Suburb-to-Suburb Express Bus Experiment

Four of the “opt-out” suburban transit authorities are joining forces in a bold experiment to crack the very difficult suburb-to-suburb commuter market. Starting January 19, new Route 494 will link Maple Grove, Plymouth, Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Shakopee with rush hour express buses.

The new route is actually three sub-routes.

  1. Maple Grove Transit Center to Station 73 park-ride in Plymouth
  2. Station 73 and Metro Transit’s County Road 73 & I-394 park-ride in Minnetonka to the Opus II employment center in Minnetonka, Shady Oak Road in Eden Prairie, and the Marschall Road Transit Station in Shakopee
  3. Station 73 and Metro Transit’s County Road 73 & I-394 park-ride in Minnetonka to Southwest Station in Eden Prairie, and the Marschall Road Transit Station in Shakopee

Buses run in both directions each rush hour and the Maple Grove route makes timed connections to the pair of Plymouth-Shakopee routes. Here’s the map.


I wish them success, because if this market can’t be served, there is little hope for similar services elsewhere in the metro area. Here’s why it’s so difficult.

Trip origins and destinations are extremely dispersed. Transit only thrives when origins and destinations can be concentrated, as they are in the two downtowns. The bus delivers most of the commuters within an easy walk (often indoors) of their destinations. It also helps a great deal if there is paid parking, which is why the University of Minnesota and the airport are also viable destinations. Large suburban park-ride lots concentrate sufficient trip origins to make high frequency express service possible, and high frequency equals convenience. Experience has shown that local walk-up service through suburban neighborhoods is much less effective than park-ride lots at attracting riders. Downtown expresses benefit from transit advantages–ramp meter bypasses, MnPass lanes and bus-only shoulders that allow them to bypass traffic congestion. It also helps that busing is cheaper than driving.

Compare this to the challenges facing new Route 494. There are three factors that are the same as the downtown expresses–large, convenient park-ride lots, bus-only shoulders along almost the entire route, and cheap fares. Working against the new route are competition with free parking, infrequent service, and few jobs within a convenient walk of the stops. The latter is not the fault of the route planners. There are simply no suburban job concentrations that are as dense as the downtowns. Think of all that open space between buildings.

Besides walking or biking, there are few transit connections available to collect or distribute riders on either end of the express trip. The map lists many connecting routes, but I checked quite a few of those connections and most aren’t conveniently timed. Nor could they be, as they occur at random. Most of the connections aren’t with local circulators, they’re with the outer portions of downtown express routes. It would take a major rescheduling of established, well-patronized downtown expresses to make the connections work, and that would make existing riders unhappy. A few of the transfers work, but I doubt that many will be able to figure them out, let alone use them. Despite the bus-only shoulders, the lack of local distribution on the employment end of the trip probably means a longer travel time by bus than by car for most potential commuters.

The last factor working against the new route is peer pressure. Anyone using it will be something of a trailblazer, and most people aren’t comfortable with that. Downtown expresses from the suburbs have become established and are supported by positive word of mouth, but I remember when that was considered courageous and nonconformist.

Despite all these challenges, I very much hope it works, but will not be surprised if it doesn’t.

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.

10 thoughts on “Suburb-to-Suburb Express Bus Experiment

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    I hope this can be a success.

    Here’s a modest proposal, if this sticks around, take a lesson from the Orange Line/Knox Ave underpass… IF SWLRT happens, make the LRT underpass under 62 be wide enough for buses, bikes, and pedestrians. It could cut down a bit of the bus time waiting at the Shady Oak Rd stoplights for the bus to go from the Optum campus to the Bren Road stop at the United campus.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      This even skips areas of high trip generation density along the corridor. For a short miserable while until I engineered a return to urbanity, I officed at a corporate campus right at the pivot of this orange line on 169/394. Across the highway was General Mills. It would be a mile walk down a sidewalk-less frontage road along I-394 to get to this transit, even though I could see buses operating two of the three routes from my old office window. Thousands of riders not served, because development-oriented-transit is close to impossible when development is auto-oriented.

      But there’s so much working against this and in favor of keeping people in cars: Free parking (I doubt there’s a single priced parking space in this entire corridor). Car commuting subsidies from the Federal Government. A land use that rewards the “flexibility” of having a car for lunch, errands, etc and punishes walking for those same errands. A lack of proper pricing on freeway capacity, except for one lane of 394. And the icing on the cake: new “free” lane capacity on I-494!

  2. Justin

    I’m a big fan of connected, walkable, transit-served suburbs, but I don’t see this working unless there are significant changes to the fabric along that corridor. Like Matt said, transit is just not accessible without using a car and once you’re in a car, may as well just suck it up and drive the whole way. Plus with free parking at your destination that kills the park and ride incentive.

  3. Matt Brillhart

    I agree with others that this will likely prove to be a colossal failure, and will be cancelled as soon as the state-provided demonstration funding runs out (money to try this came from the legislature in 2015).

    That said, I don’t see the point of the blue route at all. Why couldn’t the orange route also stop at Southwest Station? That’s a ton of labor wasted on a separate route just to avoid that short detour. If people from Shakopee want a 1-seat ride from their P&R to UHC/Optum jobs, they can endure a little detour through Southwest Station instead of having an entirely separate route go to the same place.

    1. John L.

      Because without the blue route the service wouldn’t run on I-494 at all and the route number wouldn’t make any sense. And we wouldn’t want to have transit in this region that doesn’t make sense, now, would we?

    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Also, will a green route bus interline with a blue or orange route? If not, then it’s a mistake to split this up at Station 73 TS. At a minimum, all three sub-routes should serve both Station 73 and Hopkins Crossroad. Else you’re forcing a transfer for green route riders headed to job centers around Hopkins Crossroad station. But you’re still forcing a transfer for Maple Grove – UHG riders.

      Also, just think of how many destinations this service passes by and misses. Ridgedale. General Mills. Downtown Hopkins/Cargill/Supervalu. Corporate campuses at 169/Bass Lake. St. Jude at 169/49th Ave interchange. The Four Seasons redevelopment (TOD?) site at 169/Rockford Road.

      It’s almost enough to make you wonder why this is only serving UHG/Optum other than existing transit stations. Did they pay for it?

  4. Pingback: Philly Reduced Its Public Parking Supply and More Spaces Opened Up |

  5. denny

    Anyone know if it is cost effective for the Op -Out to operate their own operation instead of Met Council.It seems they are duplicating operations One can access he same info on MetC web site.The only benefit is non union drivers that I can think off.They have the better buses and better transit center enclosed and heated.City riders get shelters with fence around them .( A line).First Class services for suburbanites 3rd class for city riders.

Comments are closed.