We are all doing what we can to spread out during the coronavirus pandemic. Staying healthy depends on minimizing unwanted contact with other people — standing 6 feet apart in grocery stores, wiping off elevator buttons and avoiding public transit, where we may find ourselves cheek-by-jowl with a wheezing stranger.
But if spreading out is a challenge in the Twin Cities today, just wait until the next pandemic hits.
The urban planners at the Metropolitan Council, who increasingly dictate how we live, have a vision for our future that is stampeding us in precisely the wrong direction.
That vision is laid out in “Thrive MSP 2040,” the Met Council’s master plan for metrowide development. Its “New Urbanist” ideology demands that, going forward, we increasingly will live on top of one another.
The holy grail for the Met Council’s urban planners, and their allies at the Minneapolis City Council, is “densification.” They seek to engineer a world in which we increasingly abandon our single-family homes for stack-and-pack, multifamily apartments, and our private automobiles for jampacked mass transit.
The Met Council acknowledges this radical transformation will be an “enormous undertaking.” That’s because it runs directly counter to the way most Twin Citians prefer to live.
Thrive MSP 2040’s densification crusade seeks, first and foremost, to reorganize our metro area around public mass transit. Its guiding principle is “transit-oriented development.” That’s “New Urbanist” lingo for cramming future metro-area development — housing, jobs, retail, entertainment — into small, dense areas within “easy walking distance” (one-half mile) of major public transit stations in the core cities and inner-ring suburbs.
Transit-oriented development requires declaring war on the family car. The Thrive plan’s transportation system prioritizes walking, bicycling and transit, with motor vehicle use dead-last.
But most Minnesotans will say no to lugging rock salt home on the bus, getting the kids to soccer practice on the light rail or pedaling to the dentist on their bikes. Such alternatives will remain a tiny minority of trips.
The Met Council and Minneapolis City Council assure us their densification crusade is merely about “expanding choice.” In fact, they are using unprecedented, top-down government controls to impose it. That often means penalties for those who make the “wrong” choices, and hefty taxpayer subsidies for those who make the “right” choices about where and how to live.
For example, the Met Council is requiring every sewered municipality — even at the seven-county metro area’s edges — to plan for and accommodate a precise, arbitrarily determined number of subsidized high-density housing units. Instead of increasing the range of housing types and sizes, or promoting new construction techniques that reduce the overall cost of housing, the council is lavishing subsidies on developers who build high-density housing and other development in tiny, dense enclaves around public transit stations.
The Minneapolis City Council has gone even farther: It is preening itself on becoming the first major city in the nation to eliminate single-family zoning, so residents can no longer choose to live in a single-family neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the Met Council is pouring public funds into dizzyingly expensive light rail — expanding the Green and Blue lines with the Southwest and Bottineau lines and charging ahead with the Riverview Corridor streetcar line. LRT riders’ fares are already hugely subsidized, and now the council is considering dropping fares altogether because so many freeloaders refuse to pay.
Meanwhile, to push us out of our cars, planners are making driving as expensive and inconvenient as possible. The Minneapolis Thrive plan, for example, is aggressively eliminating parking, converting four-lane roads to three lanes and intentionally increasing traffic congestion in many ways.
So, what will government planners’ obsession with densification mean when the next pandemic hits? One thing’s for sure: Many more of us will be living packed close together and compelled to rub shoulders with a constantly rotating group of strangers on public transit.
Before the coronavirus hit, health and safety problems were already escalating on light-rail transit. At a recent legislative hearing, a train operator described LRT as an “unsanitary, unsafe, and dirty mode of transit.” She said the ventilation system, which carries fumes generated by passengers’ drug use, can make drivers sick.
Metro Transit is moving ahead with replacing upholstery on Green Line and Blue Line trains because it is a petri dish for the growth of disease agents. Now we add coronavirus.
Some may assure us the current pandemic is a flash in the pan, so there’s no need to rethink our rush to densification. But in recent years, we’ve seen recurring waves of novel diseases, including SARS, MERS and swine flu, and the coronavirus may return. Globalization is likely to increase this threat.
For years, we’ve heard warnings about how government planners’ obsession with densification will reduce our quality of life, increase our cost of living, and restrict our mobility and independence. Now we know it threatens our health as well.
Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.