Recent State Livability Initiatives in Minnesota: An Analysis


Photo courtesy of Sandtliv•abil•i•ty \li-və-bi-lə-tē\ noun 1. suitability for human living.

In the past few years, the term “livability” and its meaning have been debated and discussed in policymaking circles. The U.S. Department of Transportation describes livability as: “Tying the quality and location of transportation facilities to broader opportunities such as access to good jobs, affordable housing, quality schools, and safe streets.” State legislatures have passed numerous policies that touch on some of the core principles of livability, such as providing affordable housing and transportation options and promoting opportunities for economic development. The purpose of this brief is to analyze Minnesota’s legislative and agency livability initiatives, and to place them within the context of other states’ livability activities.

In 2009, the federal Interagency Partnership on Sustainable Communities was created to “help improve access to affordable housing, more transportation options and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide."1 The partnership consists of the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Transportation (DOT), as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and is intended to improve collaboration among these agencies on livability issues.

The partnership is guided by six principles:

  • Provide more transportation choices;
  • Promote equitable, affordable housing;
  • Enhance economic competiveness;
  • Support existing communities;
  • Coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment; and
  • Value communities and neighborhoods.

One of the most notable results of the federal livability initiative has been the reorientation of U.S. DOT’s core transit grant programs to a broader set of policy goals. Because of the initiative, DOT now weighs environmental and economic benefits and transit-supportive land use as heavily as the more traditional criteria of cost-effectiveness and congestion mitigation. This has particularly been the case with the “New Starts” program, which allocated $6.6 billion from 2006 to 2009 for mass transit projects such as light rail, rapid rail, bus rapid transit, and other projects to build exclusive rights-of-way for transit.

State lawmakers had been incorporating environmental, economic and land-use factors into transportation planning to varying degrees over the past few decades. Such a pronounced directive, however, from a considerable source of federal funding along with the interagency partnership’s other efforts, has served to further influence state legislative actions.

Possible Benefits of Livability

Recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that about 57 percent of adults believe amenities associated with livability—such as walkable streets—are very important in determining the amount of physical activity they obtain.2 Numerous studies have indicated that more pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhoods can lead to increased physical activity.3

Neighborhoods with livability components may also reduce household expenses, especially for transportation. If homes are located near jobs and services, allowing residents to easily walk or take transit to a job or store, their transportation costs can be reduced significantly. Research done in Minneapolis-St. Paul concluded that a move from a neighborhood with little transit to one with more options could save a household $5,940 in transportation costs a year.4 The Center for Neighborhood Technology has developed a Housing + Transportation Affordability Index that calculates the combined costs of housing and transportation, based on considerable research. Often, living further from employment centers and services is more expensive when added driving is accounted for.

Opposition and Concern Regarding Livability

Livability has skeptics that doubt its usefulness and applicability. U.S. Senator Kit Bond from Missouri has expressed concern about “federal decision makers in Washington [telling] communities how they should grow.” Common criticisms focus on the fact that an overwhelming number of Americans commute driving alone in their cars. The American Highway Users Association—a conglomeration of motoring interests such as car owners, truckers, RV users, etc.—blasted the use of the federal Highway Trust Fund for livability projects such as bicycle trails when the needs of freight traffic were, in its opinion, much more pressing.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute and other organizations have criticized the Obama administration’s livability efforts as policies that would only increase congestion and, provide realistic transportation choices to only a few urban areas because they unfairly favor metro transit projects over building or repairing roads. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has been cautiously supportive of livability, but has noted that more attention needs to be paid to vehicular traffic.

Public Support for Livable Communities

Recent surveys seem to indicate that many principles and features of livability are popular among the general public, and that demand for livable communities is growing. In a poll by the National Association of Realtors, 59 percent of Americans would move to a smaller home if that would lower their commute to less than 20 minutes. Also, 77 percent preferred a neighborhood that was pedestrian-friendly and 50 percent preferred transit improvements over new roads.5

In a poll commissioned by Transportation for America, 58 percent of respondents supported increasing funding for alternative transportation choices. Tellingly, 73 percent also stated that they had no choice but to drive most of the time.6

Maintaining their reputation as the laboratories of democracy, state legislatures across the nation over the past few decades have adopted a number of measures that contain livability principles.

Minnesota State Livability Efforts

Minnesota’s Legislature and executive branch agencies have undertaken several policy initiatives that relate to livability, including complete streets, pedestrian and bicycle safety, dedicated transit funding, location efficiency and affordable housing, and safe routes to school.

Complete Streets

“Complete Streets” are planned, designed, built, operated and maintained to accommodate the safety and convenience of all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists, regardless of age or mobility. The complete streets concept helps ensure that walking, bicycling and taking public transit are legitimate and safe choices, fulfilling one of the main tenets of livability. Twenty-five states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have some type of complete streets policy.Photo courtesy of Bikes Belong.

State complete streets policies vary widely in applicability, coverage and strength. Oregon has had a policy since 1971 that applies only to bicyclists and pedestrians; however, it does apply to all roads in the state—state and local—in contrast with many state policies that address only state-managed roads.

Minnesota has been moving toward a statewide complete streets law for a few years. In 2008, House File 3800 directed the commissioner of transportation to study the benefits, feasibility and cost of adopting a complete streets policy. The final report to the Legislature in 2009 recommended the creation of a Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) complete streets policy.

In 2010, Senate File 2540 was enacted, which directed the commissioner of transportation to “implement a complete streets policy after consultation with stakeholders, state and regional agencies, local governments, and road authorities.” Senate File 2540 defined complete streets as the “Planning, scoping, design, implementation, operation, and maintenance of roads in order to reasonably address the safety and accessibility needs of users of all ages and abilities. Complete streets considers the needs of motorists, pedestrians, transit users and vehicles, bicyclists, and commercial and emergency vehicles moving along and across roads, intersections, and crossings in a manner that is sensitive to the local context and recognizes that the needs vary in urban, suburban, and rural settings.”

Minnesota’s consultation process to develop its complete streets policy with the involvement of numerous stakeholders is similar to collaborative approaches taken by other states in recent years. For example, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the Minnesota Department of Health were active in bringing a strong health perspective to the process. In other states, such as Hawaii and Vermont, input has been sought from a variety of perspectives, such as senior organizations, health groups, bicyclists, transit advocacy groups, and other interested parties.

Minnesota’s relatively new complete streets policy is still being developed. The statute provides wide applicability and coverage and encourages, but does not require, local authorities to create and adopt complete streets policies for their roads. Local road authorities may adopt policies that exceed state requirements.

Senate File 2540 also requires a yearly report from the DOT on its progress in applying the complete streets policy to specific projects. Julie Skallman with MnDOT, noted that this report ensures that Minnesota continues its progress on complete streets.7 The report is shaped and reviewed by an external advisory board, made up of state agencies, local governments, bicycling and walking advocates, economic interests and others. Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the Minnesota Department of Health have been active board members and have brought a strong health perspective to the process. Representative Bernie Lieder, who was the House Transportation chairman when the policy was enacted, also has been an active member.

Skallman noted that past efforts to design and comply with ADA standards laid a solid base for the state’s DOT work on complete streets. In a comprehensive ranking conducted by the National Complete Streets Coalition, Minnesota’s law, as written, was ranked the strongest in the nation.8

Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety and Travel

Minnesota has also taken other steps to create a safe environment for walking and bicycling. According to recent data from the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metropolitan area ranked the safest large metro area for pedestrians in the nation. The Twin Cities metro area combines a high percentage of people who walk to work with a comparatively low number of pedestrian deaths. Southern metro areas, especially in Florida, suffer by comparison.9 The Twin Cities is also one of four regions to receive $25 million for the federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program intended to increase bicycle and pedestrian mobility and safety. The most recent data from this pilot project show bicycling and walking in the Twin Cities is up a combined 30 percent since 2007.10

Minnesota is also notable in that the Legislature appropriates funding for numerous trail projects, through various bonds and funds. For example, House File 2700 in 2010 provided more than $25 million for state trail acquisition and development, as well as connections between trails. Most state legislatures do not fund trail development and other assets for pedestrians and bicyclists so explicitly.

Transit Funding

Capital for transit funding is primarily a role of the federal government; however, some states invest heavily in transit. Research indicates that transit construction and build-out creates more employment than other types of transportation spending, and that more higher-paying jobs go to workers without a college degree.11 From 2007 to 2008, Minnesota increased its transit funding by $102 million, 43 percent over previous levels. Nationally, this was the second highest percentage increase and third highest in terms of actual dollars.12 This is due to a measure referred to the voters by the Legislature in 2006 that amended the state constitution to dedicate 100 percent of the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation. “Not less than 40 percent” of this revenue must be allocated for transit, and “no more than 60 percent” for highway funding, with a phase-in that will be complete in 2012.

Minnesota has two main transit agencies that are funded by this sales tax revenue along with legislative appropriations: Metro Transit, which serves the greater Twin Cities area; and Greater Minnesota Transit, which serves the rest of the state. Metro Transit, for example, received 52 percent of its funding from the motor vehicle sales tax in the latest fiscal year. Both transit agencies are still quite reliant on legislative appropriations, but the sales tax on motor vehicles provides more certainty than in most other states.

Car sales generated $160 million in taxes in 2007, but have been falling from a peak of $184 million in 2002.13 Legislators have raised concerns that this tax revenue has not been forecasted accurately, and is causing difficulties for transit agencies trying to set their budgets. Nevertheless, this guaranteed, but fluctuating, funding stream is one of the strongest state mechanisms to fund transit projects in the country.

For FY 2008, Minnesota spent almost $340 million on transit, with about 38 percent from dedicated funds such as the vehicle sales tax. This is $64.99 per capita, the 10th highest amount of transit funding in the nation. Only California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania spent more; all have much larger populations and more established transit systems. Minnesota relies on and spends the most money from motor vehicle sales taxes of any state, although Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and Wisconsin also use a substantial amount from that source.14

Of the $340 million Minnesota spent on transit in 2008, 73 percent went to operating expenditures, and 27 percent went to capital expenses. The state is in the middle as far as its allocation split between operations and capital expenses. That same year, Colorado and Missouri provided no funds for operations, while in Wisconsin all but $900,000 of $125 million in transit funding went for operating costs.15

The Legislature plays a larger role in transit funding in Minnesota than in most states; 100 percent comes from the Legislature, as compared with many states where the DOT acts as a pass-through for federal funds or set formulas. Transit funding in a few other states also comes entirely from the legislature, but no other state has as large an amount as Minnesota.

Transit in Minnesota has not, however, been immune to state budget cuts and funding rescissions. The much-contested 2011 state budget reduced general fund dollars for transit by about $54.4 million for the 2014-15 biennium compared with 2012-13 base appropriations.16 At one point, transit cuts of more than $100 million were proposed.17 Another 2011 measure increased transit investment by requiring suburban areas and municipalities to spend or return some of the substantial state transit funds that they had previously been allowed to hold in reserve. The Legislature also granted authority to the Met Council to issue $35 million in transit capital bonds to buy buses and make other capital improvements related to transit services.

Location Efficiency and Affordable Housing

Linking transportation and housing costs is a big part of livability principles. Explicitly identifying this relationship helps create the market and government mechanisms to support denser growth in communities with various transportation options, services and workplaces close by, reducing the need to drive. As the Center for Neighborhood Technology notes, “Compact neighborhoods with walkable streets, access to transit, and a wide variety of stores and services have high location efficiency. They require less time, money, and greenhouse gas emissions for residents to meet their everyday travel requirements.”

Minnesota has a few initiatives that mirror some of these principles. The state recently established a revolving loan fund called the Land Acquisition for Affordable New Development initiative to support the acquisition of land for affordable housing. Sites accorded priority include those located within half a mile of a transit-route included in the region’s planned 2030 transit system or within half a mile of a local bus route. The program is funded by Minnesota Housing, the Metropolitan Council and the Family Housing Fund.18

Federal low-income housing tax credits can also be used to encourage location efficiency. The program requires each state to develop a “qualified allocation plan to distribute the credits. Minnesota chose to award points to projects that are within walking distance of public transit. This is fairly common nationwide, with 31 other states offering similar incentives within their plans.19

Illinois also has supported location-efficient principles. Lawmakers have passed three laws that incorporate these principles, based on research from the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology. One law requires an existing task force to define “affordability” and develop policy that incorporates housing and transportation costs when screening and prioritizing investments for public transportation, housing and economic development projects in Metropolitan Planning Organization areas. Another law requires the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to ensure an area meets location-efficiency standards when it awards economic development grants. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has indicated it will apply location-efficiency principles when scoring grant proposals.

School Siting and Safe Routes to School

How students get to school has changed dramatically in the last four decades. In the late 1960s, about 50 percent of students walked or bicycled to school; only 15 percent did in the 2000s.20 Children encounter a number of obstacles to walking or riding to school, including unsafe crossings and intersections at busy streets; parental concerns about crime; and bad weather.

Research by the EPA indicates that the largest obstacle to students walking or bicycling is the distance from home to school.21 In 1969, 66.1 percent of children lived less than a mile from school, compared with 49.5 percent in 2001.

Building development patterns and the siting of larger schools outside of residential neighborhoods are further accelerating this trend. Despite increasing school populations in most states, the number of schools has declined almost 70 percent as schools are consolidated.22 In the 1950s, despite a lack of data supporting its value, most states adopted a minimum acreage size for schools, which has led to the building of schools farther away from city centers. Minnesota’s school siting guidelines, for example, suggest at least 10 to 15 acres for an elementary school and 60-plus acres for a high school with more than 2,000 students. The guidelines did make allowances for urban settings, but schools typically tried to meet the acreage requirements.23

Minnesota lawmakers enacted House File 2 in 2009 that seeks to addresses a few of the dynamics that may affect the siting of schools. Among its major provisions, the commissioner of education is prohibited from issuing a negative review and comment for a new school facility based solely on the acreage of the proposed school site.24 The key provisions in House File 2 require a school board to do the following when submitting a proposal for a school facility:

  • Include a description of the pedestrian, bicycle and transit connections between the school and nearby residential areas that make it easier for children, teachers and parents to get to the school by walking, bicycling and taking transit.
  • Submit specific information on how the project maximizes the opportunity for cooperative use of existing park, recreation and other public facilities.
  • Submit “any existing information from the relevant local unit of government about the cumulative costs to provide infrastructure to serve the school, such as utilities, sewer, roads and sidewalks.” 25

States have also based their decisions between renovation and new construction on the relative costs of the two options. Minnesota’s guidelines, for example, also encouraged the building of a new facility over renovation of an existing school; the guidelines state that “when the estimated costs of renovating/improving a school facility approach 60 percent of the cost of replacing the facility, a school district needs to replace the facility…”26

House File 2, however, gives local school boards the authority to determine whether to renovate an existing school or to build a new one, regardless not only of the acreage of the current school site, but also of the cost of the renovation relative to the cost of building a new school. Furthermore, the commissioner cannot base the decision solely on the ratio of renovation costs to replacement costs.27 This lessens reliance on the guidelines’ 60 percent threshold. Only a few other states—Hawaii and Washington—have consciously linked the issue of school siting and student transportation. Hawaii, Massachusetts, Utah and Washington also explicitly ask for pupil transportation routes and plans to be created for each school.


Minnesota has a wide array of legislation and programs that incorporate livability principles such as transportation choices, affordable housing and location efficiency. As the situation in Congress continues to look bleak for any further large federal transportation investments, state legislators will have to determine whether to invest in livability activities to address transportation, housing, health and environmental concerns in their states.


1. HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities website:

2.  Susan A. Carlson et al., Public Support for Street-Scale Urban Design Practices and Policies to Increase Physical Activity (Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 2011) 

3.   J. MacDonald, R. Stokes, D. Cohen, A. Kofner, and G. Ridgeway, The Effect of Light Rail Transit on Body Mass Index and Physical Activity (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 39, no. 2, August 2010).
19. L. Besser and A. Dannenberg, “Walking to public transit: steps to help meet physical activity recommendations,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 29 (2005): 273-280; U. Lachapelle and L. Frank, “Transit and Health: Mode of Transport, Employer-Sponsored Public Transit Pass Programs, and Physical Activity,” Journal of Public Health Policy 30 (2009). 

4.  Center for Transit-Oriented Development and Center for Neighborhood Technology, The Affordability Index: A New Tool for Measuring the True Affordability of Housing Choice (Brookings Institution Urban Markets Initiative, Innovation Brief, January 2006), p. 10.

5.  National Association of Realtors, 2011 Community Preference Survey (Washington D.C.: 2011),

6.   Transportation for America, Future of Transportation National Survey (Washington D.C.; 2010),

7.  Ibid.

8.  Stefanie Seskin and Barbara McCann, Complete Streets Policy Analysis, 2010, A Story of Growing Strength (Washington D.C.: National Complete Streets Coalition, 2010), 30.

9.  Transportation for America, Dangerous by Design (Washington D.C.; 2010)

10.  Bike Walk Twin Cities, Bicycling and Walking Counts (St. Paul, 2010)

11.  Todd Swanstrom, Will Winter, and Laura Wiedlocher, The Job Impact of Transportation Reauthorization (St. Louis: Public Policy Research Center, University of Missouri – St. Louis)

12.  American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Survey of State Funding for Public Transportation(Washington D.C.: AASHTO, 2010)

13.  Ibid .

14.  Ibid.

15.  Ibid.

16. Minnesota House File 2, 2011

17.  Conversation with Michael Schmagin, Senate staffer, July 25, 2011.

18.  National Housing Trust, State and Local Preservation Resources (Washington D.C.: 2011),

19.  Ibid.

20.  Federal Highway Administration, Transportation Characteristics of School Children, Report No.4, Nationwide Personal Transportation Study (Washington, D.C.: FHWA, July 1972); derived from Table 1. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, National Household Travel Survey (NHTS Version 1.0 CD, Preliminary Release) (Washington D.C.: BTS, January 2003).

21.  Lawrence Frank and Company, Inc., Youth Travel to School: Community Design Relationships with Mode Choice, Vehicle Emissions, and Healthy Body Weight (Washington D.C.: 2008)

22.  Herbert Walberg, On Local Control: Is Bigger Better? In Source Book on School and District Size, Cost, and Quality. (Hubert H.Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1992) pp. 118–134.

23.  Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning, Guide for Planning School Construction Projects in Minnesota (Minnesota, 2003)

24.  Ibid.

25.  House File 2, Minnesota Legislature, 2009.

26.  Ibid.

27.  Ibid.