Our transit maps are getting more colored lines! We now have three different routes in the METRO system, plus a commuter rail line.
In the spirit of adventure, on Monday, August 18th, I took off of work to ride the transit rails and tires across the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area from Big Lake to Apple Valley. Luckily, a moderate fog set the mood throughout the morning.
To Big Lake!
I live just south of Downtown Minneapolis sans automobile, so in order to get to Big Lake to begin the trip, I actually had to take the outbound Northstar trip at 6:13 AM. I woke up bright and early at 5:15 AM and Nice Rode to Target Field Station from Loring Park. I have a Metropass through my employer, which runs me $50/month through a pretax payroll deduction. A Metropass gets you unlimited rides in a given month, though you do have to pay extra for Northstar–a trip from Minneapolis to Big Lake (and vice versa) is $3.00, compared to the normal $6.00 fare for adults. Not counting the sunk cost of the Metropass, I traveled over 100 miles (round trip) over my whole adventure for $6.00.
After docking my Nice Ride at the North 2nd Avenue & North 6th Street bike station, I walked over to Target Field Station, taking the escalator down to the platform. The train departed on time, though twice idled on the tracks to let southbound Northstar trains pass us. We arrived in Big Lake about 15 minutes behind schedule.
Big Lake is a town with a medium-sized lake about halfway between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. It sits in Sherburne County, outside of the seven county metropolitan area under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Council. There is a little downtown area, but I don’t think anyone would object to the area being described as exurban. I graduated from high school in a pretty similar area of Northern-ish Virginia, in the kind of no man’s land between stroad-to-stroad subdivisions and open country. We even lived in a subdivision next to a commuter rail station!
At the Big Lake train station, there did appear to be a multi-story apartment building under construction off in the distance, though I’d reckon most people probably wouldn’t want to walk that far in the winter and/or if it was raining. There’s also a subdivision across the street from the train station. Like most of the north metro, there is a lot of beige siding. Based on my previous experience living in an exurban subdivision next to a commuter rail station, many of the people living there probably drive the half mile to the park and ride.
Departure: 7:38 AM
I do have some experience taking Northstar for non-research purposes. My boyfriend grew up in St. Cloud, and one summer in college he lived back home, so I’d periodically take Northstar up yonder from the University of Minnesota. Generally he’d pick me up at Big Lake, but on occasion I’d take the Northstar Link, a bus that connects Big Lake to St. Cloud. I remember the constant, low-level fear that I’d read the schedules wrong and picked an outbound train that didn’t have a corresponding bus ride into St. Cloud, because they don’t all make a connection. I also have memories of Big Lake Police Department squad cars hanging out in the park and ride lot to greet people getting off the train. There was no squad car this morning.
It was the last inbound trip of the morning, and was delayed about 20 minutes because it used the same train as the outbound trip. There was a little loon statue thing at Big Lake Station. A handful of other people boarded at Big Lake, with more trickling in at different stops. By the time we left Fridley Station, the last stop before Downtown Minneapolis, there were ~23 people on the top half of my train car, which has 140 seats. It was maybe a third full–luckily, I had a my own little four seat area with a little table to myself. And, by the way, that seat arrangement with two seats facing another two seats is the worst. Does anyone like that?
The crowd appeared to generally be white collar workers commuting into Downtown Minneapolis. My Metropass was scanned by Metro Transit police officers on both the outbound and inbound trips–I think I remember that being done by conductors in the past? The train had free wi-fi and a couple laptops were out. One guy slept with a book open. More than zero passengers had blaze orange visible–Northstar travels straight through the middle of Minnesota’s most conservative congressional district, which is ironic considering the massive subsidy (something like $17 or $18 per rider) required to operate the train. Both Congresswoman Bachmann and Governor Pawlenty supported the project at the time it was funded and built. (8/25/14 Note: As it turns out, Congresswoman Bachmann did not really support the line. She did request federal funding for it, but did not personally want it to get built.)
After we left Big Lake, it was a straight shot into the city, with no delays other than scheduled stops. There were lots of freight trains headed north, but everything appeared to be synced up correctly so as to prevent us from idling. In general, delays due to freight traffic have increasingly been an issue, and at times the Metro Transit Twitter has basically been a continuous stream of Tweets about Northstar delays. We did pay Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad $107.5 million dollars for trackage rights, so there’s that.
All of the Northstar stations have park and rides. They’re not huge, but eyeballing it from the train, I’d say they were mostly a little more than half full. Ramsey and Anoka (and, I guess, Downtown Minneapolis) Stations have structured park and rides. The Ramsey Station has a pretty detailed transit-oriented development plan (page 6) and has started following through on some of it. One of the apartment buildings has already been built, along with a bit of office/retail and a government center for the City of Ramsey.
One of the challenges with any suburban transit oriented development outside the core cities is that you’re really not going to eliminate the need for a car. In this case, there’s a Coburn’s grocery store within walking distance, and the train station to get you to Downtown Minneapolis, but I can’t really imagine anyone living here without a car–yet. Maybe, if/when that whole development plan has been fleshed out, it would seem doable. But for now, you’d be marooned. So in almost all situations with suburban-focused transit, you’re really just chasing after the possibility of eliminating two car trips per day, but more likely, you’re chasing after the possibility of shortening two car trips per day, as most people are going to be arriving at the station by car.
Furthermore, ridership on Northstar has lagged behind projections. In 2013, there were 787,239 rides, more than 100,000 below the ridership we’d projected for 2010 before the line opened in 2009. As mentioned earlier, the per ride subsidy runs something like $17 or $18 per ride, which is, ah, a lot. Doing some back of the napkin math, multiplying the 2013 Q3 weekday daily ridership of 3,100 by $17 gets you $52,700 per weekday. Probably good for a lot of bus shelters (obviously it doesn’t work that way, we all know it doesn’t work that way, that’s besides the point). There are a lot of potential and probable reasons for Northstar’s low ridership, including traffic congestion in the Twin Cities being not quite as apocalyptic as many other parts of the country and the prospect of a transfer to the Blue Line at Target Field Station to get into the central business district of Downtown Minneapolis. Also, I suspect that people in the conservative north metro are maybe less amenable to using transit than, say, Minnetonkans.
Anywho, we did arrive in Downtown Minneapolis about half an hour late due to our initial late departure. People shuffled out of the train and up the stairs and escalator to 5th Street where the connection to the Blue Line is located. It felt very European! Just like Grand Central Station! I did stop for a moment to take a picture standing in that pedestrian area between the two Target Field Station platforms, and I did turn around and immediately run directly into a person who was walking. In light of all the complaints about the noisy pedestrian signals, I thought that was a hoot.
Arrival: 8:40 AM
Departure: 8:44 AM
At this point, the Blue Line is old news! It’s been up and running for over ten years. The Blue Line, known for years as the Hiawatha Line, travels from Target Field in Downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America in Bloomington. I’m pretty sure that there were two riders (guessing a father and daughter) who got off of the same Northstar train as me and also rode all the way to the Mall of America–I wonder if that’s common? There were lots of different people on the three car train. TSA workers leaving the airport, other people going to the airport, stray teenagers, whole families, etc. You could hear muffled music from headphones. It wasn’t crowded, but most of the seats were taken. I, with my intimidating notebook, did not end up with a seatmate.
Ridership projections for the Blue Line have been blown out of the water, and weekday ridership in 2013 (about 33,500) was about 35% higher than what we had projected it would be in 2020 (24,800 – page 37). That said, transit oriented land use changes around Blue Line stations haven’t been dramatic. The recession certainly didn’t help, but it’s taken ten years for some of the more obvious station-adjacent parking/vacant lots to be redeveloped at the Nicollet Mall, Cedar-Riverside, and Lake Street Stations. Bloomington Central Station certainly fizzled after getting its two condo buildings built. We could reasonably assume, though, that with grocery stores popping up seemingly weekly in Downtown Minneapolis and the apartment boom continuing, the stations will see more infill in the Blue Line’s second decade.
The Blue Line, though, does connect lots of things, and has two major trip generators (Downtown Minneapolis & the Mall of America) on each end, and a third major trip generator (the airport) towards the end of the southern portion. There are intuitive transit connections throughout at Nicollet Mall, Lake Street, and the transfer point to the Green Line in Downtown East. When it opened in 2004, there were already tens of thousands of people who could easily walk to the Blue Line’s stations from their homes and apartments, though some of the pedestrian conditions along Hiawatha Avenue could use some work. All things considered, the Blue Line was and is a success.
After winding around some fields in Bloomington, our train arrived at Mall of America Station on time.
Arrival: 9:29 AM
Departure: 9:31 AM
I quickly hopped onto a waiting Red Line bus at Mall of America Station. It was my first time! I was one of four people on the bus, including the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) driver and a man in a Metro Transit uniform. We rolled out of the mall and onto Highway 77 (Cedar Avenue), heading south across the Minnesota River valley to Eagan. And finally, the sun came out. I’d been freezing all morning. Both Northstar trains and the Blue Line train were air conditioned down to probably 40 degrees. And the seats! The seats are covered in material from your grandmother’s living room.
I did like the buses. You can hear the turn signal clicking! The seats on the right side were removed near the back door, which seems like a really functional seat configuration. There was also a rear boarding payment system set up for riders with transit passes, which also seems to make a lot of sense.
The Red Line opened up last year. It’s been billed as bus rapid transit, though the exact definition of bus rapid transit is elusive and unlikely to be worked out in any of our lifetimes. The Red Line…doesn’t really make sense. It travels from the Apple Valley Transit Station to the Mall of America. That’s it. So there’s a required transfer to go anywhere else on transit. The location of Cedar Grove Station, the second station after the mall, is also sort of bizarre. The bus gets off of Highway 77 and backtracks for a mile or so, presumably to make connections and hit the now open outlet stores down in Eagan. Another $14.6 million dollars is sought (on top of the $112 million dollar project cost) to move the station into the median of the highway.
We picked up one person at Cedar Grove Station, and no one at the the 140th Street and 147th Street Stations. I felt sort of bad for the driver, having to do this loop constantly, every day, stopping to pick up phantom passengers at empty bus stations. There was a certain vibe to it. All four passengers got off at the Apple Valley Transit Station. The exit doors at the station open up into the garage of a Midas. Ridership has been lower than projected, with just 839 daily riders on average in June. Dividing that by the 130 trips per day noted on the schedule, that leaves you with 6.45 rides per trip–presumably the .45 accounts for streets.mn writers with notebooks who aren’t really commuting.
Arrival: 9:54 AM
I don’t really get the sense that congestion is bad enough in the fairly-wealthy south metro to convince people to drive to Apple Valley Transit Station, park, get on a bus, switch to a train in the basement of the Mall of America, and then take a train into Downtown Minneapolis. Besides, there are already express buses in Apple Valley and Eagan that go directly to downtown, so…again, it doesn’t really make sense. The Mall of America is a destination by itself, but most of its trips aren’t being generated during rush hour, when congestion is the worst–it’s hard to imagine many people in Apple Valley driving ten minutes to a Red Line station, parking, paying for the train, and going to the mall, when they can just continue driving another ten minutes. Hell, I probably would.
I made a joke last year that the Red Line is an expensive bus from the Mall of America to the Apple Valley Batteries Plus, but at the time I missed that there are actually three (3) separate auto repair shops immediately next to the station, which is fantastic. There are some apartments and townhouses along the route, but generally Cedar Avenue is surrounded by big box chain stores and their corresponding enormous parking lots. I certainly did feel like a kid again, jaywalking and wandering around for a bit, taking some photos and just generally taking it all in. It’s a huge road and it’s not really clear what kind of transit oriented development potential any of this has in the near future.
So those are three of our transit lines, and examples of commuter rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit (probably). Are they functional and successful? If you were in a situation where you had to save two of three, would you bother saving more than the Blue Line? Northstar is probably eventually salvageable as the first half of an inter city rail link to St. Cloud, but that’s certainly at least an entire decade away. And why do our models and projections underestimate ridership on urban routes like the Blue and Green Lines and overestimate ridership on suburban and exurban routes like Northstar and the Red Line? I don’t know! I didn’t go to grad school.
There’s a conflation that goes on around here and in other places, where everyone who challenges the status quo kind of gets lumped together. People who respond to news of a new bus shelter on Franklin Avenue in South Minneapolis with “well, we should be building a doubledecker subway under Franklin to link to my Plymouth and Rosemount heavy rail proposals” are tossed in with people who ask, in a pretty reasonable tone, what exactly the point of the Red Line is.
What is our goal here? Is it to put colored lines on a map and juice our numbers so that we can say x.x% of people in our metro area touched transit in a year? Certainly, the suburbs are here and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. But we shouldn’t continue spending hundreds of millions (billions?) of dollars to build transit to places where the underlying land use is so broken that the transit can’t be successful.
Note: I did have the idea to take what I think is the longest possible transit trip in the Twin Cities Combined Statistical Area, using the St. Cloud Metro Bus to go from Sartell to St. Cloud, then the Northstar Link from St. Cloud to Big Lake, Northstar from Big Lake to Minneapolis, the Green Line from Minneapolis to St. Paul, and then an express bus out to Stillwater, but working out the times with express buses seemed too risky when a vacation day was hanging in the balance. Also, I would have been stranded in Stillwater.