Arterial Bus Rapid Transit Could Save Us From Ourselves

Hey, what’s this? We’re on 46th Street in South Minneapolis, heading to Minnehaha Park–looks like we’ve got some cones and some metal pipes and a whole bunch of that sidewalk braille along the curb, kind of like at a…train station.

A-Line aBRT Station at 46th & 46th

46th & 46th A Line Station

That’s no train station–it’s an arterial bus rapid transit station, under construction. What’s arterial bus rapid transit? Also what’s bus rapid transit? Also what’s transit? It’s good to discuss all three of these things together, and use the aBRT and BRT acronyms from here out.

Bus Rapid Transit

It’s all sort of hazy actually! BRT has been taken to mean all sorts of things in the past few decades. Pulling a definition from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia:

To be considered BRT, buses should operate for a significant part of their journey within a fully dedicated right of way (busway) to avoid traffic congestion. In addition, a true BRT system has most of the following elements:

  • Alignment in the center of the road (to avoid typical curb-side delays)
  • Stations with off-board fare collection (to reduce boarding and alighting delay related to paying the driver)
  • Station platforms level with the bus floor (to reduce boarding and alighting delay caused by steps)
  • Bus priority at intersections (to avoid intersection signal delay)

And unlike, say, rail, there’s a decent amount of gray area there. With a train, you take away the rails, and that’s probably no longer a train. There’s maybe a gray-ish area between what constitutes a light rail line and what you might want to call a streetcar, but there are fewer little operational details to remove with train service. The gray area between BRT and just “a bus” is much larger, and reviewing the list of things that have been marketed as BRT lines in the United States may disappoint compared to some of the more distinctive systems elsewhere in the Americas or overseas.

It has been suggested on occasion that when anti-transit politicians advocate for BRT (or just “buses”) in lieu of rail due to financial considerations, it’s sort of disingenuous, as the BRT itself then often gets watered down.

Our own local, operating example of BRT, the METRO Red Line running between the Mall of America and Apple Valley, is generally baffling in that, while it does serve the Apple Valley Red Robin, it doesn’t hit most of the above points, is an unfortunate waste of a primary color, and also was fundamentally not a good idea–“a freeway expansion project masquerading a transit improvement,” as one astute streets.mn commenter put it a while back. Anyway, it’s not all bad, as the doors of the Apple Valley Transit Station opening up into the bay of a Midas sets up about as a good of a metaphor as you’re going to get anywhere.

Apple Valley Transit Station

The METRO Gold Line, a BRT line down I-94 from Lake Elmo to Downtown St. Paul planned to open in 2022, very (!) far in the future, is also weird, though for different reasons. Unlike the Red Line it will travel largely in its own right of way, making it a much better example of BRT as a transit mode, and it will at least end in a downtown of sorts, but at $450 million dollars with a very rural routing, it’s at least as befuddling as the Red Line is baffling. It would be fair to say the Gold Line is more of a Washington County and east metro political maneuver than a transit improvement, but it’s happening, so hopefully it gets used.

(Bright spot: the METRO Orange Line, a BRT line up I-35W from Burnsville to Downtown Minneapolis planned to open in 2019, seems like a comparatively pretty good idea with its sub-$250 million dollar budget, existing well-used transit service, and destination of a plurality of the region’s trips on one end)

“Okay so you were just really negative about BRT–what else do you have? Dammit, you streets.people are terrible,” said the sympathetic reader who takes an express bus to work four days a week and drives everywhere else.

Sorry! It is a lot sometimes. But when talking about transit, it’s important to make distinctions between different types of service, especially when marketing has kind of ruined one of them. If you’d told a bunch of people in 2005 that we were going to spend $117 million dollars on six fancy bus stations between the Mall of America and Apple Valley they’d be like what??? but if you call it “BRT” it maybe sounds vaguely like something they’d have in California, and that’s half the battle right there.

Arterial Bus Rapid Transit

So what else can we do! As it turns out, not everything is totally hopeless. Some intrepid people at Metro Transit have managed to quietly glue together small chunks of funding table scraps to develop what they’re calling aBRT, or arterial bus rapid transit. Several years ago, they identified a group of corridors where they might want to try aBRT–a regular local bus user may recognize these corridors as some of the region’s busiest bus routes.

aBRT Network

aBRT corridors with the rest of the planned and existing transit system (Source: Metro Transit)

So what is aBRT, exactly? You can read Metro Transit’s project page, but you might think of it as a hugely improved local bus. Buses, which will have lower floors and wider aisles for easier boarding, will run more often. They’ll stop at fewer stations, and those stations will have off-board payment and real-time arrival information–even some heated shelters for the winter. Plus, intersections along the routes will have transit signal priority, allowing a bus with 40 passengers to get through traffic lights a little faster than a guy in a Toyota on a cross street.

Perhaps most importantly, aBRT is cheap, like real cheap, like effectively free compared to other kinds of transit projects that get lots of press and attention. We’re looking at $27 and $32 million dollars for our first two aBRT lines, the A and C Lines.

A-Line

A Line Route (Source: Metro Transit)

The A Line, scheduled to open next year, largely follows the path of the existing Route 84 bus, which runs from Rosedale Mall in Roseville down through St. Paul on Snelling Avenue, hitting the Green Line at University Avenue before jogging over to Minneapolis on Ford Parkway to connect with the Blue Line at Hiawatha Avenue.

The C Line, currently being planned, largely follows the path of the existing Route 19 bus, which runs from Brooklyn Center to Penn Avenue through North Minneapolis into Downtown Minneapolis. Construction will hopefully start in 2017.

(if you’re wondering what happened to the B Line–it was delayed while St. Paul and Ramsey County conduct a study (itself $1.5 million dollars!) in the Riverview Corridor, presumably gunning for a streetcar on West 7th Street)

The crazy thing about the A and C Lines is that they are transit projects that are transit improvements! They speed up and improve transit trips on corridors with lots and lots of transit trips–many of thousands of them. Right now, a fourth of all people traveling on the Penn Avenue stretch of the C Line are doing so on transit.

It’s projected that the A Line will be 27% faster end to end compared to the existing Route 84 bus. The increased frequency will also help–those thousands of riders will wait shorter amounts of time for a faster bus. Frequency will also increase perceptions of reliability, as buses will run often enough that riders won’t need to consult schedules.

Route 84 vs. A Line

(Source: Metro Transit)

And it’s hard to quantify, but aBRT is also an important symbolic investment in inner city mobility, which isn’t slated to see much improvement in the near or medium term future. Without discounting the existing METRO Blue and Green Lines, which are a good thing, there have been and will continue to be a lot experiential differences between urban and suburban bus routes. Those choice riders out in the second-ring suburbs–they get a $8 million dollar structured park and ride with free parking, a heated bus shelter, a coach bus that travels 15 miles in 15 minutes, while those local route riders, they…well, you know.

Southbound Route 4 stop, Lyndale & Groveland-ishTransit

So what is the fundamental point of mass transit service? The point is to move lots of people, quickly. There are many other, bad reasons to build mass transit service. And since few people in Minnesota actually use transit, and some fraction of those people use it outside of commuting, it’s easy to trick people into supporting dubious projects.

When asked why the Gold Line BRT makes sense, the project website goes with “proactively [addressing] growth in traffic congestion” as their first bullet point, which is a bad reason to build transit and probably folly anyway–using commonly accepted ideas about automobile induced demand, it kind of stands to reason that, like a capacity addition to the freeway, 5,000 cars taken off of I-94 in the east metro will just speed up the appearance of 5,000 new car commuters driving west from out past Lake Elmo. Bullet points #2 through #5 are boilerplate word salad, and then bullet point #6, the last one, “transit services in the Gateway Corridor will help seniors and others who can’t drive, or choose not to drive” should of course be the first one. That might be sort of an unfair cherry picking of a boring public sector website, but it does stand in stark contrast to the A Line website, which manages to list benefits that have to do with transit service. (!)

All that without even mentioning what will be by far the metro area’s two largest transit projects in the coming couple decades–the extensions of the METRO Green and Blue Lines into the southwest and northwest metros, respectively. At this point, the Green Line extension is probably tied to one of the laws of physics–wouldn’t want to mess with that. But when you combine the $1.7 billion currently budgeted for that with the $1.? billion projected for the Blue Line extension, we’ll end up spending something like $3 billion dollars of someone’s money to supplement existing, well-used but safely comfortable commuter bus service with…slower trains.

Not news to you, of course! But hopefully this drives home the point that there isn’t not money to build transit. You always hear that there is no money to do good things, and this is incorrect. Money exists, it is out there, but it gets spent on counting the trees in the Kenilworth corridor, or rehabilitating a now comically underused St. Paul Union Depot, or running personal Red Line buses along Cedar Avenue all day. Decisions get made at some point to do things some way.

For the price of the recent $341 million dollar cost increase to build light rail through a marsh in Eden Prairie, we could build aBRT to replace the 5, 18, 6, 10, 3, 19, 17, and 4, improving mobility for tens of thousands of existing users, and spurring tens of thousands more to use transit. But, we won’t. (The Route 21 on Lake Street should, of course, be supplemented by rail in the Midtown Corridor) (In theory, replacing the 18 and the 10 with aBRT instead of the Nicollet-Central Streetcar would also save someone, somewhere a lot of money while improving transit service much more)

Annual-Rides-2014There is a plan to roll aBRT lines out gradually–that initial study identifying corridors was done in 2011 and 2012, added to in 2013, the A Line was approved in 2014, it’s opening in 2016. Funding for the C Line is anticipated to be wrapped up at the end of next year, and hopefully it gets built in 2017 and opens in 2018. St. Paul and Ramsey County putting the kibosh on the B Line (which had federal funding lined up) kind of threw a wrench in the progression, but corridor planning for the D Line (Chicago/Emerson-Fremont, or basically the Route 5) is supposed to start at some point next year.

Keeping in mind that all projections ever are bad, the Metropolitan Council’s 2040 Transportation Policy Plan accounts for the completion of three aBRT lines in the next ten years with our current transit funding scenario, or 11 by 2040 in their increased revenue funding scenario, which involves a potential half-cent transit sales tax. The plan (page 61) does kind of leave the door open to building additional lines after 10 years in the current funding scenario, appearing to acknowledge that aBRT is incredibly cheap and doesn’t really require the 20 year slog of planning that a larger project would need to eventually get a federal match.

But why wait!

Here is an actual, tangible thing we could advocate for and do.


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15 Responses to Arterial Bus Rapid Transit Could Save Us From Ourselves

  1. Sam October 1, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Has Metro Transit ever studied doing some sort of general local bus service efficiency improvements system-wide without the fancy shelters and new names? We could get pretty much all of these improvements system-wide plus some if we just set a reasonable bus stop spacing standard (say every 3 short blocks/ 2 long ones) and implemented it system-wide, developed proper stop signage with route info, bought local buses designed to be moderately comfortable and function well on high ridership routes, and redesigned the system to function as a metro-wide grid instead of making all Minneapolitians go to downtown Minneapolis and all St. Paulites go to downtown St. Paul. Houston, San Francisco, and Seattle are all doing this, why can’t we?

  2. helsinki October 1, 2015 at 3:52 pm #

    Excellent points.

    It’s mind-boggling that the “Gold” line will precede the “D” line.

    $450 million for blingy service to underpopulated countryside is a bit indefensible in light of the huge improvements that could accrue to the 5 million riders of the 5 bus for a fraction of the cost.

  3. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker October 1, 2015 at 4:17 pm #

    IMO, it’s a top, top priority to wrest control of the color red from the awful connection to a connection to Apple Valley. I’ve thought for the past three minutes about how to do that, and I think the best strategy is for Metro Transit to postpone the red line while it’s being redesigned, and then accidentally give the “red” moniker to the STP-MOA light rail down West 7th.

    Then the new BRT to Apple Valley (sensibly starting downtown and sharing the Orangle Line’s facilities before branching east to the Mall and resuming the current route) could be called the Yellow Line, or the Umber Line or something.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman October 1, 2015 at 6:35 pm #

      If they have to even put them on the same map as rail lines, how about thin black lines or dashes or something? Agree that Riverview should be light rail and it should be red.

    • Jonathan Ahn October 1, 2015 at 7:55 pm #

      Agreed. My ideal fantasy is to call Riverside Corridor LRT “Red Line”, and rename the current half-ass BRT to Apple Valley “Red Line Link” with a thinner line or something.

    • Sam October 2, 2015 at 11:41 am #

      One thing they could do would be to brand the entire BRT system as “the Red Line.” Would be especially nice if we upgraded the 94 to “””BRT standards””” to connect Orange and Red with Gold. That way it’s at least more substantial than the ????? thing we have now. And orange and gold (yellow) are prime colors too, I don’t wanna waste any of it on underused lines.

      Like: http://i.imgur.com/ZrMYXy7.jpg

      It’s funny, I’ve always imagined the Riverview corridor as the Purple Line and the Greenway corridor as the Yellow Line.

    • Nick Magrino
      Nick Magrino October 2, 2015 at 8:40 pm #

      Apples are red

    • MidwayLuke October 4, 2015 at 12:17 am #

      I agree. I think it’s a crying shame RED is being wasted. It simply can’t go on like this. The fact that supposedly BRT lines are considered part of the METRO system is unfortunate.

      I’d like to see Red Line be a 7th st LRT like many have mentioned.

      The current fancy bus on Cedar Ave could just be called the “MOA Express” or something…I’m pretty sure the line’s literal handful of riders would care.

  4. Ian October 2, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    The aBRT map actually also doubles as a map of roughly where we *should* be considering LRT.

  5. Nick October 2, 2015 at 11:49 am #

    Debbie Downer alert: We’ll keep building crappy lines as long as CTIB is the local funding match. The only way that ‘logic’ will rule build out of transit investments is for transit supporters to stop undermining the Met Council and take transit capital funding away from elected officials.

  6. UrbanDoofus October 2, 2015 at 11:56 am #

    Why exactly does it take so long to roll out bus based BRT routes? I mean seriously. Chop some corners, elevate them and call it a day. I know logistics is hard, but come the hell on, Metro transit.

    • Mary G October 2, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

      It takes a long time because use of federal funds takes a long time. Just for a start, without New Starts or Small Starts funding which is even more time intensive, you can’t do anything without National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) authorization including Section 106 (Historical Preservation). Both of these authorizations can take many months – especially if the Section 106 is complicated. This process took over a year for the A Line and that project included a minimum of flexible (CMAQ) FHWA funds for buses and a very small amount of FTA formula funding. But one dollar of federal funds makes the entire project federal. BRT definitions also change at the FTA level almost weekly it sometimes seems. At this point, “BRT” funding (new and preservation) is only available for those projects with the majority of the service in dedicated lanes (not HOV – has to be BRT only). Even turn lanes that are shared can disqualify a project.

      The best thing that could be done for transit projects is to fund these projects locally. And I say that even though my entire job is based on managing federal funding.

      • Nick Magrino
        Nick Magrino October 2, 2015 at 8:33 pm #

        “The best thing that could be done for transit projects is to fund these projects locally.”

        Yes!

        Federal money for these smaller aBRT projects has come together in short order, but for the larger projects, going through a 10 or 15 year planning process to satisfy requirements for a 50% match from the feds while the price of the line doubles…not a great set up.