By Phil Brown
Last weekend, I had the chance to spend some time up north in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota. I was struck with the many similarities between the metro in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and our own Omaha-Council Bluffs urban area, and the telling differences between them as well.
Both metros are situated along and separated by major rivers, which was the key to both of their developments. For Minneapolis, the water brought power to mill the grain from Minnesotan farms and farms across the Great Plains. For Omaha, it turned the city into a packing and shipping center. But in both cases the city’s early history is defined by blue-collar workers. The “Midwest values” both areas espouse derive from this heritage.
Both areas house a similar modern economy. Transportation is a big industry in both metros. Omaha is home to five Fortune 500 companies, at least until ConAgra leaves, which is the same number held by the Twin Cities.
There are obviously some key differences between the two areas. The number of people that travel in and out of the Twin Cities is bigger than those in Omaha. The over-all metro area of Minneapolis-St. Paul, which includes 16 counties, is larger than the overall metro area of Omaha. But Omaha is larger in population than
Minneapolis, and larger in land size than Minneapolis and St. Paul combined.
This station makes the differences between the two areas in terms of transit so frustrating. The Twin Cities serve their combined 107 square miles with a fleet of 900 buses and 3 lines of light-rail trains. But Omahans are faced with figuring out how to get around in a 127-square-mile city with a paltry fleet of 135 buses. And Metro, the city’s transit authority, cut 5 entire routes recently.
To say nothing of light rail trains, which make traveling from Minneapolis to Saint Paul effortless on the Green Line, for example, one of three lines of the speedy, safe trains.
One of the interesting, and most relevant, similarities between the two areas is the presence of a major urban university. The University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) is one of the largest urban campuses in the nation.
Universities around the world look to University of Nebraska at Omaha for inspiration when it comes to such things as community engagement. Omaha hosted the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities in their 21st Annual Conference last week, bringing in representatives from metropolitan universities from around the nation, including those from Minnesota, to meet and dis-cuss ways to improve their bonds with their respective cities.
While UNO is still much smaller than the University of Minnesota, the school makes no bones about its ambition to become a world-class urban university. So with that in mind, there’s one area in particular that the University and city can look at for inspiration to Minnesota-Twin Cities-transit.
The most striking transit development at the University is a fairly recent one: the Green Line train that runs through campus on Washing-ton Avenue. Private automobiles have been removed from that section of campus, leaving a swath of space that’s only accessible by the light-rail train, city buses, and dedicated campus shuttles.
The result is something that would be a godsend to UNO students who labor every morning to find a parking spot near campus: easy, safe access by foot and bike to campus buildings. And the campus shuttles
run frequently, comprehensively, and feature a fleet of large, transit-style buses instead of the small fry used by UNO.
Of course there are challenges unique to UNO that would make implementing similar systems difficult, the most obvious would be terrain.
While the Minneapolis campus lies on a very flat stretch of land, UNO’s is spread over rolling hills that would make more comprehensive transit solutions difficult. But for inspiration, and a chal-lenge, the University should look to our northern neighbors