At last count, Minnesota was home to more than 2.1 million automobiles. On some days, all of them seem to be crawling along the streets of Minneapolis.
Drivers within the city limits have discovered the limits of driving within the city.
The car chaos of Lake Street is matched by the transport torments of I-35 and I-94 and raised by the orange-coned gauntlet of downtown streets.
As an editorial cartoonist once observed, “Happy Motoring” has been replaced by “Happy Muttering.”
Drivers should shout “Stop!” But where would they find parking?
The call of the open road is reserved for glossy car ads where the latest models glide along empty thoroughfares like yachts sailing along a placid sea.
Airy fantasy masking air-fouling reality.
In recent months, Minneapolis city officials have been meditating on ways to tamp down traffic — and with it, air pollution and climate-changing greenhouse gases.
Despite billions spent on modern, low-emission buses and on light rail — existing and under construction — nine out of every 10 trips in Minneapolis still are made by car, the city estimates.
Vehicles in Minneapolis today spew out an estimated 1.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), a key contributor to climate change.
Five years ago, city planners set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Lately, they’ve taken a deep breath and estimated that achieving that goal will require reducing driving trips in Minneapolis by more than a third — 37 percent, to be exact.
In a city where only 17 percent of households live without a car, luring people from behind the wheel will require a combination of incentives and barriers, and the rethinking of zoning, parking and public transit.
If Minneapolis lives up to its plans to thwart the century-long love affair with the automobile, it will be following the lead of metropolises across the nation and around the globe.
In New York City, home of the perpetual traffic jam, planners are framing the details of a state-endorsed plan to charge as much as $15 to the owners of private cars entering selected parts of Manhattan.
The move would take place at the end of 2020 — at the earliest — with residents and visitors already squabbling about what vehicles might be exempt. Credits for drivers already paying tolls to enter tunnels and bridges? Exemptions for ride services like Uber and Lyft?
The plan proposes raising more than $1 billion to be used for public transit. One problem: New York’s subway system is so crowded and prone to breakdown, who will want to trade a car for a train ride anytime soon?
Tolls — collected by sensors that would track special licenses affixed to cars — can be more discouraging to driving in the short run than in the long haul.
London started charging tolls in congested sections of the city in 2003. At first, the results were dramatic. Thousands of drivers resisted paying $6.50 for the privilege of rolling into central London.
“The toll initially had a considerable effect. In its first year, congestion dropped 30%, buses got 6% faster and there was a 12% reduction in emissions,” USA Today reported.
“In recent years, however, congestion has dramatically worsened, despite the fee rising to 11.50 pounds, about $15, per day. Officials say that was due in large part to the flood of app-based for-hire vehicles like Uber, which were initially exempt from the tolls. As a result, the city is lifting the exemption …”
A trial toll program in Stockholm proved so successful that residents voted to make it permanent after a few years. Singapore has culled cars with tolls since the 1970s.
Cairo’s clogged streets have been supplemented by bike lanes. In Oslo, two-way bike lanes on some routes take up as much space as cars. Sidewalks there are festooned with park benches to encourage pedestrians (particularly those who need some time off their feet).
“In the first year after the city of Seoul finished converting a highway overpass into a … pedestrian pathway in 2017, 10 million people used the path and business improved in the area, with sales increasing 42%,” the magazine Fast Company reported. “Now, the city plans to add new pedestrian zones.”
A Buenos Aires boulevard once clogged with 20 lanes of cars has substituted buses for private transportation on the route.
Madrid has taken a draconian approach to reduce CO2 emissions by 32%. It effectively banned most cars with internal combustion engines. “Inspired by the success, in late 2018 the Spanish government proposed banning any cars that aren’t zero-emissions vehicles from large city centers throughout the entire country,” Fast Company wrote.
Back home, no one in Minneapolis is proposing lurching from Commuter Hell to a Valhalla of Mass Transit or a Paradise of Foot/Pedal Power.
Instead, Minneapolis officials have acted to increase housing density by allowing triplex apartments in neighborhoods formerly limited to single-family dwellings. They’re also considering changes in zoning to move shops, restaurants and other commercial enterprises close to where people live.
“Put the stuff closer together so it’s easier to get to the stuff,” Paul Mogush, Minneapolis planning manager, recently told the Star Tribune.
But even incremental change can be a hard sell.
The decision to allow for triplexes drew public hearings where advocates and opponents slugged it out for months. Proponents argued that more apartments could bring lower rents. Foes worried about traffic and lower property values for incumbent residents.
Supporters won but hard feelings remain.
Meanwhile, two other battles emerged. In one case, cars lost. In another, the automobile appears close to defeat.
A group that calls itself “Halt the Ramp” defeated a proposed above-ground garage the Minneapolis Federal Reserve wanted to build in the North Loop. A new parking garage will only draw more traffic to the area, some residents complained. After protests, the Fed withdrew its plan, leaving many employees and visitors with the same old problem of where to park.
In the first week of August, a Minneapolis City Council committee voted in favor of banning new drive-thru windows in restaurants, banks and other businesses. The aim: to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution from idling cars.
Deliberations about how to live lives less dependent on cars may never end.
But forgoing a car, at least for some of us, has proved liberating.
I said goodbye to the last car I owned 27 years ago. Living in downtown Minneapolis made the choice a no-brainer, though the underground garage in my towering condo is packed with automobiles.
True, I have no children to chauffeur to hockey games or an office 10 miles away to demand a daily pilgrimage beside tens of thousands of other wage slaves.
Before I retired 10 years ago, I walked 1.5 miles to work or rode a bike.
I occasionally rent a car when company is in town or take a cab to a doctor’s appointment. Sometimes, generous friends offer me their car when they’re out of town. Otherwise, I’m a Simon-pure car abstainer, wrapped in an envelope of smug.
In winter, I order groceries online and pay 10 bucks to have them picked off shelves and delivered to my doorstep. (No snow to shovel off the windshield to acquire a loaf of bread or a carton of eggs.)
When Macy’s closed its flagship store downtown, I thought, “Isn’t that a shame?” But soon I realized I was one of the reasons. I buy thousands of dollars of goods from Amazon and other online retailers. I hadn’t set foot in that Macy’s in a decade.
I recently calculated that I have saved about $200,000 since 1992 by failing to buy a new car every seven years or so. I pump no gas. I decline to make Allstate richer by handing over hundreds in quarterly insurance payments.
Others may recoil at signs that proclaim “$40” for downtown parking at a special event. I flash a small smile.
Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a Minneapolis-based writer.