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.