Editorial: Time to rethink the long commute

  • Updated: October 9, 2007 - 6:08 PM

Twin Cities needs public and private solutions.

Dawn Davis has the best of both worlds: a good job in downtown Minneapolis and a house in a quiet, friendly neighborhood. Unfortunately, the two are separated by 70 miles and a commute that adds four hours to her busy workday.

Davis, who was profiled in Sunday's Star Tribune by reporter David Peterson, illustrates a new distinction for the Twin Cities as a city with a large and fast-growing population of people with extra-early, extra-long commutes. But she also shows how the region's thinking and planning have failed to keep pace with the challenges posed by its dizzying growth.

Taken separately, the pieces of this trend are benign and even welcome. Jobs are concentrating in the Twin Cities metro area, a tribute to its skilled work force, healthy companies and vibrant economy. But many Minnesotans cling to the ease and comfort of small-town living, an impulse that anyone can understand.

Put the two together, however, and you have a case of sprawl on steroids that is not healthy for taxpayers, the environment or the region's social fabric.

Even accepting that these long-haul commuters are happy with the personal costs of their choices -- and that's a significant if for some -- their thousands of individual decisions add up to large public costs: traffic congestion in places where people went to escape congestion; expensive improvements to far-flung roads; new school and water projects; smog; and the simple loss of social capital that occurs when no one's home in time for the 7 p.m. choir practice or soccer game.

"By the time commuters in Anoka pull out of their driveway at 7 a.m., their road is already congested. Is that fair?" asks Curtis Johnson, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Council. "When I talk to officials in these outlying communities, they are more scared [by growth] than prepared for it."

The solutions adopted by other vibrant cities -- strict development boundaries in Portland, Ore., dense townhouse neighborhoods in Chicago -- don't seem quite the right fit for Minnesota.

But there are other creative solutions that would improve the region's quality of life while holding down public outlays on expensive infrastructure. More park-and-ride lots for express buses would take cars off the road and give hundreds of workers a more pleasant commute. A reconfigured Metropolitan Council could give the far exurban counties some planning capacity they currently lack. Richfield-based Best Buy Co. has a pioneering "results-oriented work environment" that gives headquarters employees choices in when and where they work while raising productivity.

A growing economy has made Minneapolis-St. Paul one of the most successful urban centers in the Midwest during the last two decades. But growth often brings growing pains, and smart communities know how to practice preventive medicine.


    "They have all the classic problems that the Twin Cities suburbs have, but they lack the capacity to deal with them.''

    Curtis Johnson, former chairman of the Metropolitan Council, describing fast-growing counties on the Twin Cities fringe.

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