“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.