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Q+A: Shawn Combs Walding, MnDOT's Transit Advantages Coordinator

Shawn Combs Walding, photo by Brian Martucci

Walding at work

Walding on his beat, photo by Brian Martucci

Even if you’ve taken the bold step and are car-ownership free, you still interact with city-, county- and state-maintained roads on a daily basis. And even if you’re a die-hard driver, you have to share these spaces with buses, trains, bikes and pedestrians. So if you want to learn more about the practical decisions that affect your daily commute, and the priorities of those who make the decisions, why not go to the source?
We recently sat down with Shawn Combs Walding, MnDOT’s Transit Advantages Coordinator for the Twin Cities Metro District. Walding previously worked as a highway planner at MnDOT’s central office, where he participated in the development of the Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan (MNSHIP). The plan set transit priorities for the Twin Cities and outstate Minnesota over the next two decades, giving Walding a firsthand look at how transit fits in with MnDOT’s work. Transit has recently taken a larger role in the agency’s strategic vision, though it’s important to note that the overall safety of the system remains MnDOT’s top priority.
Our conversation with Walding touched on, among other things, the state of alternative transportation in the Twin Cities, what local entities can do to promote transit use, and how easy it really is to be car-free in Minneapolis-St. Paul. 
The Line: What’s your role at MnDOT?
Shawn Combs Walding: I’ve been in my current role since the beginning of the year. Basically, it’s my job to work with community members and organizations to improve transit options—alternatives to car commuting—on state-run highways throughout the seven-county metro area. That includes many roads that run through Minneapolis and St. Paul, like Snelling Avenue in St. Paul and Central Avenue in Minneapolis.
The Line: What are you working on right now?
Walding: One of my biggest roles at the moment is as project liaison for the A Line, Metro Transit’s new arterial bus rapid transit (BRT) line that will run along Snelling Avenue beginning next year. It’s an ideal project for us to be involved in because Snelling is a critical route for drivers as well as for car-free individuals. We’re doing practical things like establishing BRT station bumpouts, which allow buses to remain in mainline traffic while picking up riders; bumpouts also help eliminate merging delays.

To move the project along, we helped Metro Transit take advantage of about $6 million in Chapter 152 bonds, which were issued to MnDOT after the 35W bridge collapse and designated for transit improvements on state highways. And for the stakeholders and community members along the new BRT, we’ve provided a forum for conversation and feedback, especially with regard to pedestrian and bicyclist safety.
The Line: What is MnDOT’s relationship to the Green Line?
Walding: MnDOT isn’t directly involved in the daily operation of the Green Line, though we did acquire the initial right-of-way, and helped with the planning stages and performed construction oversight. For MnDOT, the top concerns are the safety of everyone who lives and works around the Green Line, whether or not they actually ride, and that the Green Line can be an integral part of people’s travel habits. If something can alleviate vehicle congestion, we’re in support of it.
The Line: Besides the Green and Blue light-rail lines, can you identify the Twin Cities’ strongest transit assets? What do we do better than other cities to make car-free living possible?
Walding: Our bikeability could be our biggest asset for those who choose to go car-free. We’re consistently ranked either first or second in the country on the bikeability measure. Bike lanes, bike boulevards and dedicated bikeways make it possible to safely commute by bike from many places in the core cities. Our transit system’s strong intermodal connections facilitate this too. New transit vehicles, especially on the LRT, make it easy to ride your bike to the stop or station, put it on the bus or train and continue your journey.

Separately, though it’s not as eye-catching as light rail or bikeways, our system of bus-only shoulders is the largest in the nation. It plays a huge role in insulating bus commuters from rush-hour traffic, especially on major highways. And it should be a great foundation for our emerging BRT system.
The Line: Where do we need to improve?
Walding: Even our strengths can be improved. It would be nice to see more enclosed bike lockers, which offer better protection than traditional hitching posts, at transit stations. And though we’re on our way to a robust rapid transit network, we don’t yet have an integrated network of transit options that could rival a place like Portland, for example.

Other needs are more obvious. Our dedicated transit tax is less than 25 percent that of many of our peer cities, such as Denver, Portland, Seattle and Boston. The discrepancy with Salt Lake City, a smaller city that nevertheless has a robust public transportation system, is similar.

Even Cleveland, not normally thought of as transit-friendly, has a higher transit tax. In a competitive economy, it’s important to know where we stand relative to these other cities. There has been a lot more talk recently about transportation funding, so the next legislative session will be interesting to watch.
The Line: Looking ahead, what are the Twin Cities’ most promising public transportation projects and trends?
Walding: Metro Transit has an ambitious vision for bus rapid transit, which has a cost per mile of about one-tenth that of LRT. With BRT, bus-like vehicles move on surface streets, but measures like pre-paid fares and timed traffic lights may increase their speed. BRT is adaptable to tight right-of-way lines—for instance, Snelling Avenue—that aren’t suitable for rail, and it’s a great example of doing what we can with what we have. We need to make these types of investments while we continue the conversation about more ambitious transit alternatives.
The Line: Compared to 10 years ago, is it easier to be car-free in Minneapolis-St. Paul?
Walding: Overall, yes, it’s easier to choose to reduce car use. The Blue Line was the first big step and other improvements have followed. But we’re not there yet. Economic competition with those peer cities I mentioned has made it clear that we need to make comparable transit investments. And we need a system that serves a rapidly changing population.

There are three growing cohorts of people choosing to live car-free: Older people who enjoy city life but don’t want to drive, newcomers who may not have the resources or need for a personal vehicle, and Millennials who want to live closer to where they work and play. All these people want to live in a place where it’s not as complicated to access the things they need and want. So we need to support vibrant downtowns and transit corridors throughout Minneapolis-St. Paul.

From my personal perspective, MnDOT’s commissioner [Charles A. Zelle] has been a vocal champion of an integrated transportation system that provides citizens—from those who drive every day to those who live car free—with many options. Though MnDOT hasn’t been opposed to these things in the past, it’s great to have that message coming from the highest levels of our organization. And as you can imagine, it makes my job a lot easier. In fact, the A Line is a great example of MnDOT’s direction: We’ve got a great partnership with Metro Transit, one that we hope continues on future projects.

Brian Martucci is The Line's Innovation and Jobs News Editor.

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