By Hannah Gary
Car to Go. Hour Car. Uber. Lyft. Nice Ride. These and other “shared-use mobility” options are making their way into more cities across the country, including RCP’s partner community, Brooklyn Park. As the City prepares for the arrival of light-rail transit (LRT) service and evaluates options for improving mobility for residents without access to an automobile, it is considering whether—and how—to integrate such services into its transportation planning.
As a suburban community, Brooklyn Park is nowhere near as dense as Minneapolis or St. Paul. This has created challenges for the City in thinking about how to include services like Hour Car or Uber as solutions to current transportation needs. They may not seem like an obvious choice for a suburb, but through robust community engagement efforts, City staff learned that residents were interested in more shared-use mobility alternatives. The City is now considering such options as a larger, targeted investment in transportation.
“Transportation equity requires looking at where you can make those targeted investments that really broaden opportunity,” said Emily Carr, the Development Project Coordinator for the City of Brooklyn Park. “In Brooklyn Park, we are looking at where those last-mile connections could be made to the planned light rail, so that folks can connect to the regional transportation system.”
The planned Bottineau LRT line, or Blue Line Extension, is slated to travel through Brooklyn Park along West Broadway Avenue, providing more transit options heading north and south. However, traveling east and west across the city remains a challenge for many residents without regular access to an automobile, particularly elderly and low-income residents.
To address this situation, RCP helped connect Brooklyn Park with graduate students in a transportation planning class at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to assess the feasibility of shared-use mobility options in the city. The students worked in three teams to consider existing models for shared use mobility, analyze publicly available data to identify areas of greatest need and opportunity for introducing mobility options, and engage residents directly to learn more about their transportation and mobility needs and challenges.
Andrew Guthrie, the course instructor and a Ph.D. candidate at the Humphrey School, noted that the team structure encouraged specialization within each group, but also facilitated interaction among the teams. “One benefit of it is that it encourages the groups to pay attention to what each other is doing,” Guthrie explained. “Each of those groups is doing something that can inform interpretation for the other two.”
The group focusing on existing models researched how other cities around the country are integrating shared-use mobility into their transportation planning to provide Brooklyn Park with a variety of options for offering alternative services.
“We started out with understanding the mechanisms behind carsharing and ridesharing, and then finding ways that communities were already using these technologies in different ways and innovative ways to solve their own mobility problems,” explained first year Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) student Matt Goodwin.
Given Brooklyn Park’s predominately suburban land-use pattern, the team focused primarily on car-sharing and ride-sharing options, including an in-depth look at a model in Buffalo, New York, that included community outreach to inform the design and implementation of the program. Although the program was ultimately unsuccessful because of insurance and liability issues, the case study nonetheless provided valuable insights, best practices, and lessons learned for the City to consider.
Because community engagement is a priority for Brooklyn Park, another team of five students spent the semester engaging in outreach to local residents to find out how shared-use mobility can best work for them.
On an unseasonably warm October weekend, the student team visited a farmer’s market event at the Dragon Star Market, a large independently owned supermarket in Brooklyn Park. At the event, students talked with residents about how they got to the event, what route they took, what daily transportation barriers they experience in their community, and assets in the community.
The questions students asked of residents stemmed from design conversations around station-area plans for the new light rail line. “Community members want the areas around the stations to really feel like a place that reflects the community that is here,” noted Carr.
After conducting a second engagement activity at the Starlite Transit Center, several key themes emerged from the team’s conversations with Brooklyn Park residents.
Currently, residents have difficulty navigating the pedestrian infrastructure in the city. Adding an LRT line through the city would provide an opportunity to re-examine the existing pedestrian environment and make improvements.
Additionally, the team heard that weekend bus service is an issue for many people. Workers who rely on public transit to get to their jobs but who do not work traditional hours are challenged as well, by limited or non-existent bus service.
Through this project, first-year MURP student Kurt Howard gained a sense for how difficult community outreach can be. “It demonstrated that there is a lot of subtlety and finesse required to do community engagement well,” Howard commented.
Despite encountering some issues in accessing publicly available data and engaging with potential transit riders, the student teams in Guthrie’s class developed an innovative set of recommendations and next steps for the City to consider. As the scheduled 2021 opening of the Bottineau LRT line approaches, their work will enrich and inform the conversation in Brooklyn Park about transit access, and help the City navigate the many challenges to improving resident mobility in a suburban context.
“There is an inherent difficulty in doing something that is kind of cutting edge,” Guthrie noted. “The idea of a small municipal government trying to proactively coordinate shared-use mobility around a proposed transit improvement, I don’t know that that has specifically ever been done before. . . . So basically the students are out there breaking new ground.”
Hannah Gary is a dual-degree graduate student in the University of Minnesota's Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Master of Public Health program in the School of Public Health.