The Minneapolis Transit Spine That Could

Downtown Minneapolis is exciting! Development and stadia and the potential for morgue-gating are bringing millennials by the dozens so it’s easy to miss the small stuff sometimes. Little things like how to handle the various bus routes that run east-west through the central business district of our city.

The City of Minneapolis currently has a bid out to make changes to 7th Street South as part of the “7th Street Transit Advantage” project which is part of a larger effort to speed up buses running along the 7th/8th Street one-way pair based off the 2010 report recommending no dedicated bus lanes in the corridor. I’m here to challenge underlying assumptions and advocate for a better street design than currently proposed.


The 2010 study identified the Metro Transit routes running east-west through the CBD:

East West bus routes through the Minneapolis CBDObviously, a few things have changed since 2009. The 50 and 16 routes have been replaced by the Green Line, the 94 moved its operations to 7th/6th Streets, and maybe a few other minor changes. But the gist is still the same: some of the busiest bus lines pass through downtown many times an hour throughout the day and the city wants to speed them up.

Look at all that beautiful pavement (Image taken by Matt Brillhart)

7th Street South today, looking west. Look at all that beautiful pavement! (Image taken by Matt Brillhart)

The study evaluated a host of alternative designs, including dedicated bus lanes on many of the area streets. It narrowed them down to three finalists: a 7th/8th one-way pair with dedicated bus lanes on each, a 7th/8th one-way pair without dedicated bus lanes, and a re-designed 8th Street with a contra-flow dedicated bus lane (eastbound) and mixed parking/traffic/bus lane (westbound). A 7th/8th one-way pair with mostly mixed traffic bus lanes was chosen, mainly due to the negative impacts on traffic from dedicating a lane to buses.

Buses would be sped up by curb extensions and additional stops where buses stack up during loading, along with better shelters improved by extending the sidewalk four feet into the street to add two new shelters and real-time information (similar to the Marq2 stations). These are necessary – the aBRT treatment should basically be a standard bus stop system-wide to improve service and comfort – but dedicated bus lanes for local routes also have a place in prioritizing surface transit.

The Failure of LOS Impacts

Here’s the rub. The report, with all its engineering goodness at the end, only calculated (cared about?) the impacts of dedicating a lane to buses on cars. Why is that a problem? Well, for starters, about 40% of folks passing through 7th Street South are in buses:

  • Vehicles using the 3 thru lanes per day: 17,600 (2010 Minneapolis Traffic Count Data)
  • Bus ridership along 7th: 12,000 (2013 Metro Transit Boarding Data) and by bus route (this is conservative since other lower ridership routes run E-W through downtown, but I did not add them in):
    •  5: 2,980 NB riders daily from 7th/Park, plus another 2,517 boardings by Twins Way = 5,500 daily
    • 94: 2,000 daily WB riders getting off at points along 7th
    • 19: 2,662 riders getting on between 7th/Park and 7th/Hennepin, 360 getting off (not counting those who get on/off outside these boundaries) = 3,000 daily
    • 22: 1,500 riders getting on/off between 7th/Park and 7th/Hennepin (not counting those who get on/off outside these boundaries)

Since 2010, Minneapolis and MnDOT decided to reconfigure the I-94 westbound exit ramp directly to 7th Street (5th Street is now permanently closed around the new stadium), which may add cars to that total. However, traffic counts coming off the current ramp/exit show only 40% stayed straight onto 5th Street (using 2011 numbers, well before stadium construction made folks detour away). Also, 40% of the cars headed southbound on 11th Avenue turn right at 7th Street, so there’s already a good chunk of freeway-exiters using 7th Street today.

I-94 westbound exit to downtown Minneapolis turning movementsEven still, if you assume that the entirety of the 40% of those who exited 94 and continued along 5th Street will now use 7th Street (instead of turning elsewhere or parking), we’re only talking another 4,000 cars using 7th Street each day. That brings the ratio of cars to bus riders to 21.6K::12k, not even 2 to 1.

2030 projections of vehicle counts (that may or may not happen) found that a dedicated bus lane on 7th and 8th Streets would delay motorists by 22 and 14 seconds (respectively) across all intersections compared to the existing roadway design, with only three intersections downgrading a letter grade in the LOS scale:

7th_8th_TransitSpineSo. We have a 5 lane street design on 7th Street (the busiest and most prone to congestion street in downtown) where 64% of the users (in cars) get to basically use all of the space (for turning movements, parking, and through-traffic). Why did the traffic analysis go through the effort of impacts of dedicated lanes on motorists without calculating the reverse? I ride the Route 94 most days, my anecdotal experience is that (during rush hours) the bus is definitely delayed by cars (waiting to re-enter the traffic stream, waiting multiple light cycles behind long queues of cars, etc). By how much? I don’t know. But if buses could shave just 60 seconds off their average travel time, we’d receive a net societal benefit equal to preserving all thru-lanes for motorists.

Equity Impacts

East West Minneapolis transit spine route service areasI ride the 6, 4, and 94 buses most days, and the demographics of the folks on those routes (most of them white, young professional, and/or student) differ from other routes I ride, particularly the ones under discussion.

Take a look at the image of the service areas for the major E-W bus routes through downtown (right). The 5, 19, 22, 14, and 9 buses run through some of the highest concentrated areas of minorities and poverty in our entire region. People who truly rely on transit, not just for peak work trips to the office, but picking up kids from daycare, stopping for groceries, and every other daily trip.

I don’t have data to back this up, but it’s not terribly crazy to say most people driving along 7th during rush hours (or otherwise) are fairly well-heeled, white people living outside the boundaries of Minneapolis. At least much higher shares than the riders of the E-W bus routes. I see no reason why a city and the Metropolitan Council focused on advancing racial equity (specifically in transportation) should ignore this obvious option on the table.

Proposed Design(s)

First, we need to hold the presses on the current plan. Without access to detailed designs, it’s tough to say how the curb extensions will function with existing traffic lanes. But knowing each thru-lane on 7th is 10′ wide today, it’s hard to imagine the plan working without buses blocking a thru-lane when stopped while significantly limiting re-design options in the future.

Transit Spine 8th St Contraflow ProposalThe 8th Street contraflow design proposed by the original study (right) was actually quite strong. It barely impacted area traffic (7th Street actually improved, 8th Street was delayed an additional 7 seconds). It was rejected to due loss of commercial loading zones and the IDS Tower having three transit lanes bordering its property.

Let’s evaluate another option. While I’m not generally a fan of one-way transit pairs (see why here), I think we can make exceptions in some cases, particularly if it accompanies significant traffic calming and place-making. The proposed design with dedicated bus lanes would look something like this:

Parking to the right of the bus lane away from transit stops.

If we’re willing to delay motorists a bit more by taking away some turning areas and parking spaces, we can get something a bit more like this:

Rendering from Chicago Loop BRT

Rendering from Chicago Loop BRT

8th-st-downtown-mpls8th Street varies in width, but could also accommodate a similar bus and protected bike lane treatment. Given the few safe connections to downtown from North Minneapolis by bike, that seems like a great goal in my book.

Obviously, we would want to update the traffic analysis with new data, potentially lower traffic growth rates, and a better LOS that weights delay by user to account for time savings of bus users (plus intangibles like calmer traffic, shorter crossing distances, and enhanced safety for cyclists). Maybe that model would say the protected bike lane option is a non-starter. Maybe enforcing the rightmost parking lane as bus-only during peak hours would be enough to achieve time savings. Who knows. But we should explore these options now before new gutters, curbs, sidewalks, and transit stops are put in place.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at