To handle the tens of thousands of new residents, as well as the potential increase to six to seven million visitors annually, DMC planners have laid out a vision to transition Rochester away from a single-person, car-oriented system toward one focused on mass transit and walkability.
Shift in transportation
When talking about how the DMC plan will affect transportation, two things should be noted. First, DMC is an overarching plan for the improvement of the downtown over two decades, so plans will not come to life overnight.
"Some of the more heavy infrastructure — whether it's a street car or light rail system — those do take a long time," said Patrick Seeb, DMC's director of economic development and placemaking, pointing out that those types of projects will take years of planning.
"We will do some prototyping [and] some testing of ideas in the meantime to get a feel for what a new version of transportation could look like."
The second thing to note is that there will be changes DMC just can't anticipate. Seeb gave the example of possible improvements in self-driving cars and changes in how the next generation will move from one place to another that are not absolutely written in stone, and will need to be adapted to.
Another example, according to Brian Law, the city's transit planner, is the possibility of a private developer building a high-speed rail from Rochester to the Twin Cities.
While the plan does not specifically mention the project, it could have a major effect on regional transportation. As a result, Law said, it would require community leaders to be flexible and adapt to the changes.
The DMC plan is broken up into five-year intervals, with the first phase focused on improving transportation, attracting biobusiness and creating more energy in the "Heart of the City."
In terms of transportation, the most immediate changes will likely be the implementation of a proposed bike share plan, a renewed focus on making the downtown a safer place for pedestrians, and easily implemented changes to the transit system and airport.
Walking and biking
Diversifying transportation options will not only encourage sustainability, but it could also ease traffic congestion. Still, local public health advocates told us there are significant barriers in the community for those who want to commute by bike.
"There is a kind of stigma against riding your bike into work," said Kelly Corbin, president of We Bike Rochester. "Bike share will help make biking more normal.”
The Twin Cities-based nonprofit Nice Ride Minnesota presented plans earlier this month to the Rochester Park Board to install bike rental stations at multiple locations in the downtown area. While details are still being finalized, officials from the city and DMC have expressed support for the initiative.
"Every city is dealing with the legacy systems they have in place ... the road infrastructure, the parking infrastructure.... really the automobile-oriented, single person per car kind of approach," said Seeb. "I think most people have come to recognize that won't work in Rochester if [the city] is to grow and succeed as it hopes to."
Making downtown more walkable is another top priority for DMC. Downtown visitors and workers can expect to see a number of improvements and changes to the streets and sidewalks over the lifespan of the initiative.
The development plan prescribes changes to many of the roads going through downtown — including Broadway Avenue, which is often criticized for operating more like a highway than a bustling urban street.
“When in doubt, make a spot that is safe for pedestrians," said city council member Nick Campion. "A delay in a car, while no one enjoys that, causes nobody injury.”
There have also been talks about how to connect the skyways, which also have separate planned improvements, to the pedestrian traffic. Seeb spoke of better integration of the skyway system with the street-level and subway systems.
In an interview earlier this year with the Med City Beat, DMC Master Planner Peter Cavaluzzi said, “the skyway and subway systems weren't really planned as much as they were about connecting one building to another.”
Parking is a bit of a sore point for many workers who have to commute into the downtown. In its current state, public transit does not necessarily make it a better option.
During a recent Rochester Public Transit open house, when asked how they felt about the city's bus service, members of the public repeatedly stated that the bus system was not meeting their needs, particularly in regards to when buses were running.
“If you put enough parking for all of the parking necessary for the current ratio of drivers, for the expected 35,000 new employees, the ramp would take up an entire city block and would be 20 stories tall," Law said.
This attitude is not just held by the RPT; representatives of the city council and the creators of the DMC plan feel the same way. They told us that continuing to add more parking ramps just isn't feasible due to the space and money required.
“Things like parking ramps are incredibly expensive, and when you sit down and build one, you are making tens of millions of dollars in investment," said Campion.
The concerns of commuters and visitors will be addressed by the DMC plan in different ways. Commuters' needs, for instance, will likely be met through improvements to the park and ride system, Law explained.
This would give the option for individuals coming into Rochester to park their cars in a suburban location and then take a bus to the city center.
Whereas the DMC plan is a comprehensive vision, the eventual RPT plan will implement specific strategies to improve public transit services. That plan will detail where and when new bus lines will be created, and where park and ride locations will be set up.
"Twenty-five to 50 percent of the population [is] employed downtown, and the public transit has to accommodate for that,” Law said.
One possible long-term project is the creation of a street car connection between Mayo Clinic's Saint Marys and downtown campuses.
"The research we did with the DMC suggested some type of mass transit be created between the two spaces, as well as development between the two spaces," said Jamie Rothe, Mayo Clinic's DMC manager.
What is definite is that there will be some improvements made to the shuttle network between the two campuses, but what the final form will be has yet to be decided. Proposed plans include a modern street car line, an enhanced bus that would be dedicated to that route, or an automated rapid transit system.
Peter Marohl is a student at the University of Minnesota Rochester. He wants to pursue a career in medical laboratory science.