I was at the Meet Minneapolis annual tourism luncheon recently, where they crowdsourced ideas for a new, big tourism enticement for the city.

The fact is, cities across the U.S. and to some extent the entire world have become disappointingly homogenous. Everyone has a music festival and a rapidly evolving culinary scene and a pro sports teams and an inundation of new brewpubs and excellent museums and a “hidden gem” whatsits. But destinations that have exceptional enticements in addition to the usual stuff are places we recognize immediately: Venice, Cairo, Dubai, Rivendell.

In this era, a major tourism enticement needs to be both big and distinctive to really stand out on the national and international tourism stage. I’m talking Great Barrier Reef- and Angkor Wat-caliber distinctive. But the Twin Cities can’t realistically build the world’s tallest building, citywide canals or a Jurassic World (yet). Lacking those impossible resources, if we want to develop something remarkable, we instead need to build on a great enticement that we already have and make it singular in the country, if not the world.

Thus, I propose making all public transportation free for residents and visitors.

Tallinn, Estonia, a city with a population slightly larger than that of Minneapolis, already has successfully done it, though its free transportation is available only to city residents. We would need to offer free public transportation to everyone in order to create a notably unique, destination-defining enticement that people would mention in the same breath as Mall of America and niceness when discussing travel to the Twin Cities.

Furthermore, making public transportation free would reduce traffic, if only somewhat in the short-term, and give struggling families better access to jobs and other resources. It’s a public-relations trifecta. Of course, people aren’t going to book vacations exclusively based on the allure of free transportation like they would Disney World. But combined with the current surge of our profile as an outstanding and affordable place to visit and live, it could help boost us into the travel planning echelons of San Francisco and New York.

How do we make this kumbaya civic amazingness happen? Tallinn was able to pull it off, because only 30 percent of its public transport system was funded by fare revenue, unlike other cities such as London, where 85 percent of the public transport budget comes from fare revenue. Conveniently, it seems that our Metro Transit is similar to Tallinn: “About ⅓ of Metro Transit’s operating budget is covered by fares and advertising revenue; the remainder comes from regional, state, federal, county and other sources,” according to its website.

Tallinn’s free transportation outcome hasn’t been perfect, but it’s something to build on. With analytical thought and execution combined with the trailblazing concept, we can make it a sustainable feature of the Twin Cities, decades ahead of the world’s inexorable transition to a shared urban transportation scheme.

Executing a plan like this would be, of course, incredibly complicated and would require daunting political maneuvering. How would it work? How, unlike Tallinn, do we make it free to visitors as well as residents? How do we fund the portion of Metro Transit’s budget currently coming from fare revenue?

Well, I have no idea, of course. If I had that knowledge, I’d have a very different job and instead of writing for the Opinion Exchange page, I’d just hand this memo to the governor during our monthly brunch.

Destinations must invest in tourism, just like any other business. We’ve invested in our quality of life: bike paths, parks, even a ruinous sportsball stadium. If we want to raise our tourism profile to compete with other major U.S. cities, we need to invest in extraordinary tourism enticements, too. Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world. We’ve done admirably well with limited resources, but compared with other U.S. cities, we’re still leaving a staggering amount of potential revenue on the table. Let’s get that money, folks, and make the Twin Cities the envy of the continent, even the hemisphere.

That free public transportation happens to be a monumental civic improvement in terms of traffic reduction and increased mobility for the less fortunate is simply a delightful bonus.

Call me, Governor.


Leif Pettersen is the tourism communications manager for Mall of America.