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Coming Next Fall: The Northfield Metro Express

June 8, 2009 at 10:27 am
By Margaret Taylor '10

You’re the student with Northfield Option who can’t find anywhere to park on campus.  You need to get to Target but would rather not spend the entire Saturday evening on the Love Bus doing it.  Or even after begging for a ride in the NNB, you can’t go to a neat concert in the Twin Cities because there’s no way of getting there.

Transportation issues are a problem at Carleton.  They usually come to a head for us students when parked vehicles from a sporting match clog the streets around school and the neighbors complain, but transit issues affect the entire Northfield community.  Recently a dialogue has started up between both colleges and the town on how we can improve Northfield’s public transportation system.  The initiative started last November when a group of students, led by Blake Hansen ’10, did an in-depth study of transit in small towns for a SOAN project.  As they interviewed people in Northfield for the project, a lot of people with concerns about our transportation needs started meeting each other.

Carleton’s neighbors, of course, would like to park in front of their own homes instead of being pushed out by students’ cars.  Students need somewhere to park, too.  Faculty and staff from both of the colleges who commute here from the Twin Cities need a way to arrange rideshares.  Northfield’s elementary schools would like to encourage Carls to come help tutor in the afternoons, environmentalists want to cut car-related carbon dioxide emissions, and public service groups want to make sure that people from underserved communities, who may not have their own car, still have access to city services.

These conversations between concerned residents eventually gelled into the Northfield Grassroots Transit Initiative, which formed last January.  I was able to interview Suzie Nakasian, co-chairman of Northfield’s Environmental Quality Commission, about the intiative.  “It’s wonderfully collaborative,” she says of all the people who have gotten involved.

The group has been brainstorming solutions to Northfield’s transit issues and has come up with three goals for improvement in the near future.  Nakasian stresses the benefits the first goal—better access to the Twin Cities—will have on Carleton students.  A lot of students bring their cars to campus because they want to use them to drive here (those of us who live within driving distance of Carleton) and to drive home at the end of the term.  But the other reason to have a car is to get to Minneapolis and St. Paul.

There are many cultural opportunities to be enjoyed in the big cities that students just can’t find in a small town of population 17,000.  There are opportunities for internships, too, that we Carls don’t even consider because Minneapolis might as well be located on Jupiter.  Nakasian envisions students graduating from Carleton with greater job readiness because they have been taking advantage of career development opportunities in the Twin Cities throughout their four years here.

Better access to the Twin Cities is coming soon.  The Co-op bus that we all know and love is getting expanded, opened to the greater Northfield community, and renamed the Northfield Metro Express starting next fall.  It will run three days a week, instead of only on weekends, and provide express service from Northfield to various locations in the Cities.  Because the expanded line is so new, the exact days and times of service haven’t been determined yet, but the Initiative is currently conducting surveys to find out what times students would use the most.  More information about the line will be available on the Northfield Lines website after August 1.

The Northfield Grassroots Transit Initiative’s second goal is a revamp of Northfield Transit.  It currently provides a Dial-a-Ride-like service to locations within Northfield for a dollar each way.  The Initiative would like to establish hubs where residents can expect a Northfield Transit van to come by without making an appointment, so the increased convenience of the service would hopefully increase ridership.  Plans for changing Northfield Transit are still in the works.

Finally, the Grassroots Initiative is planning to create a massive rideshare database online.  As it so happens, Carleton already has a rideshare website (, which was news to me.  “Nobody ever uses it,” Nakazian agrees.  The Initiative would like to incorporate that site into something much bigger and accessible to both colleges and the Northfield community.  Students will be able to use it to pick up rides to the airport and faculty and staff could arrange carpools if they live outside of town.  “It’s like the NNB to the 12th power.”  They’re currently in the phase of deciding what software to use to manage this database.  The selection will happen sometime at the end of June, and the organizers will decide how to proceed from there.

The Northfield Grassroots Transit Initiative has been working closely with environmentalist groups on campus, such as Carless Carleton, headed by Katie Blanchard ’10.  Their aim is to make Carleton’s transport system more environmentally friendly, to bring it in line with other domains where we are doing so well on sustainability, like the windmills and the compostable silverware.  The benefits of the changes will hopefully extend beyond the environment.  Nakasian says that better transportation will help Carleton to become even more competitive with New England liberal-arts colleges that have train access to New York and Washington, D.C. and make it easier for prospective students to visit here.  It will benefit the Northfield community as a whole, too, by encouraging tourism to the area.

It’s a lofty goal to make Carleton students feel they can leave their cars behind.  Can we really achieve a carless Carleton?  Nakasian is optimistic.  “Can we drastically reduce the number of cars at Carleton?  Sure.”