Monday, March 12, 2012

We need a post-streetcar history of Twin Cities transit

There have been a few books and many more articles written about the old streetcar systems in the Twin Cities. I'm sure there are more stories to be found there, but the streetcar era ended almost 58 years ago, and there are significant gaps at least in my knowledge of what happened between 1954 and roughly 2000. I think the time is coming for a detailed history of the bus era stretching from the final days of the streetcar era, through the transition from private to public ownership, and through the various twists and turns in policy and direction since then.

Such a book probably wouldn't be seen through the same rose-colored glasses that the streetcar era has been, but I think a decent story could be made out of it. There are a bunch of facilities that got built and torn down in the era which should get a little more detail. Nicollet Mall jumps out at me as being a bit of a centerpiece topic—among the early transit/pedestrian malls in the country, it continues to drive conversation today. While I tend to see the 50 years between 1954 and 2004 (when the Hiawatha LRT began service) as a dark age, there were plenty of smart and dedicated people in the community and working for Twin City Lines, MTC, and the Metropolitan Council/Metro Transit (and all of the other relevant entities) over the years. It doesn't necessarily mean that they were able to accomplish what they sought, but we know that there were conversations about things like stop spacing and placement as far back as 1956, and conversations about light rail along Hiawatha Avenue were already well underway in 1976.

Some background of the Hiawatha Line has already been put into at least one book: Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City by Iric Nathanson, which includes a 1976 sketch of an LRT route that has extraordinary similarity to what got built a quarter-century later. There's a passing reference to LRT that was once proposed along Interstate 35W (which reminds me that LRT had also been proposed along Interstate 394 but was discarded in favor of reversible HOV—now HOT—lanes).

I suppose it would be a fairly disheartening book, depending on where it ended. The bus service continued the downward spiral of ridership that the streetcars had experienced, and became an eyesore in their own right toward the end of private ownership. They were lurching, smoke-belching machines worn out from too many years on the road and not enough maintenance. At one point, Minneapolis went so far as to ban many of the buses from downtown because their emissions were so horrible. That's a marked contrast with today, where advancements in diesel engines and exhaust treatment—plus the introduction of diesel-electric hybrids—have all but eliminated the smoke and smell that was once common, and have helped quiet down the traditional diesel rattle.

A history of fares would be interesting. It's pretty remarkable that tokens were only finally phased out a year or two ago—I've only ever used cash, mag-stripe transfers and passes, and my Go-To card. Today, mag-stripe passes are being phased out as well in favor of disposable RFID Go-To cards. I'd also like to know if any explanation can be found for the generous standard 2½-hour validity period for transfers. As far as I know, it's the longest unlimited free transfer period in the country.

I've seen at least one claim that the Twin Cities had some of the earliest freeway-running express buses, so that might have an interesting story or two behind that. There's also the longstanding issue of how express buses tend to skip past a lot of potentially interesting places in favor of (usually) running non-stop from suburb to downtown. Some exceptions exist, such as the 94 express bus which runs all day long even on Sundays (the last run gets to Minneapolis after midnight on Monday morning). I've found that some buses on I-394 also make multiple stops, though they have to take such circuitous paths to reach park-and-ride lots that it's hardly freeway BRT.

Zooming back to the core cities, there are plenty of routes that have their own stories to tell. Most of the core system still runs along paths once plied by streetcars, so a few maps and tables comparing the systems would be worthwhile.

Anyway, there's enough stuff out there to create something pretty substantial. Again, the big problem would be to create something that would draw interest to a topic that is often dismissed as unsexy and uninteresting. But hey, if a guy could write an off-Broadway play about the 21A and the local Bus Tales website could toss around a few memes, there's probably enough human element to be brought in to make something that could entertain at the same time as it fills in a bit of hazy history.

(Am I volunteering? Uhhmm... Well, probably not. I'd be happy to assist on a project, but I'm personally short on the type of contacts I'd need—plus, I'm kind of in need of this stuff people call "money".)


  1. Cool idea - it seems like they usually have interns do that sort of thing. Didn't the transfer period used to be 2 1/4 hours until the last fare hike, when they increased it to compensate? Maybe that's happened repeatedly.

    1. I mean, they have interns do a low-quality version of that sort of thing.

    2. I'm fairly certain the 2½-hour transfer existed when the Hiawatha Line opened, but the period might have grown in the fare hike prior to that (I'm thinking 2002?). Sounds like a good theory on how it may have happened.