]

[Two wheelchairs / scooters on the Green Line at the same time.]

[Guy hauling U-Haul boxes, bike (not his) on the Green Line.]

[Folks looking out Green Blue Line windows.]

[Riding the Green Line on a December evening.]

[Riding the Green Line on a December evening.]

[It's time to "level up" the bus.]

* In 2010, Hennepin County SWLRT planners decided for the 3C alignment down the Kenilworth Corridor instead of going through uptown. It was the wrong decision, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it now.


Bob Roscoe said...

Bill Lindeke makes many insightful points here, mainly that Green Line type of transit is an evolutionary step in providing a more humanely method of getting long spans of distance though urban areas. As a Minneapolis resident, I have taken the Green Line to downtown Saint Paul several times and to downtown Minneapolis from my Prospect Park neighborhood. I have observed riders more at ease than hunched on a bus seat, probably knowing their ride is more smooth and quicker than on a bus that has an inferiority complex in relation to cars that pass it by. When I rode the Green line to downtown Saint Paul last summer to the Saint Paul Jazz Fest, I noticed the more social interaction of passengers to each other, much of it bi-racial.

I find the Green line is much easier for me to hook my bike inside the train car than the time consuming connection to a city bus.

To me, a Fort Road line can also serve as a development incentive for an under-performing street. It would incentivize other transit links upward to Mac Groveland and other neighborhoods to connect with downtown.

Annie said...

We are a world class city. We deserve a world class transit. Trains are the future, many kids today are delaying obtaining their drivers' license, and I feel this speaks to a future with fewer cars and more PEOPLE-centric transportation options.

Trains over busses any day. Great article, Bill!