Transit In Third Ring Suburbs

We spend a lot of time on talking the core cities and inner-suburbs. It’s easy to forget the hundreds of square miles in our region (or across the state) that are doing very little on land-use and transportation. I’ve been using Lakeville, MN as a case study for these places. Go check out the links above to get a background on some of the issues and ideas for improving land use and walking/biking.

That said, I’m not going to pretend residents will always be able to walk from a residential neighborhood to a job two miles away. Or that biking from downtown Lakeville to Crystal Lake will be a reasonable option 365 days a year. It does rain and snow here, and sometimes the temperatures are too cold to take kids out for a bike ride (even if people make a bigger deal about our weather and seasonal infrastructure than they should).


Minneapolis recently hosted the Winter Cycling Congress. It can be done! (image source: Star Tribune)

Like our central cities, transit is the final key to extending mobility to people of all ages, incomes, and abilities year-round. It makes living car-lite possible, it allows neighborhoods to add residents without requiring expensive street/road widening, and (along with bicycling) allows developing cheaper parking-lite housing and commercial spaces.

So I’m going to say it: Lakeville, like many outer suburbs, should operate a transit network that links neighborhoods and job centers within its borders while connecting to the larger region. Before I go into how, let me talk about…

Local Precedent

Did you know Lakeville already runs a local transit system? You see it every day, shuttling thousands of residents about the city.

No metaphor intended, seriously. (Image source)

No metaphor intended, seriously. (Image source)

Busing kids to and fro 9 months a year costs taxpayers nearly $6 million dollars a year to operate, and almost none of those costs are borne by users directly. This is especially true when you consider 80% of the school district’s general fund (which funds the transportation contract) comes from the State of Minnesota. That’s a hefty subsidy. By percent of budget, it’s larger than Metro Transit’s subsidy from the state, which totals ~60% when you include MVST and general fund dollars.

Some things to remember. These kids don’t feel demeaned by having to share a bus seat with someone else. These kids are capable of walking more than the distance from the living room to the garage, then waiting in all sorts of weather for a bus to pick them up. They’re capable of figuring out which bus to board in the afternoon, and even where to go for after-school daycare. This suburb that prioritizes cars is clearly okay with running noisy, diesel buses up and down city streets to pick up humans. Finally, barely anyone questions whether this costly service is a waste of the taxpayer dollar.

We (society) just do it. We fund it because we know there are people who can’t reasonably drop their kids off at school in the morning or be available to pick them up in the early afternoon. We know there are people who aren’t old enough or can’t afford owning a car but still need to get to daily destinations. We do it because we know, deep down, that having 500 people waiting to pick their kid up at each elementary school would be a traffic nightmare and transit is a solution to inescapable geometry problems, even in spread-out suburbs.


So, if we just pay for transit for kids in the suburbs, why don’t we for everyone else?

A Lakeville Transit System

I’m not going to pretend that my proposal is 100% fleshed out, that there aren’t other potentially good routes, or that the number and placement of stops isn’t too many or few. I can’t give anyone a modeled daily ridership estimate because I wasn’t paid six-figures for a study.

can tell you that I tried to connect major population, shopping, job, and school destinations across the city. I tried to follow a grid that gives flexibility for riders by offering a single transfer between bus routes to get around. I’m assuming the Orange Line will eventually be extended from the Burnsville Parkway station to the Burnsville Center and then down to Lakeville. I also assume the Red Line will be extended down Cedar Ave. I propose those extensions connect to activity hubs, like the fairly walkable downtown and the Argonne shopping area (with huge potential in my opinion), with my local routes converging at these places to extend their utility. Finally, I tried to keep stations infrequent enough to maintain decent operating speeds, lowering trip times. Those were my goals. Here’s the system:


Again, I’m not married to this exact design. I’ve even tinkered with my preferred regional extensions and local routes since I originally wrote the post. The point here is to understand roughly the level of service (how many residents and jobs served) and capital/operating costs.

Buses would run at 15 minute headways (4 buses per hour) all day from 6 AM until 10 PM, every day of the week. Regular readers will know this level of service is better than most bus routes in (far denser) Minneapolis and St Paul. Take a look at Metro Transit’s high-frequency network, which is defined as 15 minute or better headways from 6AM-7PM on weekdays – fairly sparse.

Based on bus frequency and estimated operating speeds, I estimate this network would need 10 buses to meet service requirements with a spare. I also estimate an annual operating cost of $6-7 million using average Metro Transit operating expenses per revenue hour. If you’re a suburban resident inclined to believe in the self-driving car revolution, know that they’d essentially bring this annual budget down by 70% or more.

Every stop (there are only 39!) should get a heated shelter. Period. At $30,000 per heated shelter, this is roughly $1.2 million up-front capital cost, or equivalent to a third of a mile of a new suburban 4-lane road. Seems like a good deal. I’d strongly recommend putting a couple small bike racks at each station to make biking to the bus a reasonable option for folks outside the walk-shed.

I’d also recommend using real urban transport vehicles (low floor for accessible entry), and savings could be found by buying smaller buses rather than the full-sized ones Metro Transit uses. This reduces noise, road wear/tear, and (most importantly) capital/operating costs. It’s a very common practice. At roughly $150,000 each, all 10 could be purchased for ~$1.5 million, and will likely last 10-12 years.

Example of a small urban bus.

Example of a small urban bus.

You may not believe a system like this would have utility for many Lakeville residents. Like I said, I can’t put forward a ridership model. However, I do know that a good chunk of Lakeville’s jobs are served by transit lines:

via Cenus OnTheMap tool, 2013 data

via Cenus OnTheMap tool, 2013 data

In fact, of the 14,150 jobs within Lakeville’s borders, just shy of 10,000 (70%!) are within a 1/3 mile radius of the stations I proposed:


And, while the OnTheMap tool doesn’t give us total population (it only focuses on number of workers and jobs), we know that of the 29,600 total workers who live in Lakeville (but whose job may be anywhere), 10,300 (35%) live within the third mile station areas.


Over 1,000 workers both live and work within these service areas. Today. That’s 1,000 people driving to and from their job every day that could ditch their car (or second car) in favor of biking and/or busing. How many additional people and jobs could move to Lakeville over the next 30 years with a system like this without needing to expand arterial roadways? How many kids could ride this system to school, allowing the school bus contract to be slowly reduced? How many people currently riding the bus to the (free) Kenrick Park & Ride (with an $8.7 million construction cost) or other express bus station could choose to just hop the bus from the nearest station instead? It’s not crazy to think a local transit system could achieve 5-10% mode share in Lakeville in just a short time.

Finally, the thing I’m sure every suburban driver cares about, farebox recovery. At just 1,000 daily riders, this bus network would only recover 7% of its operating cost at typical Metro Transit fares. Of course, no one in Lakeville is questioning what percent of their city’s road maintenance and reconstruction budget comes from the gas tax, motor vehicle sales tax, and registration fees, so I’m not sure why farebox recovery matters for local travel. In this case, recovery is so low, with likely no crowding, that I’d propose just making it free. Yes, you read that right. It’s really not that radical of an idea, especially for smaller towns. Call me when Lakeville starts charging for on-street parking before complaining about a free bus system.

So there you have it. At an initial cost for shelters and buses of maybe $3 million and an ongoing annual operating cost of $6-7 million, Lakeville could connect almost all its commercial destinations and a significant chunk of its residents. I’m very open to a discussion around how fixed-route transit, and station infrastructure, could work with a more decentralized self-driving vehicle network at some point in the future. I believe there would be room for both, with pricing allowing for different levels of convenience. But in the meantime, I have to ask: you’re already spending nearly $6 million on school buses Lakeville, why not do the same for everyone else?

This post is adapted from the my personal blog, and is the third in a series covering my hometown, a typical third-ring suburb; Lakeville, MN. I suggest reading parts I (the problems) and II (land use, walking, and biking recommendations) first.

23 thoughts on “Transit In Third Ring Suburbs

  1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    If you lived in Lakeville, wouldn’t you just drive?

    “These kids don’t feel demeaned by having to share a bus seat with someone else. These kids are capable of walking more than the distance from the living room to the garage, then waiting in all sorts of weather for a bus to pick them up.”

    I remember being one of the only juniors and seniors to continue to ride the bus to school on my bus route in the suburbs, after people started to get their licenses.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I did live in Lakeville, and boy howdy did I drive. Kinda sad that the grocery store closest to my first purchased home (yep!) was literally 1.04 miles away (admittedly down a hill) but I only once walked or biked to get there.

      I dunno, if you pay me a six figure sum I can tell you how many people will ride this system and the share of Young Adults reading Divergent on the school bus will feel bad about not driving. All to 2 decimal points of precision.

      This was a not-great post, but we should maybe think about how land-use and even transit can work in outer suburbs that won’t be getting a $1.XX billion light rail.

  2. Monte Castleman

    Maybe I’m the minority here, but I really don’t care about farebox recovery. Except for the MnPass on some of our freeways there’s no direct costs to use roads, so no direct cost to use transit seems appropriate. People should be happy that other people are using transit even though it’s not going to be enough to negate the need to expand highway capacity.

    I don’t think having transit is going to induce many people to go car-free in Lakeville. 80% of Minneapolis households still own cars despite how good transit is there, how much closer things are, the options for car-sharing, and how much harder it is to drive around and park so you’d get a figure somewhat less than that in Lakeville.

    As far as riding a local bus to a park and ride, I don’t think this is going to be very attractive. Right now you can drive a car from your own garage directly to the parking lot, and then take a bus to your workplace, or a skyway connection nearby. Taking a local bus would involve walking and waiting in all kinds of weather to the local bus, adding considerable time and unpleasantness to the journey.

    I’ve been lucky enough to never have to work in downtown (I always found a job before even applying there), but if I did I might consider the I-35W express bus, but unless it’s nice enough to bicycle, I’m driving to the lot about a mile away.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I think it’d be a pretty big win if even 10%, let alone meeting Minneapolis’ 20%, of households in Lakeville were car-free, with another chunk of households being “car-lite” (fewer cars than driving-age adults or workers, however you want to define that). This proposal wasn’t necessarily meant to provide a majority of all trips taken by transit, but allow a more significant chunk of trips by walk, bike, *or* transit thanks to a combination of transportation options and land-use change (read the other posts in the series if interested). In Minneapolis, only 67% of all trips are taken in a car per the UMN CTS study (2010 data).

      I think a great way to up the attractiveness of taking a bus (or bike!) to an $8million park n ride is to charge for parking. $2-4 a day would do it. And, I proposed every bus stop in this system would get heated shelters – I went for the Cadillac (capital and ops) for reference.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Maybe it would for some people, but $4 a day isn’t enough for me to make a choice that’s slow and or uncomfortable to get to a park and ride. Too expensive and I’ll just say “forget it” and drive all the way downtown.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          Right, exactly. No one, or at least not me, is proposing that any individual policy, or set of policies, would get 100% of even current express bus riders to switch to biking or busing to a park n ride. Or to their grocery store, or anything else.

          I’d imagine that if we priced freeways more, charged for parking at park n rides, set property taxes to not favor ramps or surface lots in downtowns or even suburban districts, etc etc that we’d see a natural 1 to 5? 8? something % shift.

  3. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    The problem is economics combined with local politics. Such a service will attract very few riders (many buses will carry no one), so its subsidy per passenger will greatly exceed the regional ceiling for suburban local service and the cost recovery from the fare box will be less than 10 percent. As this legislative session has shown, the Republican House of Representatives is happy to starve the much more productive parts of the transit system. Lakeville is occupies that same end of the political spectrum, so why would you think they would support such a proposal?

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      “so why would you think they would support such a proposal?”

      I don’t! I have family still in Lakeville who I know wouldn’t. But it’s at least worth digging into the data. This system (not claiming it’s ideal!) would serve 70% of the city’s jobs, likely a similar percentage of its retail, and 35% of its residents (a number that could easily go up if the city cared about steering development intensity near the stations and/or major hubs I proposed). It could save the city/county/state money in road expansions. It could allow people in the bottom 20-40% of the income spectrum who work in or near Lakeville to also live there (and enjoy its schools, lakes, etc). My personal blog post that kicked off the series (here) talked about how Lakeville’s system has produced these outcomes.

      I noted in the post that farebox recovery would be low, citing 7% at 1k riders a day. I don’t personally think it’s crazy to fund this out of the local budget, as the city (via state money) is fine to do for school buses. And the city is fine to fund over-built moonscapes with general property tax revenues.

      I’m not saying it’ll happen. I’m just saying maybe someone should be having the discussion. Maybe. A little.

      1. Rosa

        don’t most residents/voters see accessibility to low-income people as a negative effect? I feel like people come right out and say that whenever transit or housing is discussed.

  4. Eric

    One route you forgot to mention is the Dan Patch Corridor, which is slowly but surely getting attention again even with the legislative ban still in place. I’d like for the Dan Patch Corridor to be built with all-day, 30 minute headway service between Lakeville and Minneapolis (1 hour headway to/from Northfield). Stations at Orchard Gardens, Kenrick Avenue or 185th Street, and downtown Lakeville. Orchard Gardens could have a local bus service between there and the Apple Valley Transit Station, Kenrick Avenue could have the Metro Orange Line extended there (the Kenrick Avenue park & ride ramp is just north of the train tracks), and the downtown Lakeville station would either have the Red Line extended to there or a local bus service connecting to the industrial park. Right now the city council of Lakeville doesn’t want to have anything to do with Dan Patch Corridor, but as traffic congestion worsens and assuming your prediction of people being more open to transit is right, then I think Lakeville will change it’s mind (hopefully).

    Back in 1991 my hometown of Bloomington began it’s first local bus service called the BE Line (Bloomington and Edina). Now these bus routes have been getting pretty good use, and soon I see at least a couple routes getting 15 minute headways on weekdays and 30 minute headways on the weekend. As Lakeville continues to develop and grow in population I can see a local bus service eventually being implemented just as what was done in Bloomington and Edina.

  5. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’m glad you examined this, but I think it would be seriously putting the cart before the horse to think about investing in local buses in Lakeville before addressing the more pressing land-use issues. Density is very low, major streets (which riders would surely have to navigate) are old high-speed rural highways, or modern suburban stroads. For most “destinations” outside of downtown Lakeville, buildings are set exceedingly far back. There’s a Target at 185th and Kenrick, and it’s 1/3 of a mile to walk from 185th and Kenrick to the front door (via designated pedestrian routes). It’s even 0.15 miles to walk the front door of Buffalo Wild Wings nearby from the street, even though the building itself is only set back 40′. Life Time Fitness at 185th & Dodd? 1/2 mile from the corner, via designated routes. And this doesn’t even consider the 1/3 of the community that’s still cornfield!

    The great news is that they don’t have to cement themselves into a transit-hostile form. It’s perfectly possible to have highly drivable areas that also have at least some potential to support transit. Burnsville (which already has some local buses) has done a very good job, but even Maple Grove or Apple Valley have done better than Lakeville.

    I think expanding local bus options in those communities would be a more reasonable focus. Even large parts of Bloomington have impractically bad bus service, if you’re not going to downtown at rush hour.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      To be clear, this post focused on Lakeville (mostly because it’s my hometown and I know it pretty well), but could apply to other suburbs like the ones you mention. It puts a price on operating and capital for a system. But yeah, certainly Burnsville and Apple Valley have a more extensive grid and more clusters of apartments and other housing amenable to transit.

      I’ll defend my system a little in that none of the horrible land-uses in town you mention (the Target, Lifetime, corn fields) are served by it. It’s fair to say get the land use right first, but it’s also fair to question whether that’ll ever happen without alternative modes present or planned. I can’t say that if I had $7m lying around for transit that I’d spend it in a 3rd ring burb first, but it’s a good thought experiment IMO.

      1. Deborah Nelson

        One area that can be helped by local bus service would be for the senior citizens in downtown Lakeville. These citizens who may no longer be able to drive need to find their way to the grocery store, the senior center, town hall, restaurants, and parks. There is a veritable dessert surrounding the senior housing. Let’s talk about what reliable transit can do for basic human dignity.

        1. Rosa

          that seems like an actual selling point for voters, too – lots of people are worried about their own personal parents driving when they are getting old enough that it doesn’t seem safe, and it’s really hard to do anything about it. We talk about emotional reasons (dignity, independence, stubbornness) but with older people in my family a big part of it has been plain logistics – figuring out taxi service or buses if they’ve never used them.

        2. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

          Which is why it’s so sad that our subsidized suburban development pattern (which resulted in 2 Cubs, a SuperTarget, and a Rainbow being built in the span of about five years) put Downtown Lakeville’s grocery store – Enggren’s – out of business about a decade ago. Now seniors in Downtown Lakeville no longer have an option for grocery shopping without a car.

  6. Jaquelyn Moore-Williams

    I live in NE Minneapolis. I Bike and sometimes drive. The bus in my area is so unreliable it literally takes nearly 1 1/2 hours to bus the 5 miles to where I live from my job. If I want to go to a social function in St Louis Park I had to plan on 3 1/2 hours of bus/waiting/transfer time. It just doesnt work for most people. I With busy lives you need to be able to go home when you want to. I understand how buses would not be wanted by people who live so far out of the city.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Jaquelyn.

      I think most people, even transit advocates, would agree that bus service isn’t ideal for every origin-destination today. Even in the core-cities and inner suburbs. I think it’d be great if you wanted to write a story about your transit experience for – a time you tried to ride it, did ride it and were disappointed, or anything else, including ideas on how to make it more reliable. It’d be great to have your perspective!

  7. Cole Hiniker

    I’m not understanding where you got these figures from. Can I make a show-your-math request? Everything seems low, including the capital costs. That bus is not $150,000.

    I don’t consider the school example a good comparison because a) kids and b) they are all going the same place and we know that.

    I think the numbers show why it isn’t feasible and why studying it is not something I’d spend even $10,000 on. You have 1,000 home-job pairs in the area, with an overly assumptive 1/3 mile buffer. Even under optimal conditions, you’d be lucky to attract 20% of those people to ride transit. So maybe 200 people or 400 daily rides. Maybe you get some more riders for other trips. But still, no city is ever going to raise property taxes to put something in place that costs that much money and only benefits less than 1% of its residents. Even small providers that are community based have figured out that local suburban service is mostly not attractive to people that choose to live in those locations.

    It sucks, but that’s the way things are. The first ring suburbs are places that could use more of a network of local service, if it weren’t for all those lakes, golf courses, and cul-de-sacs.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Hi Cole,

      Bummer we didn’t get to chat earlier today! I’m happy to share my math, but it’s a bit basic (didn’t make many notes on it):

      I estimated how many buses would be needed for each line by calculating end-to-end travel time for each (knowing they’re on 45 mph+ roads with few stops, not unlike the Red Line through Apple Valley), adding layover/recovery time, then figured out buses needed on any line per hour. I used $147/revenue-hour for operating the buses, which is taken from this O&M methodology spread out over revenue hours and miles, with facility/marketing/etc overhead costs again spread over the system’s revenue hours (see second sheet for this part). The total came to $6.5m/year to operate the 3 lines. I’m very open to critique 🙂 As to the bus purchase price, I honestly cannot find the source for that – I’m baffled why I didn’t link to it in the post. I’ll concede that it’s probably a bit short.

      I guess I do consider the school a good example. Lakeville has 16 different schools, each with many buses making runs to scattered neighborhood pickups, dropoffs, and even after-school programs. More broadly, them being kids should be the best way to get people to see that other members of society also can’t drive, whether it’s because they’re too old, can’t afford it, have a disability, or any number of other reasons. Why kids but not them?

      And yeah, I’m not saying this system, or even any particular 3rd/4th ring suburb are where I’d spend my next transit dollar if you told me to go spend it. There are far better returns elsewhere from a rider per dollar – no question. But it is a sad state that there are so many decent middle-class jobs inaccessible to people who can’t afford a car because Lakeville (and other cities like it) choose not to provide good mobility options (or are zoned for cheap housing). The people who choose to live in Lakeville swing very heavily rich – it’s no wonder they drive. What Lakeville doesn’t have is a healthy population of people in the bottom 20-40% of our regional income. This is more of a case where transit is as much about social service as it is providing a longer-term template for job and residence clustering in town (Lakeville could spend $Xm a year on transit and obviate the need to new subdivisions or certain road widenings at $Ym/year).

      Anyway, thanks for the comment! Hope the spreadsheet is helpful to others as well!

      1. Cole Hiniker

        Yes, Minneapolis planning meetings are the only thing that give me hope in the world. Sorry, this might come off as brutal but plenty of people have thought of this and there’s a reason you never hear about it. With that said…

        Maybe I’m crazy or I’m missing an assumption here, but I think you’re missing the fact that buses typically run in both directions. There’s no way you can do a 45-minute route at 15-minute frequencies in both directions with 3 buses. You’ll probably need at least 7 or 8. Each bus will make it’s run in 45 minutes and then have a 15 minute layover before starting the next run in the reverse direction. At any given time, you’ll have at least 3 buses in each direction.

        So you should probably double all of your costs. Even without that assumption, it’s still probably at least half as expensive to just run dial-a-ride or even just subsidize taxis. You could even do electric taxis. You can actually bus limos for cheaper than 30′ shorter buses, most of the time. So there you have it. Lakeville should operate a personal limo service for anyone who lives and works in their City. Sign. Me. Up.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          You’re right, I forgot to double the trips per hour to account for both directions. $13-14m a year for this is high, even at a stretch goal of 1-2,000 riders a day! (though I’ll again point out that represents a level of service not seen even in most places of Minneapolis or St Paul – it’s not crazy to suggest 20-30 minute headways throughout the day).

          I hope this post didn’t come across as claiming no one has thought about this. Quite the contrary, I’m sure the numbers have been evaluated in many ways over the years by the Met Council and other groups. I say this as a person who grew up in Lakeville: it’s unfortunate that a city of ~60,000 was able to grow in such a way that regular transit service is more or less impossible. It’s more unfortunate that in 2016 we don’t really think it’s worth trying to curb or change that (but for a few potential townhomes among corn fields near a Red Line park and ride).

          1. Cole Hiniker

            I’m not going to study this, but maybe someone at should start a discussion about what transit consultant studies would be worth doing at the regional level.

            Programmed over the next two years are at least two studies:
            Metro Mobility Demand Forecast Model Update
            Employer Last Mile Transit Connections Study

            I can bring good ideas back to Met Council staff.

            1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

              I’d love to see a study of viability for terminating the Red Line (or Orange Line maybe?) at *walkable* Downtown Lakeville. That would be money very well spent.

              I rather dislike the pattern of planning we’ve seen for these projects, planning to terminate services in farm-fields-turned-park-and-rides rather than actual walkable nodes that already exist, such as Downtown Lakeville.

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