The Big Show

fair entrance

If you want to see the biggest transit show in Minnesota, or anywhere between Chicago and the West Coast for that matter, hop a bus to the new State Fair bus terminal between now and Labor Day. Almost half of fairgoers arrive by bus, and those are now concentrated on the northwest side of the fair grounds. In addition to the new entry gate that replaced Heritage Square (see above), the terminal itself is just temporary fencing and lines painted on the asphalt of the big parking lot that serves the U of M’s St. Paul Campus most of the year. Built on the cheap, the loading and layover areas will need improvement because the buses are crushing the thin asphalt. Even so, it’s a big improvement on the facilities it replaced.

There are two very large bus loops, one for the suburban express buses and Metro Transit’s Route 960 to downtown Minneapolis, the other for the free shuttles to park-ride lots from the U of M, St. Paul and Roseville. Each destination has a well-marked loading area. Where you get off is the same spot that you get on. The terminal replaces two terminals on the south side of Como Avenue and accommodates quite a few of the shuttle buses that formerly stopped along Midway Parkway just east of Snelling Avenue. Within the two loops is space to stage buses that aren’t scheduled to leave immediately.

The new location is one block beyond the east end of the U of M’s intercampus busway, and that’s the key to its success. No longer do buses and their passengers clog Como Avenue. Pretty much every bus uses the busway to at least Highway 280, thereby avoiding the congestion near the fair. The sheer volume of buses and passengers is something to see. A constant stream of them pours in and out.

Metro Transit views the fair service as a marketing tool, introducing people to transit who would otherwise avoid it. One can debate whether the experience translates into more non-fair ridership, but there’s no question it has changed transportation to the fair. 30 years ago almost everyone drove. The change didn’t happen by accident. The State Fair realized that the only way to grow was through transit, not the automobile. Instead of building parking ramps, the fair proceeded to subsidize more and more shuttles to nearby lots. For its part, Metro Transit created suburban park-ride expresses to the fair in the 1990s. They were an outgrowth of the similar, successful expresses to the Super Bowl and the World Series.

This is a real transit success story. Check it out.




Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.

10 thoughts on “The Big Show

  1. Heidi SchallbergHeidi

    Last year was my first state fair. I have never seen so many buses in one place outside of a bus garage. It was amazing to see so many people arriving by bus. I don’t know why anyone bothers to drive directly to the fair with the excellent transit options to it.

    1. Rosa

      this was the first year we ever drove to the fair. A friend gave us free company-day tickets and free parking. It was kind of nice – the driving traffic (since we parked a few blocks away) was not nearly as bad as it looks from a bus window and we had sleepy/cranky kiddo strapped into his carseat instead of having to keep him upright on the bus.

      Previously we’ve biked, which was great when we were hauling a baby and a giant diaper/snack bag, and will be great again when kiddo’s big enough to ride all that way and then be cheerful at the fair itself. Recent years we’ve taken the express bus from a stop we can all bike to, which is ideal.

      The less ideal year we took a multi-transfer bus (bus to express bus), which was not so great, and would be less great if we were saving cash by hauling a lot of food like Adam mentioned.

    2. Kassie

      We drove to the fair this year. On Friday, we wanted to see Chastity Brown, who started at 7:30. My boyfriend doesn’t get home from work until 6:00, and has to shower and get ready. Biking is out because the roads to our house are all under construction and/or 45MPH, so we don’t feel safe on them after dark. Busing was out because taking the bus downtown, then taking the 3 is SO SLOW. I will never understand why St. Paul doesn’t get a slick express bus like Minneapolis does. So we drove, parked on a local street, walked in, and got there in time to see most of the show. Living in Minneapolis, I always took the 960 from downtown or biked in. St. Paul just isn’t as friendly for getting to and from the fair, at least from the East Side.

    3. Monte Castleman

      A few possibilities:
      1) There are people that simply never ride buses no matter how convenient they are. My family falls into that category, I haven’t ridden a public bus in decades and no one else in my family has either. Obviously a lot of people change their habit for the fair, but a lot of people do not. Even though catching a fair bus is presumably easier than figuring out how to get from say Bloomington to Eagan on a bus, if you drive everywhere it seems simplest just to drive there.

      2) Cars still offer certain advantages- family of four? Pay one price to park instead of four bus fares (or even park for free on neighborhood streets). Stop at McDonalds on the way to eat instead of expensive fair food for breakfast. Stash your coat in your car and pick it up if it gets cold in the evening, and drop of that huge bear your kid won. Stop at the bank on the way there to get some cheese curd cash.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        A lot of that just sounds like being stubborn. I mean, coats? Really? The car trips to the bank or McDonalds could be accomplished on the way to the park & ride lot.

        You did make one point that mostly holds – the cost. For groups of four or more, it is probably cheaper to drive to the fair. The group bus ticket would cost $20. I’m not sure what parking costs, but I’d guess it’s in the $10-15 range. Once you add in the cost of gas, it’s probably a wash.

        The other advantages to the bus are that it practically drops you off inside the fair – you don’t have to walk several blocks from where you parked. This is a huge advantage for the elderly/disabled. After working the Bloomington/MOA Park & Ride for two years as a Metro Transit intern, I can tell you that the vast majority of riders are not regular transit users. People come to that park & ride from all over the south metro and beyond. For most, beyond the issue of cost, it’s simply less stressful to board the bus and let someone else handle the traffic.

          1. Matt Brillhart

            Well right, but those free “shuttle” rides are mostly convenient to nearby residents of St. Paul & Roseville. Someone coming from the south or west probably wouldn’t drive *past* the fair to arrive at a free lot: I assume those parking lots fill up pretty quickly as well, given the price! Those buses are funded by the State Fair, IIRC. Metro Transit goes as far as including the map on their website and including it in their Fair brochures, but it is entirely a private service.

            I was speaking specifically to the suburban park & rides that charge $5 a head, round trip, provided by Metro Transit and the opt outs:

  2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    Haven’t been to the State Fair since 2006 (last time I was home on leave during Fair time). Took the bus from the U of M and it was very easy to do even then.

    One possibly-valid reason for people to continue to drive directly to the fair would be those who make a full picnic out of it, as we did when growing up. If you get all your food at the fair, however, then there’s much less point in driving yourself, especially since I imagine the transit options are far more numerous now than they were 8 years ago.

  3. Eric

    I always drive to a free park/ride in Roseville (which for some reason drop off at the front gate instead of the new hub) because bus transfers with 2/kids + stroller doesn’t appeal to me at all. But that isn’t really free. Probably 45 minutes total of extra transit time, round trip ride, loading/offloading, etc. Next time I’ll look for cheap local parking before heading to the park and ride.

    On a side note, metro transit said that Roseville High School would be available every day all day and I found out on site that they periodically close for events. That was frustrating.

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