The above image is an example of what we could still have today, and I was heartbroken to learn about what our country had lost in terms of public services in transportation. These days, it’s impossible to imagine a transit system like this but the truth is, America was once the world’s leader in urban rail line supply.
The present day map above does not include buses, but even if it did, it would be only marginally less pathetic. A two-dimensional map doesn’t reflect the complete reality of a system. Its geographical coverage is one thing, but an infrequent bus schedule with few stops that leaves riders with long wait times during frigid Minnesotan winters—that’s the reality of this deprioritized, decayed public transit system.
I couldn’t afford a car as a student and was forced to be a pedestrian and a bus rider. In general I didn’t mind, as I liked traveling light, by foot, bike, bus, and sometimes carpool. Without a car, I was free from being tied to a small room on wheels, from thinking about where I left it or if I’d left it unlocked, if someone had broken into it, if I had enough gas, or if I was going to get a parking ticket. Although not owning a car gave me some peace of mind, it was definitely more work to take Minneapolis’s public transit—more planning, coordinating, and walking—not exactly an easy way to get around. It wouldn’t have been as much of an issue if the city had just maintained its old, more efficient and more abundant, public transit system.
The last year of college is usually spent working on a final thesis project. Initially, I was thinking of doing a project comparing the transit system of Minneapolis 105 years ago to today. Since seeing the comparison of the two maps, I’ve been captivated by the story of the sabotage of America’s transit systems. I wanted to create something that could illustrate to Americans that we used to have an amazing transit system and we were not always dependent on the car, or even the bus, and that there used to be streetcars on most streets.
I thought about making an app to compare the two systems. I wanted to dig into the historical archives of my city to pull out the old system schedules, so I could build the schedule into an app that compares how much more efficient the old system would have been than our current one. As cool as I still think that would be, the more I thought about it, the more it felt in vain—like I was just romanticizing an old system I could never bring back. So, I refocused on something current that I see as an opportunity and that could possibly affect a living human’s experience of our built environment.
Wandering around the city, I began noticing how much parking lots were ruining my walking experience. They were massive black holes that sucked up potentially vibrant city space—just big, boring puddles of asphalt. Pedestrians are not considered at all in the design of parking lots; it’s all about the vehicle. Most of the time, there aren’t even paths for people to safely walk on in parking lots.
Beyond the human experience of a parking lot, having so much asphalt around impacts the environment in a number of ways: it absorbs heat from the sun, meaning parking lots warm cities up simply by existing. Asphalt is also derived from petroleum, which seeps into the soil below—along with any tire residue, oil, and gas sitting on top of the lot—especially after rainfall. Moreover, instead of being active locations where people want to go and that could generate better tax revenue, we just have these passive, paved voids for leaving empty cars in, that are unused for at least 10 hours every night.