LRT Beats Bus in the Central Corridor

A Green Line train on Cedar Street at Exchange in downtown St. Paul.

A Green Line train on Cedar Street at Exchange in downtown St. Paul.

Yesterday Metro Transit put out a press release that Central Corridor ridership has doubled since the Green Line started up. That’s a true statement, but there’s more to it, so here are some additional numbers.

Before Green Line construction started, Routes 16, 50, and 94 together were averaging 650,000 riders per month. During the construction period ridership declined each year, so by 2014 the three bus routes were hauling 573,000 per month, a 12% drop from before construction. All of that reduction occurred on Routes 16 and 50. That was no surprise, given the disruption to businesses along University and the bus detour away from the center of the campus via Dinkytown. During this period, the Route 94 express actually increased ridership by 6.7%.

Although there was a big ridership increase when the Green Line opened in June, the September numbers tell a more complete story. They include the U of M startup, which upped the August numbers by 11%, not unexpected. Also, by September, the novelty ridership by people who were simply curious had probably tailed off. The Green Line total was 1,063,500 in September (37,178 per average weekday), for a corridor total of 1,185,000. Only 10% of the corridor ridership is still on buses.

As of September, the corridor total had increased 107% over the first half of 2014, but only 82% over the pre-construction level of ridership.

It’s interesting to see what happened to bus ridership. Route 50, the limited stop service, is completely gone of course. Express Route 94 lost about half of its service, but retained 55% of its pre-Green Line ridership, a testimony to its faster speed between the downtowns.

The truncated Route 16, which still runs every 20 minutes from downtown St. Paul to TCF Bank Stadium, is only hauling 15% of its pre-construction total. That means that the Green Line is carrying 85% of the former Route 16 riders. There were those who felt that low income transit dependent riders might resist the switch to LRT. Clearly that hasn’t happened. The addition of the half-mile stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western undoubtedly had a positive impact on the shift from local bus to LRT.

A ridership footnote: Although I haven’t seen any numbers to document it, the Green Line ridership increase is even more impressive because I believe it is carrying fewer students between the East and West Bank U of M campuses than the buses did. The U runs a frequent campus shuttle, but in the last several years before the Green Line many students had shifted to Metro Transit buses to cross the river. This is because they can use their unlimited ride UPasses, so they began taking whichever bus–Metro Transit or campus shuttle–came first. That has changed for two reasons:

  1. Now that Routes 16 and 50 are gone, the campus shuttles run more frequently than the Green Line and the West Bank bus stops are closer to the campus buildings than the LRT station.

  2. The shuttles stop at Coffman Union and at Oak & Washington, which the Green Line does not.

Distribution of Boardings

It’s interesting to see where people are boarding. According to data from the first half of September, here’s the breakdown:

9200 at the four downtown Minneapolis stations (Target Field to Downtown East)

9000 at the three University of Minnesota stations (West Bank to Stadium Village)

4400 from Prospect Park to Fairview Avenue

9500 from Snelling Avenue to Rice Street

5300 at the four downtown St. Paul stations (Robert Street to Union Depot)

To slice it another way, it was split almost evenly between the cities, 19,000 in Minneapolis and 18,400 in St. Paul.

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.