Everything That’s Wrong with Small Town Transit

Ok, well, not everything, that may have been a bit hyperbolistic and yes, the title is a little click-baity, who do I look like? Dan Rather?

But seriously. Look at this image and you’ll see why I’m frustrated:

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Look at that. It’s a net loss for me to take public transportation to my job every day.

Oh, but that’s not accurate, gas is so insanely cheap right now, if we were in a different world with $5 gas, it would totally be worth it, right?
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This transit calculator was located after poking around Mankato’s website in the all-but-forgotten public transportation section.

The calculator itself actually comes off of publictransportation.org, a well-known, reputable source for information on public transportation.

And before anyone gets their undies in a bundle, I know it’s hard to create a calculator that works perfectly across all lines in all scenarios. I’m just using this as a catalyst for the article.

Big city transit is a tough thing to get right, but if you shrink it to a community that’s 1/10th or 1/100th of the size, you can almost guarantee you’ll get it wrong.

The question we have to ask is: “can you get it right?” Well, before I try and answer that, look at our bus system below:

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Seems like it’s an actually ok bus system, right? Well, yes and no. This is the bus system for Monday-Friday during the working day. None of it runs at night. The only busses we have running past 8-5 are focused on MSU, which in fairness, is pretty heavily used.

But what about us non-college people, or even college kids that just don’t live on campus? Our bus system is built around the working class and the working day, it doesn’t really provide true transportation.

For instance, here’s the Saturday bus route:

Saturday bus

See that red dot? That’s where I live, about 1.3 miles away from where the bus picks up. Fine and dandy in the summer, I’ll just bike over the bridge (about 5-7 minutes) and hop on the bus.

Why though? What would be the benefit to me doing that? It costs me money and my car is parked in the alley, so wouldn’t it just be way easier for me to hop in my car and go to say, the mall?

Well, yeah, it would, it would be way, way easier and that’s probably what I’m going to do.

See, I have to have a car for 90% of everything else I need to do: Run errands, go shopping, get groceries, go to church, go to friends’ houses, etc…so, what’s the point of the bus? Is it just to say that we have a bus?

I think the problem is a vicious cycle. Mankato has seen the bulk of it’s growth post-WWII and because of that, we saw a lot of auto-oriented development. Our city simply doesn’t have a core left for bus service, because of that relatively few people take the bus, if no one takes the bus, it’s hard to justify making it better and more frequent or even have development conducive to transit.

What is the real problem? Well, I think you could point to myriad culprits here, but in my opinion, zoning and land-use are key components. The fact that we slate so many areas for low density development means that we’re not going to get maximum use, or even moderate use, out of that land.

Even in commercial areas, we build to the standards of “auto-infatuation.” Large setbacks and parking in the front are the main symptoms. But the the thing that most people don’t realize is that you can build for both transit and cars. Parking can exist, just put it in back; setbacks can exist, just make them smaller. Images below show you what I’m talking about:

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Solid yellow is former footprint, buildings are now pulled up to sidewalk. Work for both cars and walking/transit.

Solid yellow is former footprint, buildings are now pulled up to sidewalk. Work for both cars and walking/transit.

Adding some better bike infrastructure would help as well. People might use a bus to get on top of the hill, but might not mind biking back.

Or are we simply not big enough? Should we just give up on full-on bus service? Would it be cheaper (outside of the University bus system) to just subsidize the cab company in town?

What’s a growing municipality to do? There’s no justification for say, a streetcar or lightrail, but there’s no will, money, or real reason to get a better bus system either.

The only “magic bullet” I can think of is a rail connection to the cities. That way people coming down are kind of stuck without a car, but even that is a long-shot.

We’re trapped and honestly, I don’t know if anyone has a great answer of how to get out of it.

Matthias Leyrer

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.www.keycity.co. Follow him @mjleyrer