Why Mac Loves Urban Planning
Macalester has built a powerful cohort of transportation planners who are reshaping cities from St. Paul to Portland. With 106 current geography majors and 36 urban planning concentrators, that number will certainly grow over time. We asked a few professors and planners what it was about Macalester that inspires such a passion for improving cities.
James Andrew ’99, Twin Cities Metropolitan Council: “Macalester attracts students who are optimistic and interested in creating social and environmental change. Urban planning is essentially about managing and channeling change. And few other small liberal arts colleges have Macalester’s urban laboratory.”
Chris Wells, environmental studies: “The urban studies concentration piques people’s interest in urban issues generally, and the Civic Engagement Center and the Internship Office have been tremendously successful in getting people off campus and into the community.”
Christie Manning, environmental studies: “At Macalester there’s much more of a goal of integrating academics with the surrounding urban community. Students are thinking about how what they’re learning applies around them.”
Emily Erickson ’08, sustainable transportation planner for St. Paul: “Mac students are interested in the problems of the world, and many would say that sustainability is the greatest problem plaguing our world. Since most people live in cities, cities— and our transportation system—are an increasingly important part of the puzzle, and finding a solution on a city scale is critical.”
Published in Macalester Today
For many Americans, The Daily Commute is an all-too-familiar ritual. Hop into a car, grind through 30 minutes of gridlocked traffic, and park in an expensive garage. Heading home can be an even bigger nightmare if the trip includes navigating the parking lot of a crowded grocery store or waiting in line at a busy gas station.
If it feels like a bad experience to you, it’s even more troubling to urban planners, who are charged with making the best use of available land and efficiently helping people get where they need to go. And that daily hassle is just part of the problem, says Emily Erickson ’08, a sustainable transportation planner for the City of St. Paul and one of dozens of Mac alums working in the field. “It’s a contributor to a sedentary lifestyle, which leads to obesity and other diseases,” she says. “And the emissions pollute our environment.” Not to speak of the enormous expense of owning a car, which a 2012 AAA study pegs at roughly $9,000 a year.
The automobile infrastructure, in other words, is stretched tight. So as urban planners look forward, many believe that the best option for cities isn’t to find ways to squeeze more cars onto packed roads but is instead to find different and better ways to get people from Point A to Point B. There are many ways to do so, from light rail and buses to bicycles and good old-fashioned hoofing it. Finding a better mix of all of these options is critical. “We want to make it easier for people to get around in any way except by themselves in a car,” Erickson says. To allow for such a shift, cities will need to make significant infrastructure changes. They’ll also need to come up with creative city policies and nudge their residents into new ways of traveling.
An Infrastructure for Choice
For Americans, who prize their independence and freedom, it can be tough to envision a life in which our car keys aren’t always within arm’s reach. But before Henry Ford entered the scene, cities were densely packed with small shops, and residents could often get whatever they needed within a streetcar stop or two.
Over time, downtown stores began to move to outlying areas that allowed them to build larger buildings on cheaper land—and offer the savings to consumers. According to Mac environmental studies professor Chris Wells, this process transformed not just cities, but transit. “This decentralization meant people needed to come to the stores by car,” he says. Meanwhile, the walkable city became unwalkable. Instead of stolling past bustling businesses, people passed parking lots.
As traffic soared, pollution spiked, and our waistlines expanded, it became clear that a new approach was necessary. Many planners see a path that will provide the best of both worlds, with plenty of flexibility and options—and without a two-ton commitment holding us back.
One key step in this process is hooking “choice riders,” who are open to taking public transportation under the right circumstances. In this regard, few developments are more attractive than light rail. The Twin Cities found that out when the first segments of the Hiawatha Line opened nearly a decade ago. Its convenience and speed made it an immediate hit, and it continues to attract about 30,000 riders a day. While it’s expensive—the line will ultimately cost more than $700 million—it also does more than just move people, says Laura Smith ’94, an associate professor of geography at Macalester. “Light rail in the Twin Cities has started to change the image of transit in a positive way,” she says. The spacious, comfortable cars and easy-to-understand routes made public transit seem like a viable option, even to those who’d never tried it before. “It brought a totally new demographic to public transit in the Twin Cities,” Smith says.
Planners also are taking cues from the popularity of light rail as they revamp less expensive—but also less popular—bus systems. To make a bus feel as easy to use as light rail, new buses often have at-grade loading, with low floors instead of steps. And by creating bus stations with ticketing systems similar to those at subway stations, riders can pay before they hop on, instead of waiting behind a line of boarding passengers to do so.
Human-powered transit can be even more efficient and effective. For residents who live close enough to their destination, cycling is often the quickest way to travel. If people feel safe hopping onto two wheels, they will, says Twin Cities-based urban planner Greta Alquist ’07. “Separate space within the streets—actual physical buffers that prevent vehicles from crossing into bike lanes—are common in many European cities, and they’re starting to show up in other places, too, like Portland,” she says. Green bike lanes, recently added to Minneapolis roads near downtown and the University of Minnesota campus, provide visual cues for drivers and cyclists. The citycrossing Midtown Greenway bike trail attracts thousands of cycling commuters daily.
Trends suggest that these infrastructure-based efforts to encourage alternative transportation are working. In the Twin Cities, for example, a 2011 study found that bicycling among residents had increased 52 percent in just four years.
Car- and bike-sharing services are also gathering steam in many cities. They open up opportunities for people who want to take public transit, but don’t want to be tied to it if something comes up. A worker who takes a bus downtown to work, for example, might grab a shared bike to meet a friend for lunch six blocks away, or reserve a shared car for a meeting across town.
The Twin Cities has been a hotspot for such options, with growing numbers of car-sharing services including HourCar, which has a hub near Macalester’s campus. Since launching in 2010, Nice Ride has become the largest bike-sharing program in the nation, with 1,200 bikes—including more than a dozen bikes at the Grand Avenue hub near Macalester. In St. Paul alone, there are nearly two dozen Nice Ride bike hubs. Users have hopped on more than 300,000 times since the program began two years ago.
While urban planners are excited about the opportunities that more robust transit options present, few think we’ll give up our cars entirely.
That’s not even the point, says Erickson. “If you’re going to Home Depot, I wouldn’t suggest taking a bicycle,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. You need different tools for different trips. We want people to have more tools in their toolbox.” The idea is not to remove people’s choices, but rather to give them additional choices they might actually prefer.
A Push for Change
A strong infrastructure is a starting point to shifting our transit choices from cars to alternatives, but it’s often not enough. Although many people insist they can’t accomplish their daily tasks without a car, the numbers suggest otherwise. According to a 2009 study by the League of American Bicyclists, nearly half the trips Americans take each day are less than three miles, and about a third are less than one mile. Yet nearly three-quarters of those trips—eminently bikeable, if not walkable—are made by car.
Finding ways to get people to replace just one of those trips represents a tantalizing opportunity, says Alquist. “That one trip can be a gateway drug. They do it and think, ‘Not only was that closer than I realized and easier than I thought, but I also got 10 minutes of exercise,’” she says. “It starts getting people thinking about other places they could bike.”
Getting people to take that first step, however, is often more complex than it seems. Prodding people out of their deeply ingrained habits requires more than just education about where to catch the train or find a bike trail; it requires a dip into the field of behavioral psychology.
Feeling competent is a basic psychological need, says Christie Manning, a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies. Doing something new, like biking to work for the first time, can feel stressful enough to deter people who might otherwise be open to making a change. For some, just the right nudge can help them reconsider a long-established car habit. “Maybe your company introduces a subsidized bus pass,” she says. “Maybe, if you move into a new neighborhood, the welcome kit includes a free bus ticket or a reflective ankle band to prevent your work pants from getting caught in the bike chain. The more you reduce the barriers to people trying something different, the more open they’ll be to trying it.”
At the same time, urban planners are looking at ways to discourage driving. Of course, gridlock and gas prices are already helping do this, says James Andrew ’99, a planner for the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen a flattening out of vehicle miles traveled,” he says, noting that’s both a Minnesota and national trend. “With the economy still sputtering, a two- or threecar household is becoming less tenable.”
That said, planners are still seeking additional ways to make people reconsider hopping behind the wheel. Cities have piled on deterrents—mostly economic ones, says Robert Spurlock ’04, a planner for Metro, the regional government for the Portland, Ore., area. The city of London, for example, famously instituted “congestion charges” for cars entering the busiest parts of the city during the workweek. San Francisco recently unveiled variable parking meter rates that rise when fewer empty spaces are available. And in the Twin Cities, variable fees are charged to solo drivers traveling in express lanes during rush hour. “We’re definitely heading in the direction of discouraging driving through various forms of pricing,” Spurlock says. “There’s just no way around it, and people will eventually accept it as a reality.” Transit for Livable Communities, a Twin Cities–based organization, has proposed dozens of possible solutions to tamp down car traffic, including “parking impact fees” that add significant surcharges to parking garage costs.
Planners continue to propose an array of innovative solutions to help cities move away from car travel. The initial shift can be challenging and sometimes expensive, but ultimately, moving the process forward is about building and managing a system that improves people’s lives. The result, says Manning, will be cities that look and feel different. “If you walk to places, you form connections with other people and get to know them. That helps people feel safer, and makes the community feel vibrant,” she says. “Alternative forms of transportation enhance the lives of individuals and communities in many ways.”