The ‘A Line’ — A Review

On Sunday June 12, I took the A-Line from Snelling and University to 46th Street Station, switched buses, took the A-Line to Rosedale, switched buses, and took the A-Line to Snelling and University Avenue again, making a full circuit on 3 buses. Smelling that new bus smell, it smells like victory.

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Stand tall traveler information pylon.

The waiting at the stops is better than your conventional post in the dirt stop. There is a full gamut of stop features, including shelter, accurate NextBus information, pre-payment mechanism, and benches to sit. Everything you would want, except maybe trees. Pre-pay is nice and saves time boarding, though I didn’t get to take advantage of it since it was free anyway today, and I was (and would always be) a free transfer, but it would still save time for a free transfer. Interestingly, the A-Line stations provide more information than the LRT stations. More importantly the real-time information was working on day one.

For the opening weekend, Metro Transit had a full complement of assistants waiting at each station, who were helpful, but mostly not busy. Some (maybe a third) of the stations were just passed by (if there are no passengers boarding and alighting, no need to stop, unlike a train).

The boarding process is mostly smooth. All-door boarding is good, people seemed to distribute themselves across all the doors. The low floor buses made it easy for a lady using a walker to board.

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Pay Before Boarding

However, bikes on buses take too long. While it seems a nice feature to allow bikes on buses, it added 38 seconds to the stop (see video). I saw three of these on my round trip, this was the slowest.  I don’t mean to pick on the bicyclist, he is following the rules and doing what is allowed. Now maybe with experience this gets down to 20 seconds. If it were only 30 seconds for the bicyclists, who cares, but when it is 30 seconds multiplied by the number of people on board, this gets expensive. For a fullish bus of 50 people that is 25 person minutes of delay. Granted no one cares on a Sunday morning, and it was far from full, but during peak times this can be a considerable deal.

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Oddly, A-Line buses can cross the Green Line without stopping and the driver looking both ways, but must stop and loop before proceeding at the Blue Line.

Not having exclusive right-of-way seems to be the major criticism from national transit critics, saying it doesn’t deserve the rank of BRT. However neither Snelling Avenue nor Ford Parkway are typically congested enough to justify an exclusive lane for only eight buses an hour (6 x A-Line, 2 x 84). A few stretches have some other routes as well, but still not enough. It would be nice to see some transit signal pre-emption action happening though. We stopped twice in both directions at Snelling and I-94.

Not all of the 84 signs are up-to-date in the way they should be. Some still indicate the route number, but do not provide maps. Some still record the 84 as a high-frequency route. One assumes those will come down shortly. As far as I could tell, all 84 stops have notices about change in frequency. Still, some folks have not gotten the message despite the hard work of Metro Transit on this. I saw (sadly too quickly to film) a guy flipping the bird to the A-Line bus not stopping at an old 84 stop a few blocks north of Snelling Avenue, and not at a new A-Line station. I think he and his friends/family expected the bus to stop.

The buses seemed (I did not document against posted schedules) to be running fast (it’s Sunday with little traffic) and so when they arrive at their end, the next bus is still waiting there with a few minutes before departure. There did not seem to be any holds along the route to ensure schedule adherence, only at the ends. This makes sense, but means that this is a turn-up-and-go service more than a scheduled service. But at worst, you wait 10 minutes.

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Nice transit map, but I missed No Smoking station somehow.

In addition to that new bus smell, the buses have Wi-Fi. Good. However, you have to accept terms and conditions each time. Unfortunate that it cannot remember that I did this already and auto-log me on.

The buses have nice on-board “press to signal” stops, although I miss the cable which rings a bell because I miss the great story as to why it’s a cable. That cable, back in horsecar days, used to be connected to the driver’s arm, so you were basically tugging on the driver to get him to stop, since he couldn’t hear the passengers through the cacophony and when he was outside a carriage and passengers were inside.

The ride quality was better than most local buses. Snelling has recently been reconstructed and these are new buses. I did not do the full Hicksian analysis, so cannot say that it was smoother than LRT (it surely wasn’t), but it was clearly better than most buses.

The route at Rosedale is far less circuitous than the 87 Bus I have complained about before, it was in and out about as well as could be expected.

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I expect the A-Line will hit ridership targets quickly. While some of the riders were lookie-loos like me (A lady in front of me was Instagramming about the A-Line, after Instagramming about Northern Spark), other passengers seemed to be engaging in their daily business, aware of course it wasn’t the 84, but not doing anything different. I am guessing an average of 20 persons boarding per run (for the two full runs) (I didn’t actually count), which is 240 boardings per hour or maybe 3000 per day, for a Sunday. The projected 3500 for a weekday seems well within grasp. I look forward to published ridership numbers.

Most of the traffic appears to be on the middle part of the route, from Snelling just north of University down to Highland Park. Very few people were transfers to the Blue Line LRT or alighting at Rosedale. Even the Snelling and University passengers were not mostly transfers to the Green Line today.

There are more grocery stores on the A-Line than the Green or Blue Lines. Lund’s & Byerly’s and Whole Foods had patrons riding the bus on Sunday. There are more movie theaters on the A-Line than the Green or Blue Lines. Someone counted four Dairy Queens. Which is to say, the A-Line, which runs past neighborhood retail (as well as a regional mall) better serves people on their daily non-work activities, rather than being designed foremost as a commuter route. Given the declining roles of downtowns in American life, this is important.

I have driven this route (in pieces) dozens of times. It feels different on the bus. I have ridden through other cities on buses in similarly scaled neighborhoods and they feel like cities. This has always felt like the suburbs before. It’s a bit more urban now, with stuff along the way that is perceived through the eyes of a bus passenger differently than through the eyes of a car driver (or passenger). In part it’s the idea I might get out and walk around and see something interesting, which I would do in a city I was visiting, but I would never do in St. Paul. The A-Line gives confidence that I can get off and easily find my way back in a way that the 84 bus did not. I however did not do that this trip, since it was about the bus, not the neighborhood. But it is something I imagine doing, which is progress.

This is about the best that can be done with buses short of an exclusive right-of-way and full electrification, and that would just be overkill here.

In short, the A-Line is the best new investment Metro Transit has done since I have moved here. As a new capital investment, it is not as high quality as some routes with exclusive right-of-way, but it finds the optimal trade-off between quality and cost, maximizing benefit/cost and minimizing dollars spent per rider. This is important. It means more things can be done. It’s just too bad this wasn’t opened sooner. For the important high-frequency corridors, the sooner they can be upgraded the better. This corridor nicely serves existing demand, and can induce additional transit travel from neighbors. It also nicely connects the upcoming Ford plant redevelopment, with the Blue and Green lines, without any additional expenditures. While low volume/low-frequency bus routes are going to be further disrupted in the coming decade, high volume/high-frequency routes should be upgrade. There may actually come a time when this is a five minute route, at least during peak times, and with some help from transit signal priority, it beats the new mobility companies (e.g. Uber and Lyft) and AVs on-demand in terms of waiting time and convenience.

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Proposed Arterial BRT network map from Metro Transit

The A-Line is the first in a proposed indeterminate series of ALPHABET routes. (I have backronymed ALPHABET to mean Arterial Lines Producing High Accessibility By Efficient Transit). Now you might say, but that means there can be only 26 routes. I disagree, after the Z-Line, MetroTransit can start to use Greek letters, which adds 24 (although many are similar, but think about the Ψ-Line (it knows you are coming) ), and then to emoticons. Imagine how happy everyone will be on the :)-Line.

More importantly, St. Paul is missing an opportunity with their quixotic quest for streetcars on 7th, and could have had the B-Line under construction already were they not continuing to dither. In fact it has been truncated on the official map. Instead, it appears the C-Line is next in queue. Since the letters in the alphabet don’t appear to have any geographical relationship to the lines they represent, there is no reason for them to be chronological either I suppose.

8:55 Arrive at Green Line station (WestGate)

9:05 Arrive at Green Line station (Snelling)

9:14 Board A-Line Bus SB (Snelling and University)

9:35 Board A-Line Bus NB (46th St. Station)

10:10 Alight/Board A-Line Bus SB (Rosedale Center Station)

10:29 Board Green Line train (Snelling). Round Trip Time 75 minutes.

This previously appeared on The Transportist as The A-Line — A Review


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12 Responses to The ‘A Line’ — A Review

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 15, 2016 at 10:19 am #

    Great review, David. Thanks for writing it. Too bad you couldn’t get a picture of that Saint Paul bird.

  2. John Bailey June 15, 2016 at 10:23 am #

    We did a family outing on the A Line Saturday morning hopping on near our house at Minnehaha and taking it Minnehaha Falls (4646 Station). It was all positive and even our Parisian student teacher who is living with us was impressed though she still looks at me skeptically when I say our transit is “getting better.” I have a couple of other comments/questions:

    1) Rear loading: It seemed to me that it only worked if people were getting off. It did not seem to open automatically when stopped. Is it touch-activated from the outside?

    2) While it doesn’t have signal pre-emption, I believe it is supposed to have signal priority at least, right?

    3) I was glad that it didn’t stop at every station if no one was there. I feared it was going to. We basically didn’t stop from Grand to Ford/Cleveland.

    4) The kids loved pressing the new buttons instead of pulling the strings.

    • Jeff Christenson June 15, 2016 at 10:25 am #

      Yes, it does have signal priority.

      • Jeb Rach
        Jeb June 15, 2016 at 12:54 pm #

        One of the bus drivers noted that either there’s no signal priority at the entrance to Rosedale, or it’s working very poorly. There’s a left turn into Rosedale from County Road B2, and often when I’m riding we’ll be waiting there for some time just to get into Rosedale.

    • Joey Senkyr
      Joey Senkyr June 15, 2016 at 10:55 am #

      I think the driver controls the rear door, so he/she should open it if someone’s trying to board.

  3. GlowBoy June 15, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

    I inadvertently posted my review in the Accessibility Analysis thread, but I rode the A Line this morning and loved it. So much faster than your typical local service, and felt like a natural continuation of the #553 and #264 express routes I’d ridden to get to Rosedale. I’m excited for the Chicago-Fremont aBRT to eventually come to fruition.

    By the way, I got off at one point mid-route and reboarded the next bus via the rear door, and it opened for me.

    I don’t think 38 seconds to load a bike is typical. And often this activity will happen in parallel with other passengers deboarding and boarding, so hopefully it won’t cause significant delays in practice. I know it might seem inconvenient on occasion, but allowing bikes in an enormously important part of solving transit’s last-mile problem. Many times in the past I’ve found bike+transit to be far faster for my urban-to-suburban commute than either bike or transit alone.

    Also, yes the new-bus smell was pretty strong!

    Maybe it’s not considered by some to be “real” BRT by some, but overall I think this new aBRT service is pretty awesome.

  4. PPentel June 15, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

    My only complaint, not all stations have a trashcan….otherwise a great addition.

  5. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs June 15, 2016 at 8:02 pm #

    I’ll be writing a review of the A Line after things settle down a little. On opening day the drivers and passengers were still learning it, the rear bus doors had some glitches and of course no fares were collected. I took a trip and am sure there were more passengers than will be normal after the curiosity riding tails off. That said, I think David’s post is accurate. Metro Transit has done a thorough and thoughtful job on the A Line.

  6. Matty Lang
    Matty Lang June 16, 2016 at 8:06 pm #

    I think relegating bikes to the rack on front will be regretted in the long run. Instead, I would sacrifice a row or two of seats to have space for bikes to be rolled on via the back door.

  7. Tom Quinn June 18, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    Snelling is actually very heavily traveled during rush hour, particularly now that 280 and Lexington have closed sections. I was surprised to see that the A-Line buses stop in the middle of the road which causes considerable backups during this first week. The A-Line buses themselves were being impeded along with the autos because of this backup during morning rush hour at least.

    These buses make a lot of sense, but wouldn’t it have been better planning to have them pull off the road to load people and bikes?

    • Adam June 20, 2016 at 5:41 pm #

      There is a tradeoff on having the buses pull out of the travel lane to pick up passengers. Yes, people driving cars can bypass the bus, but when the bus is done picking up passengers and tries to reenter the travel lane, it is often delayed as multiple cars continue to pass it, not allowing it to enter the traffic lane.

      So yes, you save 10ish cars drivers some time, but you delay up to 50ish people inside the bus.

      The general rule of thumb is to have the buses pull to the side if you prioritize cars, and have buses stop in the general traffic lane if you prioritize buses.

  8. Kele June 21, 2016 at 4:13 pm #

    I am liking the A Line so far, but I use it mostly to transfer to and from the Green Line, and Snelling/University continues to be a problem intersection. About 1/3 to 1/2 the time I *just* miss the train or the bus because the lights take so long to change. I wish they could institute some kind of scramble system there so that I could cross diagonally (from NB A to WB GL, or EB GL to SB A).