A-Line aBRT Station at 46th & 46th

Arterial Bus Rapid Transit Could Save Us From Ourselves

Hey, what’s this? We’re on 46th Street in South Minneapolis, heading to Minnehaha Park–looks like we’ve got some cones and some metal pipes and a whole bunch of that sidewalk braille along the curb, kind of like at a…train station.

A-Line aBRT Station at 46th & 46th

46th & 46th A Line Station

That’s no train station–it’s an arterial bus rapid transit station, under construction. What’s arterial bus rapid transit? Also what’s bus rapid transit? Also what’s transit? It’s good to discuss all three of these things together, and use the aBRT and BRT acronyms from here out.

Bus Rapid Transit

It’s all sort of hazy actually! BRT has been taken to mean all sorts of things in the past few decades. Pulling a definition from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia:

To be considered BRT, buses should operate for a significant part of their journey within a fully dedicated right of way (busway) to avoid traffic congestion. In addition, a true BRT system has most of the following elements:

  • Alignment in the center of the road (to avoid typical curb-side delays)
  • Stations with off-board fare collection (to reduce boarding and alighting delay related to paying the driver)
  • Station platforms level with the bus floor (to reduce boarding and alighting delay caused by steps)
  • Bus priority at intersections (to avoid intersection signal delay)

And unlike, say, rail, there’s a decent amount of gray area there. With a train, you take away the rails, and that’s probably no longer a train. There’s maybe a gray-ish area between what constitutes a light rail line and what you might want to call a streetcar, but there are fewer little operational details to remove with train service. The gray area between BRT and just “a bus” is much larger, and reviewing the list of things that have been marketed as BRT lines in the United States may disappoint compared to some of the more distinctive systems elsewhere in the Americas or overseas.

It has been suggested on occasion that when anti-transit politicians advocate for BRT (or just “buses”) in lieu of rail due to financial considerations, it’s sort of disingenuous, as the BRT itself then often gets watered down.

Our own local, operating example of BRT, the METRO Red Line running between the Mall of America and Apple Valley, is generally baffling in that, while it does serve the Apple Valley Red Robin, it doesn’t hit most of the above points, is an unfortunate waste of a primary color, and also was fundamentally not a good idea–“a freeway expansion project masquerading a transit improvement,” as one astute streets.mn commenter put it a while back. Anyway, it’s not all bad, as the doors of the Apple Valley Transit Station opening up into the bay of a Midas sets up about as a good of a metaphor as you’re going to get anywhere.

Apple Valley Transit Station

The METRO Gold Line, a BRT line down I-94 from Lake Elmo to Downtown St. Paul planned to open in 2022, very (!) far in the future, is also weird, though for different reasons. Unlike the Red Line it will travel largely in its own right of way, making it a much better example of BRT as a transit mode, and it will at least end in a downtown of sorts, but at $450 million dollars with a very rural routing, it’s at least as befuddling as the Red Line is baffling. It would be fair to say the Gold Line is more of a Washington County and east metro political maneuver than a transit improvement, but it’s happening, so hopefully it gets used.

(Bright spot: the METRO Orange Line, a BRT line up I-35W from Burnsville to Downtown Minneapolis planned to open in 2019, seems like a comparatively pretty good idea with its sub-$250 million dollar budget, existing well-used transit service, and destination of a plurality of the region’s trips on one end)

“Okay so you were just really negative about BRT–what else do you have? Dammit, you streets.people are terrible,” said the sympathetic reader who takes an express bus to work four days a week and drives everywhere else.

Sorry! It is a lot sometimes. But when talking about transit, it’s important to make distinctions between different types of service, especially when marketing has kind of ruined one of them. If you’d told a bunch of people in 2005 that we were going to spend $117 million dollars on six fancy bus stations between the Mall of America and Apple Valley they’d be like what??? but if you call it “BRT” it maybe sounds vaguely like something they’d have in California, and that’s half the battle right there.

Arterial Bus Rapid Transit

So what else can we do! As it turns out, not everything is totally hopeless. Some intrepid people at Metro Transit have managed to quietly glue together small chunks of funding table scraps to develop what they’re calling aBRT, or arterial bus rapid transit. Several years ago, they identified a group of corridors where they might want to try aBRT–a regular local bus user may recognize these corridors as some of the region’s busiest bus routes.

aBRT Network

aBRT corridors with the rest of the planned and existing transit system (Source: Metro Transit)

So what is aBRT, exactly? You can read Metro Transit’s project page, but you might think of it as a hugely improved local bus. Buses, which will have lower floors and wider aisles for easier boarding, will run more often. They’ll stop at fewer stations, and those stations will have off-board payment and real-time arrival information–even some heated shelters for the winter. Plus, intersections along the routes will have transit signal priority, allowing a bus with 40 passengers to get through traffic lights a little faster than a guy in a Toyota on a cross street.

Perhaps most importantly, aBRT is cheap, like real cheap, like effectively free compared to other kinds of transit projects that get lots of press and attention. We’re looking at $27 and $32 million dollars for our first two aBRT lines, the A and C Lines.


A Line Route (Source: Metro Transit)

The A Line, scheduled to open next year, largely follows the path of the existing Route 84 bus, which runs from Rosedale Mall in Roseville down through St. Paul on Snelling Avenue, hitting the Green Line at University Avenue before jogging over to Minneapolis on Ford Parkway to connect with the Blue Line at Hiawatha Avenue.

The C Line, currently being planned, largely follows the path of the existing Route 19 bus, which runs from Brooklyn Center to Penn Avenue through North Minneapolis into Downtown Minneapolis. Construction will hopefully start in 2017.

(if you’re wondering what happened to the B Line–it was delayed while St. Paul and Ramsey County conduct a study (itself $1.5 million dollars!) in the Riverview Corridor, presumably gunning for a streetcar on West 7th Street)

The crazy thing about the A and C Lines is that they are transit projects that are transit improvements! They speed up and improve transit trips on corridors with lots and lots of transit trips–many of thousands of them. Right now, a fourth of all people traveling on the Penn Avenue stretch of the C Line are doing so on transit.

It’s projected that the A Line will be 27% faster end to end compared to the existing Route 84 bus. The increased frequency will also help–those thousands of riders will wait shorter amounts of time for a faster bus. Frequency will also increase perceptions of reliability, as buses will run often enough that riders won’t need to consult schedules.

Route 84 vs. A Line

(Source: Metro Transit)

And it’s hard to quantify, but aBRT is also an important symbolic investment in inner city mobility, which isn’t slated to see much improvement in the near or medium term future. Without discounting the existing METRO Blue and Green Lines, which are a good thing, there have been and will continue to be a lot experiential differences between urban and suburban bus routes. Those choice riders out in the second-ring suburbs–they get a $8 million dollar structured park and ride with free parking, a heated bus shelter, a coach bus that travels 15 miles in 15 minutes, while those local route riders, they…well, you know.

Southbound Route 4 stop, Lyndale & Groveland-ishTransit

So what is the fundamental point of mass transit service? The point is to move lots of people, quickly. There are many other, bad reasons to build mass transit service. And since few people in Minnesota actually use transit, and some fraction of those people use it outside of commuting, it’s easy to trick people into supporting dubious projects.

When asked why the Gold Line BRT makes sense, the project website goes with “proactively [addressing] growth in traffic congestion” as their first bullet point, which is a bad reason to build transit and probably folly anyway–using commonly accepted ideas about automobile induced demand, it kind of stands to reason that, like a capacity addition to the freeway, 5,000 cars taken off of I-94 in the east metro will just speed up the appearance of 5,000 new car commuters driving west from out past Lake Elmo. Bullet points #2 through #5 are boilerplate word salad, and then bullet point #6, the last one, “transit services in the Gateway Corridor will help seniors and others who can’t drive, or choose not to drive” should of course be the first one. That might be sort of an unfair cherry picking of a boring public sector website, but it does stand in stark contrast to the A Line website, which manages to list benefits that have to do with transit service. (!)

All that without even mentioning what will be by far the metro area’s two largest transit projects in the coming couple decades–the extensions of the METRO Green and Blue Lines into the southwest and northwest metros, respectively. At this point, the Green Line extension is probably tied to one of the laws of physics–wouldn’t want to mess with that. But when you combine the $1.7 billion currently budgeted for that with the $1.? billion projected for the Blue Line extension, we’ll end up spending something like $3 billion dollars of someone’s money to supplement existing, well-used but safely comfortable commuter bus service with…slower trains.

Not news to you, of course! But hopefully this drives home the point that there isn’t not money to build transit. You always hear that there is no money to do good things, and this is incorrect. Money exists, it is out there, but it gets spent on counting the trees in the Kenilworth corridor, or rehabilitating a now comically underused St. Paul Union Depot, or running personal Red Line buses along Cedar Avenue all day. Decisions get made at some point to do things some way.

For the price of the recent $341 million dollar cost increase to build light rail through a marsh in Eden Prairie, we could build aBRT to replace the 5, 18, 6, 10, 3, 19, 17, and 4, improving mobility for tens of thousands of existing users, and spurring tens of thousands more to use transit. But, we won’t. (The Route 21 on Lake Street should, of course, be supplemented by rail in the Midtown Corridor) (In theory, replacing the 18 and the 10 with aBRT instead of the Nicollet-Central Streetcar would also save someone, somewhere a lot of money while improving transit service much more)

Annual-Rides-2014There is a plan to roll aBRT lines out gradually–that initial study identifying corridors was done in 2011 and 2012, added to in 2013, the A Line was approved in 2014, it’s opening in 2016. Funding for the C Line is anticipated to be wrapped up at the end of next year, and hopefully it gets built in 2017 and opens in 2018. St. Paul and Ramsey County putting the kibosh on the B Line (which had federal funding lined up) kind of threw a wrench in the progression, but corridor planning for the D Line (Chicago/Emerson-Fremont, or basically the Route 5) is supposed to start at some point next year.

Keeping in mind that all projections ever are bad, the Metropolitan Council’s 2040 Transportation Policy Plan accounts for the completion of three aBRT lines in the next ten years with our current transit funding scenario, or 11 by 2040 in their increased revenue funding scenario, which involves a potential half-cent transit sales tax. The plan (page 61) does kind of leave the door open to building additional lines after 10 years in the current funding scenario, appearing to acknowledge that aBRT is incredibly cheap and doesn’t really require the 20 year slog of planning that a larger project would need to eventually get a federal match.

But why wait!

Here is an actual, tangible thing we could advocate for and do.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.