The A Line, One Month In

The A Line has been open for about a month now. It’s had a little bit of time to work out minor operational kinks, and get the bus schedule operating smoothly. I live about 5 minutes from an A Line stop, and use it almost daily to get to work, church, and other social events. I’ve just started taking transit regularly (I’ve moved to the Twin Cities about two months ago, so I had about 3 weeks of the 84 and am now using the A Line as my “main” bus).

While the A Line is great, there are a lot of things that we’ve missed opportunities on or just plain are not working right with the implementation. Thus, I’d like to offer my take on what is and is not working with the A Line, coming from someone who used to use transit mainly for leisure but now uses it daily for work.

Ceremonial First Bus arriving at Snelling and County Road B station.

Ceremonial First Bus arriving at Snelling and County Road B station.

So, what’s working?

All-door boarding and exiting. This makes it very simple for people to get on and off, especially if there’s multiple people or groups of people getting on. Instead of everyone having to board single file, people can board through both doors as soon as people finish getting off.

Off-board payment. Off board payment definitely speeds up boarding, especially when multiple people are getting on and off at a stop. There’s no waiting for someone to fumble with change as the rest wait to board, and there isn’t even the minor delay with waiting for people to tap their Go-To card.

Wide back doors. These are amazing. There’s plenty of room to enter and exit through the back door, and it seems to be working very well for loading and unloading. I wish all buses had these.

Wide back doors!

Wide back doors!

The flashing “T” when the bus is due. The T at the top of the pylon flashes when the bus is about to arrive. I think this is actually controlled differently than the LCD/LED sign is, because it reliably flashes even when the sign isn’t working right or the timing on the LCD/LED screen is incorrect (such as the bus is 2-3 minutes away on the sign but actually arriving within the next minute.) I’m suspecting it uses the same technology that’s used to communicate with the signal priority boxes, which is really slick.

Snelling and County Road B A Line Sign. LCD board states that times are not available.

Snelling and County Road B A Line Pylon. Notice the T at the top; this flashes when the bus is about to arrive. Also note that the real-time LCD states to check schedules.

However, not everything is working as nicely as these improvements are. Here’s what needs to be improved:

Rosedale Transit Center. Very little was done here to improve the layout of the station in the anticipation of the A Line, and it shows. There’s often two or three other buses already at the platform, and the A Line may not even get a chance to pull up to the “official” boarding area for the A Line at the front of that platform. The ticket machine and Go-To card validator is also on the west end of the platform and tucked against the west end wall, which does not face the platform. The location is okay if someone’s coming from Rosedale Mall, but it is an inconvenient location for those who are transferring to the A Line from another bus.

No room at Gate A for all the buses!

No room at Gate A for all the buses!

There are a few improvements that could be made that would improve the A Line experience immensely at Rosedale. The first would be adding a Go-To Card validator or two on the platform itself (maybe one on the other side of the entrance to the waiting area and one on the east end of the platform.) Secondly, move the 65 to another platform so that only the A Line and 84 are using the platform. This second part could be tricky, as gate B is often pretty full as well. It could mean reconfiguring the platforms some or, in a worst case scenario, adding a fourth “gate” here. Finally, add the 9 inch curb here for easier boarding and alighting from this terminus.

Go-To Cards. Okay, so Go-To cards in general are a very worthwhile improvement to our transit system, and I wouldn’t even think to get rid of contactless payment cards on Metro Transit. However, the A Line implementation of using them leaves a lot to be desired. There’s only one validator on each platform, which can be a problem if the reader is broken, something I actually experienced on one of my trips. Luckily, the emergency call button was working and I knew that it would go to the operations center, so I alerted them of that and they took note of it. However, there really needs to be two validators on each platform (or a backup validator as you board the bus for emergency situations such as this). A police officer may not buy that the validator was broken at a particular stop and thus write a citation, which would be a major inconvenience at best.

Secondly, there is no way to add money to a Go-To Card on the platform, and there’s also no way to instantly add money to your Go-To Card without going to a rail station or Go-To refill spot. I needed to add a different pass to my Go-To Card (31 day instead of 7 day, after having lost my other Go-To Card and having a couple 7 day passes put on it) and I could not add the 31 day pass until the 7 day pass had expired. I added it online while I was waking up that morning, and about 15 minutes later when I was on the platform the card did not have the pass on it yet. It was mildly frustrating, as I would have expected that the card would have had the pass added on instantaneously (the stations have validators that I believe are linked to the network directly, and online should instantly add it to the Go-To card if using it at a validator). This should be fixed.

Also, when looking at my history online the validators on the A Line still show as “Rail” trips. I don’t think that the A Line counts as rail, but nice try, Metro Transit.

Ticket machines. They take forever to go through the options, and there’s too many button presses required to do things. It requires one to activate the machine, one to choose the fare type, one to choose how many tickets are needed, another button press of “checkout” to check out, another button press to choose the payment method, and finally payment is done and the ticket is dispensed.

It would make more sense to streamline the process – start > fare option > checkout and then pay. The number of tickets should be optional, and even if the number of tickets has to stay after choosing the options it should immediately go to checkout. Also, why does the payment method need to be asked? It would seem to make more sense to auto-detect this by seeing if someone either enters cash or their credit/debit card.

Finally, the machine seems to be really slow. It takes 5-10 seconds between each option, so if the “T” is flashing and you haven’t gotten to the machine yet, don’t expect to get on unless you have a Go-To card. Finally, the machines won’t make change. There is a coin slot return, but it’s only for rejected coins instead of allowing for at least some change return.

Signal priority? It doesn’t feel like signal priority is working all that well on this route. Even when the bus is running late, it feels like we’re spending a decent amount of time waiting at red lights. This is purely anecdotal, so maybe it’s working better than I realize. It’s hard to say.

NexTrip Signs. I’m starting to think this was just growing pains, but I’m including it anyways in case it’s not just growing pains. When the line first opened, the LCD screens were wrong more often than not. Either they had frozen, went unavailable, or decided to prompt for a Windows update.

Time to update the sign!

Time to update the sign!

Overall, the A Line is an improvement over the 84 bus, and over our standard routes in general. However, it’s not perfect, and there’s some pain points with the new A Line. It’s worth noting them and hopefully improving on them over time. With the hope of numerous additional aBRT lines in the next few years, Metro Transit should make sure to learn from the A Line and try to improve the next aBRT lines accordingly.

Jeb Rach

About Jeb Rach

Born and raised in rural Minnesota, Jeb has been an avid transit geek since he first discovered it trying to save money on parking in the Twin Cities. He now lives in St. Paul and works in Roseville.

9 thoughts on “The A Line, One Month In

  1. Jeff

    Do you notice that the frequency is higher? I’d have thought that would have been one of the plusses / things that’re working.

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach Post author

      Not really. The frequency of the 84 along Snelling had been 10 minutes seven days a week since I had moved there, and I believe since the opening of the Green Line. There is the 84 bus, but it typically arrives very close to the A line (one or two minutes after, usually, or one or two minutes before) and so the 84 frequencies don’t feel quite as much of a net add as if they were spaced 5 minutes away from each A line frequency.

      1. Mike Hicks

        This is an issue that I’ve seen on a number of streets that host multiple bus routes — runs of the different routes often end up being timed closely together, and there isn’t necessarily a nice even time spread between arrivals. The different speeds from route to route (especially here where one makes fewer stops) makes it difficult or impossible to really keep them spread out, as it’s likely that a slower route 84 bus will get passed somewhere along the way by an A Line bus.

        That’s a reason why I would prefer that Metro Transit broadly make an effort to widen the spacing between bus stops, especially on lines in the Hi-Frequency Network (15-minute service or better for most of the day) — if all of the buses on Snelling used the same stop pattern, it would be easier to space them evenly since it’s more likely they’d take about the same amount of time to travel along the route.

        Still, the overall frequency on Snelling has roughly doubled from where it was before. Route 84 became a bit more frequent with the opening of the Green Line in 2014, going from a typical 15-minute separation to 10 minutes most of the day (though it seemed to me like the evening frequency dropped off a bit when they made that change). Where there used to be 4 buses per hour per direction, there are now supposed to be 8, even if they aren’t spaced quite right.

      2. Kele

        I use the Woodlawn stop and the A Line has been a huge boon for me. Before the A Line, about a third of 84s wouldn’t pass me because the 84D went down Davern to West 7th (now the only route for the 84). Now I don’t have to think about when to head to my stop simply because I don’t have to worry about getting there and waiting 20 minutes. I assume this is true for anyone living west of Cleveland Ave.

  2. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    Thanks for this. It’s great to hear perspectives from frequent passengers and one hopes that with the implementation of each new transit route like this, we learn from previous mistakes to make continual improvements.

  3. Kele

    Something that bugs me about the station is the placement of the ticket/pay machines, particularly at University. I know it’s a minor problem, but I don’t know why they put the machine on the south end of the station when most riders will come from the north. It clogs up the line a bit.

    Another minor issue: Does anyone know why the backdoor takes so long to open?

    1. John Charles Wilson

      Also, why didn’t they use the same type of tickets/machines that the Light Rail uses? The ability to top up a GoTo at the station would be a blessing, and I would think Metro Transit would have wanted to use tickets that could be stuck in the transfer hole on regular bus fareboxes, if anything for uniformity’s sake….

      1. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

        Expense. LRT Ticket Vending Machines cost ~$80,000 each, vs. ~$12,000 for the A Line version. I don’t know why they couldn’t have stuck with the magstrip tickets, though, since even the bus printers can do those.

  4. GlowBoy

    I’ve ridden the A a few times now, and love it. I know the official travel times aren’t astronomically faster, but it sure feels much more efficient than a normal milk-run route. Not sure about signal priority, but the limited stops, paying before you board and all-door boarding sure make a difference. (as an aside, on my most recent ride I finally discovered and enjoyed the free wi-fi, which worked great).

    In addition to the welcome planned rollout of a new aBRT line every year or so, I’d like to see a broader shift to 1/4 mile stop spacing, along with more limited-stop buses and (of course, who doesn’t want this) hi-frequency lines. There’s a lot that can be done to get people where they’re going more quickly.

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