The Red Line Revisited

I took a trip on the Red Line today to check out the new Cedar Grove station, and see out how the Twin Cities’ first BRT is doing. It’s fast and frequent, but it runs through a landscape that is designed to impede transit use.

Thanks to the new station, which eliminated a very irritating detour, it’s faster by 6 minutes southbound and 4 minutes northbound. The northbound trip also benefitted from the completion of Lindau Drive on the north side of the Mall of America. Now the northbound Red Line makes a faster clockwise circuit of the mall to reach the transit station, instead of the former detour via Old Shakopee Road and 28th Avenue S.

I noticed a couple of on-board changes. The old vertical bike racks were very hard to use and have been replaced by horizontal floor units that appear more user friendly.

The new floor-mounted bike racks.

Fare collection has moved onto the bus, with card readers at both the front and rear doors and a farebox by the driver. Given the light loads, and the minimal boardings at intermediate stations, there is no benefit to off-board fare collection. That said, on my return trip there were two transit police riding to check fares. I question whether they’re necessary.

There has been a smart change to the schedule. There used to be only 1 minute of layover at MOA and during that minute the bus had to unload and load. Because buses are periodically delayed in the MOA entrance security line, they were sometimes late departing and missed transfer connections down the line. Now each trip has a 6-minute layover at MOA, a much needed cushion.

Several of the initial design decisions, both good and bad, have not changed.

The original stations in Apple Valley are impressive, especially when the bus doors line up with powered, sliding station doors for all-weather entrance and exit.

The wide shoulder lanes in Apple Valley combine with traffic signal priority to move the buses right along.

The buses are attractive with a special paint scheme, and that has been duplicated on the A Line. I can’t think how the buses could be further improved.

The MOA stop is at the worst location in that transit center, on the east side of the LRT station and blocked from view by the trains. That makes it hard to find, and there’s no refuge from cold weather. It should be moved to the west side of the LRT with the rest of the bus stops.  EDITOR’S NOTE:  See preliminary plans for the MOA Station reconstruction.

The MOA stop is located away from all the other buses, and hidden behind the LRT station.

The Red Line was supposed to mimic LRT as much as possible, but carried it too far. Buses make every stop, whether anyone is boarding or getting off, which wastes time. The A Line does it right–if there’s no one waiting to board and no one rings the bell to get off, the driver passes the station. The other overkill is “docking” the bus at the high curb, a maneuver which takes considerable practice, slows the operation and would appear to damage the tires. On the A Line the driver simply pulls up to the curb and deploys the front door wheelchair ramp if someone needs it. It’s pragmatic and saves time.

The intermediate stations at 140th Street and 147th Street are actually located a block north of those intersections. Someone decided that buses couldn’t stop in the shoulder lanes, but needed additional pull-off lanes and that pushed the stations 600 feet north, where the intersections aren’t signalized and crossing Cedar Avenue is prohibited.  This also pushed the stops farther from the logical ped destinations. Because they can’t cross Cedar, every person using those two stations has to walk an additional two city blocks in the course of their round trip.

Pedestrian access from the 140th and 147th stations to adjacent businesses and residential areas is often difficult and circuitous, and that harms ridership.

Cedar Grove Station
The new station is located in the median of Highway 77 and uses a single center platform. This is the same design as the 46th Street Station on I-35W. Buses cross over so their doors open on the platform.

Located in the median of Hwy. 77, the buses cross over so the doors are on the single platform.

This creates a problem. During the rush hours Hwy. 77 is slow and congested. There are bus-only shoulders along the entire highway, which express buses use to bypass the congestion. The Red Line cannot use the shoulders when approaching and departing from the new station. The bus has to work its way across all three lanes of traffic to enter and exit the station. For that reason, it’s unlikely the expresses will use the station, at least in the middle of rush hour.

One side note: at the new station, there is no lining up the bus doors with the station lobby doors. Loading takes place outside, with less weather protection.

The new Cedar Grove Station shows how challenging it is to make transit fit into a suburban landscape. The station has two purposes, to serve the large nearby outlet center and its related development, and to make connections with feeder buses. There’s no way for the Red Line to serve the middle of the outlet center without a several minute detour off Highway 77, essentially the same time penalty for through passengers that the station was designed to eliminate. Now that the detour is gone, it’s a 2000-foot (.4 mile) walk from the station to the middle of the outlet center. No one but a transit dependent rider is going to make that walk.

Crossing this bridge is required to reach the feeder buses and the outlet center.

This is the view of the feeder bus loop and the outlet center from the ped bridge.

The Met Council supplied ridership numbers for 2016-2017. They’re pretty anemic. The 2016 average was 797. In comparison, the A Line carries about 4500 daily. When the Red Line opened the goal was 1600 daily riders by 2017. Following the Cedar Grove Station opening it has increased to over 900, and hopefully that will improve. Although the Red Line still has some design flaws, I don’t think that correcting them will change the numbers much. This is a tough market to serve with transit.

That said, this is not good ridership, and normally would not justify the current frequency of 15 minutes on weekdays. If money gets tight I predict the service will be reduced to half-hourly as it is on the weekends. Saturday has half the frequency, but carries about 80 percent of the weekday ridership. The downside of cutting the service to half-hourly is that some of the timed transfer connections at Cedar Grove will be lost. The 15-minute schedule does a reasonable job of connecting with all the feeder routes, making local trips within the Eagan-Burnsville-Apple Valley-Rosemount area possible, not to mention trips to MOA and the rest of the metro.

To summarize, the Red Line has been an interesting laboratory for BRT and suburb-to-suburb transit. It’s flawed, but its low ridership is primarily because of land use, not service quality.





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.

31 thoughts on “The Red Line Revisited

  1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

    Regarding the slowdown for the bus to get to/from bus shoulder lanes to the Cedar Grove station: This could be fixed with proper pricing of Hwy 77 to ensure smooth flow, or at least convert the interior lane to a MnPASS lane.

      1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

        I realize it’s taboo to take existing roadway capacity and convert it to MnPASS/tolled capacity. It may be illegal/complicated on interstate highways or other federally-funded roadways. Hwy 77 would be an excellent candidate for this between Apple Valley and 494, especially if it was coupled with an added northbound MnPASS lane between 127th St and Diffley Road (the only segment that currently has 2 lanes instead of 3 in a given direction).

        Ideally this MnPASS segment could connect directly into I-35W, and it was unfortunate that the Crosstown project didn’t give any consideration of direct Transit/HOV/MnPASS connectivity between 62 (the short connection to Hwy 77 for south-of-the-river commuters to the east, and a significant connection to the southwest metro to the west).

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Given that there currently isn’t any really solid connection at all from Cedar Avenue in Richfield to 35W in Minneapolis, asking for a MnPASS-to-MnPASS connection seems like a long shot. I’d be happy just to see auxiliary lanes added on the Crosstown from 35W to Cedar, replacing the NB awkward cloverleaf connection and fully utilizing the SB flyover (half of which is currently devoted to a Portland exit, since no connection in this gap area exists).

          I’d strongly support MnPASS on Cedar from 494 to Apple Valley, including both adding the lane south of Diffley and replacing the inner-most lanes with MnPASS in the section that is already six lanes. I was going to say that I can’t picture how it would be necessary between Crosstown and 494, but apparently the traffic volumes are similar as the sections to the south. This surprises me, because it always seems to be dead-empty when I’m on the road.

          1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

            During the MnPASS study I think Cedar was considered and because of the connections, was shelved. The 494-62 MnPASS study is still ongoing I think tho…

  2. Karen

    Thanks, interesting. I agree with land use. Dovetails with previous posting about Riverview corridor. Put transit where people are already or at least, where built environment can be more easily expanded in dense fashion.

  3. Eric Ecklund

    I like that the Red Line buses stop at every station. Sometimes drivers on regular routes and A Line buses don’t notice that someone rang the bell and skip their stop, and they either have to get off at the next stop or the driver slams on the brakes to let the person off. Or its dark and the driver doesn’t notice a person waiting at a stop (I’ve witnessed this numerous times), or a person is waiting in the shelter due to weather and the bus driver doesn’t see them and flies by. Skipping stops if no one wants to get off or there is no one waiting (or so the driver assumes) may decrease travel time, but it also decreases people’s confidence in using the system.

    I think at this point there are only three ways to increase ridership:
    -TOD around stations (good luck with that)
    -extending it to the Lakeville/Cedar Park & Ride (assuming there are no intermediate stops between there and Apple Valley Transit Station in the near term, this could probably be done now after ordering a few more buses)
    -adding more stops along the current route (studies have begun for a station at Cliff Road, though looking at the existing area this will be pretty difficult)

    1. karen

      Or more frequent buses. To me, if you want to get people who have option to use car, the convenience of being whisked away just mere minutes of when ever you arrive at the station is key. The every 10 minute schedule of the Green Line LRT is what gets me to take it even when car would be often quicker – like a car, the transit is a bit more on demand – its there when I want it, not only every 30 min that I have to schedule around. I know 10 min to 15 minutes seems like a small quibble but for me it makes a difference.

      With ridership this low, I get why more frequent bus may not be practical, but its a key component to making it appealing compared to cars.

    2. Tim

      It’s worth noting that there is a fair amount of development going on by the Cedar Grove station right now. There’s a 55+ plus apartment building under construction right across the street, plus a hotel (with a second one in the works too) and some townhomes. I thought there was another market-rate apartment building going up nearby as well, but I’m not sure. Further south, there are also some apartments being built near AVTS. Not saying this will move the needle all that much, but it is something.

  4. Mike Hicks

    Thanks for the report, Aaron. I’ve been meaning to try out the new station since I work at the north end of the Red Line now, but haven’t found the time to do it.

    The bus-only-shoulder incompatibility is probably the most disheartening thing about this situation. I had forgotten about that, but we probably should have learned that lesson with the 46th Street station on I-35W.

    This is a relatively subtle issue — overall, I think this adds a plus in the column of rail transit, since planners are required to figure out track and switch layouts to move trains from one track to another to access station platforms, but I’m sure there have been many cases where that hasn’t been fully thought out either.

    When it comes to buses and highways/streets, my sense is that there isn’t as much thought put into how easy/difficult it is to change lanes. I was just noting an issue with the route 54 this morning where there’s a right-hand stop just a block away from a left-hand turn across a few lanes of American Boulevard. We’re lucky that traffic isn’t all that heavy on that road even at rush hour…

    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

      The 46th Street Station in the center of 35W is appropriate because the MnPass lane is in the center. The new Lake Street Station will also be in the center, so it all works. The point is not to have to shift between the center lanes and the outside lanes.

  5. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Great review!

    I agree that the MOA station is a disaster. Although I know they have plans to rebuild it, I don’t know how this ever seemed reasonable, even in the interim.

    One note about Apple Valley stations — 147th was originally supposed to include a skyway, like Apple Valley Transit Center. That is why it is built super tall. I agree that in light of the restrictions on crossing Cedar, they should have located much closer to the signals.

    Per my comment above, I am hopeful the placement of Cedar Grove station relates to some future plans to establish MnPASS on Cedar Ave. But even then, I don’t understand why they don’t have ever a basic shelter on the platform. Those freeway-median stations would the perfect place to use the design that they have at AVTS with the platform screen doors. I have used 46th St 35W station a few times, and the noise in the middle of the freeway is unbearable. It seems like using those screen doors would help a lot.

  6. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    And one other item about fare collection: I disagree that allowing on-board fare payment is acceptable, even if it makes little difference to this particular line’s operations. We need to establish easy-to-understand protocols for transit users. We have called this “light rail on wheels” — you certainly can’t pay your LRT drivers. Even the planned Orange Line, with this same status of BRT in our trunk system of transit, will have off-board payment collection.

    Finally, I find it ridiculous that we call this part of our METRO system when it doesn’t even meet the standard of our “hi frequency” local bus network.

    1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

      Let’s start a public campaign to remove this from METRO branding, and introduce a different branding for high-amenity low-frequency low-destination transit services.

      1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        Yeah, the fact that this line has one of the most important colors in the transit map rainbow is really annoying.

    2. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

      I actually had questions about this… in my reviews, 140 and 147 never had off-board fare collections, and the driver had to collect fares. I don’t even think Cedar Grove had them. I scanned at the back doors (when the driver didn’t keep them closed for… some reason, refusing to even act like BRT) and people with cash bought from the driver. The only TRULY infuriating thing was 140th and 147th had signs saying “Tickets” with no machine and signs saying “This is a paid fare zone, [it is illegal and blah blah…]” with no ability to have a valid fare. So have those signs been removed? Did Cedar Grove have a machine I forgot, that has now been removed? If so, these are changes that are questionably worth having a laboratory for BRT in the cities for… I’m glad someone is doing it, now who has dibs on a TRB paper?

  7. GlowBoy

    So how does on-board fare collection work for people bringing bikes on board? It looks like those riders are supposed to board through the center doors. Do they board, secure their bike, and then go up front to pay?

    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

      There’s a GoTo card scanner at the rear door. If they’re paying cash or using a paper transfer they have to pay at the front. Not that big a deal–secure the bike and walk forward to pay.

  8. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    When the Orange Line stations are completed, could the Red Line start running from downtown Minneapolis, using the Orange Line stations, and then splitting off to hit the Mall of America?

    Feels as though the Red Line’s #1 issue has always been that it doesn’t serve downtown Minneapolis in a one-seat ride.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I suppose it could, but that would mean even more resources going into Red Line, and duplicative service on a segment that probably doesn’t need it (46th St Station isn’t that heavily used, and Lake St Station is already extremely well-serviced). One-seat ride to downtown would be really nice, though.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

        This is also partly a branding issue, we have Downtown Red Line service during rush hours currently! Just with different buses, non-all door boarding, non… a lot of things. Retrofitting some express buses to be “Red Line XPRESS” would not be difficult.

      2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        How much more would it cost? The stations are already built. I’m assuming there’d be an uptick in labor costs because drivers would have to drive further, but if it were to boost ridership by some percent on the Red Line, that seems like it could be a good tradeoff.

        I just wonder how many folks who take the Red Line don’t because the MOA transfer is inconvenient and feels like it wastes time.

    2. John Charles Wilson

      I have a better idea: Extend the Red Line to downtown via Cedar Ave. and Hwy. 55 with limited stops. After MOA, stops could be:

      47th St.
      42nd St.
      38th St.
      35th St.
      Lake St.
      28th St.

  9. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    I was always curious with the difference in weekend-weekday scheduling. This bus serves transit dependent people working retail or other jobs at the airport and MOA, jobs that usually don’t have traditional weekends… Maintaining near equal frequencies seems like the way to go.

  10. Scott

    Aaron, I love getting your expert opinion and really appreciate this article. Do you believe transit planners working on the Southwest and Bottineau LRT lines have learned lessons from the Red Line (and possibly Norhtstar)? Generally, it appears those future lines are repeating the failure of routing through low-density, un-walkable, car-dependant places. Southwest seems less bad with stops generally not located along a freeway, but Bottineau stations will be in/ along highways, right? Curious to know whether you believe there are things that will make them more successful…

  11. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    There will be decent walkup access to Southwest because of development next to a number of the stations. Not so much for Bottineau, except for the stations at Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Blvd, North Hennepin College and along Olson Hwy.

    That said, rail will always attract many more riders than buses, and I am confident that Southwest and Bottineau will have decent ridership. Through service to points beyond downtown that will boost ridership on the existing Blue and Green Lines. Ridership to sporting events will be huge.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      One thing I’ve heard from a number of planners (particularly one who worked with the Gold Line) was that greenfield developments are advantageous for a major transit investment because they create a greater opportunity for transit to shape the urban form.

      You look at something like the W 21st St station — which is in a lovely area, and a great amenity for a few people — but it is not going to be politically feasible to really fully capitalize on that station in the future. Wealthy neighbors with limited zoning will likely preclude that.

      On the other hand, something like Oak Grove Station on the Bottineau Transitway seems like it has much greater likelihood of actually producing high-intensity, walkable development in the station area — even though today’s it’s mostly a corn field.

      It seems like stations like Hopkins (which have some great stuff in walking distance, and a lot more planned) have the best of both worlds.

Comments are closed.