Embarrassed by the Bus

Several weekends ago, there was a streets.mn Board Meeting on the East Side of St. Paul. Deep, deep on the East Side of St. Paul. I took a Route 17 bus from my neighborhood into Downtown Minneapolis, transferred to a Route 94 bus to Downtown St. Paul, transferred to the Route 74 bus to my destination, and did the reverse to get home. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only person who took public transit to the meeting. I believe two people biked. Three were absent. The remainder, presumably, drove. Names will not be named*.

I understand the motivation to drive–it was a long bus ride from Minneapolis, where many of us live. I probably spent over three hours (round trip) engaged in some form of transit, which was tiring after having spent the morning at Krav Maga, though I did get a ride to that. For a moment, I was the last man alive in Downtown St. Paul after dark. This seems like a good way to frame something I’ve thought a lot lately: Taking the bus is often embarrassing.

And it shouldn’t be! I, personally, don’t care that much in situations where I’m by myself. Proof: One time, I took the bus to the Blue Line to MOA and walked across this to IKEA to buy a chair and then brought it back home.

But occasionally it’s no bueno in situations where you have you have to interact with other people you know, e.g. your family is visiting from out of town, or an event has a specific start time and you have to arrive twenty minutes early and walk around the block a bunch of times so you’re not that guy who shows up twenty minutes early. There’s this tenseness, where an event ends and you know everyone else drove, and then you have to walk out and stand at the bus stop while everyone drives past you. Often, people from said event will slow down and offer you a ride, and you have to convince them that you’re on board with standing there on the side of the street, or accept their offer and feel like a freeloader. This isn’t as much of an issue at, say, Lake and Lyndale as much as it is further out in the city, and especially in the suburbs.

This, however, is not in the suburbs:

Southbound Route 4 stop, Lyndale & Groveland-ish

Southbound Route 4 stop, Lyndale & Groveland-ish

This is unfortunate. There are many other examples of crummy basic transit facilities that I haven’t taken pictures of. Is the whole premise of this post tone-deaf white middle class fashionable angst over most of my friends having cars? Perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on. And lots of unsolicited advice about transit comes from people who don’t ride transit, e.g. “duh, why dont they built choos on highways like in chicago?? ?” from StarTribune commenters who also happen to be voters within CTIB’s taxing authority, so, you know, lose/lose there.

I guess I would be very curious to know how many local policymakers and planners actually use transit on a daily basis. At the moment, the status quo is to do stuff like spend $1.2 billion $1.5 billion on a rail line that minimally improves mobility while at the same time ignoring basic, cheap user experience improvements. We’re making some progress with the trendiest things–lots of new bike facilities, fancy streetcar proposals, and the like. And a receptive Hennepin County looks to be serious about making Washington Avenue more than a car sewer, which is great considering where their transportation department is located.

Cam Winton, bless his heart, made a lot of good points during his campaign for mayor about what kind of bus service improvements we could get for $200 million dollars, which is the beginning of what we’ll spend on a maybe worth it, maybe not streetcar on Nicollet Avenue. Certainly building a streetcar would go along way towards decreasing the stigma of, coincidentally, going about as fast as a bus goes–which leads me to the conclusion that streetcars are the kind of transit investment championed by people who don’t use transit.

What percentage of our region’s transit movers and shakers have waited for the Route 5 bus at Nicollet and 7th Street in Downtown Minneapolis on a cold, windy January day and taken it anywhere? Or, one time, given their own bus driver directions? Or stood at the Uptown Transit Station with their little sister, visiting from the suburban East Coast, for a transfer to a Route 6 bus that is never, ever on time?  We should find out. The bus is the way that the vast majority of Twin Cities transit users experience the system, and while unabashedly unsexy, it’s important.

P.S./Disclaimer: I actually had the idea for this post a while ago and I promise it isn’t a giant passive-aggressive complaint that no one offered to drive me home.


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34 Responses to Embarrassed by the Bus

  1. Joe Scott
    Joe Scott November 27, 2013 at 1:28 am #

    I had intended to use that route 4 bus stop for my horrible bus stops post, but never made it over there to take the photo. If a picture is worth a thousand words, in this case, all of them are “Nope.”

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke November 27, 2013 at 7:12 am #

    0) It’s about designing cities that treat people with dignity.

    1) Everyone should ride the bus! We should start a photo pool for any elected official caught riding the bus. It’ll be empty…

    In my experience, younger planners ride the bus. A few of the city council candidates I interviewed said they rode the bus, and had enough stories to back it up. I’m gonna guess that once someone gets elected, they start to drive because they get “too busy.”

    2) I also constantly talk about getting a cat.

    3) One of the things I like about taking the bus is a feeling of being part of a community. Not that I talk to people on the bus, but there is a feeling there… OTOH, as Alex recently said, it’s can also feel like a homeless shelter on wheels.

    4) We need to start prioritizing alternative modes, not just accommodating them. There’s no such thing as a “free bus lane.” You have to pay for it with reduced space for cars.

    • Garrett November 27, 2013 at 7:55 am #

      For the record, I have seen Rep. Frank Hornstein on a route 6 bus on more than one occasion. I don’t have any photo evidence, however.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke November 27, 2013 at 8:48 am #

        ok that’s one.

      • Nick Magrino
        Nick Magrino November 27, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

        Yeah, I’ve seen Frank Hornstein on the 6 as well.

    • chris stinson December 13, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

      I’m not sure whether Scott Dibble owns a car… I don’t think he does. I know that when he borrows his brother’s car and folks (like me) are facing a ride back from St. Paul he offers us a ride. The MPLS delegation understands the need for transit. The challenge is getting the rest of the state to agree to the investment.

  3. Matt November 27, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    Since moving to Lowry Hill, I get to use that stop on a regular basis. It’s a treat.

  4. Anders Imboden
    Anders November 27, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    Nice post, and great photo.

    I remember someone once asking me after they saw me waiting for the bus on the way to work (from Uptown to Downtown!) — “Don’t you have a car??”

    On a tangential note, has MetroTransit ever done a study on proof-of-payment on the bus network?

  5. LyssLeit November 27, 2013 at 8:53 am #

    There is a large piece of your story that is missing. Funding. There is not a good funding mechanism to pay for improvements to the basic bus system. You say that SWLRT money is wasted on something that doesn’t really improve mobility but making the connection that the $1.5b should be used on the existing system just doesn’t work. That money cannot be used for operations. Is this an issue with the way our funding system is set up? Of course. But you can’t complain about capital dollars for Northstar, Red Line, Green Line, ect and just think those dollars can be transferred to bus operations.

  6. Matt November 27, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    I don’t think most of Levinson’s want list fit under operations. We can build million dollar stops along car sewers in Apple Valley out of capital dollars, matched by the federal government, but we cannot build anything better than a bench on a six foot median in the crotch between Lyndale and Hennepin?

    Maybe I missed the rule that says,
    “Capital dollars for transit cannot be spent in Minneapolis. If a line must be built to bring suburban commuters to Minneapolis, it must bypass all useful neighborhoods within the city on its natural path, since those folks can get on the southbound 4 at Groveland. They even have a bench.”

    I thought that rule was changed by the FTA in 2009.

    • LyssLeit November 27, 2013 at 9:22 am #

      The answer to your first question is no, we can’t build anything better on Lyndale with those same funds. You can’t use New Starts funds to build a better shelter. Hence why it is ridiculous to complain about dollars spent on transitways because the CTIB and federal funds cannot be used for other parts of the system.

      Now if you want to argue that the state should revamp the way all transit dollars are spent, that is a different story.

      • Kasia McMahon
        Kasia November 27, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

        half of the funding for a New Starts project comes from Minnesota. That money is not tied to building commuter trains.

        • David December 2, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

          But it is tied to “transitways,” which is the list as defined by the Met Council. It cannot be used for buses beyond highway BRT.

    • David December 2, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

      Ok, what neighborhoods do you consider to be a “useful” part of Minneapolis again?

  7. lls November 27, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    Just this morning I saw a disabled person in a motorized wheelchair waiting for bus on Xerxes a few blocks north of 50th. This is the #6 route. It was 5 degrees at the time. Of course, there is no shelter there at all. What is this person going to do in the winter when he also has to navigate the piles of snow left by the plows to get on the bus in the morning? How do seniors manage this? It’s very cruel and just so incompetent on the part of Metro Transit to allow this situation to continue year after year.

    • Rosa November 29, 2013 at 10:00 am #

      Homeowners and business owners generally get out and shovel the bus stops. Sometimes city (transit? I don’t look that close) come along and do it, too. But most of the stops out that far are maintained by the homeowner.

      One of our neighbors shovels religiously, salts, empties trash cans, does landscape design to leave her front yard with comfy seating but protecting the decorative plants – all sorts of work, to keep the bus stop on our corner in S. Mpls usable and welcoming. The city and neighborhood are lucky to have her and she gets close to 0 help or thanks.

      • Joe December 2, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

        Should there be a thanks?

        If it’s the sidewalk/walkways in front of her house it is her duty to do this. Not doing it leads to the city doing it for you and charging you for it (They’re not cheap) and then fines on top of it. Call 311 if something is unpassable. Clearing of your sidewalk is nearly as strong a civic duty as jury duty. It’s thankless, but everyone should do it and the fact people don’t and they don’t get shamed or judged is a bigger issue than someone who does it and doesn’t get a thank you.

        • Joe December 2, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

          (for the shoveling/salting only, the landscaping makes her deserve a medal… trash too.)

  8. Jenny Jenkins November 27, 2013 at 9:46 am #

    On the flip side, as a fairly regular biker who also needs a car to haul stuff for my employment, I can tell you I’ve felt the same kind of shame/stigma when I needed to drive to an event where most of my friends and colleagues biked or bused! So attitudes really do vary widely in terms of what is worthy, virtuous, prestigious, etc. in the car-bike-transit arena.

    I’ll agree, however, that our bus system is pretty crappy, and I try to avoid using it for all the reasons Nick cites. Seems like most of the buses I get on to and from my house in Powderhorn are kind of a rolling homeless shelter/drunk tank at anytime but rush hour and none seem to run on schedule. How do citizens go about agitating for better shelters/buses, etc. and not just infrastructure improvements?

    And what ever happened to carpooling when driving is really necessary? Both for regular commutes and situations like the meeting or family gathering described here? Is it purely habit and laziness, or our American independent-mindedness? Accepting a ride doesn’t mean you’re a freeloader. It might even give you an opportunity to talk to your colleagues and family members about the pluses and minuses of mass transit and why you choose to be car-free.

    Also, you should get a cat!

  9. Cedar November 27, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Good timing on this post, given that we’re heading into winter. I can’t begin to tell you how many horrible winter bus stop experiences I’ve had, both in the city and in the suburbs. While many of these bus stops are unpleasant in the summer, they get downright unusable once there’s snow on the ground. That doesn’t embarrass me — I’m not bothered by taking the bus, and don’t have hang-ups on that front — but it IS unpleasant, and I hate feeling like a second-class citizen.

    My other big pet peeve when it comes to buses around here is frequency.On Sunday my son was invited to a birthday party on Excelsior in St. Louis Park. Given the density of locations and people along that stretch these days, you’d think there should be decent bus service, right? Yet from my place near Hennepin and Franklin we would have had to go to the Uptown Transit Station (the 12 on that day/time didn’t start downtown) and catch one of the 12s that runs every 45 minutes. He ended up getting a ride, but with low-frequency like that, who with any kind of choice wants to waste half their day waiting at a bus stop for a bus that may or may not actually come on time, anyway?

    And finally, when it comes to riding the bus at night safety is a concern for me; I don’t want to be the last person alive walking around outside in downtown St. Paul (or most other neighborhoods). It becomes a chicken-and-the-egg kind of situation, however; I feel more comfortable taking the bus late at night if there are other people out walking around and also waiting at the bus, but if others are avoiding it for the same reasons we’ll have a tough time getting the kind of safety-in-numbers that would make me more comfortable standing out on a street corner for who-knows-how-long later at night.

  10. Julie Kosbab November 27, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    It had better not be a complaint that no one offered you a ride home. I think two people offered you either a full ride home, or a ride to somewhere a little less deep in the heart of the part of the city even St. Paul tries to pretend doesn’t exist, even though it should be a prime bus audience.

    (and bike. Johnson Parkway provides marvelous connectivity.)

  11. Janne Flisrand
    Janne Flisrand November 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    We spend money on what we value.

    Society shows their values through a $600m bridge, or a massively expensive interchange. Swanky sound walls.

    We also show the lack of status through skimping on cost. Paint instead of a curb. Skipping pedestrian amenities, trees. Dumping a bus stop on the ugliest pork chop in the land (see image above) without even bothering with a tiny mural.

    Suburban park and rides? Those clearly have cost a bunch of money, with pretty shelters, lighting, heat, and information. People who use them know those facilities are valued.

    Until we are willing to demonstrate the importance of pedestrian and bike facilities by making them Nice, it will be (more or less) embarrassing to use them.

  12. Kasia McMahon
    Kasia November 27, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    For a lot of the reasons mentioned in this article, I finally broke down and bought a car for the first time in my life (at age 28) about 3 weeks ago. Nick mentioned making his trip out to St. Paul for a meeting. Imagine doing that everyday, and that was my life. My transportation budget with a car is probably 4X what it was riding the bus, but I now have 10 more free hours a week! That doesn’t even include time saved making non-work trips!!

    Its stupid and cruel to spend BILLIONS of dollars on “transit” and not improve the lives of the people that depend on it. And I know for a fact that the Chair of the Met Council doesn’t use transit because she wears gold stilettos (not a wise bus shoe choice for many reasons). I would love to get more elected officials on public transit. It should be a requirement of the job (spend x weeks a year commuting without a car in Minneapolis–and no, the three day trip to New York wouldn’t count).

    • davistrain December 6, 2013 at 12:59 am #

      You just hit the proverbial nail on the head–on a straight “out of pocket” basis, all but the shortest transit trips are cheaper than driving in per-mile cost. But “time is money”, and unless one is retired or unemployed, time on a bus, if it takes twice (or more) as long as driving is time lost. Then we have the problem of transfer delays unless one is fortunate enough to have both the ends of the trip on the same bus or rail line. Another poster mentioned long headways; no transit line should be considered adequate unless the headway is 15 minutes or less. There’s also the “comfort” factor: both in the fact that auto makers design their seats for comfort and bus builders concentrate on durability, and the fact that drivers don’t have to share their rides with unpleasant characters from the low end of the socio-economic ladder.

  13. Matt Brillhart November 27, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    A timely Atlantic Cities piece, sort of making the same point, sort of making the opposite point: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/11/why-correcting-misperceptions-about-mass-transit-may-be-more-important-improving-service/7719/

  14. Andrew Degerstrom
    Andrew Degerstrom November 27, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    Everyone should take this survey and make these suggestions about basic improvements to bus amenities that improve ridership experience. I did.

    http://www.metrotransit.org/sip

  15. Jenny Jenkins November 27, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

    Gold stilettos? That’s obscene.

  16. Thatcher November 27, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    After an eight year hiatus from riding the bus very often (spent nearly all of that time biking or walking to work), I am riding the bus again. I find the express bus from south Minneapolis far less frustrating and quicker than the 114 or 6 I used to ride to 34th St.

    Why less frustrating? It generally isn’t stuck in traffic. Well, except as the bus enters 35W from downtown where it is stuck for 3 – 5 minutes daily.

    My frustrations with the bus were elevated once I started biking everywhere, as I wasn’t in control of the bus, couldn’t pass traffic, and felt unfocused/unproductive in the moment. Those are my issues but it is why I hated riding the 4, 6, 17, and 114 for most of my life. Stuck in traffic or stopping every block and missing lights.

    Yet, dedicated bus lanes are never, ever discussed outside of downtown. Some of the ways to improve transit requires virtually nothing.

    Imagine what could be possible if some of these core routes had exclusive lanes, greater stop spacing, and some traffic signal pririority. Add in off-vehicle payment and we have potentially great, more reliable and enjoyable service.

  17. Rosa November 29, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    Personally, I’m a fair weather biker and I love the bus. There is nothing so lovely as getting on a nice warm bus on a winter morning when my husband is out on his bike knocking ice out of his beard on and half our neighbors are swearing and scraping their cold, cold cars.

    Relatedly, I take out of town family on the bus all the time. My parents still think of riding the bus as a fate worse than death, but the younger folks – including my much more rural neices and nephews – are enthralled. They love the light rail more than almost anything but once they get over the trepidation (where do I put my money? How do I know if if it’s rush hour? THERE’S NO SIGN WHERE DOES THIS BUS GO AND WHEN DOES IT COME?) and see the middle school and high school kids and the elderly and disabled people who just get on the bus and go anywhere they want, they love the concept. Being a nondriver in a driving-dependent area is not fun and the idea of a place where that’s not true is enchanting to pre-teens.

  18. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins November 29, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    Dude, if you wanted a ride you should have just said so!

  19. Jeremy Mendelson November 30, 2013 at 12:49 am #

    Great post! This is exactly why I get so frustrated with the lack of misguided priorities in the region. Generally I see support for better transit but the things that really matter to the most people are absent from any agenda. I should say though that despite the obstacles Metro Transit does an excellent job of running the system, and I’ve seen a lot of transit systems.

    We always have the money for anything we decide is important. It doesn’t have to come from federal grants that will only pay for shiny new lines. There are many places funding can come from (highways, free parking, residential parking enforcement…). We can find money for transit if politicians feel it’s important.

    The steep increase in biking, especially winter biking, shows that people want to be car-free and there is a huge demand for high quality transit. We will only attracting more people to live in our central neighborhoods if we invest in transit improvements here.

  20. helsinki December 2, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    Thank you also for pointing out that the Hennepin County Transportation Planning Division resides in a semi-circular spaceship amidst fields way out in the sticks. It is probably difficult to envision the concerns of pedestrians when you’ve never met one.

  21. Jeremy Mendelson
    Jeremy Mendelson December 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    The problem with show shoveling — and I’ll write about this when the time comes — is not that people don’t do it, but that the responsibility for clearing public ways falls on individuals who may either be elsewhere or uncaring. The problem is we get this patchwork “solution” which does not work.

    I’m sure I don’t have to point out the hypocrisy/inequity/discrimination of plowing roads while ignoring walkways, but if the city were responsible for clearing walkways as it should be, everything would be perfectly accessible within hours of a storm. Sidewalks would also be maintained in good condition during warm months so that snow clearing could be easily done with a vehicle in winter. Add in bus stops and curb ramps, and transit use becomes a lot less difficult, dangerous and embarrassing.

    It is long past time to make this change.

  22. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins December 4, 2013 at 9:18 am #

    I think, just a note to clarify, a great many of our regions transit planners are also transit users. I don’t want to put words in Nick’s mouth, but I don’t think he intended to imply that no transit planners anywhere are riding transit. This is obviously not the case.

    However, I think it’s also true (and fair) to point out that our Metro Transit planning staff is largely working within a framework created by others, and those others may or may not be transit riders. As others have pointed out, we don’t have one giant pot of money we can spend on anything we want – we have a smorgasboard of programs and funding sources that all have strings, directives, rules, priorities, etc., much of which is established at a federal level, or by the federal and state legislatures. We have regional plans and priorities, which are guided by planning staff who may be transit riders, but likely reflect the priorities of others (Metropolitan Council, County Commissioners, State Legislators, etc.) who may or may not be transit riders.