4 Helpful Mnemonics for Remembering Which 21 Bus is Which

Most Metro Transit buses have branch letters following the route numbers, which indicate where the route goes. It’s also ignored by the vast majority of riders, until they find themselves plunked down halfway to where they thought they were going. The various 21s present perhaps the most difficulties. But fear not: you can remember them using this handy (and sadly, not particularly snarky) guide.

21A – “All the way.” Goes all the way to downtown St. Paul. This is the one the vast majority of people want.

21C – “Crosses Cleveland.” And a little bit further. Gets you to the Midway in St. Paul.

21D – “Divinity degree.” Ends at the fine Catholic institution of higher learning, the University of St. Thomas, just inside St. Paul city limits.

21E – “Ends early.” Only goes to 27th Ave. S., right by the Wendy’s. Sorry, you wanted the 21A. One should be coming by in a few minutes.


Photo credit Metro Transit.

“All the way.”

17 thoughts on “4 Helpful Mnemonics for Remembering Which 21 Bus is Which

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    What other 21s would we like to see?

    21MOA – Detours to Mall of America TS via Snelling and Hwy 5, then back north again
    21WBL – Extension to the dewatered shores of White Bear Lake
    21W (not to be confused with 21WBL) – skips Midway and DT St. Paul and instead goes express to a cow pasture in Wisconsin
    21H – Don’t ask where this bus goes…

  2. Faith

    The convention for the 21 letters is opposite other buses. I would have guessed the 21A would end early because the 4A and the 5A end early at 38th St. I wonder how many ‘A’ buses end early and how many are all the way routes…? Is there any rhyme or reason to the letters?

    1. Andy Sturdevant Post author

      It seems to vary a lot. I once emailed Metro Transit about it, and while there’s a system with the numbering (1-50 is Minneapolis, 51-99 is St. Paul), there’s not much of a system with the branch letters. Like you said, they tend to go up the further out the place is. I wonder if the “A” is a legacy from the streetcar system or something like that.

      A lot of the times branch letters seem to be assigned based on the name of a place, like with the 10:

      10C – “Columbia Heights.” Ends at the Columbia Heights Transit Center.

      10N – “Northtown.” Goes up Central and ends at the Northtown Transit Center.

      10U – “University.” Also ends at the Northtown Transit Center, but goes up University Avenue instead.

      Then there’s the 10H, which I presume stands for “Hamburgers.” Maybe it’s the “H” in “Columbia Heights,” but that seems too confusing. The 10H terminates before the transit center, at the bus stop on Central at 51st Avenue. That’s right next to the White Castle, with Wendy’s and A&W on the same block, and Sonic’s and Flameburger less than three blocks away. Hence: hamburgers.

      1. John Charles Wilson

        I’ve studied old Twin City Lines maps from the 1960s. As a general rule, the “A” branch was the shortest on most lines, then the “B”, etc. For some reason the 16 and the 21 were exceptions, the “A” went end-to-end.

        After about 1985 or so, “X” was often used for trips to the garage. However, 21C and 16F were the respective garage runs for those routes. In most other cities, a bus route with a letter “X” means Express, so this probably confused out-of-towners.

        Speaking of which, until about 1990, what we now call “Limited Stop” service was called “Express” and what we now call “Express” was called “Express-Freeway”. There were a lot more “Express” runs on regular routes such as the 5 Express on Chicago Ave. which didn’t stop until a certain point except to pick up – but Lake Street was both a pick up and drop off stop…. The kicker is, the Express runs used the same destination letters as the locals, but the route name was replaced by the word “Express”.

        1. Matt Brillhart

          Yeah, I wish Metro Transit would use a different letter than “X”, in recognition of the fact that it means “Express” basically everywhere else. In Metro Transit lingo, an “X” branch is a “terminal” route or something like that, meaning it either does not go downtown, or stops at some other assigned midpoint along the route. The most prevalent is probably the 12X, which runs along Excelsior Blvd and Lake St, terminating at Uptown Station and doesn’t continue to downtown. To stretch the confusion/irony even further, the regular 12 that does go downtown operates “express” between Uptown and Franklin.

  3. Matt Brillhart

    I was very pleasantly surprised when Metro Transit renamed the two main branches of the Route 4 based on which street they travel on after branching at 50th Street. Nowadays, it’s easy:

    4L travels down Lyndale (south of 50th)
    4P travels down Penn (south of 50th)

    Of course there’s also the “short line” 4A, which stops at 38th Street. As noted above, “A” is the standard designation for short line trips. I’m not sure why the 21A is an outlier there.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who loves that the Route 46 is aptly named for the street it travels on (ok, it also runs on 50th and on 42nd to get around Lake Harriet and Lake Hiawatha, respectively). I KNOW I’m not the only one who wishes the Route 23 would be renamed Route 38, especially since that route almost exclusively travels on 38th Street, except for at its ends.

    1. Janne Flisrand

      Matt, you forgot the pretend 4, which stops at MCTC in downtown.

      (Personally, I think the 4 that goes through NE OR the 4 that goes through SW should get a different number. How many times have I run for the 4 trying to go to LynLake and been forced off at MCTC because it was a pretend 4, in January? Too many times!)


      1. Matt Brillhart

        I hope you commented on the Service Improvement Plan then, as it proposes to do just that. The northern half of the route would become the 15. The southside portion would remain the 4. Metro Transit has actually wanted to do this for years, but the funding hasn’t been available.

        1. Janne

          I commented on the plan, although I missed this detail as I’m tired of reading hundred page proposals to comment on tiny details. My comments were more high-level.

          I did also submit a comment through the website to this point, and I’m happy to hear it’s in the plan. That change can’t come soon enough. Every time I get on a 4 heading to LynLake (a couple times a week), I have to verbally verify with the driver that I’m not on the pretend-4.

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