The Past, Present and Future of Transit

How is transit evolving? What does great transit look like? Is transit too optimistic?

In this roundtable discussion, a multidisciplined group of transit specialists came together to talk about the changing transit landscape — how far we’ve come, where we are and where we’re going.

The Participants

Greg Finsted photo


Senior Transit Specialist

Chris Hiniker photo


Senior Transportation Planner

Bob Kost photo


Senior Landscape Architect/Urban Designer

Christine Carlson photo


Senior Environmental Geologist

Parick Bougie photo


Senior Transit Architect


A record 10.8 billion passenger trips were taken via public transportation in 2014, the highest number since 1956 when President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, according to a report from the American Public Transportation Association1. This marks the ninth consecutive year public transport trips topped the 10 billion mark. What's happening today that wasn't ten years ago? Twenty years ago?


Certainly energy prices have gone up and I think people are looking toward transit for that reason. But there’s a bigger issue. People want options. And transit gives them that option. Twenty or thirty years ago it was felt by some that transit was for people who couldn’t afford a car.

I see that mindset changing. Just look at design of many new transit facilities. It’s not even about transit. It’s about biking, it’s about walking, it’s about accessibility. Millennials especially are looking for alternatives. It‘s a combination of issues.


Adding to Greg’s comment on millennials. With two kids in that generation, I see first-hand their greater interest in alternatives to automobiles. They don’t want to rely on a car to get around. We have a generation who prefers living in more urbanized settings.  Access to light rail and other transit options is huge for college-aged students, and that carries forward as they get into their working ages.


People are saying, “I want to take transit. It’s better for the planet and it saves me money.” It’s an evolution. And it’s exciting. We have so many tools available to solve our transportation issues.
- Greg Finstad


Transit’s rising popularity absolutely runs parallel to societal issues and trends. There is more environmental awareness and a strong desire for things to be greener, friendlier, smaller.


There’s also this realization that you can’t always build more freeways, highways and roads.


Yes, the reality is there has to be more of a balance among transportation alternatives. As planners we see how since the 1950’s our nation has developed around highways and we realize it’s not going to be an overnight transition.

Target Field Station photo
Target Field Station | Minneapolis, Minnesota

How are transit projects different? What are some challenges that are specific to transit?


For one, the majority of transit projects are retrofits. We’re not building new rail lines out in the farm fields, we’re building them in towns and cities that already have private land ownership. You’re retrofitting new infrastructure into an already built environment. And that requires a lot of people and stakeholders working together, which involves complex negotiation.


This also adds complexity in projects from an environmental, contaminated materials, standpoint. In many cases, we’re looking at putting transit on an existing rail line corridor which historically has a higher density of former industrial use.

The light rail transit corridors are beginning in downtown areas and moving through areas of a city that were previously outer-ring industrial areas. The historic and current land use of these areas puts the project at higher risk of encountering contaminated soil and groundwater.

These issues need to be handled properly during the planning and construction of the project. The fact that there is more private land ownership associated with these projects raises the level of investigation required for property acquisition.


You see a major corporation opening their doors to something like this and advocating for improved transit and it’s really a signifier of a big shift in how we look at transit.
- Chris Hiniker

Depot Square Rendering
Depot Square at Boulder Junction (Transit-Oriented Development) | Boulder, Colorado


Also, transit is new to many people, so many people don’t know what BRT [bus rapid transit] is, they don’t know about LRT [light rail transit], there are many people in metropolitan areas that have never ridden a local bus. So again it’s answering the question: “What is transit?” There’s an educational opportunity to talk about the value of transportation alternatives.

Investment in transit is often tied to economic development benefits. Is this true? Or is transit too optimistic?


I don’t think so. Look at the data. Through the economic downturn of 2007 through 2012, studies from the Urban Land Institute, Brookings Institution and others show that walkable urban places, neighborhoods served by rapid transit, significantly outperformed their suburban, car-oriented counterparts. Their property values did not diminish, in fact in many cases they went up.

After seeing the positive economic results, why wouldn’t you want high quality transit service in your community?

It has now become a real driver for economic development. In the past few years, the rating criteria for scoring federal applications for transit has shifted from being more about cost to more about economic development opportunities. People have seen the economic benefits to a region when dollars were spent on fixed guideway transit, primarily light rail, but also on streetcars and other transit alternatives. Success breeds success.


Transit has become a market reality. SEH was involved in the alternatives analysis phase for the Gateway Corridor, a BRT line that would extend from the urban core of St. Paul, Minnesota, going out to the eastern suburbs. We were part of the team that initiated meetings with 3M, as their corporate headquarters is on the proposed BRT line.

Going in, we thought there might be hesitation from 3M because the proposed line is on their property. But that wasn’t the case at all. They see the transportation trends of the millennial generation. With a connection to a transit line at their front door, future 3M employees who don’t want to drive a car can ride the BRT from home to work.

You see a major corporation opening their doors to something like this and advocating for improved transit and it’s really a signifier of a big shift in how we look at transit.


So transit follows this, “If you build it, they will come” idea.

46th Street Station photo
46th Street/I-35 BRT Station | Minneapolis, Minnesota

Let’s talk about “building it.” Imagine two transit stations. The one on your left is well-designed. The one on your right is not. What do they look like? How are they different?


Design-wise, a great transit station looks like it belongs. It fits in its surroundings and is evocative of the neighborhood and its environment. It’s inviting. It looks clean and well lit. You want to walk into it and find out where to go. It has good orientation and great wayfinding.

Certain structures are easily identifiable, their form indicates their function. A great transit station is the same. You see it unmistakably. When you walk in you can easily find your way through and intuitively know where to go. In fact, you should be able to get where you’re going with minimal signage.

A bad transit station is confusing, dilapidated, it’s pointed in the wrong direction. It’s unrecognizable as transit.


Environmental issues need to be handled properly during the planning and construction of the project.
- Christine Carlson


Yes, a transit station has to look good; you have to understand it’s a transit station. But you also have to drill down and you have to make sure that all the features in the facility meet the needs of operators and the people who are using it. One size does not fit all.

A well-engineered transit station functions well. It meets the needs of the vehicles that are entering and leaving the station. Then of course you have the aspect of how the passengers get in and out of the facility. Of course, there is safety and security. You have to build security features into the design, visibility and high light levels to give people at the station the sense that the space is safe and secure. Then make sure it truly is safe.


It’s all details. It seems straightforward. But these stations are all about details. And figuring out how to make all the pieces work.
- Greg Finstad

We’ve just gone through this with a couple of BRT stations, particularly the design of the Lake Street Station and the 46th Street Station in Minneapolis. How the buses pull in and pull out of these stations, which are located on a major interstate, is completely different. Lake Street will be a side platform station. Why? Because there’s going to be over 120 buses going through there and you couldn’t make a smaller 46th-Street-style station work there.

It’s all details. It seems straightforward. But these stations are all about details. And figuring out how to make all the pieces work. How you treat the passengers and how the buses operate. And then, as we experienced at 46th Street, it’s about do you heat it, cool it, how much, how little? Is geothermal an option? Then you get into the durability. Because let’s face it, maintaining these facilities in the harsh northern climate we have is very important. So again, details.

MARQ2 Transitway and Streetscape | Minneapolis, Minnesota


At some level, any building is a machine that incorporates the functions which occur within it. With transit buildings, you’re accommodating an overlay of complex dynamic and static functions. You’re considering and planning for buses, trains and cars movements, wayfinding and pedestrians. All of these dynamics converge and need to move smoothly and concurrently, to and through the station.

Good transit projects take all these functions and integrate them into this machine. That’s the difference between a transit facility and an average building. It’s that variety of functions and moving parts, and they all have to be synchronized and organized in a way that makes sense and doesn’t create conflicts. This allows all the different functions to work together.


Certain structures are easily identifiable, their form indicates their function. A great transit station is the same. You see it unmistakably.
- Patrick Bougie


To build on Patrick’s point about transit stations being evocative of a neighborhood, I’d add that a great station can be an actor in the urban landscape, ultimately transform the look and feel of an entire area. One of the many pluses with great transit planning and design is we can leverage the investment in transit towards creating great places, what’s called "place making."

An example is Target Field Station’s influence on the continued redevelopment of the North Loop neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis, where we used an inside-out approach to creating a grand central station. The result is a multi-functional outdoor public space that helped spur construction of several hundred new mid-rise apartment units, a coffee shop and 1,000's of square feet of new office space. And it’s happened fast, all within a year of the station's completion.

BRT photo
Lake Street and I-35 BRT Transit Access | Minneapolis, Minnesota

What does transit look down the road? Five, ten, fifteen years from now?


The reality is we can’t build light rail corridors everywhere. So in the Twin Cities region we’re seeing a transition, or evolution, toward BRT. With exclusive guideway BRT, rather than vehicles on rail, you have buses on their own exclusive roadway, with stations that mirror LRT stations. It behaves like light rail, but the reality is that it’s approximately 50% of the price.


I think you’re right, Chris. BRT may be the rapid transit of the future because of the economics.

The issue with BRT is we don’t have very many good examples to emulate here in the States. We have a good one in Cleveland with the Euclid Corridor, now called the Health Line, and there’s lots of good economic data coming in from that.

So if we get a couple of solid BRT lines and they’re successful, and they look and smell and feel like a train system that’s on rubber tires like down in Bogotá, Columbia, which was sort of the grandfather of all these systems, then we’ll be onto something.


Branding will be important, having BRT buses look more like an LRT vehicle will help.

Parking Ramps photo
28th Avenue LRT Station Park & Ride | Bloomington, Minnesota


Yes, successful BRT needs a marketing advantage, or even a level playing field, over other types of rapid transit. You need a low platform vehicle, something that feels and looks more like a train. It’s branded. It’s painted. You need stations that have stops where you pay fare before you get on. You need all the accoutrements that you would have with a rail system.



A great transit station can be an actor in the urban landscape, ultimately transform the look and feel of an entire area.
- Bob Kost


Another alternative is streetcars. The reason why a lot of urban planners and urban designers like the streetcar is because it functions within the traffic. It’s not a dedicated guideway, like LRT or BRT, so it tends to operate more cohesively, more seamlessly albeit it does have an effect on parking on bicycles and on traffic. But again you’re not putting it on every street, only a couple of routes. So those concerns can be mitigated.


Sometimes it will look like yesterday — with trolleys and buses. Sometimes it will look like tomorrow — with sleek monorails. It will be shaped by technology yet unknown, but it will be there, a vital component to a world where ease and economy of movement will be more important than ever.

Any final words?


Transit projects are incredibly rewarding. What I find so exciting about transit is that it touches every discipline that a firm like SEH does. It’s really exciting and meaningful work whether you’re writing an Environmental Impact Statement or looking at old barrels in the ground or traffic signals or public meetings. It’s just a very rich environment to do planning and design work.


Transit is the sinew that ties together the places we live and work. It facilitates our ability to make connections, hold jobs, socialize, work and be part of a greater whole. Working on transit projects allows us to make daily life function feel and look a little better.


It’s easy to build roads. It’s more difficult to build transit facilities and educate people on the many benefits of transit. But transit is evolving. We’re seeing a generational demand for transit. It solves a mobility issue for younger and older generations. And you see working people saying, “I want to take transit. It’s better for the planet and it saves me money.” It’s an evolution. And it’s exciting. We have so many tools to solve our transportation issues.


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