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 The old vertical bike racks were very hard to use and have been replaced by horizontal floor units that appear more user friendly.
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 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.
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.
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.