The Effectiveness of Non-Downtown Transit Hubs


Southdale Transit Center

Southdale Transit Center

In 1970, when Metro Transit purchased the privately-owned Twin City Lines, the route system was essentially the old streetcar system plus some suburban extensions. Except for a handful of urban crosstowns and one suburban crosstown, all routes radiated from the two downtowns. If your origin and destination were in the suburbs or the outer center city neighborhoods, getting there by bus meant an extremely indirect trip via downtown, or a 2-transfer trip via one of the crosstowns.

These trips were certainly not competitive with the automobile. They were incredibly slow because the routing was so circuitous and because almost all the transfers occurred at random—very few buses were scheduled to connect with each other. It wasn’t as bad if both lines ran at least every 15 minutes, but most lines didn’t run that frequently. In fact most buses serving the suburbs or outer portions of Minneapolis and St. Paul never ran more often that half-hourly, so random transfers never worked outside the center city.

I was working in Metro Transit’s Service Planning department at the time. We started to hear about a new approach to timed transfers being advocated by Professor John Bakker of the University of Alberta and applied in Canada. Today we’d call it hub and spoke, the well-known model used by the airlines. Bakker proposed a network of transit hubs located 20-25 minutes bus travel time from each other. Bus routes would radiate from each hub, in the process connecting the hubs with each other. All the buses would leave all the hubs at the same time, arriving at the next hub 20-25 minutes later. There would be 5-10 minutes for all the buses to exchange passengers, then off they’d go again. The short route lengths and generous layovers would ensure reliability and all transfer connections would be guaranteed. By hopping from hub to hub, trips could be made reliably and in a reasonable amount of time, even with hourly frequencies.

Here was a strategy that could make transit workable in the suburbs. It might not get people out of their cars, but at least it could serve the ever-growing number of transit-dependent suburbanites cost-effectively.

Fast forward to today and much of the Twin Cities’ transit hub network is in place. Geography doesn’t permit the purity of Bakker’s vision, with all the hubs evenly spaced and uniform departure times. Nonetheless, even in an austere funding climate, mobility away from the downtowns has greatly improved. Along the way some other lessons have been learned.

  1. Where possible, the hubs have been co-located with large retail concentrations. Might as well put them where more people want to go anyway, although the large regional malls have fought transit facilities on their property.
  2. Co-locating them with park-ride lots opens up the opportunity to add express service to the mix and for local routes to feed the expresses.
  3. Off-street facilities that have a real identity and decent waiting shelters attract many more riders than anonymous on-street transfer points.
  4. Add light rail to the mix and the boarding counts increase dramatically.

So how are the hubs (Metro Transit calls them transit centers) doing? I recently was able to access Metro Transit’s bus stop database to get a count of the boardings at each of the Twin Cities’ transit hubs. Here’s a list of them from most to least busy. Note: This analysis doesn’t include the transit centers in Burnsville, Apple Valley, Eagan and Eden Prairie. Ridership numbers for them are unavailable because they are run by the opt-outs. That’s also true for boarding counts for opt out buses that serve Metro Transit’s hubs, so I’ve made estimates.

Mall of America
Weekday boardings:
2472          Blue Line LRT
378            Red Line BRT to Apple Valley
644            Bus route 5 to Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis
684            Bus route 54 to downtown St. Paul
8                Bus route 415 to Mendota Heights (rush hours only)
300(est) MVTA Bus route 444 to Burnsville
367            Bus route 515 66th Street Crosstown to Southdale
134            Bus route 538 86th Street Crosstown to Bloomington and Southdale
234            Bus route 539 98th Street Crosstown to Bloomington
208            Bus route 540 77th Street Crosstown to Richfield and Edina
58              Bus route 542 American Blvd. Crosstown to Bloomington (rush hours only)
5487            Total

MOA is the best local example of piggybacking a suburban transfer hub onto a popular destination and the numbers reflect that. Although the LRT runs every ten minutes and bus routes 5, 54 and 515 run every 15 minutes, the less frequent routes do classic timed transfer on the hour and the half hour. There is officially no park-ride lot at MOA, which is why the 28th Avenue park-ride was constructed a couple of blocks to the east. Nonetheless, Twins and Vikings fans routinely park-ride in the Mall ramps. Plans call for Route 5 to be replaced by arterial BRT in the future. Route 54 was originally to be upgraded to arterial BRT, but that has been postponed to study LRT in the Riverview Corridor.

Blue Line Midtown Station
Weekday boardings:
2572            Blue Line
378              Bus route 21 east to St. Paul
765              Bus routes 21 and 53 west to Lake Street and Uptown
74                 Bus route 27 26th Street Crosstown
33                 Bus route 53 limited stop to downtown St. Paul (rush hours only)
3822            Total

This isn’t really a transit hub, but a traditional on-street transfer point. Nonetheless it shows the power of LRT to create ridership where there wasn’t any before.

Brooklyn Center Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
644            Bus route 5 to Fremont Avenue in Minneapolis
446            Bus route 19 to Penn Avenue in Minneapolis
362            Bus route 22 to Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis
85            Bus route 717 to Robbinsdale and New Hope
206            Bus route 721 Bass Lake Road to Crystal and Hennepin Technical Center
422            Bus route 722 to northeast Brooklyn Center
341            Bus route 723 to Brooklyn Park and North Hennepin College
645            Bus route 724 to Brooklyn Park
135            Bus route 724 limited stop to downtown Minneapolis
41            Bus route 801 to Columbia Heights and Rosedale (rush hours only)
3393            Total

BCTC is the biggest all-bus hub in the Twin Cities, with total bus boardings that beat MOA. It’s also the purest timed transfer operation in the metro area, with all buses meeting on the hour and half hour. Visit it sometime—it’s quite a show. Ridership demand from a heavily transit dependent population has led to service increases, with most of the hourly suburban shuttles going to half-hourly, along with the limited stop to downtown Minneapolis. Route 19 to Minneapolis has also become more frequent and is now scheduled to become an arterial BRT.

Before the present site was selected, Metro Transit carried on a huge multi-year fight with the City of Brooklyn Center to keep the hub close to Brookdale. Then Brookdale closed down and ridership has still increased. This hub has no park-ride lot.

Uptown Station
Weekday boardings:
533            Bus routes 6 and 12 to downtown Minneapolis
403            Bus route 6 south to Edina
590            Bus route 12 to St. Louis Park and Hopkins
342            Bus route 17 to downtown Minneapolis
371            Bus route 17 to St. Louis Park
840            Bus route 21 to Lake Street
175            Bus route 23 38th Street Crosstown
53            Bus route 53 to Lake Street and St. Paul (rush hours only)
56            Bus route 114 to University of Minnesota
3363            Total

Before Uptown Station was built, some of these bus routes took layover on the street blocks apart, with transferring passengers having to walk from up to two blocks from one obscure bus stop to another. No one wanted the buses in front of their buildings, so stops were always moving. Building the station was only possible because new land was created by widening the Hennepin Avenue bridge over the Midtown Greenway and filling in the greenway’s south side slope. By all accounts the station has been a huge success, increasing ridership and customer convenience, while providing needed restrooms for the bus drivers (always a side benefit of new transit centers). Furthermore, it closed the greenway gap in the Hennepin Avenue street frontage, making the neighborhood more walkable. The Uptown Station is positioned to serve future rail in the greenway.

 Lake and Chicago Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
1108            Bus route 5 to downtown
472            Bus route 5 to Richfield and MOA
719             Bus route 21 east to Lake Street and St. Paul
690            Bus routes 21 and 53 to Uptown
47            Bus route 39 limited stop to downtown (rush hours only)
62            Bus route 53 limited stop to St. Paul (rush hours only)
3098            Total

Constructed as part of the Midtown Exchange project that saved the Lake Street Sears building, this transit center replaced the traditional Lake and Chicago transfer point that dated back to the streetcar days. Why do that? The transfer point was a haven for drug dealers who hid among the bus passengers. Passengers would cross the busy streets against the light to try and catch connecting buses. The new off-street transit center is more convenient to the Midtown Exchange and Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Passengers making connections no longer risk getting run over. Security cameras and police surveillance rooms built into the new bus shelters have prevented crime. And climate controlled waiting rooms make waiting much more pleasant. The only downside is that buses have to divert from the route to serve the center, but it’s well-placed for future greenway rail and arterial BRT on Chicago Avenue.

Blue Line 46th Street Station
Weekday boardings:
1777            Blue Line
56            Bus route 7 north to Minnehaha Avenue
113            Bus route 7 south to 34th Avenue S.
110            Bus route 9 north to Longfellow and Seward
44            Bus route 46 to Highland Park
43            Bus route 46 46th Street Crosstown to south Minneapolis and Edina
447            Bus route 74 to Highland Park and Randolph Avenue
244            Bus route 84 Snelling Crosstown to St. Paul
100(est) MVTA Bus routes 436 and 446 to Eagan
2934            Total

This transit center opened up transit travel options where none existed before, simply by tying together the Blue Line with all the bus routes that happened to be nearby. About 60 percent of the Blue Line passengers at this station transfer from buses. The Route 46 46th Street Crosstown was a new service that started with the LRT. The multi-route synergy persuaded MVTA to discontinue its Eagan reverse commute buses from downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul and the St. Paul Midway in favor of a shuttle to 46th Street Station, a fine example of coordinating metro resources. Next year Route 84 will be upgraded to region’s first arterial BRT.

Blue Line 38th Street Station

Weekday boardings:
1607            Blue Line
34            Bus route 14 north to Bloomington Avenue
87            Bus route 22 north to Cedar Avenue
159            Bus route 22 south to 28th Avenue S.
67            Bus route 23 east to 38th Street and Highland Park
234            Bus route 23 west to 38th Street and Uptown
2188            Total

Like 46th Street above, the 38th Street Station opened up transit travel options where none existed before, simply by tying together the Blue Line with the bus routes that happened to be close by. About 30 percent of the Blue Line passengers at this station transfer from buses.

Blue Line Franklin Avenue Station
Weekday boardings:
1515            Blue Line
119            Bus route 2 east to Riverside Avenue and the University of Minnesota
316             Bus route 2 and 9 west to Franklin Avenue
58            Bus route 67 to Prospect Park and St. Paul (Note: this number is for Route 8, since combined with Route 67 since the Green Line opening)
87            Bus route 9 to Seward and Longfellow
2095            Total

Like the Lake Street Station, this is really an on-street transfer point under the LRT station, but at a location that previously had no ridership.

Rosedale Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
143            Bus route 32 Lowry Crosstown to northeast and north Minneapolis
186            Bus route 65 Dale Street Crosstown
534            Bus route 84 Snelling Avenue Crosstown
132            Bus route 87 Raymond Avenue-Cleveland Avenue Crosstown
45            Bus route 223 to Roseville, Little Canada and Maplewood
79            Bus route 225 to Shoreview
48            Bus route 227 to Shoreview
122            Bus route 264 express to downtown Minneapolis
96            Bus route 801 to St. Anthony and Columbia Heights
1385 Total

Rosedale has fought this transit center, which is located on their property. Only pressure from the City of Roseville made it happen. Rosedale successfully evicted the park-ride lot, which was replaced by a new parking ramp a mile to the west. The transit center has a finite lease, and it will be interesting to see if Rosedale evicts the center when the lease expires. In the meantime, this is a true timed-transfer operation, at 20 and 50 minutes past the hour. This year the frequency of Routes 65, 84 and 87 was increased in conjunction with the Green Line opening, so hopefully these ridership numbers will increase as well. Next year Route 84 will become the arterial BRT A Line.

Northtown Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
522            Bus route 10 to Spring Lake Park, Fridley and Columbia Heights
67            Bus routes 25 and 825 to Mounds View, New Brighton and St. Anthony
141            Bus route 805 to Coon Rapids and Anoka
156            Bus routes 824 and 854 express to downtown Minneapolis (rush hours only)
100            Bus route 831 to Blaine
85            Bus route 852 to East River Road and downtown Minneapolis
107            Bus route 852 to Coon Rapids Blvd. and Anoka
117            Bus route 860 express to downtown St. Paul (rush hours only)
1310             Total

One-fifth of Northtown’s ridership is express park-ride. However, the rest is time transfers and people going to Northtown Mall. Route 10 frequency was recently doubled, so some increase should occur.

Maplewood Mall Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
425            Bus route 64 to North St. Paul, Maplewood and St. Paul
65            Bus route 80 White Bear Avenue Crosstown to St. Paul’s East Side
153            Bus route 219 Century Avenue Crosstown to Lakewood Community College
49            Bus route 223 to Little Canada and Roseville
48            Bus route 265 express to downtown St. Paul (rush hours only)
8            Bus route 265 to White Bear Lake (rush hours only)
414            Bus route 270 express to downtown Minneapolis
8            Bus route 270 to Mahtomedi (rush hours only)
30            Bus route 272 express to the University of Minnesota (rush hours only)
1213             Total

This hub owes 40 percent of its ridership to the park-ride lot. Transferring is rather light. As with many of the suburban hubs, the local bus ridership is heavily skewed to the routes from the center city, with the mall as the destination.

Southdale Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
349            Bus route 6 to Minneapolis
80            Bus route 6 south to Edina
270             Bus route 515 66th Street Crosstown to Richfield and MOA
47            Bus route 537 to Normandale College
77            Bus route 538 to east Bloomington
55            Bus route 578 express to downtown Minneapolis (rush hours only)
35            Bus route 579 express to the University of Minnesota (rush hours only)
50(est)   Southwest Bus route 684 to Eden Prairie (rush hours only)
963            Total

Buses have served Southdale since it opened in 1956. The new transit center is the fourth location on the grounds and it happened because the City of Edina forced Southdale’s hand. The new facility is the nicest ever and finally the park-ride lot has been placed next to the transit center. That appears to have doubled the park-ride use, although that’s not reflected in these numbers.

Sunray Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
290            Bus route 63 west to St. Paul via 3rd Street
76            Bus route 63 east to Maplewood
116            Bus route 70 to St. Paul via Burns Avenue
195            Bus route 74 to St. Paul via East 7th Street
89            Bus route 80 to Maplewood Mall via White Bear Avenue
170            Bus route 219 to Maplewood mall via Century Avenue
936            Total

Located next to Sunray Shopping Center, this transit hub ties the East Side of St. Paul and nearby suburbs together with timed transfer connections for the first time, so most of that ridership number is new since it opened.

Robbinsdale Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
385            Bus route 14 to Minneapolis
111            Bus route 43 Lowry Crosstown to Minneapolis and Rosedale
69            Bus route 716 north to Brooklyn Park
50            Bus route 717 east to Brooklyn Center Transit Center
65            Bus route 717 west to Crystal and New Hope
680            Total

Route 14 used to run every 20 minutes from Minneapolis to Robbinsdale, where it split into three hourly branches to points farther north. The branches weren’t timed to connect with each other, which prevented local trips within the suburbs. With the opening of the transit center the branches were turned into separate shuttle routes that meet each other and the Route 14, opening up suburban trips that were not possible before. When the Bottineau LRT is built along the adjacent railroad right of way, this transit center will be waiting and ready to serve it.

Louisiana Transit Center

Weekday boardings:
32            Bus route 9 to Minneapolis via Bryn Mawr
8            Bus routes 9 and 663 to St. Louis Park via Cedar Lake Road
17            Bus route 604 to St. Louis Park via Louisiana Avenue
17            Bus routes 643 and 649 reverse commute expresses to Minneapolis (rush hours only)
32            Bus route 652 express to the University of Minnesota (rush hours only)
379            Bus routes 663 and 675 expresses to Minneapolis
99            Bus route 705 to Golden Valley, Crystal, New Hope and Brooklyn Park
615            Total

Until a few years ago this center, built by MnDOT along with I-394, was only used as a park-ride lot, and that is still the case for most of its riders. Built on surplus highway land at an interchange, there isn’t much retail nearby. The west metro suburbs is a tough transit market and Metro Transit has only recently started developing suburb-to-suburb connections here. The Southwest LRT will have some positive impact.

Columbia Heights Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
159             Bus routes 10 and 59 to Fridley and Blaine
228            Bus routes 10 and 59 to Minneapolis via Central Avenue
137            Bus route 11 to Minneapolis via 2nd Street NE
17            Bus route 118 to the University of Minnesota (rush hours only)
48            Bus route 801 east to St. Anthony and Rosedale
19            Bus route 801 west to Fridley and Brooklyn Center (rush hours only)
608         Total

This center in the parking lot of a small strip mall at 41st and Central hasn’t achieved its potential because Route 801 service was reduced during one of Metro Transit’s budget shortage years, eliminating half of the transfer options. Also, the southbound buses stop across the street on Central Avenue instead of entering the center.

 South Bloomington Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
52            Bus route 18 to Richfield via Nicollet Avenue
20            Bus route 18 to south Bloomington via Lyndale Avenue
65            Bus route 535 and 554 express to Richfield and Minneapolis via I-35W
80            Bus routes 535 and 539 to Normandale College
48            Bus route 539 to Mall of America
12            Bus route 597 to west Bloomington (rush hours only)
200(est) Bus routes 597 and MVTA 465 nonstop express to Minneapolis
30(est) Bus route MVTA 465 to Burnsville Transit Center
507            Total

This center does a nice job of tying together south Bloomington destinations and has some nearby retail. Its park-ride lot has been expanded once and is again at capacity. This will be a stop on the Orange Line I-35W BRT between Minneapolis and Burnsville.

Starlite Transit Center
Weekday boardings:
55            Bus route 705 to Crystal, New Hope, Golden valley via Winnetka Avenue
94            Bus route 723 to North Hennepin College and Brookyn Park
271            Bus route 724 to Brooklyn Center Transit Center
420            Total

Starlite, named the drive-in theater that used to be here, is the third of the transit center trio (along with Brooklyn Center Transit Center and Robbinsdale Transit Center) designed to tie the northwest suburbs together. It’s in a strip mall with a Super Target, so there is destination shopping. An experimental route from here to Maple Grove failed a few years ago, but should be revived because the center is next to the proposed Bottineau LRT line alignment.

 I-35W and 46th Street Station
Weekday boardings:
36            Bus route 11 to Minneapolis via 4th Avenue S.
43            Bus route 46 east to Blue Line 46th Street Station
44            Bus route 46 west to Edina
129            Bus route 535 to downtown Minneapolis
43            Bus route 535 to Richfield and Bloomington
295            Total

Because there isn’t much walkup potential, this hub is basically reliant on bus transfers. It provides a southern outlet for the Route 11 4th Avenue bus, which previous deadended at 48th Street and 4th Avenue. Metro Transit is hoping for better transfer volumes from new crosstown Route 46, but those numbers have been modest to date.  46th Street should reach its potential when it becomes a station on the Orange Line BRT connecting Minneapolis with Burnsville via I-35W in a few years. The BRT is waiting on some major infrastructure improvements at Lake Street, 98th Street and I-494.

Connecting the hubs
Following Professor Bakker’s model of being able to move from hub to hub, the following are connected.

Rosedale to Maplewood Mall via Route 223
Maplewood Mall to Sunray via Routes 80 and 219
Rosedale to Blue Line 46th Street via Route 84
Rosedale to Columbia Heights via Route 801
Rosedale to Robbinsdale via Route 32
Columbia Heights to Northtown via Route 10
Columbia Heights to Brooklyn Center via Route 801 (rush hours only)
Brooklyn Center to Robbinsdale via Route 717
Brooklyn Center to Starlite via Routes 723 and 724
Starlite to Louisiana via Route 705
Uptown to Southdale via Route 6
Uptown to Lake & Chicago and Blue Line Lake Street via Route 21 and 53
Uptown to Blue Line 38th Street via Route 23
Southdale to Mall of America via Routes 515 and 538
Mall of America to South Bloomington via Route 539
Mall of America to Apple Valley and Cedar Grove (Eagan) via Red Line
South Bloomington to Burnsville via Route 465
Blue Line 46th Street to Eagan Transit Center via Route 446
South Bloomington to I-35W and 46th Street via Route 535
Blue Line 46th Street to I-35W and 46th Street via Route 46

About the only corridor without a transit hub is the Robert Street Corridor in West St. Paul, which deserves a connection to the Eagan hub and the Blue Line at the airport.

Although the Green Line doesn’t have off-street transit hubs, it does have a pair of important on-street transfer points that add a lot to regional connectivity. That’s at Snelling Avenue (connects to Routes 16, 21, 84 and the future A Line BRT), and at Raymond Avenue (connects to Routes 16, 63, 67 and 87).

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.