Seeking the transit-friendly highway

As I first started exploring Metro Transit’s bus network in college, I was struck by how much freeway mileage in the Twin Cities doesn’t carry any transit service.  Having grown up near Rochester and typically only visiting or driving through the metro area a few times per year, my mental map was mostly built up of Interstates and other major highways, so many of the landmarks I wanted to visit would require long, slow trips on urban local bus routes, and many destinations were simply out of reach with the time I had available.  That might not have been the case if there were more freeway-running routes that had more symmetrical schedules throughout the day.

There is an extensive network of express routes for ferrying suburban workers and students into our twin downtowns and the University of Minnesota—and some highways (such as I-35W near Lake Street) do see buses going by a couple times per minute at peak times.  But, with a few notable exceptions, express routes tend to run as if they were local routes for a short distance to pick up riders out in the suburbs, then go non-stop to a major core-area destination.  There are some places where express buses stop partway along highway, but even then, it may only be a flag stop for riders getting off or the bus may skip past the stop on certain runs.  The inconsistencies can induce nightmares for first-time passengers.

Good transit lines, on the other hand, make regularly-spaced stops.  The spacing can vary depending on how much speed is desired, but they really gain strength from connecting a variety of different locations rather than focusing on bunch of origins clumped together at one end and a cluster of destinations at the other.  The number of practical trip combinations is usually much higher and attracts more riders.

The core reason why express bus routes avoid stopping along the way comes down to the defining feature of a freeway:  They’re made for non-stop travel by vehicles making point-to-point trips—they’re not made for buses picking people up and dropping them off along the way.  Continuous flow is the goal with a freeway, and the only places where a vehicle is supposed to stop are at the ends of off-ramps.

A freeway corridor is an assault on the senses for any pedestrian, with noise, pollution, and the risk of being run over on nearby streets by drivers who haven’t quite gotten their mind out of “freeway mode” yet.  So while it’s pretty easy to put bus stops right at diamond interchanges, they can be very unpleasant places to be.

Diamond interchanges are some of the best candidates for bus stops along freeways, since buses can pull off the highway, hit a stop, and then get right back on. However, many interchanges these days use different designs that don’t allow buses to get off and right back on. In some parts of the Twin Cities, there are some bus routes which get off the highway and then loop around on local streets and special service roads to access nearby transit stations, but that drastically reduces the average speed of travel for passengers.

Along the nearly-opened Red Line in the south metro, the first station south of the Mall of America is the Cedar Grove Transit Station. It’s next to the 65-mph Minnesota State Highway 77 (also known as Cedar Avenue), but accessing the station requires looping back from the junction with Diffley Road 3/4 of a mile away. Stoplights and lower speeds on surface streets mean that reaching the station adds around 6 minutes to the travel time.  This is along a route that’s only going to operate over a 9-mile route when it opens (expected to grow to 12 or 15 miles eventually).

So why didn’t planners simply decide to put in a station right at the Diffley Road junction?  I don’t know the definitive answer, but it’s worth pointing out that the distance between the northbound and southbound on-/off-ramps is around 900 feet, and the distance between the nearest frontage roads on either side of the highway is almost twice that (about 1760 feet).  The sheer scale of suburban and rural freeway junctions creates a huge barrier—most transit bus riders are only willing to walk about 1/4-mile (1320 feet) on each end of a trip, meaning that the pedestrian “shed” for such a stop would be completely devoid of any potential customers. That’s in contrast to junctions along urban corridors like I-94 in western Saint Paul and I-35W in south Minneapolis, where the distance between eastbound/westbound or northbound/southbound ramps is about 330 feet.

This isn’t just a problem for metro-area transit buses, though—intercity routes also have similar problems.  While Interstate highways sliced right through residential areas of major cities across the U.S., smaller towns were usually bypassed instead.  Places where the main drag was once a state or U.S. highway often saw the new freeway entrance built a mile or two away.  While the “highwayless town” does have certain advantages, it did mean that bus routes which once hopped along from one small town to the next (often attempting to mimic old rail lines that had also gone right through town centers) had to shift to picking people up and dropping them off out on the fringes.

Official stops for services from Jefferson Lines, Greyhound, and other bus lines are typically located as close to the highway as possible in the parking lots of gas stations, McDonald’s restaurants, and so on.  Windswept, empty places without much shelter (at least once the convenience store or restaurant manager tires of letting passengers hang out inside).

Other problems with connectivity also plague freeway-borne bus routes. In south Minneapolis, the 46th Street station on Interstate 35W is skipped by many buses that run east-west along MN-62, simply because it’s difficult to maneuver southbound buses across 3 or 4 lanes of traffic in the 1-mile distance between the station and the MN-62 exit.  The first true freeway BRT station in the Twin Cities is underutilized as a result.

When done right, freeways are engineering marvels. They dramatically increased mobility across the U.S. following World War II, but they’ve been lacking crucial design elements to make them proper conduits for mass transit as well as cars and trucks.  These highways could have been built differently, with better options for bus stops and stations, and possibly dedicated ramps and busways for reaching city and town centers more rapidly than what would be possible by car.

Are there opportunities to flip this equation around?  The Twin Cities does have the country’s most extensive network of bus-only shoulders to bypass congestion on freeways (as well as some surface highways), but most of that mileage only improves travel times for suburban commuters and does little to help urban dwellers who dominate transit ridership in the region.  In some cases, buses on freeways won’t provide any better access than urban or suburban local routes, but it’s a ready-made network of high-speed, grade-separated infrastructure that shouldn’t be ignored as we face the challenges of the 21st century.

About Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a computer geek at heart, but has always had interests in transportation and urban planning. A longtime contributor to Wikipedia, he started a blog about trains and other transportation after realizing it had been two decades since he'd first heard about a potential high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis. Read more at

18 thoughts on “Seeking the transit-friendly highway

  1. Jeremy Bergerson

    I totally agree that I-94 and I-35 are essentially underused as far as rapid transit goes. This is a shame, because they are rights-of-way that already exist and could easily be repurposed. If the Orange Line implementation is done properly, we ought to have a proper BRT station in the middle of the freeway at Lake St. (hopefully connecting with an LRT line on Lake St)., and the current HOV lane will be blocked off with concrete barriers so that buses can run on timetables unaffected by traffic. Of course, rapid transit stations in the middle of freeways are not pleasant. I currently live in Chicago, and I avoid the Red Line as it runs down the Dan Ryan and the Blue Line as it runs up the Kennedy like the plague. It's loud, stinky, and generally stressful being on those stations. But still the rights-of-way are already there, and instead of accomodating more cars, we ought to make them work for rapid transit purposes.

    As regards the METRO Red Line and the Orange Line south of Bloomington, is MetroTransit kidding itself about this being actual BRT? Seems like a joke to call the Cedar Avenue busway the Red Line, as if it bears any resemblance to the Blue (Hiawatha) or Green Lines (Central Corridor).

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    With the exception of Mall of America, Cedar Grove, and Lakeville South, the Cedar/Red line is built to a pretty reasonable BRT standard — dedicated lanes for 95% of the route, mostly curbside stations, two with pedestrian overpasses. Do I think it was a good use of transit dollars? No. Was Cedar Ave a good design for anyone other than private autos? No. But it is basically BRT. Cedar Grove Station is the only really egregious detour.

    1. Mike Hicks Post author

      Yeah, that's true, though I believe all of the stations south of Cedar Grove are along the "at-grade" segment of MN-77 ("curbside", as you said). The planned on-freeway stop at Palomino Drive has been pushed back to a later phase of the project as well.

    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Er, CSAH 23/Cedar Ave, rather. MN-77/Cedar Ave is only the freeway portion from Crosstown Hwy to 138th St. The portion to the south is a stroad, for sure, but not an "at-grade" freeway.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Of course, it is worth noting that Mineapolis intends to do basically the same thing with Lake St access that Dakota County did with Cedar: catastrophically expensive improvements for automobiles under the guise of a transit project. Yes, the proposed station is a huge improvement. But it's no accident that the project includes new on- and off-ramps for cars, and improved flow for cars on Lake St.

    1. Jeremy Bergerson

      A seriously lamentable situation. But if I recall correctly, hasn't at least one on- or offramp been nixed and the others curtailed in their scope? While I do like the 46th St station, the interstate widening that accompanied it was itself a catastrophe, ripping the open wound in the city ever wider.

  4. Ted K.

    Historical Note : The Samtrans system in San Mateo Co., Calif. used to have a network of express buses that ran into downtown San Francisco via US101. Some of those buses would stop at a few overpasses on the way where there were basic shelters and minimal pedestrian access. The routes were mostly eliminated not long after the BART extension to Millbrae began service.

  5. Froggie

    Mike, since you didn't mention it, it should be noted that the siting for the Cedar Grove station is largely because the city owns land there and has hopes for TOD in the immediate vicinity.

    I recall the corridor feasibility studies from about 12 years ago going into some detail as to where the Cedar Grove station should be cited, and potential connections to/from the BRT lanes. Conceptual ideas for direct bus connections to/from Cedar Ave in both directions were developed.

    IMO (and also mentioned in the feasibility study), there's enough latent demand to where it'd be worthwhile to extend the Hiawatha LRT south across the river (on a new bridge parallel to the existing Cedar Ave bridge) to Cedar Grove.

    1. Mike Hicks Post author

      I have been deeply underwhelmed by the development plans I've seen for the Cedar Grove vicinity, though the element that I have the most awareness of is the outlet mall project being built by Paragon. The design seems to have a "lifestyle center" theme similar to the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove. There's still room nearby for better development, but it seems to be getting off on the wrong foot.

  6. BB

    You should look at Plymouth bus service. It does a great job of paratransit, then uses the freeway to get downtown. Ironically its a city service and not Metro.

    There is also 394 which does use the diamond interchanges.

    (Louisiania )

    and lastly no mention of HWY 7 which uses stops right on the hwy. To which you can walk to.

  7. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The Sibley Highway (TH 13) in Burnsville and Eagan has a number of on-highway stops in the expressway portion. The bus service is certainly not BRT, but the stops themselves are pretty well-done — they appear to be off-the-grid, sheltered adequately from the high-speed traffic. While there are no sidewalks along this portion of the Sibley Hwy, there are short sidewalks from the nearby cross street to the shelter.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      Bill, good point. This leads me to believe that any service between the downtowns should be express without any stops. If you're headed from either downtown to Snelling or the U, the average speed of the Green Line is much less of a factor than it is from downtown to downtown. Thus the Green Line would be sufficient.

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