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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Part of plan?

While I'm not this cynical, part of me wonders if the death of businesses isn't part of the plan. University Ave has been something STPL has long wanted to be more like Grand than it how it is now. Maybe they don't really care much if anyone goes out of business? After all, it's no skin off their backs. And it makes it all the easier to throw some redev money at some project that will be touted as helping turn things around.

Isn't the point of

Isn't the point of light-rail to increase connectivity and efficiency, reduce our dependence on gas and oil, and decrease automobile use?

Isn't one of the underlying goals of light rail to reduce our need for service stations?

That said, the author makes some valid points on design. In order for the rail system to work, there needs to be pedestrian-scale intervals in the safety barriers proposed. Also, designing for visibility and access should be a focus to avoid the long, desolate, tunnel-like, concrete-barricaded streets. Simple traffic guidance and well designed intersections with appropriate signage could alleviate much of the anticipated confusion. Therefore, it seems that many of the opinions and issues discussed could be addressed via appropriate design measures and input from local businesses and residents.

Now, I can't help but address a few of these opinions.

Opinion #1: Build the light-rail and people will walk instead of driving their cars?

During the summer months in MN, walking sounds like a nice option. I imagine the rail line connects to some desirable areas and destinations that people would like to access without dealing with traffic and parking. Yes, in the winter it can get cold. Ridiculously cold. However, you could take your car to the nearest light rail stop, hop on, and get off near your destination. Again, less driving, less traffic to deal with, and less parking.

Opinion #2: Building a barrier down the center of a street cannot be good for business.

Agreed. This goes back to design. If the focus is on visibility and connectivity (with a reasonable number of intersecting points) this argument wouldn't be much of an issue. Let's be honest, driving an extra block takes maybe 20 seconds. Also, turning isn't that difficult. However, providing easy access to additional customers because you are near or on the transit line can be great for business and provide many economic benefits.

Opinion #3-5: All easily addressed if the project isn't implemented terribly.

Opinion #6: Eliminate the light-rail and replace it with a PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) or elevated rail.

A much cheaper option would probably be to increase funding to the bus system to increase efficiency and frequency of service.

Thanks for the thought-provoking article. I hope the light-rail is implemented and implemented well.

and planners wonder why

If you have seen most of my comments on urban "planners" you know I think very little of them. They think they know better then anyone, most importantly they know better then all the little shopkeepers who's livelihood is unfortunately in their hands.

And they wonder why retail businesspeople oppose (and complain loudly) most street construction projects, even when the road is in terrible condition.

Its more then just the loss of business during the project construction, though its a issue. Its very often the design of the project which takes into account NONE of the businesses (and residents) concerns.

Case in point. In my town, the state recently rebuilt the main road though town. Its a busy business area and commuting route. All post war retail and office building line the road. It was a five lane highway with two lanes in each direction and a turn lane, with not very well defined edges in places (parking lot pavement came up to the road, with only a painted line between. The businesses liked it as people could drive in or out just about anywhere. There were few to no curbs, no sidewalks, lighting was generally crummy or non existing. The road itself was at the end of its lifespan. So some improvements were needed.

Most residents (if anyone asked)generally thought that the road should be expanded to seven lanes. Also most wanted proper lighting, drainage and the overhead wiring buried on the highway. The business weren't as hot on the extra lanes because of the loss of space. But they liked the idea of new pavement, drainage and proper lighting.

However the "planners" had other ideas. Sidewalks!!!

Never mind that nobody would use them. Most of the business aren't set by the road and no one would be stupid enough to put a building directly next to a high speed road (its a truck route as well). No extra lanes, no lighting (in fact LESS lighting as the few lights were removed). Removal of 80% of the curb cuts.

Never the less the businesses still lose the space by the road due to SIDEWALK construction (instead of the would have been usefully extra lanes). Most of the curb cuts would vanish, and the lighting got worse!

So some businesses sued the state to block the acquisition of the space needed for the sidewalks to nowhere. Slowed the project but it went forward.

So how does the highway look now? Its still has five lanes, so its still congested. It does drain better then it did before. There are a few lights on the corners with stop lights (the town had to pay and install those lights after complaints and accidents). The road is far darker at night as the few lights that where there are gone. Some of the overhead wiring was buried (most don't even notice that some was), but not all so it's still ugly. There are now curbs with very few curb cuts and those d*** sidewalks that nobody wanted.

About a dozen businesses have either moved or gone bankrupt, and business is reported to be much lower then before. Since almost everything the businesses claimed would happened, did happen, they should be vindicated, but no. The sidewalks don't connect to the businesses and in most cases one to two feet higher then the parking lot behind them, so people (if there were people) would have to somehow step down to the level of the businesses. In the winter the sidewalks are covered with snow plowed off the road (they are directly next to the road) making them useless when snow is present. NOBODY is going to walk next to traffic going 60.

Today the sidewalks are rarely used.

Did a neutron bomb hit University Avenue?

The most interesting thing to me is the lack of people in the simulation. There are not enough passengers to pay the cost of running the ticketing machines to collect the fares, let alone the costs of running trains.

I certainly hope that the amount of vehicular traffic shown is not representative of what goes on today, for that great Thai restaurant would be long gone if it was.

Now, it seems sensible to note that the creators of the simulation may have been lazy, or had insufficient computer power, to show the hundreds of people who would be necessary to accurately simulate traffic, pedestrians and rail passengers in this very busy street.

However, I also think that the creators of this simulation realize how dreadful it is to ride public transport when it is packed, and don't want you to think about that, even though it is necessary for light rail to pack 'em in like sardines for it to be economically or even environmentally viable.

I thought the author's points in this article are excellent, but I thought this observation was worth adding. You get the feeling from the simulation that the people creating it cared about the fancy trains, and even cared about the fast roadways, but didn't care about the people using them and their needs.

We should not run our schools for the teachers' unions or our transport system for the transit workers' unions and yet that seems like exactly what is happening here. What the public wants, and should get, is more and better roadways.

Here in West Palm Beach, we have a super-efficient system of multiple wide roads that enables me to get to my nearest regional shopping center in 7 minutes, to the airport in 15 and downtown in 20. Downtown parking costs $7, not $20, and is easy to find. We can have these advantages because the people who run West Palm are not morons and therefore did not build a light rail system. Instead, we built better highways.

I lived in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles before. Pittsburgh has an abysmal road network of two lane streets that are somehow meant to work. Los Angeles has freeways with typical speeds of about 20mph. Compared to either place, West Palm Beach looks like paradise. Everything is fast and smooth and just plain works.

Both Pittsburgh and Los Angeles have light rail. West Palm does not. Which city has a functioning transportation system? I think you can tell my answer.