How One Legislator Makes Transit Work in a Busy Schedule

After David Levinson posted his article–Roll with Us Transit Challenge: March 1-7, 2015about the campaign to get state legislators to ride transit for a week, I e-mailed a few legislators to encourage them to participate in the challenge. Although I knew the House members I contacted were likely supporters of building out and maintaining a robust regional transit system, I agreed with the initiators of the challenge that it was important for all State Senators and House Representatives to experience what it’s like to depend on transit to get to work, the grocery store and other destinations, as they debate how to fund transit, both in the current budget and longer term.

Green Line train pulling into station

Waiting for the Green Line to pull in to the station

Freshman Representative Dave Pinto replied by sharing two tweets he sent out as he took the challenge and figured out how to make transit work for his busy schedule:

Map of built out regional transit system

Proposed future transit system would require increased funding

 His tweets address head-on one of the major deterrents that discourage busy people from relying on transit to get around — in most cases, you have to allow at least twice as long for each trip. When I began using transit a couple of years ago, I struggled with scheduling, and was frequently late to meetings. But now I’ve learned to allow more time between appointments, and to use that time productively, as demonstrated by Dave Pinto in his tweets. I also enjoy meeting and talking to people on the bus — not so much on the Green Line — and looking out the window. One of the buses I use the most is the #63, which goes along Grand Avenue to downtown Saint Paul. My favorite part of the trip is going down the hill into the downtown, with a glorious view of the city and the Mississippi River.

Bus at bus stop

Metro Transit bus

Now I’m wondering, what’s stopping others from using transit more regularly? What are the most important improvements that need to be made for people to ride transit on a regular basis? Share your thoughts in the comments.

And I wonder what were the results of the Transit Challenge for legislators? Will any of them increase their transit use as a result of their experience?

Anne White

About Anne White

Anne White lives in the Merriam Park neighborhood of Saint Paul. She is currently the Land Use Chair for the Union Park District Council (District 13) and serves on the Governing Council of the District Councils Collaborative of Saint Paul and Minneapolis (DCC). After moving to the Twin Cities in 2003, she retired from her work as a professional photographer and began working to ensure that community concerns were fully considered in planning for the Green Line LRT. Now that the line is up and running, including stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western, her main focus is on walkability, making sure that people of all ages and levels of mobility have safe, pleasant walking routes to LRT and other destinations. She was recently appointed to the St Paul Transportation Committee of the Planning Commission as the Active Living community representative.

15 thoughts on “How One Legislator Makes Transit Work in a Busy Schedule

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Great post.

    The main barrier to good transit and high transit ridership is our anti-transit land use. Look at that proposed transit map of the 7-county metro. Our transit could more or less be focused on the region inside the beltway, except for places developed in the Traditional Development Pattern such as downtowns Stillwater, Shakopee, Chaska, Anoka, and Excelsior. Even a large share of in-the-beltway land use is transit hostile.

    Most of our problems stem from an unsustainable land use. We’ve prioritized growth at all costs for the last half century, without thinking if that growth is good. A cancerous tumor is growth, after all.

    We need productive growth. Growth that fosters creating and maintaining wealth in households and in our governmental units. Growth that is safe and fosters health instead of killing us fast by collision and slow by obesity. Growth that fosters meaningful social relationships and interaction, instead of isolation and self-segregation.

    Instead, the Sprawl Lobby is pushing for a tiny bit of sprawl-friendly transit to accompany billions of dollars to maintain and expand the car-centric infrastructure of auto-oriented and unproductive growth, a land use that is transit-hostile and human-hostile.

    I think it’s great that legislators and others are pushing themselves to try transit, and to ask why it’s a struggle to incorporate transit into their lifestyles. Of course it is, when we subsidize car-oriented land uses.

    We definitely need more transit. But the root of our problem is not a lack of transit. Freeway BRT to parking lots in Forest Lake and Lake Elmo isn’t going to change anything. Instead, the root of our problem is land use. And we’ve subsidized the root of our problem by subsidizing cars above else. If we fight that cancerous growth, the productive growth will follow. And transit, bike facilities, and the rest will be obvious for those land uses.

    It’s all about land use productivity.

  2. David MarkleDavid Markle

    As Ann White says, (unfortunately) it’s best to “allow at least twice as long” for a trip by transit, presumably as opposed to driving. Regarding the Green Line, even St. Paul’s planners admitted that an LRT should get people to where they need to go at least as fast as if people drove (including parking time). But what they really wanted was to try to promote development by putting the the LRT on the surface of a busy street as if it were a streetcar line, and the Met Council let St. Paul have its way. We’ve seen the result, so far as efficiency of transit is concerned. (The results aren’t yet and maybe never will be clear about the spur to development.)

    Ultimately the public may have to start yelling for a better regional transit system, one based on sensible planning for transit and transportation needs. At present we’re approximately 100 years behind (compared, say, to Boston and its first HRT line) and we’ve become fairly notorious for traffic congestion, especially at peak times on freeways.

    Legislators have been nearly inert on the subject, but a first step would be to reform the Met Council (as recommended some time ago by the Legislative Auditor). I agree with Myron Orfield: we should have an elected Met Council that’s accountable, more transparent and authoritative. At present we have an unaccountable regional level of government that operates like a clubhouse; for most of us we might as well be dealing with a Masonic Lodge within the Vatican. An elected Met Council would raise awareness of regional decision-making.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Is there something wrong with traffic congestion?

      Also, after reading your comment, it seems that you prioritize transit speed over transit connectivity (serving places). The Green Line is successful precisely *because* it serves a string of walkable nodes along the corridor. Other planned transit, such as Freeway BRT or SWLRT, sacrifice connectivity in favor of speed. But the result is that we have fast, expensive transit to places that are not built for it.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        We don’t have serious congestion problems, either. You might wait a little to get out of downtown Minneapolis if you leave between 4:30 and 5:30, but otherwise it’s pretty smooth sailing.

      2. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

        Anne White asks a legitimate question for comments about why someone would be less likely to take transit. That it takes longer than auto travel is a valid concern for many people, including people who currently don’t have cars (but would like one one day.) There are designs that could have allowed the Green Line to travel on the same corridor but faster. If you ride transit regularly, traffic congestion is another valid concern. It can slow down bus travel without a dedicated bus lane. It can make bicycling more precarious on transit routes, with the buses constantly weaving into the bike lane where you would like to be more protected. (As I see this orten, it is enough to discourage me from bike riding.) It can affect you as a pedestrian. Think about walking across a congested street where drivers are trying to just go versus a street with more space that is open for sight lines to see both cars and pedestrians easily and where drivers are not already distracted by their agitation of being “stuck” in traffic. As a transit user and a person who walks regularly, I find all of these issues to be annoying and I cannot really joyfully endorse transit to peers of mine who are defintely less patient than me.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      While the Green Line may have been better if it was a street car, because it could have been cheaper, that would have sacrificed the ability to extend the line, as planned, out into the suburbs. Just as building a faster light rail where people can’t use it would have sacrificed people being able to use it. I don’t mind the compromise at all.

      And, in fact, I’d wager that there are many, many trips along the line that are just as fast or faster than driving.

      For example, going from my office to campus for a basketball game takes me 10-20 minutes, depending on wait time. Driving would be pretty similar, cost more, and, actually be less flexible as I can hop off at Seven Corners for a beer with having to park again too.

  3. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    So I–I dunno.

    There’s not a great way to express this thought adequately in writing, especially considering I/others specifically have said “hey, politicians, etc. should ride the bus right?” in posts and elsewhere in the recent past, but there were aspects of this exercise that felt a little tasteless. It’s hard to point to any one example but seeing 783,091 pictures on social media/elsewhere of smiling politicians on the bus (or train!) with all the silly hashtags…I dunno.

    Thought about writing it out as a post but I didn’t want to complain about something I specifically advocated for…but didn’t some of those pictures kind of look like poverty tourism? That was the thought I kept having.

    1. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

      Nick, I had the same thought, and I too have advocated for politicians and advocates to ride mass transit. Then someone pointed out to me how organizations typically don’t get funded better because they talk about how bad they are. They get funding because of the positives and the benefits the organization offers. I then saw those tweets differently.

      1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

        Yeah I get that, and that’s why I ultimately didn’t write some terrible, concerntrolly post about it. It’s just really easy to be tonedeaf on social media (I mean that might be the default setting of social media) even with good intentions, and especially with medium-quality intentions like “look at me!” type things.

        And non-sarcastic hashtag usage tends to be kind of the worst.

  4. David MarkleDavid Markle

    At risk of sounding very repetitious, the Green Line LRT should have mostly gone along I-94 (and have been tunneled in downtowns, U campus and Capitol area.) Then we would have a fast regional trunk line with good connections along the way (and well-suited to extend to the suburbs). A University Avenue streetcar line could have been done later, at relatively low cost.

    As things stand now, we have no regional trunk line but we do have a billion-dollar LRT that’s not much faster than a streetcar line but with perhaps nearly 50 fewer places to get on and off (not to mention other consequences). It’s an atrocity based on economics alone, let alone transit needs.

    It’s the epitome of bad, short-sighted planning. As I elsewhere quoted a friend originally from the East Coast, “They do everything half-assed around here.”

    1. Daniel Herriges

      Also not to rehash a debate that’s been going on for years, but I’m mystified by this argument, although I’ve seen a number of people I quite respect make it. I just can’t see an I-94 alignment having anywhere near the long-term value of the one that was built. For riders trying to get quickly from one downtown to the other (definitely a minority of Green Line users), express buses exist (and that service can always be expanded if there’s demand for it), and I don’t think LRT would offer significant time savings over a bus.

      The fundamental transit viability problem in the Twin Cities area is an arithmetic problem: very little of the area is sufficiently densely populated for transit to be a consistently attractive alternative to driving for those who have the choice to do either. Below certain population densities, that’s just not going to happen; you might get a 10% transit mode share, but you won’t get 20% or 30% or 50%. So what’s the long game? Keep building expensive trunk rail lines to attract a fraction of would-be drivers on a fraction of trips?

      I want to fundamentally transform land use in MSP, one area at a time. On the whole, I lean toward an incrementalist approach to doing so (the Strong Towns argument, which I’m guessing most readers are familiar with). But if we’re going to dump a billion dollars into a transit project, it had better be one with the potential to radically alter the land use / population density along its route. An I-94-aligned Green Line would be far less likely to do so, while the University Ave. alignment is already showing clear evidence of doing it.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      It is half-assed. It’s also done. And people use it a lot.

      Building what you wanted would not be done by now and would serve vastly fewer people. Then getting a street car too? Not in my life time.

      It would also cost way, way more.

  5. Anne WhiteAnne White Post author

    Rather than debate whether the Green Line is the right mode in the right place, I’d like to turn this conversation back to the question of what could be done with the transit we currently have in place and in the planning stages, to make it more useable as a regular form of transportation, encouraging more people to leave their cars behind. For example, what is the most important change that could be made to make transit more useful to you and your family?

    Or looking at the transit system in general, what criteria should be used to determine how Metro Transit resources are used? Is it more important to increase frequency of service or reduce trip times on routes with highest ridership? How important is it to provide bus service for underserved areas? Are there other criteria that should be used to prioritize service upgrades? For example, what about the effects of transit service on land use and urban sprawl, two issues raised by commenters? Should these issues also be considered by Metro Transit planners as they decide how to spend precious taxpayer investments?

    I realize I’ve put forward a lot of complex questions and would invite other writers to respond more fully by submitting new posts that address one or more of these questions. This would also be a great opportunity for NEW WRITERS to dip their toes in the pool.

    1. Casey

      Great questions!
      “Is it more important to increase frequency of service or reduce trip times on routes with highest ridership? How important is it to provide bus service for underserved areas?”
      I ride the bus every day. I have only been on the Green Line once and the Blue Line once. Both times it was to go outside of the cities. I’m sure if I lived in the burbs this might be different. My preference would be for more routes in under-served areas in the cities, there are large gaps that are not easy to get to. Also, some destinations can take several routes in a non direct way so it is easier and faster to walk.

    2. Mary G

      The exact questions you ask were also asked in the recent Service Plan Improvement survey available in both on-line and written form from Metro Transit. There was a good response and the responses indicated that it was more important to have frequent service on main lines than to serve underserved areas. I was sad because I have virtually no local transit service in my area but I also realize that when I purchased my home, I was working nearby and therefore it’s partly my problem that I don’t live where transit is.

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