The Bus Complexity Tradeoff



I’m not a real transit planner, but I play one on the internet.

I had a frustrating experience riding the #21 a few weeks ago. I was hanging out with friends one weekday evening near Midtown, and I live near downtown Saint Paul. Using a smartphone transit app (but not this one), I saw that an eastbound #21 was coming in a few minutes and went out and boarded it. I soon realized that I was riding the #21D, which would deposit me neatly on the Saint Thomas campus miles from any other city buses. (This has happened to me before, and I ended up walking three miles in the winter to a friend’s house to beg for a ride. You learn bus lessons the hard way.)

“Oh well,” I thought. I checked my smartphone app again and saw that a #21A was about 25 minutes behind me, and that seemed like the perfect amount of time to spend at Merlin’s Rest. As it turned out, that bus was running on a different schedule than my smartphone, and I missed it. And then the next one was another #21D. Finally an hour later, I got on a #21A that would actually take me downtown, and an hour after that I was home. All told, it took over three hours to travel the ten miles from Saint Paul to Minneapolis.

Part of my crappy experience is that I’m an idiot who prefers a pint of Guinness to standing for half an hour in the cold. Another part of it is that the bus system (much like my phone) can be too smart for its own good.

Transit Tradeoffs


Tradeoffs from the Metro Transit service improvement plan page.

As far as I can tell, transit planning is all about making difficult choices. There’s never enough money, and you do your best to serve the most people with what you have. Every choice comes with a tradeoff. If you have more coverage, you have less frequency. If you run buses later at night, they run less often during the day. If you make buses cheaper, more people might ride, but you cover fewer costs. Ridership might increase if buses stop more often, but it might decrease because you’re traveling more slowly. There are always tradeoffs.

Because of the horrid road conditions, I’ve been riding the bus a lot lately. It’s left me with lots of time to think about transit planning. (A lot of time…) The tradeoff that’s been pissing me off is between route complexity and user experience. Many bus routes increase their coverage area or hours by offering different options. These are the familiar “letter buses.” You take a bus route and split it in two. It seems like a good idea because you increase your coverage without a large increase in costs. For example, half the time the #6 bus might goes all the way to a far-off destination, the other half the time it stops near where the bulk of the ridership drops off. There seem to be a million #6 buses. I’m from Saint Paul, so I don’t really understand, but I think that some go all the way to Edina (East Duluth Is Not Ascendant). Frankly, I have no idea where the other once go…

The problem is that increasing bus complexity comes at the expense of user experience. A lot depends on how well bus riders can understand the transit system and its routes. (This is doubly true for newer riders.)


True Tales of the #21


Part of the magic of the #21 route.

Of all the too-complicated buses that piss me off, the #21 is the worst. Going westbound, the #21 is straightforward. It goes down Selby, Marshall, and Lake streets to the Uptown transit center on Hennepin Avenue. That’s it. It’s (almost) exactly like its historic streetcar route.

For some reason, going eastbound is another story. There are lots of #21s to choose from. The #21A reverses the westbound #21 course, along Lake, Marshall, and Selby to downtown Saint Paul. The #21E (school days only) goes down Lake but stops at Hiawatha by the Target parking lot (I think). The #21D goes up Marshall and then turns *right* and ends at Summit Avenue and Finn Street on the Saint Thomas campus. The #21C goes along the regular route, but only takes you to University Avenue which is halfway to Saint Paul, and only runs late at night.

Got that?

On top of that, sometime ago transit planners introduced a kink to the route of the #21 (both directions). Instead of continuing from Selby to Marshall Avenues through Saint Paul along the old streetcar line, the #21 turns North at Hamline and jogs along University Avenue for about a mile. It turns South at Snelling, and then continues down Marshall. I’m told that they introduced this change when a bridge on Selby Avenue was under construction, and people liked going to the big box stores so much that they kept it.

However it happened, it adds complexity and time to the #21 route. But the tradeoff is that it connects with the #16 and touches a major shopping destination. Unless you’re going to or from Target, the #21’s detour is pretty annoying.

There’s another other tradeoff, too. Because of its complexity, the #21 skips potential development sites that might occur along Selby Avenue (the old streetcar route). Right now, there’s a large new mixed-use apartment building under construction at the corner of Selby and Snelling that will include a new Whole Foods grocery store. The #21, despite being the “Selby-Lake” bus, is going to bypass it completely.

Simplicity Encourages New Riders


The streetcar system was pretty simple.

I get the tradeoff. Transit planners want their limited resources to serve the largest possible population. But take a look at the streetcar map. One of the reasons why people like streetcars is that they’re easy to understand and use. They go straight down the tracks to the end, and come back again.

I used to live on the #3 line, another high-frequency bus route. The #3 has two key options, the #3A and the #3B, which go through slightly different parts of the Como and North End neighborhoods. But is also has the #3C, the #3E, and the #3B* (which is kind of like a magic catbus that goes through an industrial neighborhood only once or twice a day). Getting on the wrong #3 can be highly frustrating, particularly to a new bus rider.

(The #94 is similarly annoying. Most people use the #94 to quickly travel between downtowns, but a friend of mine calls the #94B the “94 bullshit” because it snakes around University Avenue, the state capitol, and the bank McDonald’s before finally getting on the freeway.)

The point is that while system complexity might seem like a good idea, it is a tradeoff. It comes at the expense of user experience. I am hopeful that as we add key spines through the city, some of these too-complex buses can be simplified. Saint Paul is adding a bunch of new North-South service that will serve the University Avenue LRT. Why not return the #21 to its straightforward East-West route, and let University Avenue-bound traffic connect using the new high frequency North-South lines? There’s even a brand new bus line planned for Lexington Parkway. Why not make the #94 a simple downtown shuttle? (Note: Metro Transit is doing this.) There are probably lots of other examples that escape me.

If you know the bus system really well, having multiple “letter bus” options isn’t that big a deal. You make the mistake once, and never again. But if you are a new rider, there’s a lot to be said for simplicity. You don’t want your first experience on the bus to be one that leaves you in the lurch, stranded on a snowbank, staring off into the deserted parking lot of the American Bank and counting the empty Cheetos bags blowing in the wind.


39 thoughts on “The Bus Complexity Tradeoff

      1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

        I had the same experience riding the 4 from Johnson/18th to Lyndale/Lake. The #4 Downtown goes straight downtown and Uptown.

        Coming back home though, you catch a #4 and it turns around downtown to go back to Southtown. You need a 4B to get to Johnson Street.

        #frustrating to get off a 4 at MCTC just to board another 4(B) to get home. Adds another half hour to an already stupidly long trip 5 miles.

  1. Adam MillerAdam

    Yup. Unnecessary complexity reduces ridership. Plane and simple.

    On the semi-rare occasion that I try to take the bus, I look up the route options online or on my phone from Metro Transit. Then I go stand near a bus stop and wonder whether it matters that the letter doesn’t match what the internet said. Or I have to triple check my instructions because I can’t remember which combinations of letters and numbers work.

    The result is I’m not going to try to take the bus more often because it’s too much work.

  2. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer

    Let’s make transit idiot-proof. I rarely ride the bus because I’m an idiot! As long as you’re safe, biking is idiot-proof. Riding the train is idiot-proof. Mostly, our highway system is idiot-proof.

    But to take a bus, you have to be a navigational wizard on par with 18th-century nautical explorers. Those bus route papers (available only to folks who are /already on the bus/) remind me of nautical almanacs:

      1. Xan

        It is probably because these people are taxing their cognitive skills to the fullest navigating the bus system.

    1. Anne

      YES (not that you’re an idiot). If you’re on the same route you always ride, the bus system is fine, but navigating a new route is such a disaster.

      This is the part where I talk about how wonderful Vienna’s transit system is.

      In addition to subways and streetcars, their bus routes were very clearly marked with a map at every stop that showed where you were in relation to the route (and the city). Nothing big, just the size of a normal sheet of paper, but SO helpful for navigating new routes!

      They also had electronic signs *at every single stop* that showed the different routes that stopped there, as well as how long it would be until the next bus (or streetcar, or subway) came. On the bus interior, instead of flashing the date and time, it displayed the stop name above the driver’s head and halfway back, for all passengers to see (like on the light rail).

      I could go on and on about Vienna’s transit system, but some of these improvements don’t seem like they would be particularly expensive to add to our current system. I know that MetroTransit had an improvement survey that covered some of this several months ago, but until we have more tools in place to make navigating our system more convenient for locals and tourists, I don’t see how they expect to lure more people to mass transit.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Right on. There’s actually a level of operational inefficiency that is efficient, in the sense that it attracts more riders than a system that efficiently matches demand.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Ow! You just made my brain hurt, Matt. Please explain this complete paradox riddle you’ve laid down here…

  4. Andrew DegerstromAndrew Degerstrom

    As someone who lives on the 6, It can be quite confusing. Southbound there is the 6A, B, C, D, E, F, K, X. The 6A ends at Hennepin & 36th St. The 6X ends at Uptown TC. The 6D & F goes all the way down France to Southdale, whereas the 6B goes down France to 54th, then branches off to cover Wooddale Ave. The 6C, E, & K all go down Sheridan to the 43rd/Upton business district in Linden Hills before heading down Xerxes all the way to Southdale. The 6E & F continue past Southdale ending at France Ave & Minnesota Drive right before 494. The 6K continues even further, going west to the other side of 100 and serving the Edina Industrial Park. Going Northbound, the 6 appears a little easier to understand, as there is only the 6 and 6U. The 6 ends Downtown, and the 6U crosses the river and goes down University to Stadium Village. However, if you are boarding at Southdale, in reality there are 6 branches. There is the 6 via Xerxes, 6 via France, 6 via Wooddale, 6U via Xerxes, 6U via France, & 6U via Wooddale. Got it?

    1. Cedar

      Back in the old days (or, rather, the 1990s when I was riding the 6 in high school) the 6 route south of downtown was divided into the 6 and 28, with the 28 running along Xerxes, the 6 along France. I’m sure there were still various letters or branches into the far reaches of Edina,but I don’t recall it being anywhere nearly as complicated as it is today.

      My other big issue with some of these routes — including the 6 — is that reading the schedule requires significant knowledge of the streets. The maps on the schedule are small and difficult to visually understand (given that there are so many different letters, each with their own slight variation); the written descriptions are okay, but generally only if you are already familiar with the terrain and know the street names.

  5. Andrew DegerstromAndrew Degerstrom

    Everyone talks about how we want to grow our population by increasing density. Minneapolis wants to grow its population to 500,000. However, no one is considering our bus system. People acknowledge that we will need better transit service if we’re going to grow, but they only ever seem to be wanting to build LRT and streetcars. What is the bulk of our transit service? Local bus. If we’re going to increase our population, we need to grow our local bus service along with it. We need bus routes that aren’t confusing. We need route and schedule information at stops. We need better bus shelters that make it more hospitable to wait for the bus during harsh conditions. We need faster travel times, which we don’t have today because our buses are stuck in traffic AND stopping every damn block. We need higher frequency on our routes. We need more capacity on our routes. Who wants to ride on a bus during rush hour that is packed to crush load capacities? Once again we’re talking about a comprehensive transportation funding bill at the legislature. Well, if we get increased funding but all it goes to is fancy trains and streetcars that don’t provide the bulk of our service, then we haven’t learned anything and our transit service will continue to be mediocre at best.

    1. Zach Lockner

      I would add to that that, over time, we could improve ride comfort, for instance by using electric or fuel cell buses, buses would accelerate more smoothly and be more quiet. Although I acknowledge that it would be expensive and it would take a lot of time to upgrade the entire fleet.

    2. minneapolisite

      I commented about the Eclipse on Hennepin and Washington where the developer is wanting more parking than the maximum allowed: Metro Transit doesn’t run enough routes often enough, fast enough, or late enough for new residents to consider going carless and that is *detrimental* to any talk about 500,000 residents by 2025 being a reality, because all developers aren’t going to seriously expect residents to rely on Metro Transit and forgo bringing their cars into the city. Hell, even 450,000 would be a real stretch.

      We want to reach or exceed that peak population mark, but without buses there’s absolutely no way a sane person could propose we’re going to provide that population with the kind of quality mass transit that was running back when that many people lived in Mpls proper.

      I’m totally convinced the movers and shakers at Metro Transit have never ridden one of their own buses. Ever. I made repeated mistakes with the 17 (won’t get to me to NE during my work commute) vs the 17W (the one that does). After numerous lapses with the letter system I was able to take the correct 21 eastbound across w/o taking the one that ends at St Thomas.Phew! Only took me over a year to always pay attention. Now, I understand that higher frequencies would suffer if they were always to run out to the burbs/exurbs, but with a line like the 17 27th NE isn’t that far to always run the 17W to NE: just north of Lowry well within city limits and takes roughly 10 minutes according to the schedule. Way more doable than the depths of Burnsville.

      Other issues like too many stops one block apart results in a snow ball effect: you allow more time for more people to show up at more stops when you’re running late all it takes is one person at what would have been an empty stop were it on time to increase the likelihood of this happening: there were 3 10s back to back this morning: the U, the N, and the H! And then where you have high-frequency service on weekdays it is largely wasted on non-peak service. Because apparently, on weekdays we all tend to go shopping at 10 AM or to the bar at 2PM way more than we do after 5 PM to justify post 5PM high-frequency service. And here I thought we were all stuck at work during the weekday, but turns out I must work at the only job that in the cities that doesn’t offer employees a 2 hour midday siesta..

      These squiggly, letter variation routes are just more proof we have people who have no idea what they’re doing yet they’re the ones hogging the driver’s wheel.

      1. Adam MillerAdam

        Hm. I take your point, although I don’t know if buses are the marginal transportation option for the type of person who would live in the Eclipse and consider going carless.

        That person would almost certainly work downtown, and thus be able to walk to work and nearly all of their shopping and entertainment needs. Driving would be a weekend activity or only necessary for occasional trips to the suburbs or otherwise out of the immediate downtown.

        For that person, better buses might help a little, but the real substitute for their car might be a car sharing service.

        I say this as someone who only drives at most twice a week and has strongly considered getting rid of his car. If my building housed a Zipcar-type service, I’d be a lot closer to it.

        If buses were easier to use, I might take the bus too, although that would most likely be more of a substitute for walking than for driving for me.

      2. Amelia

        It’s always fun to ride the 21D Eastbound that leaves Lyndale and Lake at 7:50 am, since this is the ONLY 21D that incorporates the St. Thomas jog, yet still runs all the way to downtown St. Paul. To my knowledge, this is the only time the 21D pulls that fun number.

        Inevitably, as the bus rounds the corner, a chorus of groans and bell-ringing occurs as perturbed bus riders grumble that they thought they were on the damn D. And this happens even though the driver announces before he turns onto Cretin that he will, in fact, continue on to downtown after stopping at St. Thomas.

        Since I have never seen anyone get on or off at St. Thomas from that bus, I often wonder how much St. Thomas is paying MT (can they?) to add that stop at that time on a 21D that should never go there in the first place.

        To MT’s credit, however, there was a MT canvasser on the 53 this morning interviewing riders about how they use the bus line and why. We can’t say they aren’t making an honest effort to improve in a way that makes sense for all of us.

  6. Jonathan

    I’ve been always thinking that we’re overusing letter suffixes for bus routes in the Twin Cities.

    Do we really need a letter suffix ‘A’ just because a route doesn’t go all the way to the end of the mainline? (Looking at you, 6A). Wouldn’t it be more straightforward to make the destination sign more visible instead of making it look like a totally different route? Just saying……

    1. Mike Hicks

      Metro Transit does that too, and I’m not sure if it’s any better. Westbound route 3 buses will terminate either at Hennepin Ave or a bit further west at the 5th Street Transit Center in Ramp B, for example.

      A number of routes use the letter suffix to indicate where the route goes on the “far” side of downtown, but the only indication you have for the route before it goes downtown is to read through the messages on the destination board. Fortunately, NexTrip is usually able to write out those messages for you, but it still requires a good understanding of the route structure ahead of time, and it’s useless for folks who can’t access that system.

    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      This is quite common for mass transit systems and high-frequency bus systems. If the route is simple enough, all you should need on the display board is the route number/color and the destination. Enough with the scrolling display of shorthand locations served by this route… it’s not needed when we simplify the routing.

      Instead of 5E, 5B, 5A, etc… just say 5 *to* 38th St, 5 *to* 56th St, 5 *to* Mall of America. Easy enough.

  7. Tcmetro

    The logic behind the letters is that it doesn’t make sense to run the 18 out to 106th St every 7 minutes all day.

    They are confusing at times, but Metro Transit has been working to simplify them. Take a look at a bus map from 1997. At the time there were two systems (Minneapolis and St. Paul); so there was the Minneapolis 4 (Penn/50th/Lyndale/Johnson) and the St. Paul 4 (MOA/Airport/Snelling/Hamline/Rosedale). Most routes had nearly every letter in the alphabet. Suburban expresses were grouped under just a few route numbers. For instance:
    35A – Grand Ave (now 135)
    35B – 46th/Portland (now defunct 148)
    35C – Penn Ave (now 558)
    35D – 46th St (now 146)
    35E – Lyndale Ave (now defunct 557)
    35F – 76th St (now defunct 576)
    35G – Portland Ave (now 553)
    35H – Southdale (now 578)
    35J – Southdale/70th St (now 578)
    35K – Southdale/York Ave (now 578)
    35L – Nicollet Ave (now 554)
    35M – Burnsville (now 460)
    35N – Burnsville Pkwy (now 464)
    35P – Airport/Met Stadium
    35R – Savage/Prior Lake (now 490)
    35S – Nicollet Ave (now 554)
    35T – Burnsville (now 460)
    35Y – Burnsville/Apple Valley (now 465)
    35Z – 12th Ave (now 552)

    If that isn’t crazy enough, there was another series of 35 routes for St. Paul! The 35ABCDN!

    There are some examples where the route letters are out of control. The 6, the 9, the the 12, the 68, and the 71 are the worst offenders. Hopefully Metro Transit begins to clamp down on this more, and perhaps make the branches and short-turns more understood.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Wow. Thanks for sharing that. I guess it could always be worse.

      I understand that there are tradeoffs. My key point is that I believe transit planners undervalue the cost of a simple user experience. From inside the world of transit, where bus routes and the bus system are taken for granted and one has a relative degree of comfort with how the system works, route branching / splitting seems like a no-brainer boost to efficiency.

      But from the perspective of someone who finds transit confusing and intimidating, these added complexities come at the steep cost of alienating the very people you’re trying to entice in the first place.

    2. Nathanael

      Jesus H. W. Bush. I’ve never seen a bus numbering system as incomprehensible as the 1997 one you describe.

  8. Andy

    I live off of 40th St in South Minneapolis between Cedar and Bloomington. Because of the weird #14 routing that only occasionally goes to/from the 38th St LRT station it’s really challenging to know where to go to catch the bus. If I want to hop on the next bus to downtown, I have to check the MetroTransit website to see if the next northbound #14 is on 40th/Bloomington or 40th/Cedar Avenues. I have more than once walked to the wrong street and completely missed the bus. Simply walking to 38th and Bloomington where is a timed stop is not enough because buses stop at different corners of the intersection – so you still need to know where to wait. I have lived here for 4 years and I still don’t have confidence that I know which southbound bus letter goes to the 38th street LRT station or when it runs – is it rush hour only? In both directions? Sometimes I see it on the weekends? If I didn’t have a smartphone it would be almost impossible to use the system. Furthermore the lettering generally refers to the branch a bus takes at the end of its route, but not the branch a bus is coming from. Looking at departure number/letters for the timed stop at 38th and Bloomington doesn’t tell me enough information to know which branch the bus is coming from and determine whether to walk east or west when I leave the house.

    In sum, this is all too complicated to be useful. I’d advocate for eliminating the #14 bus to the LRT station since it adds substantial confusion and duplicates the east/west 23 & 46 operations in the area.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Hey neighbor, I also deal with the 14. I wish the E branch was eliminated.

      38th/Bloomington is one example of why we need far-side bus stops. Ford/Cleveland in St. Paul is another. It’s frustrating to not know which stop to be at, and we shouldn’t have a system where you need to watch a bus roll by across the street or miss it altogether in order to become a knowledgeable transit rider.

      The advantage of far-side bus stops, from a legibility perspective, is that it intuitively tells you which way the bus will be going.

      1. Brad

        As another neighbor and frequent 14 rider (at least during winter), +1 to all Andy and Matt said. Except, I don’t have a smartphone, so I research my unfamiliar trips if possible and check NexTrip/omgtransit/etc on the way out the door.

  9. Tony HuntTony Hunt

    This is exactly why I so rarely use the bus system. To be clear, I want to use it, and would use it and my bike pretty much exclusively IF three things changed:

    1) The bus routes were simplified
    2) They ran more regularly
    3) They actually existed in Northeast, which is for some unholy reason, a transit black hole.

    I would gladly – cheerfully – nay gleefully walk a bit further to get to buses that ran like this rather than walk a few (couple?) blocks less to get to a confusing route that runs every 45 minutes, or whenever the hell it actually does come. If we aren’t going to invest in trolleys again (which is sad we won’t), can our buses please run like they did?

  10. Evan RobertsEvan

    Of course with the great timetable and destination information at bus stops this really isn’t a problem 😉

  11. John

    In fairness to Metro Transit, most of these letters are for branches from the mainline far from downtown. For example, all of the Route 6 versions branch after the Uptown Transit station. If your destination is north of that, you can take any 6. If your destination is South of that, the tradeoff is between difficulty discerning the system and no service at all. I would prefer the confusing system.

    1. Tony HuntTony Hunt

      Can you explain why these must be the only two choices? Either a difficult system or no service?

  12. Jen

    Man, now I realize why I never rode the bus when I lived in/near MSP back in the day. Out here in SF, if something has even a *mildly* different route, it gets its own designation number. Letters like A/B/X are reserved for differing levels of express bus along any single numbered/lettered route.

  13. Pete Moss

    It looks like nobody has mentioned it, but I simply must call out that gem of a link that Bill tossed in there.

  14. Nathanael

    I do remember MSP having the least comprehensible bus system I’d ever seen in a major city, to the point where I didn’t even bother trying to take a bus, ever. (Small towns often have less comprehensible systems with no signs at bus stops and extremely irregular once-a-day routings.) That was back in the 1990s.

    More cleanup is clearly needed.

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