Why Don’t More Minneapolitans Bike, Walk, or Take Transit?

For the data lovers out there…

Minneapolis is a relatively dense residential city with a fairly dense central business district (5th highest job density in the country).  Minneapolis is also consistently rated one of the best cities for cycling in the country (as if that really means much). Yet as a city we probably under-perform on transit ridership. I wanted to understand commuter behavior in Minneapolis a bit better than high-level data sometimes allows us to, and even ACS surveys tend to gloss over in the easy-to-access information.  Specifically, I became interested in where the roughly 165,000 Minneapolitans work, where that is relative to their home, and how those distances line up with real-world commuting patterns.

Example of home zip (55408) vs top work destination zip codes

Example of home zip (55408) vs top work destination zip codes

Census On The Map is a fairly powerful tool for those without GIS software or data access, but enough MS Excel gumption to do some heavy lifting.  I used OTM’s home vs work location on a zip code basis to perform my analysis.  OTM does go down to Census Tract level, but that’s much more challenging to tie to a geographic area (address, latitude/longitude, etc), even if it would be slightly more accurate.  I ran reports for the main Minneapolis zip codes (55401-55419 & 55455), understanding there’d be a few left out.

You used to be cool, Google.

While the geographic centroid of a zip code area doesn’t necessarily match its residential or employment centroid, I figured it would be close enough.  Obviously the margin of error increases as the destination zip code becomes more suburban.  Most Minneapolis zip codes have areas between 1 and 5 square miles (roughly a 1-3 mile diameter circle of land to help visualize), while  suburban zip codes start at 7 square miles and go up from there.  I intended to use Google’s geocoding capability to find driving directions from each zip code to one another, but they heavily restrict queries per day (and waiting over the weekend didn’t seem to help…).

Instead, I decided to go the ol’ mathematical route, using latitude/longitude data by zip code to approximate distance from one center to the next “as the crow flies.”  Of course, most people can’t fly, so I wanted to model what many commuters experience: a grid of some sort.  See image below for an example and the math used.  Yes, there are some diagonals in our cities, also freeways.  Yes, some people travel in just one direction or at a distance that requires longer mileage. Yes, barriers, both natural (rivers, lakes) and man-made (freeways), muddy this simple one-turn model a bit. I was just looking for a “close enough” number here. (In hindsight, I could have just calculated E-W and N-S distances separately from the lat/long. For another time…).  For people who work in the same zip code as their home address, I approximated the distance to 0.5 miles – a good chunk work from home (5% according to ACS) and the rest are at most 3 miles.  Also, to keep data clean, I excluded zip code work destinations with 5 or fewer total workers (which was only about 2% of the data set, very negligible).


OK. Enough boring you with my methodology.  What you really care about is the breakdown of commute length.  Well, here you go:


Some quick facts: 165,000 workers live in the 20 zip codes I analyzed, and over 72,000 (44%) work within the city borders.  Over 16% of Minneapolis residents commute a mile or less to work.  A whopping 55% commute 5 or fewer miles.  The weighted average trip distance for all commuters is 8.3 miles

You’ll notice I injected a representative “potential 30 minute commute” at the 5 mile maximum.  5 miles could be covered in 30 minutes or less by these modes if 1) most of our buses operated under the arterial bus line proposal (5-8 minute wait time, ~17 mph operating speeds, average 1/4 mile walk to a station), and 2) we built out protected bikways and gave cyclists better priorities at intersections (allowing an average 10 mph speed).  Neither of those are particularly expensive (at least compared to other transit/road investments we’re making).  However, our current transit and bike infrastructure probably allows a 4 mile commute in about 30 minutes, which is still 47.7% of all Minneapolis workers.

So why is that number drastically different than reality?  The latest 3-year averages from the American Community Survey put mode shares at [Walk: 6.3%, Bike: 3.6%, Transit: 14.2%] for a grand total of 24.1% – a far cry from the potential.  Why is this? A few thoughts:

  • Parking is “free” (deducted from your salary) at many job sites, even in the city
  • Parking can be cheaper than 2-way transit fare in parts of downtown (thanks to city-subsidized lots/on-street spaces and low property tax rates on private garages)
  • Buses are slow relative to cars (ie not given the dedicated space they deserve, particularly at rush hours)
  • Buses are slow (ie not given proper station design, ticketing, and bus boarding/alighting methods)
  • Buses are confusing and are sometimes inflexible for users, a barrier to entry
  • Daily needs (day cares, groceries, etc) aren’t near transit or easy to handle by bus or bike as designed (example: no strollers on the bus, which makes bringing even one infant to daycare difficult)
  • Short-distance trips to suburbs from Mpls are not well-served by transit or quality bike infrastructure
  • Many parts of town (especially downtown) are at best highly unpleasant to walk or bike by
  • Certain modes are cheaper than they might otherwise be if they paid external costs
  • It gets both cold/snowy and hot/humid in Minnesota
  • Jobs sprawled away after population and highway investments. Barring complete abandonment of low-intensity land-uses in the suburbs, transit/bike/walk-accessible jobs will always have a capped (even with reverse-commuting possibilities)

I put these in a deliberate order – the city can’t easily control or change items toward the bottom.  But for the most part, the speed, comfort, and ease of using non-auto modes rests directly on transportation planners, while land-uses (jobs, goods, services) should be more integrated to ensure accessibility by these modes.  Instead, land use regulations and transportation investments have done the opposite and sprawled people and jobs away from walkable areas:


This is despite the fact that about 75% of our region’s jobs are office, retail, education, or government-oriented – in other words not manufacturing or warehousing that tend to require low land costs, large spaces, and freight-supportive transportation investments.  We could do better.  None of these points are major revelations to readers of this site, I just wanted to bring forward some data that surprised me a bit.

Finally, apologies to St Paul and its residents.  I don’t mean to leave you out of the picture, it was just easier to analyze only one city.

23 thoughts on “Why Don’t More Minneapolitans Bike, Walk, or Take Transit?

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Am I doing this wrong? When I searched for Minneapolis as a whole, “primary job”, only 51.9% work within 10 miles of home. is there a disparity between Minneapolis as a whole and the 20 zip codes you looked at?

    Interestingly, I was surprised to see that Apple Valley and Woodbury has a higher percentage of people working within 10 miles of home. That doesn’t address barriers to walking or transit in the modern suburbs, but it does question some assumptions about viability of bicycle commuting there.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I think the zip codes and Minneapolis as a whole don’t line up, yes. “Minneapolis” has 158k workers (66.4k of them work within the city), whereas my 20 zips have 165k workers. I’m not sure how/why on the disparity – maybe some of the zip codes cross into the first ring suburbs? I had to go that route to get a zip-to-zip level of data, unfortunately.

      And yes, I agree that many suburbs house people who work quite close. Oftentimes one parent will work in town and the other commute somewhere else. The lack of bike commuting in this case can be explained partly by bike facilities that are mostly recreational (not near things that aren’t parks/lakes), but also partly a self-sorting of personal transportation preferences. Ie it would be somewhat convenient enough to bike to work, but that person chose to live an auto-oriented lifestyle for a reason (and our larger system lacks the financial disincentives for this lifestyle – whatever the “right” number may be).

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Also, I just did a similar search to yours… searched Minneapolis, perform analysis for Distance/Direction, for those whose home is within the boundary (Mpls). It shows for me 78.6% of workers from Minneapolis travel <10 miles. Did you have it as people who work within the city? That includes people from the suburbs who travel in.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        You are 100% right — I was looking at workers, not residents. Redid and see that Minneapolis comes in at 78%, and Apple Valley comes in at 40% within 10 miles. More as expected (although still a considerable amount close to home out in AV).

  2. Jason Goray

    I can’t speak for people living everywhere in Minneapolis, but having lived in Vancouver BC, Boston MA, and Madison WI, the ability for someone living in NE Minneapolis to functionally use the bus as transportation is pretty poor.

    There is pretty much no east-west transit and the only regular line is the one which goes up Central which doesn’t help people living closer to University or the river. The one going down Washington/Monroe is pretty reliable time wise, but doesn’t run very frequently, especially outside of rush hour.

    There is almost nothing on University, absolutely nothing on Broadway, and the one that goes down 2nd is pretty wildly variable on its schedule.

    When I used to work just downtown of Washington Ave on 1st, I would time my 1.8 mile walk to get to the bus stop on 2nd and Broadway 2 – 5 minutes before the bus was due and then start walking the route. If I didn’t see it coming down 2nd, I would start walking.

    During the winter, I would often make it over the Grain Belt bridge before the bus passed me and it was not at all uncommon for me to make it all the way to work.

    I’d moved to Minneapolis with full intention of being a transit commuter, but after one winter of that, I bought a bicycle and put studs on it the next winter. Frankly, I suspect one of the reasons Minneapolis has a lot of cyclists is that if you don’t want to drive a car, its pretty solidly the best remaining option for a physically fit person even when the roads aren’t plowed and drivers hit you every once in a while.

    Honestly, I’d still rather rail or bus, but even though I now work on the University campus, bus access is still poor enough for this resident of NE that I can walk the 2.5 miles faster than I can get there by bus even if I hit the timing perfectly.

  3. Rosa

    that stroller rule is the WORST. Who thought it up? It happened after my kid was out of the stroller (and seemed to take another year or so to really be enforced.) so I rode the bus regularly in winter for six or seven years when strollers were allowed.

    There is no way it’s safer to unload the baby from the stroller, then carry the baby, stroller, and whatever else you have (diaper bag, groceries, etc). And I never noticed stroller problems when they were allowed -it was actually really nice how people would help a parent get the stroller up the bus stairs & off again.

    1. Suzanne Rhees

      No strollers on the bus? Am I missing something? I see them all the time, along with the poster showing the mom with the folded stroller boarding the bus. Has the rule changed again? I’ve been taking the 94 for 4 years now and never seen a stroller rejected.

      1. Faith

        You are apparently required to fold your stroller, which I learned when I bus driver started screaming over the loudspeaker to a woman who didn’t have her stroller folded and didn’t understand English well. Others finally had to translate for her after several minutes of yelling. She had a hard time holding the baby, the stroller and the bags she had under the stroller seat while the bus was in motion. Getting off was even harder. I felt bad for her. Old people don’t have to take their stuff out of their carts and hold it, so i

      2. Dana DeMasterDanaD

        Strollers are allowed on the bus, but they have to be folded before you board and stowed out of the aisle. This is no mean feat, as Rosa says, with a toddler, a preschooler, diaper bag, and possibly groceries or something else.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          Thanks for the backup, DanaD and Faith. I should have been more clear – they need to be folded. Bus as stated, doing so (especially alone) while juggling one infant/toddler (to say nothing of other children), diaper bags, work bags, etc etc is not easy. We’ve tried it and even though our daycare is more or less on the way to my wife’s job downtown, she will not do a baby+bus. I suspect many parents feel the same way.

          1. Caitlin

            I agree. Daycare is the reason for me – not just the trouble of taking an infant on the bus with everything else that I’d have to bring; but also the fact that we can’t afford to pay for extended daycare hours which would be necessary when you factor in the time it would take to get from my work to her daycare on public transportation (not even counting the time to get from daycare back home).

      3. Rosa

        What everyone else said about the folding up the stroller rule is what I meant. Are people using them, instead of fold-and-carrying, on the 94? If so, that’s awesome. I’ve seen the rule enforced on the 14, 21, and 5. And it is a terrible, unsafe, discriminatory rule.

        1. Suzanne Rhees

          What I was thinking: I’ve seen the non-folding stroller types, like the jogging strollers, allowed on the 94 — similar to a wheelchair or scooter, someone will fold up the front row of seats to make room. Haven’t seen too many of the folding strollers, now that I think about it….

          1. Rosa

            well that’s nice to hear but it actually makes the rule even worse because those are the really expensive strollers. So richer people get to have easier bus rides.

  4. Morgan zehner

    I have skimmed your analysis twice but it’s pretty dense so I haven’t read it thoroughly yet.

    I live in south Minneapolis, work in Edina and love to ride my bike. But as soon as I need to make multiple errands the bike ride is no longer feasible. This is all just a function of density I think. Mpls is not dense at all compared to Seattle or Portland. I think that those cities are three times as dense. East coast cities are five times as dense. A denser city would make my errands closer together and enable me to bike more often.

    The parking at my workplace is free but since I already own a car (never owned one until I got this job) I would probably pay to park most of the time anyway. It’s worth the conveniance when making multiple trips.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Hi Morgan, thanks for reading! I think I agree with you mostly, though I’m not sure Portland or Seattle are as dense relative to Minneapolis (or StP) as you state: http://www.city-data.com/forum/city-vs-city/1873161-population-weighted-density-distances-city-hall.html

      Portland doesn’t show up, but the population-weighted density at different distances from the core of the city show Mpls is pretty close to Seattle (though the fact that we drop down the list as you increase mileage from the core into Sun Belt densities shows how sprawly our region as a whole is).

      Beyond that, we’re in agreement on the lack of destinations (“accessibility”), which to me is in part a function of density. Denser places can support more retail/commercial space per square mile, which also happen to attract more people to live there (yay cities!). My wife and I are grappling with starting the daily task of dropping our son off at day care each day, and there were very options few within walking distance of our home.

      I will admit I think people overstate the need to run errands during their commutes every day. Most families don’t get groceries daily, but once (maybe twice) a week (that’s why we justify cars for the large carrying capacity instead of making daily, smaller grocery runs). I think if biking were safer and transit more frequent/speedy, people would make choices on what days to run bigger errands with their cars and bike/transit most other days (though as you point out, the sunk fixed cost of car ownership tilts the scale to convenience/marginal trip cost).

      1. Jason Goray

        When I started full time bike commuting, I found the inability to carry stuff/run errands to really make it feel like a sacrifice to me.

        It wasn’t that I needed to run errands every day, its that I lacked flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Even it only really inconveniences you every few weeks, those times can really stand out.

        For me, the solution was to get a cargo bike. It was amazing how much that changed my reality. I’m a fair bit slower (although, given stops and whatnot, not all that much different from door to door) but I can take a passenger, pick up groceries, stop by a yard sale, etc.

        Its probably not for everyone, but for me, it was the difference between “I sacrifice to bike commute” and “I bike commute”. For me, its the peace of mind of knowing I have the flexibility should I need it.

        1. Rosa

          Me too. It just made a huge difference. Now every time I ask my husband to do an errand on his way home from work and he’s all “but it won’t fit in my saddlebags!” i am kind of mad at him. Like, dude, get a real bike you can do stuff with!

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  6. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Fascinating post. Reading things like this is quite frustrating. So much emphasis is placed on people commuting on their bicycle 10 miles one-way from home to work which is like saying we only want the apples from the very top center of the tree. As you so well pointed out, even many of our work commutes are well within walking/bicycling distance if people only had safe places to do so. And this doesn’t even include all of our other trips that percentage-wise are likely much shorter than work commutes.

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