Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Twin Cities in a transit pickle

While my suburban and exurban counterparts may be unaware, the practicality of their habitation is highly threatened by the rising price of oil. Never in the history of the Twin Cities has this happened. In fact, our history is very short indeed. Minnesota is just 150 years old, and began very simply.

"Transit and the Twins" was published by the Twin City Rapid Transit Company in 1958. They went bankrupt, were bought out by the state, and are now known as MetroTransit. After reading, it becomes apparent that both Minneapolis and Saint Paul were developed using solely hydrocarbons. The primary energy source being coal. Transit using streetcars became the preferred method, and was a for-profit venture.

In the early 20th Century, oil was cheap and America was the world's biggest producer and refiner. Cars became sought after and roads were subsidized heavily to promote their usage. Transit companies paid the taxes to build the roads we now drive on, and were not subsidized until governments bought them out. Those that became public assets soonest, tended to benefit the most - as is the case in New York City.

But during the growth of both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, as soon as a streetcar line was built - so was nearby development. Both cities were beneficiaries of was is now known as transit-oriented development. Often the planners of streetcar lines would succumb to corruption by investing in the lands near where they were to be built.

But either way, we had a much more urban atmosphere concentrated in a clear manner. There were cities and there was the rural country. One could get to most places using transit, as jobs, home, and shopping were highly concentrated. Just looking at the 1950 census map, one can easily see where the true cities are compared to now.

The best analogy of what has happened is the Big Bang. As a city, we have spread out as energy was cheap and abundant. When oil surpasses $100 a barrel, the suburban inertia will persist. It will even as its inhabitants go through the economic turmoil once thought impossible.

But the collapse will be more painful to America and capitalism than that of Communism. A unipolar juggernaut will not exist. Resource wars may become commonplace and brutal.

Initially I do see large cities like Minneapolis reacting sooner to higher oil prices - with higher crime and violence. But this is a city much more capable of withstanding long-term changes than say Maple Grove. Cities are like animals. They need to evolve or face extinction. Any part of the Twin Cities surviving the Long Emergency, will be the most economically and therefore energy efficient.

I highly recommend one find and read this very informative book! At least it gives one interesting facts of the Twins creation. I had no idea that Saint Paul once had more millionaires per capita than any other city on Earth! ( this largely due to the plundering of rainforest lumber in what is now Washington state ) I also enjoyed the competitive history of Minneapolis vs. Saint Paul and the annexation of Saint Anthony. After all, I do benefit from all the amazing parks in both cities!

And a solution to our mess? Many and multiple. I believe in more transit options and renewable energy such as wind for starters. But with a sprawled population, we need all those who can to start taking the bus and trains to work, shopping, etc. You can't support solutions solely on paper ( or carbon offsets). You have to live them and find what best works.

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