How to make the Twin Cities the best region in America

The good life in Minnesota: A 12-step plan to greatness in the Midwest

Have you noticed that you seem to be spending a lot more time in traffic lately? Don't worry, you're not alone.

According to the Washington-based tracking firm INRIX, traffic in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro was up 16 percent last year compared to 2012, making MSP the 16th most congested metro in the country.

"Traffic here is unbelievable," complains acclaimed photographer Alec Soth. "I live in south Minneapolis and I work in St. Paul, and every year it gets worse and worse. It's affecting the quality of life."

Meanwhile, our embryo of a light rail system lags behind lauded examples such as Denver and Portland, Oregon, as well as lesser lights like Dallas and Salt Lake City.

What that should tell us is that we can't rest on our laurels. A city that wants to thrive needs to be mobile. And that will take serious investments over the coming years.

With the Green Line light rail on University Avenue set to open in June, there's a major push for mass transit going on already. But we shouldn't only fall in love with light rail trains, streetcars, and other high-tech hardware, warns Joan Pasiuk of Bike Walk Twin Cities, a federally funded initiative that aims to help people get out of their cars.

"We have a world-class system of trails, and those are used lovingly for recreational purposes," Pasiuk says. "But we need to connect them to a real network, so that people can get to daily destinations like work, school, the post office, or the grocery store. The less cars are required, the more households will have the economic advantage of not owning one."

What is sorely needed is settling on a metro-wide, long-term plan and sticking to it, says John Adams, an urban geographer and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota.

"Cities change slowly, and it takes about 50 years to get where you want to go, but if you don't believe in planning, every inch of the way is a fight."

The lack of a mature public transit network isn't just a problem for drivers, notes rapper Toki Wright, who is also a community organizer and the head of the hip-hop studies department at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. It's also a major obstacle for those who don't have a car, let alone a job.

"If I have to take two hours and transfer three buses to get to a decent paying job in the suburbs, and I have kids, it's less likely that I'm going to take that job."

4. Build denser cities

The Metropolitan Council, MSP's planning board, projects that the region will grow to 3.67 million people in 2040, up from 2.84 million at the time of the 2010 census. Where are we going to put all those new people?

To many, the answer is clear: We'll have to get denser.

"Here in Minneapolis, we've plotted out exactly where we want to grow," says Rybak. "On the river, around the football and baseball stadiums, by the farmers market and where Kmart is today. Those areas are ready for tens of thousands more people without having any negative impact on the single-family residential neighborhoods."

That's easier said than done. All around town, plans for denser development have been met with stiff resistance from residents who fear their neighborhoods will be ruined when even modest-sized multi-story apartment and mixed-use buildings go up.

We shouldn't let the NIMBY syndrome hold us back, says John Adams. "People just resist change. What's familiar is what's thought to be necessary."

Joan Pasiuk envisions a region where public transit puts commercial areas within reach for bicyclists and pedestrians. "Land use is huge," she says.

There is no reason why increased density couldn't go along with more open space, says Pasiuk, because if people drive less, we won't need as many roads. "There are some efforts now to think about greenways and streets that can be decommissioned for motor vehicle travel. Those can become a linear park, a gathering place, a source of community pride."

5. Prepare for climate change

The weather is always a big deal around here, but because of climate change it's about to become even bigger. Various local governments have studied the issue, and they all end up at the same conclusion: Things will get uncomfortable quite often.

"Minnesotans should expect more difficult summers, with intense heat waves increasingly common, more prevalent water- and insect-borne diseases, and a greater number of days with low air quality," states the climate plan that the city of Minneapolis drew up last year.

That is a crisis waiting to happen, says John Abraham, a climate expert at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "Particularly for people who are vulnerable: older folks and young kids. They will be less able to have their bodies fight off the heat."

During recent heat waves in Europe and Russia, thousands died of heat-related causes. Since the Twin Cities will be exposed to similar weather patterns, we must come up with heat emergency plans, says Abraham.

"Expect the unprecedented," says MPR's chief meteorologist and climate guru Paul Huttner. "We seem to be having what we call 'weather whiplash', where we swing from one extreme to the other. We could go from flood to drought in just a few weeks."

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