“Transport for Suburbia” applied to Minneapolis / St. Paul

Even if the entirety of suburbia is the worst urban planning move in history, one thing is for sure: suburbs aren’t going away. I live in a suburb, in a cul-de-sac even! Believe you-me no one is about to tear down all these houses and start over. So we’re going to have to learn to love what we have, and make it as useful as possible. One of the main issues that perpetuates the suburban autopia is public transport and lack-there-of.

I recently read Paul Mees’ “Transport for Suburbia” and I simply cannot get his ideas out of my head. In his book, he provides thorough research into wide-spread misconceptions about what public transport can and can’t do – and how to implement a successful network. Anyone else wishing to read this book can find it for free through Inter-Library Loan.

The biggest takeaways for me were:

  • Mode share is a key metric (more than ridership numbers)
  • The transit network must include everyone – not just the underprivileged & central business district commuters
  • A “balanced” approach to development (giving cars & transit equal opportunity) is not sustainable

Mode Share

When you glance at the Twin Cities Metro area’s public transit network, it at first appears to be pretty good, especially in comparison to other cities. However, if you look at mode share data from the latest census, the picture is not so pretty…

Here is the mode share breakdown of the entire Minneapolis / St. Paul metro area. 3 million people living at an average density of 10.3 people per hectare. Census data for 2000-2006 indicated these methods of travel to work:


  1. 91.8% car
  2. 4.5% transit
  3. 2.5% walking
  4. 0.6% other (includes motorcycle & taxi)
  5. 0.4% cycling

Our mode share of public transit is worse than Las Vegas, a town in which the car is king – where most residents don’t even realize there is a public transit system.

The Network

So why do we have what seems to be a huge network that no one is using? Layout! 88% of all MetroTransit routes (by route number) are radial, meaning they terminate or intersect the central business districts of Minneapolis and/or St. Paul.

Let’s say I would like to go to the YMCA in Shoreview to swim. I can drive there in 10 minutes by using the convenient 694 loop:

YMCA by car

Or, I could ride my bike there in less than 40 minutes, still not too bad:

YMCA by bike

However, the fastest transit time to this location is one hour because (inevitably) I need to travel towards downtown only to go back out of the city on a different radial route.

YMCA by bus

While this may seem like a trite example, try it it in reverse. Consider a commuter living in Shoreview that works at one of Fridley’s many large employers (Cummins, Medtronic, etc.). It’s no wonder everyone’s driving. Even if their commute is doubled to 20 or even 30 minutes, it’s still 1/3 to 1/2 the time of taking transit.

Our transit network has so many of these radial routes that surely some of the redundancies could be reduced and restructured to provide a better spider-web network.

Interestingly, if you look at some of non-radial MetroTransit routes, many are actually operated by “opt-out” carriers such as MVTA, which appear to serve their communities better than MetroTransit.

I am not arguing for deregulation and divestiture, in-fact one of Mees’ main points is that a network monopoly is needed so that cross-subsidy can be used to maintain service in areas of lower density by using profits from routes with greater ridership.

Perhaps MVTA members should be serving on the Metropolitan Council board.

A Balanced Approach

When you look at the 2030 Metropolitan Council plan they rarely, if ever, cite mode share. Some policies, in conjunction with MnDOT, like dynamic lane pricing seem promising. But even the 2030 vision doesn’t go far enough to make a lasting change in mode share. Too many dollars are spent on roads vs transit – the inverse would be a better scenario for everyone. What if every lane had pricing? Why not make a bold move away from the automobile as much as possible? Instead of park and rides, we would have great network coverage. We should work towards a sustainable transit future where we’ve invested in moving people and not moving automobiles.

While the Twin Cities has a great movement going on with bicycling, there is some bad news: some studies have shown that increased cycling just takes away from public transit users. To combat this, everyone needs to work together against the automobile:


This means cooperation & coordination between disparate entities (MetroTransit, NiceRideMN, cities, and counties), to work toward the same goal: moving people efficiently. This should include placing bike share stops strategically to help fill gaps in public transport, and provide the infrastructure needed to a make cycling a attractive and safe.

To really get things moving, highway funds should only be used for maintenance (where funding continues to fall short). New road construction dollars should be diverted towards making our public transit network complete. It is already convenient for me to drive 10 minutes the Y. What if it if only took 20 minutes via bus and I could get on one every 15 minutes? That truly would give me a choice so I’m not forced into choosing the automobile.

Justin Foell

About Justin Foell

Justin is an aspiring urbanist stuck in suburbia. He enjoys cycling, beer, yo-yos, computers, and other geekery. Closet railfan.

12 thoughts on ““Transport for Suburbia” applied to Minneapolis / St. Paul

  1. Julie Kosbab

    I should see if I can find some of this data for the Chicagoland area. The area is more spread out (larger city, larger suburban edge city corridors) but I recall this to be significant there as well.

    A study in Atlanta showed issues with moving among social classes based on access to job corridors and affordable housing via transit.

    1. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

      You should check the book out, I believe the mode-share data for Chicago is included. Mees’ always uses the “metro area” as the density measure rather than the core cities.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I like this. I read transport for suburbia, as well. It’s an interesting book from Australia that offers some interesting stats and examples about transit in less dense areas.

    I think your argument is more radical than it seems at first glance. Point #3, that a balanced approach will not work, seems the key here. For suburban transit to work, we need to stop allocating so much space and money to private single occupancy cars, right?

    So one possible plan:

    1) no new roads pledge
    2) solving the last mile problem w/ walking and biking
    3) dedicated transit ROW along freeway corridors -> competitive efficiencies for transit

    how do you feel about TOD?

    1. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

      A no new roads pledge would be great, but probably a political impossibility for this town. It would be nice to at least come up with an exchange. If you want to build a new road, you have to give up the same amount of mileage on an existing road. Turn it into a park, a bike trail, whatever. We just can’t afford to keep adding to a road maintenance bill where the payments aren’t keeping pace.

      Further reading: http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2012/2/14/no-new-streets.html

      The jury is still out on TOD for me. I went to a planning commission meeting regarding a master-planned multi-use complex in Fridley’s TOD area near the Northstar station. It didn’t even include a sidewalk to the station. Pedestrians (if there were any) would be left to walk in the shoulder of East River Road. The city’s TOD district’s first priority is to “encourage […] pedestrian-friendly development.” If people aren’t careful & watchful, cities will just bend the rules as they see fit to get TOD grant money to further fuel their growth machine.

  3. Faith

    If suburban cities would be willing to change their major stroads (http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/tag/stroads) from 45 mph with double left turns and free right turns to be 35 mph with only one left turn lane, that could make the last mile a more pleasant walk. The last mile problem seems to be a major barrier in many suburban communities since so many of newer county roads are difficult and unpleasant to cross.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Agreed. What Dakota County did to Cedar Avenue (in the name of transit!) was to widen the driving lanes, add an additional driving lane for an extra mile, remove any boulevard trees, and add extra turn lanes. There is a big wide bus-only shoulder, which (I think?) cyclists are allowed to use, though there’s certainly no signage to make that clear. They did technically remove free rights, but the curb radius is so large, it begins about a half block before the actual corner!

      I agree that bicycling and walking is critical to make transit work in newer suburban and exurban areas. And since many of these areas (including Apple Valley), the major roads are the only continuous ones; there are no parallel routes that pedestrians or cyclists could reasonably use. The standard should then be even higher than it is in more traditional urban grids.

  4. Jon

    Thanks for the post. It is true that the suburban pattern you describe won’t shift rapidly and it’s not going away. Unfortunately, providing transit service in areas of the region with low residential and employment density is inefficient and these prospective routes don’t compete well with other corridors.

    Later this summer the Met Council will release the latest travel behavior inventory (TBI) data, which I suspect will reflect rapid growth of bike/ped and transit use, but not in auto-dependent areas. A sneak preview of current data, found on the Met website says:

    “Transit makes up 3% of all trips in the region, but accommodates 8% of all trips by Minneapolis and St. Paul residents and 16% of their work trips. Central city residents take 20% fewer auto trips than residents region-wide, relying more on transit, biking and walking.”

    We’ve all got a long way to go in terms of mode share, but demand for areas with access to financially sustainable transit service (from an operating standpoint) is definitely headed up from here.

    1. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

      You’re right that that transit service in the suburbs may be inefficient (read: cost ineffective). But Mees’ point is to use profitable routes to cross-subsidize other routes to still provide good service.

      Mees makes another point, which I did not mention, that riders will transfer (contrary to popular belief) but only if transferring is easy and convenient. Service could then be improved by reducing redundancies. For example – Central Avenue: it’s serviced by the 10, 59, & 118 at various points. Why not reduce those to one (the 10) and add service somewhere else?

      I think this book should be required reading for everyone at the Metropolitan Council and MetroTransit. Mees points out that some of the best-run transit authorities are run by small, effective organizations. Our transit authority has seemingly become an ineffective, bloated, political machine that often makes poor choices. I’m just looking for a ray of hope by shining some light on useful research.

  5. BB

    The city of plymouth does things entirely different (own transit) , and creates a complete void in the western subs.

    We need to find a better way to intergrate into that city.

  6. mc

    Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times’ bearded truth-teller, today weighed in on a recent study that says children in families living on low incomes have a very difficult time climbing the economic ladder in metro Atlanta.

    Krugman focused on how metro Atlanta’s sprawl and lack of public transit makes it harder for people to travel to work:

    When the researchers looked for factors that correlate with low or high social mobility, they found, perhaps surprisingly, little direct role for race, one obvious candidate. They did find a significant correlation with the existing level of inequality: “areas with a smaller middle class had lower rates of upward mobility.” This matches what we find in international comparisons, where relatively equal societies like Sweden have much higher mobility than highly unequal America. But they also found a significant negative correlation between residential segregation – different social classes living far apart – and the ability of the poor to rise.

    And in Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.

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