Seven Things That Could Make Transit Planning Better

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Council approved a “slimmed down” southwest light rail (Green Line Extension) project, the cost of which is now just shy of what planners projected in 2009 the Uptown (3C) route would have cost. At the time, 3C was considered too expensive to pass federal cost-effectiveness tests, even though ridership on 3C was projected to be higher than the current route. I believe the process for this project (and probably lots of big transit projects) could have gone better. I think a few other people share this opinion.

While lamenting about this on twitter, I was called out: “What would you do better, smart guy?” (She was more polite).

That’s a hard question. But here are the seven things I came up with (at night, on twitter) to improve U.S. transit planning processes, and hopefully outcomes:

  1. Make decisions more incrementally: shorter lines mean less room for major errors.
  2. First upgrade existing lines (bus to BRT, BRT to LRT, etc) that are performing well, before building service on new corridors, or to new areas, or duplicating existing service.
  3. Make the modeling and forecasting process open-source, not a black box, so the public can do a better job critiquing and vetting the assumptions that went into project designs and analysis. This will create more spirited debate, but probably better projects in the end.
  4. Rethink transit built to serve (free) park and rides, and judging projects by how many parkers they can serve. Building transit to empty fields is not a long-term success strategy (at least not without some value capture mechanism).
  5. Make sure we’re using an accessibility metric to weigh projects, not just a ridership metric, and make sure service of transit-dependent populations is weighted more heavily.
  6. Make it easier for decision-makers to feel like they can scrap/change/reroute bad projects midway through while saving face, if new analysis is showing unforeseen problems, cost overruns, etc (I admit, I don’t have any ready ideas about how to do this).
  7. Change the current governance/funding structure for the Twin Cites, which requires spreading very limited transit dollars over huge areas, some of which won’t ever reasonably support transit (density-wise, or politically). Perhaps let more local districts tax themselves to provide transit service where it is needed most.

Not an even ten, but that is all I’ve got right now. I assume the invites to keynote the APTA and Rail-volution conferences will soon be hitting my inbox. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

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44 Responses to Seven Things That Could Make Transit Planning Better

  1. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig July 9, 2015 at 6:36 am #

    I saw you refer to the 3C cost on Twitter. It’s a pretty safe bet that, had 3C been retained, its cost would’ve jumped up by this point too, and we’d be dealing with this same issue of what to cut in order to bring the cost under control.

    • Sam Jones July 9, 2015 at 7:02 am #

      That’s definitely true, but I can’t imagine a 3C orientation terminating at Downtown Hopkins + BRT the rest of the way to Eden Prairie would have us in this situation.

      • Monte Castleman July 9, 2015 at 7:44 am #

        Because the Red Line is such a rousing success… Doing it this way you’ve screened out both people that won’t ride buses and those that want a one seat ride from the suburbs to the city.

        • Sam Jones July 9, 2015 at 10:17 am #

          Honestly if I had my way I would just end it at Hopkins and move on to the Greenway and Nicollet/Central. I do think the Eden Prairie alignment would work better as BRT than the Red Line, but that’s obviously not saying much.

          • Wayne July 9, 2015 at 11:28 am #

            Eden Prairie won’t even stop being an opt-out or running competing bus service when they get the LRT! Why are we striving so hard to give them options they don’t even seem to really want?

            • Adam Froehlig
              Adam Froehlig July 9, 2015 at 9:10 pm #

              Because there’s a corridor of somewhat higher density that happens to run to Eden Prairie…

              • Wayne July 10, 2015 at 8:20 am #

                That they deliberately routed around with questionable numbers and assumptions?

                • Adam Froehlig
                  Adam Froehlig July 10, 2015 at 10:07 am #

                  They routed it through some of it. Are you ignoring the density map I posted previously? And that’s not “questionable numbers and assumptions” that I used…it’s actual hard data.

                  Now if you’re referring to the Uptown vs. Kenilworth routing, I will agree you have a valid point. But short of finding the political fortitude to run it up Hennepin, there wasn’t a feasible way to connect to Uptown and still interline with the existing Blue/Green Lines.

                  • Monte Castleman July 10, 2015 at 11:20 am #

                    Is this what the situation was?
                    1) Some riders from the SW suburbs would not ride if it took the long way through uptown and they had to transfer to get to Target Center, the U of M, and downtown St. Paul
                    2) If it went through uptown, a few riders from the SW suburbs would go there plus it would pick up a lot more riders from the city
                    3) Kennilworth was chosen based on cost per rider.

                    • Wayne July 10, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

                      But they didn’t do a good job estimating cost or ridership. So basing your decision on a really bad set of assumptions where anyone who thinks very hard about it can realize there’s something fishy is maybe not the best planning decision.

                      I doubt many riders would have been deterred by an extra five minutes through uptown, and many of them would probably stop off there and use it outside of work hours to go there. Plenty of people who will never have any good reason to take the 3A route would have taken 3C to get to uptown or eat street.

                  • Wayne July 10, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

                    I was indeed referring to Uptown v. Kenilworth. I’ll never let the memory of the (better) road not taken fade.

                    I actually saw a pretty good option someone proposed for interlining, but I honestly don’t think making it interline was worth the poor routing when you could have interlined a north-south route with something that crossed the river into NE Mpls.

                    Your map was pretty snazzy, no complaints there.

    • Andrew Owen
      Andrew Owen July 9, 2015 at 8:07 am #

      For me the issue is more that since we rejected 3C because that specific projected cost/ridership ratio was not cost-effective, then if we apply the same criterion to the current project it would be rejected on the same grounds. So we can infer that we are now applying different criteria to the project, but we do not have a clear understanding of what those criteria are, or why they have changed.

      • Judy July 9, 2015 at 8:39 am #

        Well said, Andrew Owen.

      • Wayne July 9, 2015 at 11:31 am #

        Exactly. They let the bar slide on their standards, but won’t reconsider another option. They’ve pretty much let every original assumption be changed along the way, but somehow reexamining alignment is completely off the table. Absurd.

        • David Greene July 9, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

          Reconsidering a new alignment would mean completely starting over. Is that a reasonable thing to do given the benefits of the current plan? Opinions may differ but mine is an emphatic, “no.”

          • Wayne July 9, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

            With how many delays and huge changes they made since the point where the CEI standards changed and they could reconsider the routing they really wouldn’t have lost much time there and getting people on board (pun intended) would have been a lot easier.

            And the benefits of the current plan are almost entirely outside of Minneapolis, so I’m going with an emphatic “YES.”

            • David Greene July 9, 2015 at 9:18 pm #

              I don’t think you quite understand how much work goes into the AA and DEIS. Starting over means a new AA and a new DEIS. The changes made only required a supplemental DEIS.

              It would literally be another decade.

              And you can repeat “benefits all outside Minneapolis” all you want but it’s still B.S.

              • Wayne July 10, 2015 at 8:24 am #

                And you can stand behind their bad numbers and incompetence in due-diligence in the early process, but that still makes it BS. You don’t build a skyscraper on a bad foundation and expect it to stand, why are we ok with adding years of work and billions of dollars on top of what is an extremely flawed foundational process? If you can build a line every year, sure ok whatever fix it later. If you only have enough money to do it once every ten years? You’d better get it right instead of just forging ahead after some big mistakes.

                We shouldn’t reward incompetence in the AA and DEIS process by accepting their shoddy work. They should have had to go back to the drawing board and possibly have a few people lose their jobs over this. I can’t fathom why some people are so committed to the result of such a broken process with demonstrably false numbers and assumptions.

                • David Greene July 10, 2015 at 11:10 am #

                  Demonstrably? Are you saying with certainty that SWLRT won’t hit its ridership projections? Where’s your data?

                  • Nick Magrino
                    Nick Magrino July 10, 2015 at 11:15 am #

                    All we’re saying is that if you put the AA in a pipe and smoked it, you wouldn’t be good to drive for hours

                  • Wayne July 10, 2015 at 2:08 pm #

                    Well let’s take some of their other ridership projections for new lines and see how those have stacked up? Underestimating urban ridership and overestimating suburban ridership is extremely obvious if you compare projected vs. actual ridership. Their methodology was bad and has been proven to be inaccurate with actual completed projects, but you expect us to still accept those numbers as gospel.

                    • Monte Castleman July 10, 2015 at 2:42 pm #

                      Is this urban vs suburban or light rail vs other? The Red Line, no matter what fancy pants names you put on it, is still just a bus so it’s not going to overcome rail bias and doesn’t even go to downtown. NorthStar has an unsavory reputation for delays and only goes halfway to St. Cloud. It would be interesting to see what projections hold true if we build BRT in the cities or LRT to the suburbs (to the extent we haven’t already with the blue line)

                    • Alex Cecchini
                      Alex Cecchini July 10, 2015 at 4:29 pm #

                      Well, the ridership projections for both the Red Line and Northstar took into account their mode and endpoints, right?

                      And someone correct me if wrong, but Northstar wasn’t experiencing delays in the first couple years, that’s more recent. But ridership wasn’t meeting projections then, either.

      • David Greene July 9, 2015 at 11:40 am #

        I’m not sure we rejected 3C because it was not cost-effective. Rather, we rejected it (in part) because it was LESS cost-effective than the current alignment.

        There are reasons beyond CEI to prefer 3A, despite what the groupthink dictates.

        It’s also true that as you go through the planning process, the criteria change. As you tease out the costs and model the ridership better, equations change. That’s been true of every major transit project we’ve done in the last two decades.

        At various points along the way you have to put a stake in the group and say, “this is the direction we’re heading.” Otherwise you’ll never make any progress. It’s not just due to face-saving reasons that decision-makers don’t want to start over. Starting over has real financial and social costs. Was Opat right to start over on Bottineau? Maybe, maybe not. But there’s no denying it’s had a huge impact on transit accessibility in the NW metro.

        • Wayne July 9, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

          Groupthink is staying committed to a subpar plan even long after it becomes clear that it’s not what it was sold to you and has none of the claimed advantages of a rejected routing via a questionable process.

          Questioning a poor decision-making process is pretty much the furthest you can get from groupthink. But sure, sticking to the broken status quo is really being an individual and forging your own path.

        • Wayne July 10, 2015 at 8:28 am #

          Also if we simply accepted the planners’ work as gospel, we’d have a freeway across one of our lakes and most of the north loop would have never happened because of another freeway extension. The St Anthony main area would never have blossomed how it did because it would have a huge highway cutting through and would be more like Lake and 35W.

          People make bad decisions and calling them out on those and putting a stop to things before those decisions become a reality is absolutely necessary.

          • David Greene July 10, 2015 at 11:11 am #

            I don’t think anything I’ve said precludes that.

            We disagree on the utility of SWLRT, that’s all.

  2. Wayne July 9, 2015 at 7:34 am #

    I agree with all of this. Our transit planning and funding mechanisms are so badly broken that we’ll probably never end up with a decent system unless something big changes.

  3. Mike Hicks July 9, 2015 at 8:07 am #

    I agree with these ideas, though I never quite understood how we ended up with a 3C alignment either. With 3A being used, it would make sense to add the unspoken corridor from downtown along Hennepin Avenue, then eventually reaching France Avenue to go down to Southdale and beyond.

    I’ve felt that Hennepin, Nicollet, and Chicago (and maybe Lyndale) need their own high-quality transit services. A Midtown Greenway service would tie them all together nicely too (and that’s one of the cheapest and easiest lines we could build).

    While one of these more urban corridors should have been developed before we decided to fling a line out to Eden Prairie (which could be served relatively well by just upgrading existing freight track and running some sort of high-frequency, all-day commuter rail), at this point I think it’s best for 3C backers to push for adding/enhancing a Hennepin corridor to the regional transportation plan that really serves Uptown.

    • Wayne July 9, 2015 at 10:56 am #

      Considering the limited pool of funds available I’d honestly say consolidating Hennepin and Nicollet onto Lyndale as a ‘middle-ground’ option makes more sense than pushing for both. It’s a relatively short walk to Lyndale from either street and if you beefed up east-west bus routes you could easily feed to it from areas that would be served by Nicollet or Hennepin. Plus it’s not like you have to ditch the bus service on those corridors if you put something grade-separated down Lyndale.

      (Actually Lyndale in conjunction with a greenway east-west line makes a ton of sense).

      Chicago Ave makes sense period. The only question is where you route it when it gets further south or how far down you go with it.

      Of course none of this matters and it’s all speculative and academic because Minneapolis will continue to wait another 30 years or so for another transit upgrade inside its borders that isn’t part of something making a beeline for the nearest suburb to provide those with better transit service than you can get in the core.

  4. Andrew Owen
    Andrew Owen July 9, 2015 at 8:16 am #

    I think #2 is more important that it seems. Most of the others follow naturally from it, or are made more achievable. It is the approach we took with what is arguably our most successful transit corridor: University avenue. The long-standing and very productive route 16 was augmented by the limited-stop route 50, which provided some aspects of BRT-style service (though without any right-of-way dedication or signal priority). Later we effectively upgraded route 50 to rail by building the Green Line.

    The Green Line is also the only transit project for which we have done #5 (, though it was not part of the planning process.

  5. TmfkaT July 9, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    8. Consider planning routes where Downtown is at the center of a proposed new line. That way, lines that do not extend as far out can have adequate minimum operating segments. In the case of 3C, maybe this would have allowed a Hopkins to NE Mpls line without the concern that if you ended up just getting it to Henn-Central that you don’t have a decent enough line to justify the costs.

    9. Come up with alignment options that could garner community support and then offer value engineering options vs skipping right to the VE option as the agency may have different priorities than the community.

    In the case of 3C, Hennepin County helped nail the coffin shut by telling the public that the south tunnel portal on the Greenway would require the bike trail to go back to grade and cross what could be a reopened Nicollet. This is not the only option, just the most cost effective option. It just isn’t a reasonable one and helped keep support away from the alignment.

    10. Be more honest about the process on the assumptions used. Specific questions on the ridership modeling came back as saying the FTA approved model spewed the numbers so all the concern doesn’t matter. This is a not an acceptable answer for the public.

  6. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele July 9, 2015 at 9:46 am #

    This should be reposted on Strong Towns for a national/international audience. Every single one of these is great. Thank you for posting!

    • Andrew B July 9, 2015 at 10:15 am #

      Agreed! These should be like a Bill of Rights for all transit planning.

  7. Karen Sandness July 9, 2015 at 10:09 am #

    If you want really effective transit planning, require all Metro Council planners and their families to go without their cars for six months. Then they’d discover where the deficiencies are.

    • Wayne July 9, 2015 at 11:02 am #

      I like this in theory, but you’d really just end up with amazing transit options to their office and nowhere else.

      • Peter Bajurny July 9, 2015 at 11:27 am #

        Well depending on where the offices are, that’s not the worst thing in the world.

      • Scott Walters July 9, 2015 at 11:50 am #

        And all the places their family members need to go. That’s the key to making it work.

    • Cole July 9, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

      Or, alternatively, we could just plan routes to posters and that would alleviate all the anxiety on this board!

      • Nick Magrino
        Nick Magrino July 9, 2015 at 4:22 pm #

        I’d settle for a Nice Ride kiosk m’self!

  8. David Greene July 9, 2015 at 11:52 am #

    I agree with a lot of this, though many points shine a black-and-white lens on grey areas. A few points:

    Building new corridors to new areas is important. Otherwise you just end up worsening disparity in transit access. We do in fact need to cover the gaps in our transit system.

    I love the idea of open-source modeling, though I’d prefer Free Software. But I wonder about the political issues around it. There is value in keep some things behind closed doors for a while because decision-makers have more freedom to speak their minds than when everything is out there for a rabid public to snap at.

    Building transit to “fields” can be useful. We shouldn’t just outright reject any idea that brings transit to lower-density areas. Transit can be a growth management tool. I completely agree that park & rides should have some kind of fee. You can’t set it too high though, or you’ll drive away riders.

    It would be useful to rethink the “federal queue” process. A lot of times projects move forward (too) rapidly because there’s a specific timeline they’re on and they don’t want to “lose their place.” This is partly a funding issue because FTA has so few dollars it has to ration severely. But there’s a process issue here too. Regions should feel they have the flexibility to “take a pause” and reconsider decisions when necessary. Inflation also drives rapid planning and implementation but I don’t know what can be done about that.

    • Wayne July 9, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

      Building transit to empty fields only makes sense if:
      1) You have some kind of mechanism to capture the increased value you’re providing to those fields for their owners and developers
      2) You’re already serving transit-dependent populations adequately.

      Neither of these are true right now, so blowing your entire transit allowance on trains to fields is dumb. We’ve already spent a fortune propping up the low density development model with highways, we don’t need to throw transit money out there too.

      • David Greene July 10, 2015 at 11:14 am #

        I completely disagree with both criteria. It we have the ability to manage/mitigate sprawl, we should consider doing it, even if we haven’t made every last investment that urban diehards want made and even if we don’t have a specific value-capture mechanism in place.

        I’m not saying we should absolutely do it all the time, but we should consider it.

        I think you’re interpreting my statements as much more extreme than they actually are.

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