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New Ulm: The Urbanists Utopia

24 Jan

Much of the political rhetoric about urbanism has become the MSP metro area vs. Greater Minnesota. This is a bad argument to make because in fact many of the small towns in Minnesota have better urbanism than many places within the metro. It is often from the Main streets of small towns that urbanists gain valuable insight. Today I am s profiling New Ulm to provide an example of an urban small town. Using the Longitudinal Origin-Destination Employment Statistics dataset from the Census Bureau I measured the employment and housing patterns within New Ulm.

With a population of 13,522 it features an intact main street, a college (Martin Luther), a brewery (Schells), a river, and downtown parks. Quite a list of an urbanist’s favorite things! Another impressive aspect of New Ulm is the larger number of people who both live and work within New Ulm.

H2W_NewUlmThe first map shows the job locations of workers who reside within New Ulm. Some of the workers who reside in New Ulm work in one of the many other small towns surrounding it. However, 63% of the 6977 New Ulm workers work in New Ulm. For a town that is only a couple square miles it means a large majority of residents could walk or bike to work. The southern area that is red is a more industrial area. The area in the middle of the map is downtown. Educational and medical facilities are represented by the large orange census blocks on the west side of town.


This second map shows the home locations of all employees of jobs located within New Ulm. This map shows a reciprocal of sorts of the first map. Instead of job locations of workers, this map shows home locations of jobs located within the W2H_NewUlmboundary of the town. As expected the areas outside of downtown are the major residential areas. 45% of the 8,184 jobs located within New Ulm are filled by residents of New Ulm. Most of the census blocks are relatively dense. These are the traditional city blocks that make up almost all of the city. The large yellow blocks on the western side of the city are newer developments that are the only traces of “suburbia”. They are also less dense likely because those blocks are also where the hospital and college grounds are located.

What becomes clear in this analysis is that the ideas of urbanism is not metro vs greater MN. Instead it is about a land use that works better for people and communities.


Midtown Corridor: A Grade Separated Central Corridor

17 Oct

The Midtown LRT/Streetcar has joined the growing number of high efficiency corridors planned for the Minneapolis, St. Paul metro area. The Midtown LRT/Streetcar will run on the Greenway rail trench from the planned SW Green line station at W Lake Street to the Lake St station on the Blue line. Though the transit in the greenway is being classified as a streetcar, the fewer stops and connections to both the Green and Blue line means that it will function more as a light rail. It will be paired with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Lake Street that extends all the way to St. Paul. It will connect with some of the busiest north-south corridors: Green Line, Hennepin, Lynndale, Nicollet, Red Line BRT on 35W, Chicago Ave, and the Blue Line. This route would also serve some of the densest areas in the region. Outside of the two downtowns, this is the east-west route with the most job and housing density.

Map: "Midtown's density will be key to it's sucess"

Because of the dual corridors of the Greenway and Lake Street, the route could be built in stages. BRT involves much less physical infrastructure and capital to develop so it could be built first. As funding becomes available, the LRT/streetcar can be built. After the Central Corridor, this is the next best rail investment that the region can make because it connects the densest housing in the state with job centers while also connecting neighborhood amenities.

This corridor has proven its viability through the high ridership of existing bus routes. This is an important future transit planning point. If we only build a train line every 8 years (6, if we’re hopeful), then each line must be done right to maximize our investment. Current ridership on existing local and express bus lines should be an indicator for which routes would most benefit from the expanded service or rail. Besides improved service, an expanded bus system generates insightful rider information, further honing long range transit planning.

The Midtown corridor has proven itself as a successful bus route that merits additional investment. it is included on the Met Council’s 2040 transit plan, the TPP. Let’s make sure that this corridor receives more attention and moves up the list of planned routes.

The Bank for Better Buses, Part 3

10 Oct

Creating a full-service Metro Go-To Card would benefit transit usersand those without access to traditional banking services. It would also benefit the Met Council. There are examples of public institutions acting as lending agencies that provide great benefit to a range of people. The largest example of a public institution bank is the Bank of North Dakota (BND).

In 1919, North Dakotans, in a wave of populist progressivism and angry at the financial control wielded by Twin Cities’ banks, created a publicly operated bank that could provide loans and hold savings. Created by and for the people, BND was designed to provide more affordable loans to struggling farmers and families out on the prairie. Over the last 80 years it has provided a tremendous service to the state of North Dakota and continues to receive large support for citizens.

Banks make money by charging a higher interest rate on loans than needed to pay the smaller interest rate of depositors. As a private institution they seek to maximize these profits. Banks can make small loans to farmers that need new equipment or to governments that need new infrastructure, making money on each of them. North Dakota found that a public bank worked better for them.

As a public institution, BND has a different objective, to provide a quality service to its citizens. Instead of profits being placed in the hands of bankers, they are returned, in various ways, to the people of North Dakota. Mostly profits are returned through lower interest rates. Farmers and students can better escape the stress of high levels of debt that plague them both. It can also provide low interest rate loans to the cities and state of North Dakota. Studies have shown that interest from private loans composes 30-50 percent of public loans. Without needing to pay back expensive interest to private banks, cities can build better schools and the state can build sewers more affordably. This makes North Dakota a better place to live.

The Met Council can learn from the success of the Bank of North Dakota by creating a bank that could provide loans for infrastructure improvements. The Met Council has recently invested in the water and sewer system so these will need little large investments in the coming decades (Thrive 2040). The Met Council and the region do recognize that we need to significantly invest in transportation infrastructure for the next couple of decades. These projects would benefit from the assistance of a public bank. I want a bank that begets better buses. Don’t you?


This post first appeared on MN2020

Go-To Banking, Part 2

8 Oct

The expanding list of transportation options makes our multi-modal system stronger. All of these services should be lauded for its efforts. There is one catch, however. Each transportation service requires a debit or credit card as a payment option. For the 16.7 percent of Minnesotans who are unbanked or underbanked, debit and credit cards are out of reach.

The FDIC classifies unbanked as those people lacking any kind of deposit account at an insured depository institution such as a savings or checking account. Underbanked housholds have a bank account but also rely on Alternative Financial Services (AFS) like money orders, non-bank check cashing, payday loans, and prepaid debit cards. Each of these services exacts heavy fees, making these services more expensive than traditional banking.

While 16.7 percent of unbanked or underbanked households is too many people with too few options, it is the lowest percentage in the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin is at 18.7 percent). However, like so many of the great successes in Minnesota, there is a large disparity in who shares in that success. Whereas 14.8 percent of family households (as compared to non-family households) were without full banking services, 36.5 percent of households led by a single female were without full banking services. Of those making under $15,000 a year, 58.5 percent were fully banked. Only 39.5 percent of black households were fully banked, compared to 84.7 percent of white households. This is consistant with national disparities where 41.6 percent of black households are fully banked compared to 77 percent of white households. People across the county are working on different ways to give everyone access to banking options.

Chicago has come up with one solution to help those without banking services while serving its transportation mission. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has switched to a new fare payment system called Ventra. Ventra operates similar to the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit Go-To card in that a person can buy long term passes and store funds. Its additional feature makes it different. The Ventra card also functions as a prepaid debit card, usable anywhere debit cards are accepted. This may seem like a large jump but in fact is just a continuation of previous services.

The fare cards preceding Ventra, Chicago Card and Go-To, also stored money for later use. The transit service restricted transactions to their proprietary transportation services but the principle of a financial exchange instrument is the same. Eliminating the payment restriction allows people to save money in their transit account just as they would in a traditional bank account. This change would allow those without banking access to the services traditionally accessed though bank accounts.

The transition in Chicago has been controversial, however. The CTA outsourced fare collection and the prepaid debit card system to the private company Ventra rather than keep it agency managed like the Chicago Card. The outsourcing has led to price increases similar to what was experienced when Chicago sold all city parking meters to investment firms. When Ventra took over fare collection for the CTA, single fare tickets increased from $2.25 to $3.00. The one-day pass jumped from $5.75 to $10, a 74% increase. The prepaid debit card is similarly riddled with high costs and hidden fees. Though it is free to activate, estimates using the card will cost $188 per year. This is more expensive than most other prepaid debit cards. This is a good reminder that outsourcing government isn’t better for citizens. It might look cheaper on paper, but only because costs are externalized, especially to those already struggling.

Minnesota can improve on Chicago by implementing the system though the Go-To card. Met Transit would expand the functionality of Go-To cards by letting them act as savings accounts. Public oversight from the Met Council would prevent the price gouging seen in Chicago, giving everyone the opportunity for affordable transactional instruments, creating more options for the unbanked and underbanked.

(Banking data from the FDIC 2011 National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households)


This post first appeared at MN2020

Could Go-To Banking be the ticket? Part 1

6 Oct

Significant praise has been heaped on ridesharing services. Uber, Car2Go, HourCar and NiceRideMN, to name a few, are lauded for increasing transportation options. Each service adds another way to get from point A to B, making our multimodal system stronger. These networks run best when switching from one mode to another is easy and obvious.

Now, however, these services accept payment in different methods. Uber and Lyft charge through a smart phone application. Car2Go and HourCar have membership cards to unlock the vehicles; and NiceRideMN uses a credit card or a membership card. Each of these services uses a different system, making it challenging to switch from one to another. This makes our multi-modal network weaker. There should be one card that works across all platforms, so each mode is easily accessible. The Metro Transit Go-To cards can be that card.

Go-To cards already make for a more efficient public transportation system. They can be used as a monthly pass or as stored value, so no accidentally throwing out a needed transfer. With only a quick swipe needed for payment, boarding the bus is faster. When money is added to the card, an extra 10 percent is added, making taking the bus an even cheaper option than driving. With a solid track record of success, expanding Go-To cards to all the transportation options just makes sense.

The expansion would benefit many regular Go-To card users. Many high school students use a Go-To card everyday. Since 2013, all public school buses to high schools have been discontinued and replaced with Go-To passes. The collaboration between Met Transit and Minneapolis Public Schoolsgives each eligible student a Go-To card that provides rides between 5:00am and 10:00pm. Adding the other multi-modal options to the card improves access for these students. It facilitates students to take the bus to the library or a museum and take a NiceRide the last 5 blocks, making the city a classroom for all students.

Let’s expand Go-To cards to NiceRides and car-sharing services like Uber and HourCar. Adding Go-To cards to other transportation services would strengthen our multimodal transportation system helping people connect to destinations in a way that works for them.


This post first appeared on MN2020

Map: Lessons Learned from Past Transit Investments

2 Oct

Met Council predicts the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro region will grow by 824,000 people within the next 30 years as part of its Thrive 2040 plan.

So where are we going to put nearly a million more Minnesotans, especially when you consider most future state highway spending will be dedicated to fixing the existing infrastructure? One plan is to aggressively embark on transit-supportive land use. Meaning better integration of new construction, transit routes and non-motorized ways of getting around.

Before conservatives start with their heavy-handed government arguments, let’s consider this nation’s historical relationship between transportation and development.

Hastings, Red Wing, and Winona were all founded on the Mississippi to accommodate the most efficient transportation of the day, boats. In much of farming Minnesota, towns were spaced along the railroad so that farmers could bring their grain to the elevator and make it home that night. Trains represented another efficient way for grain to be moved across long distances with little energy. As Minneapolis grew, it built an extensive streetcar system to efficiently move people in and out of downtown and between the neighborhoods. Each of these transportation methods leaves a mark on our towns and cities.

Sixty years after the end of the streetcar network, the housing development that mirrors that network makes clear the connection between transportation and housing development. The decisions we make about transit today will have implications for decades to come, so the one chance we have to built should be done right. As Minnesotans age, they need an alternative to single-occupancy vehicle driving. As pollution puts more pressure on our environment and population growth congests our roads, we need 21st century solutions.


This post originally appeared at MN2020.