The Star Tribune’s 2023 Minneapolis City Council candidate questionnaire asks a question that divides our city and inflames the culture war: “If you’re faced with the choice of spending $1 on a road for vehicles or $1 for a bike lane, which do you choose and why?” The existence of this question gives you hope that maybe crime resentment is dead and good old-fashioned, “Nazi lane” style bike hate might return (the photo above is from the 2017 election).
The first obvious problem with the question: why can’t this $1 be broken up into nickels, dimes, and quarters? Council President Andrea Jenkins called it a “false binary.” Her challenger for the Ward 8 seat, Soren Stevenson, said it was an unhelpful oversimplification that frames transportation as “zero sum.” As terrible as this question is, it drew out some revealing answers, both good and bad. So maybe it’s secretly a great question? (I can never prompt candidates to spit out more than a string of platitudes, so perhaps I should ask more dumb questions.)
But the bigger problem with the framing is that it reinforces a misconception. It’s a view of the world that makes sense on the surface because so much of politics is about budget priorities — “spend money on this, not that.” The best recent example of a candidate buying into the “bike lanes=pot of gold” worldview is Luther Ranheim in Ward 12, who told a private audience he was going to fund his priorities by defunding the city’s bike infrastructure (after telling me in a podcast episode he thought we needed to do more for bike infrastructure!). It’s a way of thinking that might feel right, but is completely wrong.
People say this is a one party town, but there's actually two ideologies in Minneapolis:— Wedge LIVE!™ (@WedgeLIVE) September 21, 2023
➡️people who believe potholes are caused by an extreme freeze thaw cycle worsened by climate change
➡️people who believe potholes are caused by spending too much on white paint for bike lanes
When you think back to heated local debates about streets (like Hennepin and Bryant Avenues), the competition has been for space, not dollars. It’s the opportunity cost. We argue about street improvements as they relate to losing parking or a lane of car traffic. Nobody says, “we could have afforded more parking if we hadn’t spent so much money on white paint and plastic bollards!” We understand intuitively that the trade-off, the thing at stake, isn’t in the budget — it’s in how we allocate limited public space.
Our big municipal street fights are the rare issue where money is not the limiting factor. They’re about what we choose for the physical layout of our neighborhoods. When a reconstruction is due on a 50-year-old broken down street, the cost for that project is a given. We’re paying the same bill no matter the eventual layout of the street. Including space for bikes, or buses, or green space, or a pedestrian bump out, doesn’t make the street more expensive (in the long run, car infrastructure is actually the most expensive to maintain). With these big street projects, the city is essentially saying, “while we’re in here spending all this money, digging up the street, replacing old pipes, putting down new asphalt and curbs — we might as well put the place back together with a layout that suits the needs of 2023 rather than 1973.”
This is about whether cars continue to get the overwhelming majority of public right of way or if our neighborhoods will also have space for people traveling by other modes. In Minneapolis, we have largely answered this question. There’s a pretty ambitious policy, adopted by the City Council and signed by Mayor Frey, that says we’re going to make it safer and more convenient to get around the city without a car.
So a better, more reality-affirming question for this year’s candidates might be something like:
“Do you agree or disagree with the city’s Transportation Action Plan? If you’d make changes to the plan, how would those changes help further the city’s climate goals and ensure safe, affordable transportation for everyone?”
Or if you prefer something inflammatory:
“Let’s say you have a 60-80 foot wide street that’s due to be reconstructed. Tell me how it’s a crime against humanity if we don’t rebuild the same 100%-for-cars-and-parking street that was already there, built back in 1973.”
None of this is to say that the design of our streets is never about budget priorities. Ward 10 Council Member Aisha Chughtai answered the Star Tribune’s question by pointing out the 112 miles of Minneapolis streets designated as “High Injury.” She noted that the city received 700 (actually 774) resident requests for traffic calming projects. Only 16 were selected for funding. Many of the rejected requests scored highly, but won’t get a fix due to limited funding (a total of $150,000 for 2023). These aren’t the issues that become headline campaign fodder, but they have a large impact on quality of life for people who live on and travel these streets.
So please, everyone, keep asking this year’s candidates about their transportation priorities. Streets are public space. How they’re designed goes a long way towards determining whether Minneapolis is an affordable, sustainable place to live. It affects the health and happiness of everyone who lives here. Streets are a big part of what the city does and often a significant point of contrast between the candidates.