Twin Cities traffic congestion is no accident

MnDOT and the MET Council intentionally increase congestion to move people on to bikes, buses to light rail.

Residents of the Twin Cities consistently rate traffic congestion among their principal concerns and complaints, and properly so. The Twin Cities is among the most congested cities in the country. The time commuters, delivery drivers, and others spend sitting in traffic imposes close to $4 billion in costs on the Twin Cities region. Not only is the state not adequately funding congestion relief, the Met Council and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT)—the state agencies responsible for the transportation system—pursue policies that make congestion worse. Congestion can be relieved with the right policies.

Twin Cities congestion has consistently grown worse and worse over the past few decades. The amount of time the average Twin Cities driver wastes, stuck in traffic, quadrupled between 1982 and 2014, from 12 hours to 47 hours. MnDOT’s most recent congestion report shows congestion rose to a higher level in 2015 than any year since it began measuring in 1993.

All that time sitting in traffic imposes substantial costs in terms of wasted time, wasted fuel, and increased pollution. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates the cost of congestion in the Twin Cities equaled $2.2 billion in 2014.

In 1982, the Twin Cities were rated the 35th most congested urban area in the U.S., while by 2014, the Twin Cities had become the 21st most congested urban area. A new report ranks Minnesota 17th among 52 large urban areas.

The American Transportation Re- search Institute recently identified the 100 worst bottlenecks in the U.S. The Twin Cities had four, more than Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, or any other urban area except Atlanta and Houston.

MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council will argue that Twin Cities congestion has grown so fast because there isn’t enough money to keep up with the demand for new roads. Funding is a legitimate issue, and Minnesota’s legislature took a step in the right direction this year with its transportation bill. But the unreported contribution to the extraordinary delays suffered by Twin Cities drivers evolves from misplaced priorities at the Metropolitan Council and MnDOT. A closer look reveals a deeper problem: the Metropolitan Council and, in recent years, MnDOT doesn’t want to relieve congestion.

Strategy shifts from reducing congestion

MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council have shifted their focus to encouraging people to ride transit and use other alternatives to driving. They know that relieving congestion will enable more people to drive instead of using alternatives, so they often adopt policies that make congestion worse. MnDOT’s most recent Annual Minnesota Transportation Performance Report explains that, since 2010, the agency has shifted its strategy “from reducing congestion toward providing alternatives to congested travel,” and their spending priorities support this. In the 2009 Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan, the agency devoted 7 percent of funding to congestion relief, which halved to 3.5 percent in the 2013 plan and then plummeted to just 1.1 percent in the 2017 plan.

Yet, if MnDOT has merely given up trying to relieve congestion, the Metropolitan Council is trying to make it worse. One low-cost way to relieve congestion is to improve the coordination of traffic signals. Modern technology enables signals to dynamically respond to minute-by-minute changes in traffic flows. “Traffic light re-timing probably has the best cost-benefit ratio of any dollar spent” on congestion relief, says the Washington State Department of Transportation. Yet, rather than acquire the latest technology in Twin Cities-area signal systems, the Metropolitan Council’s goal is to give transit priority over cars at traffic signals, thus increasing congestion for everyone else.

“MnDOT, counties, and cities should provide advantages for transit on highways and streets, including bus-only shoulders, transit stations, bus bump-outs, transit signal priority, and ramp meter bypasses,” says the council’s 2040 Transportation Policy Plan. Transit carried 6.1 percent of Twin Cities-area commuters to work in 2015.4 Counting all travel, it carried just 1.4 percent of passenger miles and virtually no freight ton-miles in 2014. Yet the Metropolitan Council’s plans call for giving 6.1 percent of commuters and 1.4 percent of all travelers signal priority and other advantages over the 89.5 percent of commuters and more than 95 percent of all travelers who travel by car.

Light rail worsened congestion

When the Hiawatha light-rail line opened in 2004, it worsened congestion in the Minneapolis-Bloomington corridor. The light-rail tracks did not cross Hiawatha Avenue, State Highway 55, at grade, but they did cross many streets that crossed Hiawatha. Since the signals on those streets were coordinated with signals on Hiawatha, giving light-rail trains priority at the signals disrupted the coordination of traffic signals on Hiawatha. This added 20 to 40 minutes to travel times between Minneapolis and Bloomington.

The opening of the Green Line between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul also increased congestion. A 2015 study conducted for MnDOT by the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies found that a “considerable” amount of traffic “displaced from University Avenue” by the light-rail line has gone to I-94 between Snelling and downtown St. Paul, and as a result I-94 “speeds have dropped greatly.”

Plans prioritize future spending on rail and bike paths

In fact, it appears that the council’s 2040 transportation plan wants to move more people onto trains by making traffic miserable. Despite how light rail has already increased Twin Cities congestion, the plan calls for spending $31.2 billion on transit and $52.7 billion on roads over the 26 years between 2015 and 2040. That means 37 percent of transportation spending would go to a form of travel that carries less than 1.5 percent of passenger miles and, for all practical purposes, no freight.

To make matters worse, the plan calls for spending billions on new rail lines and bicycle paths, but relatively little on new highways. Specifically, the plan budgets $6.3 billion for constructing new “transitways,” meaning rail lines or possibly dedicated bus lanes, plus $600 million for bus modernization and expansion (Figure 1). The 2040 plan also includes $700 million of state money for bike paths, pedestrian, and safety improvements. But state highway improvements would get no more than $700 million allocated to “regional mobility improvements” including “traffic management technologies, spot mobility improvements, MnPASS lanes, strategic capacity enhancements, and highway access investments.”

MnDOT’s state highway investment plan proposes similar spending on bikes and pedestrians—specifically, $140 million on bike infrastructure and $530 million on accessible pedestrian infrastructure between 2017 and 2037. Yet, over the same time period, MnDOT plans to spend just $240 million on Twin Cities street and highway mobility.

Trains deliver lower capacity

Part of the problem is the Metropolitan Council’s infatuation with light rail, a high-cost, low-capacity form of transportation. As financial data outlined above shows, the 2040 plan calls for spending almost ten times as much money on transit improvements and at least as much money on bike paths, pedestrian, and safety as it would spend on increasing the capacity of state highways.

Not many people realize it, but the word “light” in light rail doesn’t refer to weight: light-rail cars actually weigh more than heavy-rail cars. Instead, it refers to capacity: light rail is, according to the definition used in the American Public Transit Association’s glossary, “an electric railway with a ‘light volume’ traffic capacity.” Although one three-car light-rail train can hold 450 people (most of them standing), which is far more than a single bus, light-rail tracks can safely move only about 20 such trains per hour, meaning each track has a capacity of only 9,000 people per hour.

Bus route capacities can be much higher. A standard bus can hold about 60 people (most of them seated) while articulated and double-decker buses can hold more than 100. Because buses are fast and nimble, a single street can move many more buses per hour than a rail line.

The Northstar commuter line is even more wasteful than light rail. In 2015, it carried an average of just 1,274 round-trips per weekday, collecting fares averaging less than $3.50 per trip. Operations and maintenance costs alone amounted to more than $27.50 per trip, and if capital costs were amortized over 30 years at 3 percent interest and added to the total, the subsidy per trip would be nearly $50.

For the same cost as the Northstar trains, the Metropolitan Council could have given every daily round-trip commuter-train rider a brand-new Toyota Prius every single year for those 30 years. More practically, Northstar service could be provided by 16 buses costing about $12 million initially, compared with $350 million for the trains. The buses would be faster than the trains and would also cost significantly less to operate.

Plans prioritize getting people out of cars

The Metropolitan Council’s ideology places a higher priority on getting a few people out of their cars than on making transportation safer, cleaner, and more efficient for everyone. A large part of their plans attempt to manipulate people’s transportation choices by influencing land uses. One part of the 2040 Thrive plan calls for putting “moderate-to high-density development” along transit corridors. Council planners assume that higher density housing will put more people within walking distance of transit stops and make them more likely to rely on transit rather than driving. They call this “improving accessibility” rather than mobility.

“The Council will promote land use planning and development practices that maximize accessibility to jobs, housing and services,” says their 2030 plan. In particular, “transportation investments and land development will be coordinated to create an environment supportive of travel by modes other than the automobile including travel by transit, walking and bicycling.”

This is based on an obsolete, polycentric version of a city in which most jobs are located in downtowns or other job centers, and most people live near their jobs, thus minimizing travel. This vision was ac- curate in 1920, when most urban jobs were in manufacturing, and most factories were clustered in factory districts. Today, the vast majority of urban jobs are service jobs, including health care, education, retail, whole- sale, and utilities. Those jobs are too finely scattered across the landscape to be served well by mass transit; on average, less than 30 percent of jobs are located in downtowns or other concentrated job centers. With the proliferation of cars and the dispersal of
jobs, Twin Cities transit ridership dropped from 292 million per year in 1920 to 128 million in 1940 to 86 million in 1960 and to 78 million in 2000. Annual transit ridership amounted to 83 million in 2016. The Metropolitan Council’s goal to recreate cities of the 1920s will fail because the nature of jobs has changed.

In another attempt to increase transit usage and discourage driving, the council also seeks to increase population densities. Historically, zoning ordinances have set maximum densities allowed in each zone. In order to increase the region’s densities and thereby increase accessibility, the council’s plans call for adding minimum density requirements to each zone. The council has also set a target for the number of multifamily housing units that must be built, and distributed that target to each of the cities in the region.

At the same time, the council is discouraging low-density development at the urban fringe by setting maximum allowable densities outside of the urbanized portion of the seven-county area. Much of the area, for example, is limited to one home for every 40 acres. These restrictions on rural development would force most new development into the existing urban footprint.

Plan will fail to alter driving habits

All of these ideas are based on current urban planning fads that have been proven not to work when they have been tried in other urban areas. The most spectacular failure is the San Francisco Bay Area, which has built 200 miles of new rail

transit routes in the past 35 years. Along those routes, the region has encouraged developers to build numerous high-density, mixed-use transit-oriented developments. The region’s overall population density has increased by nearly 50 percent since 1980. Yet per capita transit ridership has declined by a third and per capita driving has increased.

Numerous studies have asked whether increasing densities and other changes to urban form can change people’s travel habits. A literature review of those studies by University of California, Irvine, economist David Brownstone found that many of them failed to account for self-selection. That is, people who prefer to use transit rather than drive will tend to locate in high-density housing along transit corridors, but this doesn’t mean that building more such housing projects will lead other people to drive less.

Studies that corrected for self-selection, Brownstone learned, still found a link between driving and density, but that link was “too small to be useful” in attempting to reduce driving. “The magnitude of the link between the built environment and VMT [vehicle miles of travel] is so small that feasible changes in the built environment will only have negligible impacts on VMT,” concluded Brownstone. Yet most of the Metropolitan Council’s transportation plans are based on the assumption that such land-use changes will greatly alter the region’s travel patterns.

Rather than significantly reduce driving, increased densities in transit corridors will significantly increase congestion. Putting more people in a given area is going to result in more driving within that area. Given the council plans almost no new roadway capacity, that means more congestion. More congestion means wasted energy, more greenhouse gas emissions, and, since cars pollute more in stop-and-go traffic, more toxic air pollution.

Plans prioritize core cities at expense of suburbs

Hennepin County and Minneapolis are naturally enthusiastic about the Metropolitan Council’s plans, which call for dedicating most of the region’s resources to maintaining the preeminence of the central cities and counties at the expense of the suburbs. Yet if transportation resources were placed where they are most needed, they should go mainly to the suburbs, where most of the region’s growth is taking place. Census data reveal that, between 2000 and 2015, Minneapolis and St. Paul gained 42,000 residents while the suburban portions of the urbanized area grew by 370,000. Similarly, Hennepin and Ramsey counties gained 134,000 people while the five suburban counties grew by 236,000.

As joint comments on the 2040 plan submitted by the five suburban county commissions noted, “goals, strategies and corresponding performance measures” in the 2040 plan “don’t align with regional growth patterns.” Though the plan itself projects that most future growth will take place in the suburbs, “non-local transportation investment does not address these projections,” meaning the 2040 plan doesn’t put state and federal transportation dollars where the growth is taking place. Specifically, the plan is “prioritized towards transit and non-motorized modes,” with highway expansions “focused on MnPASS.” This bias “represents a bleak future for the regional highway system in most counties,” argued the counties.

The Metropolitan Council’s pro-congestion plans stand in sharp contrast to those of other urban areas that have actively sought to minimize congestion. The Kansas City urban area, for example, has seen the number of lane miles of freeway per million people grow from 1,081 in 1982 to 1,320 in 2014. By comparison, the Twin Cities population has grown faster than lane miles so lane miles per million has shrunk from 683 in 1982 to 670 in 2014. While Kansas City’s travel time index has barely grown from 1.04 in 1982 to 1.15 in 2014, the Twin Cities’ index has grown from 1.11 to 1.26, meaning Twin Cities residents waste far more time in traffic than those in Kansas City.

This means residents of Kansas City have greater mobility than those of the Twin Cities. Average driving speeds in Kansas City are 40.1 miles per hour, more than a third greater than Twin Cities speeds of 29.4 miles per hour. Since, for most Americans, time is more likely to limit travel than cost, faster speeds mean access to more jobs and other economic opportunities. This helps explain why per capita driving in Kansas City averaged 34.0 miles per day in 2014, or 30 percent more than the Twin Cities average of 26.2 miles per day: Kansas City residents can travel those 34 miles in less time than it takes Twin Cities residents to travel 26 miles.

At the same time, the average resident of the Twin Cities area rode transit 178 miles in 2014 compared with just 46 miles in Kansas City. This might make it appear that the Metropolitan Council’s plan to suppress driving in favor of transit is working. But the extra 132 miles of transit riding fail to make up for the lost 2,847 miles of driving per capita, especially since (at an average occupancy of 1.67 people per vehicle) that driving represents something like 4,750 passenger miles. Despite the extra transit ridership, Kansas City-area residents are still 29 percent more mobile than those of the Twin Cities.

Another city that has worked hard to prevent increased congestion is Indianapolis. In 1982, Indianapolis congestion was worse than in the Twin Cities. Since 1990, the Indianapolis urban area has been growing twice as fast as the Twin Cities, but rather than allow congestion to increase, Indianapolis is the first American city to completely coordinate all of its traffic signals. As a result of this and other improvements, Indianapolis travel speeds today are 15 percent faster than those in Minneapolis and, with a travel time index of 1.18, congestion is far lower.