Transit In Third Ring Suburbs

We spend a lot of time on streets.mn 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).

brands_1423788672_winterbike2

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.

Travel_Footprint

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 streets.mn 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:

Lakeville_JobsLoc_0.33mile

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.

Lakeville_WorkerHomeLoc_0.33mile

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.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at fremontavenueexperience.wordpress.com.