Light Rail & Left Turns

No Left Turn.jpg

Imagine that you own a service station that supplies fuel to the surrounding community, and you specialize in automotive repair. You're proud that your reputation for service attracts vintage Corvette owners. You worked hard all of your life, and your shop is your equity for retirement. Your business is entirely dependent on customers who enter via a left turn from Boone Avenue, a low traffic street, because drivers cannot get direct access to you from Highway 55, just south of your business.

One fateful day, a traffic engineer decides that the street serving as access to your station is to be cut off with a concrete median. This leaves no convenient access to your business; no left turn for your customers. Perhaps it was not intentional, but a lower level draftsman at a highway department, or an engineering consultant who never met you and only saw your business from a MapQuest image, decided that this concrete barrier was needed for some unknown-to-you reason. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, the business that you worked so hard all of your life to build was cut off.

Your income, as well as the value of your business, plummets. Traffic engineers who have never met you have essentially destroyed your life’s earnings, as they drew a squiggle on a plan. Meanwhile the BP Station across the street is maintaining convenient access and flourishing.
This is a true story. The barrier was installed, and what has remained for years since the business failed and was bull-dozed. It's a vacant field in what would have otherwise been considered prime real estate.

This video is an extremely well done representation of the new light rail that connects downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul, right in the center of University Avenue, which is currently lined with hundreds of small businesses, including many small restaurants that are easily accessible from University Avenue by a left turn from half of the passing vehicles. While watching the video, did you notice that the light-rail in the street center eliminates left turns into businesses that are not at the few major intersections between Minneapolis and St. Paul?

I admit that I’m no traffic engineer, and perhaps I’m not seeing the big picture, so please bear with my opinions, which I hope are based on common sense; you be the judge.

Opinion #1: Build the light-rail and people will walk instead of driving their cars? Yes, in theory, people may use this new light-rail (based on old technology), and those people will surely choose walking over driving. But theory often conflicts with common sense. This “walkable” theory might work well in San Diego where every day has heaven sent weather. But in this region, there could be a month where 10 degrees below zero is the normal high temperature. Anyone ready for a leisurely stroll in that weather? Yes, there are many Minnesotans who do weather the weather, but many cannot. Going from a warm cozy home to the garage and leaving in the comfort of a car that heats up to toasty within minutes, and then parking close to a destination (in the cold winter or the sweltering summer) is hard to compete with.

Opinion #2: Building a barrier down the center of a street cannot be good for business. When driving, the only way to access the vast majority of the businesses on the opposite side of the street is to drive a distance to the next major intersection, then make a (probably illegal) u-turn and drive all the way back. Given this choice, most potential customers will bypass the business, and some may choose to stop at the competition on the convenient side of the street.

Opinion #3: The light rail will result in a considerable increase in fuel usage. Let’s not touch on the logic, argued by some, that the light rail saves energy because people are not in their cars, but instead concentrate just on how residents will get to and from their homes when they are driving. Assuming that the route by car will use University Avenue, which is based in a tight old urbanist (just like new urbanist) grid pattern, it is quite easy and convenient to get home, which is possibly a reason that so many like to live in these areas. Alas, no more of that convenience after the light rail bisects University Avenue. The likely scenario is that you make the left turn and then continue on the high density grid streets to your home. If you live closer to the next intersection, you are likely to continue at a higher speed along University Avenue and then make two left turns to get home. Ultimately, in both cases you will encounter more intersections, which means more accelerate-slow-stop cycles that consume energy and time, and increased distances, which also mean more time and energy. Whatever savings result from the light-rail in the middle of the street are not close to the extra energy consumed by the newly inconvenient vehicle routes.

Opinion #4: Pedestrians are more endangered by the newly-complex train and traffic scenario. Do all drivers on busy streets stop for the pedestrian in the cross-walk? This one comes close to home. We have a cross-walk between our home in St. Louis Park the coffee shop on Minnetonka Boulevard, a street with much less traffic than University Avenue. My wife insists that we should simply walk across when cars are zooming past, telling me that it’s the law, they must stop. Well, they don’t always. Sometimes a driver in a left lane stops, but the right lane drivers do not see the pedestrian until it’s too late. The video (linked above), shows cars slowing down and stopping at the cross-walks for pedestrians to enter the train station. I’m not so sure that will work out as well on a busy street that's been made slightly more complex by the light-rail smack in the middle.

Opinion #5: Pedestrians are about to have a much longer walk. Let's say you live south of the Light Rail line, between two major intersections, and want to walk across University Avenue to a restaurant on the north side for that delicious Pad Thai you have enjoyed so much for the past 15 years, just a block away. It is a typical January evening, dark, and 25 degrees BELOW zero. Huh, that Light Rail line does not allow you to cross the street, so you go that one block to University, and just 150 feet away is the restaurant – you can taste the Pad Thai! You venture ¼ mile to the next cross walk, cross University, and tread another ¼ mile back to the restaurant. You stop shivering about the time dinner is served. After the meal the wind picks up and the wind chill is 40 below zero. By the time you get home, you cross your favorite restaurant off your list of regular visits. You no longer even think about that side of the street if it is icy; one slip and brittle bones shatter. While this can happen anywhere, creating longer walking distances instead of shorter ones will surely increase the risk.

A related problem: If you Google Map University Avenue today you will notice parallel parking along both sides of University Avenue in much of its business district. In the video, those spaces are eliminated. This means that all drivers will become pedestrians, trekking longer distances to the businesses. The driving customers must park somewhere... how does that work?

Opinion #6: Eliminate the light-rail and replace it with a PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) or elevated rail. An elevated PRT or rail system would not require the current vehicular system to change much, it might be able to be built with little interruption to businesses, and certainly the business along both sides of University Avenue will continue apace. Snow? No problem with an elevated system . Of course an elevated system does not interfere with vehicular traffic, and as such would still promote driving. Was the “driving” force behind the ground-based design for the light-rail intended to disrupt cars? Logic suggests that this might be the case.
Why do we still, in 2010, continue to build transportation systems that have their basis in century old technology? If Dr. Spock from StarTrek was in charge at the DOT, he would certainly find this illogical. And Captain Kirk would surely want elevated systems to zip us off to our destinations at warp speed – don’t you think?

I’m not convinced that our traffic engineers are as dedicated to a roundabout (see and light- rail path as our politicians are. I have talked to many engineers over the years that do not seem to be “all on board”.

If the vision in the video is an accurate representation of how our future will look, Ford Motor Company will be the major winner in this deal. Check it out: It sure looks like the vast majority of cars driving along University Avenue in the future will be new Silver Mustangs - better buy yours today!

Photo: 'Go West Young Man' by TheeErin

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are and

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