Quarterly Transit Report – February 2015

The new Green Line platform at Target Field Station

The new Green Line platform at Target Field Station

The March 7 schedule change is pretty quiet, mostly small schedule adjustments by Metro Transit. The most noticeable was faster running time on both light rail lines. The Blue and the Green Lines are now 3 minutes faster each way and more reliably on time, thanks primarily to better traffic signal timing. The Green Line’s one-way running time drops from 48 to 45 minutes, the Blue Line’s from 41 to 38. In addition, train departure countdown displays are now operating at all stations.

Metro Transit is implementing automated bus stop announcements systemwide. All the low-floor buses are getting it. The old high floor buses won’t, but they’re scheduled to cycle out of the fleet in 2017. Until now, the policy has been for drivers to announce all intersections with traffic signals or stop signs. In my experience, compliance has been pretty good, but there was always a fairly small minority of drivers who didn’t call stops. The automated system calls every stop. For the hearing impaired, the same info scrolls across the digital display in the front of the bus.

As predicted in one of my earlier posts, the experimental suburb-to-suburb express Route 565 has been eliminated. It was created when Target moved a large number of employees from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. It ran non-stop from the Best Buy park and ride lot in Richfield to the Target North campus in Brooklyn Park. Many were established bus riders so it was expected that they would willingly switch to a 25 mile non-stop express with shoulder bus lanes and subsidized fares. It didn’t happen. The three daily round trips attracted only a total of 17 employees. SouthWest Transit has been running a similar service from Eden Prairie that was recently reduced from three daily round trips to two.

The Blue Line park and ride lot at Lake Street and Hiawatha has closed. This was the old Brown Institute site, later owned by Minneapolis Public Schools. It had more parking than the school needed, so Metro Transit leased the 163 extra spaces. This ran counter to the policy of no park and ride lots within the city of Minneapolis. It happened because of the large number of hide and riders who filled the streets around the 50th Street, 46th Street, 38th Street and Lake Street Stations. The residents complained about cars parked in front of their houses all day, so the school lot was created as a safety valve. It simply attracted more cars and the streets around the stations remained full of hide and riders, except on those blocks where the neighbors approved permit parking.

Meanwhile, a new park and ride lot at Highway 169 and Marschall Road in Shakopee is getting its first non-stop express service to downtown Minneapolis, three daily round trips on Route 493. The route features bus-only shoulders the length of Highway 169, then takes the I-394 MnPass lane to downtown, where it uses the Marq2 bus lanes.

The big suburban news is the absorption of the Prior Lake and Shakopee opt-out transit services into the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority effective January 1. Prior Lake once was part of MVTA, but decided to go it alone some time ago. Prior Lake and Shakopee had been cooperating to run the Blue Express to downtown from a shared park and ride lot near Highway 169 and County Road 18. In my opinion, anything that simplifies the highly balkanized Twin Cities transit system is a good thing. There is currently no service connecting Shakopee and Prior Lake with the rest of the MVTA system. A study is being done and that will probably change as a result.

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.

21 thoughts on “Quarterly Transit Report – February 2015

  1. Joe T

    The school was 1/2 office building 1/2 adult education. So I would have added an s to make it “more parking than the schools needed”. Otherwise, I enjoyed this. Good information. Thanks!

  2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Thanks for this!

    I believe it when you say that the Green Line is moving faster, but I STILL see it stopped at streets near my house, especially near the on and off ramps of 280. And my experience has been that the train stops at Snelling much more often than it goes through. I feel as though it could still ultimately be 1-2 minutes faster and I hope that work on the timing will continue.

  3. Sarah

    If we really want to reduce hide-and-riders in the city, we’ll make bus service more frequent to match LRT, run bus routes later and earlier, better connect bus routes to rail stations, and better advertise the connections between buses and rail. And/or install Nice Ride stations within a 2-mile radius of each station.

    I live about 1.5 miles from a Blue Line stop, and used to use the Lake Street park-and-ride as part of a strategy for getting to the airport very early in the morning. The hassle and risk of making an all-or-nothing bus connection that early is just too much. I also truly hate, when coming home, the risk of having to wait half an hour for the otherwise quick bus connection to my home.

    1. Mike Hicks

      Yes, all very good points. A lot of routes could use an improvement in frequency — it still amazes me that so many old streetcar routes ran at 10-minute or better headways basically all day long, according to Mr. Isaacs book.

      Actually, Aaron, if you read this — in Twin Cities by Trolley, were those headways gathered from a specific date in the history of Twin City Rapid Transit, or was that toward the end of streetcar service? The frequencies must have varied at least a little over the decades. Did the replacement buses in the 1950s run as often as the streetcars did? Do you know if there was a particular point in time when there was a significant drop in frequency? (This would make a good post…)

      1. Mike Hicks

        Oh, about bikes — I’ve always been a bit frustrated by the way Nice Ride distributed their stations. The’ve often been spaced out a bit too much, and probably made the leap to downtown St. Paul too early. Specifically related to transit, the bike stations haven’t been in the best locations that would provide the greatest ridership.

        But an effective “last mile” system needs to have both a major bike station at its transit stations and a distribution of several other stations that are actually well under a mile away. I just haven’t seen an appropriate pattern in the system they’ve set up. (Of course, Nice Ride shouldn’t be exclusively set up as a transit feeder, but you kind of know something’s going wrong when you see the Nice Ride green sitting in a bike rack on the front of a bus going by.)

        The LRT stations (and major bus stops/stations) should have a *lot* more regular bike racks. But that goes for everything — there’s far too little bike parking in the Twin Cities in general.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Agreed about bike racks generally (and if space is available, bike lockers). I live about 1.5 miles from the future Orange Line station at 66th & 35W — far enough that I could walk, but that would be a pretty big task. But bicycling 1.5 miles is easy and quick.

          Bike racks are planned for the future aBRT platforms along A Line, and are already present at most LRT steps. And honestly, except for BRT and LRT, the appeal of multimodal bussing is probably somewhat limited. I can bike to downtown faster from Richfield than I can take the 18 there — and if we were talking biking from Whittier to downtown versus taking the 18, it would really be no competition. On the other hand, LRT and BRT can generally beat out biking, so mixing modes might have more appeal.

      2. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

        Streetcar frequencies increased and decreased as ridership changed. Twin City Rapid Transit didn’t run more service than it needed. The frequencies listed in Twin Cities by Trolley were typical of the period around 1950, after the ridership peak of World War II disappeared by before the major service reductions of the early 50s.

        Because ridership declined throughout the 50s, bus frequencies also declined compared to the streetcars.

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    In my experience, the biggest issue with bus drivers calling stops isn’t so much them skipping important stops, but turning six syllables into one. “American Boulevard” comes “Amrblv”, at a volume level so low one barely notices that there’s an announcement at all.

    That said, the automated announcements get pretty tedious on local bus routes where they’re running through a lot of stops without stopping. I was just taking the 5 today, and it was basically just counting annoyingly through the 50s. I kind of wish the automated system only called for transfer points and stop lights, too.

    However, I do really enjoy the new outside voice confirming what line you’re getting on (“Welcome aboard. This is a northbound 18 to downtown Minneapolis”). I assume this is mainly for blind passengers, but I appreciate the confirmation as I board.

    1. Mike Hicks

      Yeah, overall the automated announcements are an improvement, but the system will need tweaking. I get a bit perturbed by the pronounciation the system uses sometimes (like calling “Wabb-ASH-a” for Wabasha in downtown St. Paul). But there are some fun surprises like having the 54 call out the Mickey’s Diner stop on West 7th near Lexington. (It’s the name of the stop! I’d seen it before while poring through maps, but it stil made me smile when I first saw/heard it happen.)

      There are a few errors here and there — I think the 54 was/is calling out route 55 (the old Hiawatha LRT route number) at MSP airport in addition to the Blue Line.

      In some places, it doesn’t make sense to call out all of the route numbers, like at major transfer points. But there are still some that are probably important regardless. For route 54, that Wabasha Street stop I mentioned is the best place to transfer to the Green Line, but that doesn’t get announced.

      Anyway, it’s a fairly big rollout, so there are certain to be issues here and there. I’m just debating how much noise I should make about them…

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        My hope is for more lines upgraded to aBRT and (selective) recorded announcements like on LRT. It also mispronounces Nicollet (Nicole-ett).

        My favorite absurd stop is 6244 Portland Avenue — which stops in front of, yes, 6244 Portland Avenue (just a single-family home). Must be really convenient if you live at that address if you have visitors taking the bus: “Just get off at 6244!”

        I’m not sure what the limit is on total number of transfer lines it will list, but there is a limit. The Nicollet Mall buses say, when approaching 7th St, “Approaching 7th Street. This is a Major Transfer Point.” (capitalized like that for unknown reasons)

        1. Reilly

          My favorite absurdity goes to the 6. It’s not an announcement as such, just a few moments near 6th and Hennepin when the indoor marquee reads “6115 Carmen Avenue”. Google sleuthing reveals that the only such address in the Twin Cities is in Inver Grove Heights!

  5. Keith Morris

    No mention of the 22 increasing to 20 min frequencies northbound? Aside from that improvement we’re left with plenty of urban bus routes that connect to the LRT where you’re still expected to wait outside for a half hour, but at the same time they’re splurging on a new express route for people out in BFN.

    I totally agree with Sarah: if we want these bus routes to act as useful feeders for the LRT so that people will actually consider using them in the first place then they need to stop running them at such substandard intervals ASAP. MetroTransit planners who are rolling out these new routes all willy-nilly should have to stand outside and do a full wait of 30 min or longer between buses and see how much they like it. They’d be improving existing service (using the term very loosely in this context) much, much sooner without a doubt. Because hey, it does suck to stand outside for a half hour if you miss it or it comes early: what a revelation.

    When is one of these quarterly updates actually going to be significant? Even the improved frequency on the 22 only applies northbound, not southbound for some reason.

    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

      The quarterly updates will be significant when (and if) increased funding becomes available. The Twin Cities transit system has been underfunded compared to its peer cities since the late 1970s. There’s simply no money to increase the frequencies of the routes feeding the LRT. That’s why this legislative session is so important.

      1. Keith Morris

        That and if they’d choose to prioritize existing, more heavily used routes instead of adding more and more express buses to the burbs which results in gutting service for city residents.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Keith: has service been “gutted” for core transit users, or does it just miss out on new funding opportunities by comparison? I’m not aware of service actually being reduced on core lines to free up money for new routes, but I could be wrong. The closest thing that comes to mind is the Chicago Ave aBRT line being defunded (or at least delayed) to free up more money for a bigger SWLRT park and ride in Hopkins.

          Aaron, I’d actually be genuinely curious to hear a fact check of Keith’s statement here. Certainly, it seems insane to me that I can park a car in covered, free parking in Apple Valley, leave it there all day, and take limited stop Red Line to Mall of America (and transfer to Blue Line for free) — and pay the same $1.75/2.25 fare that I would pay to walking to a stop and go from 26th & Nicollet to Nicollet Mall.

          I know you’ve highlighted some routes (like Richfield out to Target North Campus) that are real losers, but in general, do suburban express routes have significantly lower farebox recovery? Are there other funding mechanisms that subsidize those routes (federal grants, etc) that means we couldn’t simply shift the money into running more buses on Nicollet or Lake or Central?

          1. Aaron IsaacsAaron isaacs

            Keith has multiple facts wrong. No urban service has ever been “gutted” to pay for suburban expresses. There have been periodic budget shortfalls (thanks to poor state funding support) that have caused service reductions. When that happens, the weakest trips in the system are cut, or frequencies are consolidated, without regard to whether they are urban or suburban.

            In 2012 (the latest stats I have) Metro Transit’s system covered 31.4% of its costs from fare revenue. The urban local routes covered 27.6%, while the suburban expresses recovered 50.8%. That’s because the expresses charge a higher fare and most don’t run in the off-peak, so loads per bus are greater.

            The Red Line is not an express–it’s a limited stop BRT, so it’s not included in the express stats. Yes, it has a very low fare recovery percentage.

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              I’d be curious to see the breakdown of those costs. I’m surprised to see suburban express routes recovering a higher share of their costs. Are their absolute costs higher? This article (using 08 numbers without a link to source) shows “Express” buses receive a higher net subsidy per rider than “Urban Local” https://www.minnpost.com/cityscape/2012/06/when-it-comes-public-subsidies-twin-cities-light-rail-seems-bargain

              While it may be true that urban services haven’t been explicitly “gutted” for suburban ones (pull funding from route XX in favor of route YY), it does represent a system-wide priority of sorts. If funding is assumed capped (which, it is, and transit planners/operators DO have to make tough choices all the time), operating an express route in the first place comes at the opportunity cost of more frequent service in urban areas. Even if the fare recovery ratio is higher for the express, if they require more subsidy in total this would support Keith’s point.

              Obviously, this stems from the strategic goals of MT in the first place in balancing coverage vs service/ridership, which is oftentimes defined politically and well out of the hands of the Met Council in the first place.

            2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              Another point, I know it’s not conventional to do so (general reporting, numbers the Met Council & state/fed gov’ts use and report), but we should try to include annualized capital + operating costs when discussing transit. This is tough, I know some projects are funded by debt, some capital purchases made outright in a given FY. But it should only be fair to include the 30 year debt (+ maintenance costs) of a 350 space parking ramp that’s essential to the operation of a suburban commuter/express bus as a cost to an urban local route that has mostly poles in the ground at each stop.

              This also makes comparisons to roads more effective – road spending is almost all capital (maintenance being plowing, lights, patching, etc – typically a relatively small share of DOT budgets).

              1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

                At Metro Transit, operating costs and capital costs are treated separately, because capital funds generally can’t be used for operating expenses. That means that the dollars spent to build a park-ride lot can’t be used to pay bus drivers.

                Urban local bus routes amount to 74% of the bus operating budget (not including LRT). Suburban expresses are 16%. The system subsidy per passenger for buses in 2012 was $2.37. It was $2.35 for urban local routes and $2.42 for suburban expresses. In other words, they were about the same. We’re not over-subsiding the expresses.

                Suburban expresses replace single occupant autos on long commutes. On several freeways they carry the equivalent of a lane of traffic in the rush hours. That has a lot of societal and environmental benefits. The modest cost to maintain park-ride lots must be weighed against the huge costs to widen freeways.

                1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

                  Completely understand the budgetary reasons. But much of that is still political, right? Debt service for capital projects (buying buses, building parking ramps, etc) is still an annual carried cost. Were it not for political constraints on the funding sources (ignore likelihood of changing that while maintaining/increasing funding levels), that same dollar could be used on operations instead. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t only look at operating costs for transit.

                  Also, Metro Transit isn’t the only suburban commuter bus operator in town. The opt-outs perform much worse, with per-passenger subsidies in the $5-8 range (not including their ramp costs). Those subsidies come from the same pot of state money that would otherwise go toward Metro Transit if we had the political will to be stricter about having just one regional provider. And, the will to really decide if spending the money the opt-outs do for (fairly fancy) commuter buses serving a much higher share of wealthy riders is worth the tradeoff of better service in the core and inner-ring suburbs.

                  I’m in agreement on the benefits of peak-hour buses using park n rides. If our only two options are “widen freeways” and “build expensive parking ramps & run commuter express buses,” then the choice is obvious. But those aren’t (or, at least, weren’t at one time) the only options. We can’t treat continued regional growth on the fringes as 100% inevitable when there’s a host of land-use and transportation alternatives int he toolbox. Distant park and rides should maybe be seen as the last resort in meeting a need, not one of only two options.

  6. Ben

    How does the cradle to grave cost benefit analysis of adding new LRT look, specifically the proposed expansion out to Brooklyn Park via West Broadway? Do you have any subsidy data for the existing LRT routs and how that compares to busses?

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