On the most recent streets.mn podcast, I interviewed fellow streets.mn writer David Levinson about transit and transportation while we rode the Green Line westward from end to end. Of course we had a fascination discussion all about the LRT and its costs, its foibles, and ways to improve it.
(It’s also worth mentioning that the conversation lasted exactly 63 minutes.)
A funny thing happened on the way to the Interchange. The man sitting in front of us, a clean cut white man in his 60s, turned and looked at us a few times. Eventually, during a break in the dialogue, he interjected, “You two are really complaining a lot. Don’t you like the train?” He then explained how much he enjoyed taking quality transit, and how he’d ridden the Red, Blue, and Green lines from end to end that day all the way from Apple Valley. Then he asked us, “I was just in San Francisco. Have either of you two ever been to a city with a good transit system?”
Well, of course we have! But in the spirit of pissing that guy off, I want to keep complaining. I like the Green Line as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole bunch of things I’d fix. And as streets.mn is not a civic booster site full of teddy bear stories about how great we all are, we might as well keep on piling on.
Platform Message Signs
This is nothing new. People have been complaining about the station platform message signs on the Blue Line for ten years. Having to read “please check schedules” for ten years is like being stabbed in the ear with a spork.
A few years back, I was chatting with someone from Metro Transit and brought up this issue. They knew about the signs, but argued that because the trains come every 10 minutes, it wasn’t very important to spend time or money on having exact times listed.
I want to disagree, for two reasons. First, the train is often delayed. For example, here’s a recent Facebook status update from a Saint Paul City Councilmember.
The good news is about 60 people waiting to get on the Green Line at 12:45 Thursday afternoon at Central Station in downtown St. Paul. The bad news is some of them were waiting 20 minutes.
Precise “next train” arrival signs would help passengers, particularly in cases where platforms are crowded or trains are delayed. If you know the train is 15 minutes away, you can run to a store to buy a bottle of pop or a tube of toothpaste. At the downtown Minneapolis stations, you’ll know if the next train is a Green or Blue line, and plan ahead about which one to board.
Exact arrival time provides a sense of certainty and control over a system that is often perceived to be frustratingly unpredictable. And that’s really important! In fact, a sense of predictability and security often given as one of the main reasons for the “rail bias” in the first place. (The “rail bias” refers to people’s preference for rail transit over buses.)
Second, having exact next train arrival times seems to be something simple, and would provide a useful display of bureaucratic competence. Transit apps like OMGTransit and a few others do a good job of providing real time transit data with a staff far smaller than Metro Transit. The data is out there, why not make it available to everyone (not just tech nerds with smart phones)? Each day the expensive signs continue to blink “please check schedules” is a fresh condemnation of our public institutions.
Middle vs. Side Platforms
There are many ways to design a light rail station platform, and the Green Line seems to include all of them. You can put the stations in the middle of the two train lines, or put it on the sides. You can break the station up into two separate east- and west-bound platforms, or keep them together. You can put the platforms on the far side or near side of the of the intersection. Which of these things you choose to do depends on how much space you have, both length and width, and details of traffic patterns and rail system linkages.
Someone pointed this out on Twitter a while back (forgive me, but I forget who). One of the dumbest design decisions was having pair of side platforms at the Union Depot station. I have no idea how this happened.
Here’s how it works. The Union Depot station is the end of the line. If you want to take the Green Line westward, you walk up to the station. At this point, you have to choose one of the two platforms. Which one do you choose? The train will only arrive at one of them. They both go the same direction.
Basically, the way the platform is designed, every time the Green Line arrives and departs, some of the people will be standing on the wrong platform and have to walk all the way around again to the other side to get on. It’s dumb, because if you had a center platform here (like in most main New York City stations), people would all stand in one place and get on whichever train was next to depart.
Far-side Platforms and Near-side Stopping
The final gripe is also a familiar refrain. Everyone who rides the Green Line complains about how it stops twice at nearly every intersection, first at the red light, and second at the “far-side” platform across the street.
Near-side vs. far-side stops are a design decision that depends on buses and trains being able to take advantage of green lights to pull through intersections and stop on the other side. This is useful for a few reasons. First, people getting off the bus or train will probably cross behind (instead of in front of) the vehicle. Second, the bus or train can then depart immediately from the stop, instead of having to wait for the intersection signal to turn green again. In theory far stops are safer and faster.
But every time I’ve ridden the Green Line down University Avenue, I’ve only once seen the train successfully make it through an intersection without stopping first at the near-side. (The exception that proves the rule was Westgate station, on an eastbound run, in early rush hour.)
What’s the point of having far-side platforms if the train is never going to be able to use its signal priority and get through the intersection without stopping?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a fan of the Green Line. I’m going to take it again this afternoon. But there certainly seem to have been a few mistakes along the way. Maybe they’ll fix them. Hopefully, it’ll happen soon.