May 29, 2014

Minnesota Musings, or: Seeing Good Transit on Four Twin City Buses

Metrotransit's Central Corridor light rail (right) opens June 14. In the meantime, the Twin Cities' buses (left) are doing a great job for riders. | Image: Metrotransit.
Metro Transit’s Central Corridor light rail (right) opens June 14. In the meantime, the Twin Cities’ buses (left) are doing a great job for riders. | Image: Metro Transit.

The Twin Cities area of St. Paul – Minneapolis is what our organization would consider a “transit-progressive region,” a term we plan to use in a forthcoming survey of public attitudes toward transit. While we will use metrics of mode share and service levels to deem a region “transit-progressive,” it’s partly a matter of knowing it when we see it – and when we ride it.

Last week I attended a research symposium convened by the University of Minnesota’s transportation research group which measured the positive economic impact the region has enjoyed from its investment in transit, and looked for ways to accelerate expansion of the system. Brian Lamb, General Manager of Metro Transit, told the audience about the work his agency is doing,  and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, one of the key architects of 2008 state and local legislation which created a new $110 million/year fund for transportation, urged his counterparts in local government to build on that success. Thanks in part to funding from that 2008 action, on June 14 of this year Metro Transit will open its second light rail line, the central corridor linking downtown St Paul with downtown Minneapolis. It will connect with the existing Hiawatha line which was opened in 2004 to link Minneapolis with the airport and a huge shopping mall. A third light rail line to the southwest, and subsequent bus or rail transitways, are also on the drawing boards.

The enthusiasm these leaders expressed propelled me out the door of the seminar into what Minnesotans assured me was the first day of spring, where I could take a look at the transit system. Sure enough, a few blocks from the convention center, sleek light rail trains are already gliding up and down Cedar Street, empty, undergoing their final three weeks of testing before the doors open to passengers. That was exciting to see, but many cities – Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Houston – can now show off their gleaming new trains. The real test I wanted to put to Metro Transit was seeing how I could get somewhere on the existing bus network, which is the service that the vast majority of the riders depend upon day by day. In an unscientific experiment, I picked a distant point in north St Paul as my goal, and set off in early evening, after the normal peak period frequencies would be tailing off, to see what the rider experience would be.

Metro Transit’s on-line trip planner was pretty much what one should be, but even if I hadn’t had a smart phone I would have noticed from the sign and schedule posted at the bus shelter that the first bus I had chosen to ride still ran at 15 minute intervals in the evening.  But I didn’t absolutely need a schedule – a bus came along soon, carrying a healthy load of passengers, including a young Ethiopian-American woman in traditional shawl and bike helmet, who put her bike on the rack on the front of the bus.

This line carried me along University Avenue, which will soon be the route of the Central Corridor light rail line, a reminder that one of the best predictors for a strong light rail line is a bus line which is near capacity today. The existing bus patronage shows there is a market, which can be served at lower per-unit operating cost on an electric vehicle with one operator for 200 passengers than on multiple fossil-fuel-burning vehicles with one operator for each 40 passengers. Rather than imagining that an isolated new rail line can take a community from zero transit to “world class” (whatever is meant by that hackneyed term) in one fell swoop, these practical Minnesotans realize that improving service is a progressive process, and that each technology, whether bus or rail or van pool, should be optimized for its own characteristics and context.

The Metro Transit bus lines make good use of St Paul’s highly legible grid of streets, and to test the intersecting connectivity I jumped off the eastbound bus at Snelling Avenue, about halfway from St Paul to Minneapolis, to try and go north. Clutching my transfer, which in contrast to some examples of this genre had a clear description of its time limits, I waited less than three minutes for a northbound bus to arrive. I rode to north St Paul, and eventually doubled back, again not having to wait long for a bus going the opposite direction. Using my eyes (and, yes, Yelp) I jumped off where a well-reviewed Ethiopian restaurant occupied a storefront where past stereotypes of Minnesota would have you expect a Norsemen’s Hall or a Walleyed-Pike Fish Fry.  Instead I enjoyed a taste of Addis Ababa.

After dinner, although the clock was about to strike 9:00 PM, I stepped out to the street and yet again waited less than three minutes before a bus came along. It carried me back to downtown on yet another arterial of the grid. Like the other buses I had ridden, it was well-patronized by passengers from an assortment of ages and ethnicities. We can think of several statistical metrics to define a transit-progressive city – mode split, passenger miles per service hour, etc. – but my informal definition was exemplified by that bus:  Running frequently into the off-peak hours and carrying a diversity of people heading in multiple directions for different purposes.

Transit in the Twin Cities may be getting attention because of light rail to the airport or because of their leaders’ vision in raising significant new revenue for transitway expansion – but for my money, the Twin Cities deserve as much praise for a utilitarian, arterial bus network that provides reliable access and mobility to hundreds of thousands of riders today. In transit, as in their hometown radio show, the Twin Cities really are above average.

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