Get on the Bus

The Riverview Corridor Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) recently dismissed the only transit options that were even slightly logical, and opted to continue forward with studying ways to construct the crowning achievement on a transit system that is backwards and self-defeating. Bill Lindeke recently opined on this site that the proposal is the “best…project in the works right now”, which, given the backdrop, probably doesn’t say much. And though taking on Twin Cities transit planning is a Sisyphean task, to say the least, the issues here cry out for both logistical and historical perspective.

Consideration should first be given to flaying the streetcar proposal itself. Ramsey county planners recently went to Kansas City – my old hometown – to visit the adjacent-to-downtown streetcar that went into operation roughly three years ago. They even posted a video, which you should watch right now before reading further. Done? Ok.

Only 40 minutes for that route! It’s too small to picture all 10 stops to scale.

At the 40-second mark, the video has a dramatic visual fade to announce the arrival at “Kaufmann Center Station”. Did that look like a bus stop to you? I’ll let you watch again if you didn’t catch it. The answer is; yes, it looked like a bus stop, because that’s basically what it is. The streetcar in Kansas City, the model for the transit line from MSP airport to downtown St. Paul, makes a back-and-forth, epic, two-mile journey, complete with 10 stops. It travels as slow or slower than a bus, at considerably greater expense. To top it off, in KC it’s FREE, and yet they can’t fill it.

To further editorialize it; Oklahoma City is also considering copying it, and if the friendly folks in Okie-ville want to build one, that probably says a lot about it.

I didn’t even ride it, because walking was just more convenient. Incidentally, that was a nice fiddle tune on the video, and I wonder if it was dubbed in, or performed by a busker on the streetcar. My money is on a busker, because they would have room to play, since no one rides the free streetcar. This streetcar was a desperation move by Kansas City, to get affluent car-drivers from the suburbs to explore a little further from the parking lots, in a place where land has been historically cheap, where surface parking is the norm, and where the downtown landscape is like an asphalt ocean dotted with buildings. It’s a special form of hell.

I-94 in 1967, courtesy of MNHS. It gives “ease of access to the downtown Capitol”!

Or maybe a nightmare, a historical one, of the kind that Joyce speculated it may be impossible to wake from. In 2014, after a much ballyhooed nationwide urban revival, and millions thrown at a variety of light rail projects, 76% of commuters still drove cars, alone, which is up 3% from 1990. Many of those drivers commute in from the suburbs to urban centers, the status quo that came to be after massive Federal and State subsidies to highway systems enabled what was disproportionally a white diaspora from the metropole, even, occasionally, deliberately bulldozing black neighborhoods to make it happen. In 1977, minorities accounted for 21% of bus riders, but by 1995, left moored and carless in the city, they accounted for 69%. And busses, the poor, reliable workhorses of a transit system, have seen their appointments and funding drop in direct proportion to the rise in minority ridership, and the fall in “choice” commuters; i.e. those who ride because they want to.

If only bus route maps looked like this suburb feeder rail map…

In Los Angeles, in the mid-90s, disparities between rail and bus service were fought by the Bus Riders Union; fares were being raised on bus riders, who were 80% people of color. This was to shore up system deficits, and while it was true that bus riders did enjoy a subsidy of $1.17 per passenger, the wealthy, white commuters on the Blue Line took advantage of an $11.34 subsidy, while Metrolink riders – who were 73% white and funneling in from the suburbs – were free-riding on a $21.02 public dole. The city was spending 70% of the budget on a system that served 6% or passengers. The subsidy has since dropped significantly on train ridership as the system matured, but the fact remains that the city was willing to fund a subsidy for white-favored rail on the back of the lowly bus, and its minority ridership. The BRU has also fought plans for rail from the airport, which benefited people who could afford plane tickets, while cutting bus routes and bus funding.

Riding the bus has a distinct racial stigma attached to it in affluent, white circles. Based on the near effusive praise given to KC’s streetcar at Riverview Corridor public meetings by Ramsey County officials when introducing it to the audience, plus the Disney-vacation style commemorative video that Ramsey county put on YouTube (linked above), I assume that County officials love it much more than the bus, even though it’s functionally…a bus. It just moves on tracks of iron(y), rather than on tires. Functionally, it’s almost more tourist novelty than actual transit. But the same trip, to the same bus stop, could have been made on a bus.

It’s basically an American pastime now to hate the bus, but it hasn’t always been. In the early 20th century, when busses were first introduced to Washington, D.C., they were viewed as a stylish and preferable alternative to streetcars. Now, the city is spending exorbitant sums to lay streetcar rail to serve neighborhoods already served by bus. Sounds like somewhere I know…

This brings us to the very backward, amnesiac, and self-defeating Twin Cities transit plan. I give you; The Green Line.

The primary advantage of rail is its ability either to exploit the third dimension (above and below street level), or travel by its own unique rights-of-way. It is these advantages that make spending money on rail worthwhile. Failure to exploit the unique capabilities means that the money is being spent not on the equipment advantages, but on something else entirely.

It is safe to say that the Green line does neither of these things. Light rail projects in general fail to do so, and are – in my opinion – simply a way to throw substantive play-money at transit without the political commitment required to build heavy rail. But the Green Line is particularly bad. It is a primary railway between two downtowns, and on those tracks runs a train capable of…significant…speeds. And yet, it shares space with cars, does not have signal pre-emption, (side note: the KC Streetcar was also hit by a driver who ran a red light) and makes stops with the frequency and purpose of a bus. The latter is largely due to the fact that under Bush-era transit policies, rail funding only went to projects with distant stops, a policy was actually sensible, if one wants to efficiently use rail. The problem here is that the city was about to plow yet another high-speed transit line through what used to be Rondo, and also slash local bus service at the same time. Obama-era policies, however, changed the funding prerequisites, and in the name of equity, the Green Line sprouted stops all long its route. The result is a train that travels at an average speed of 12 mph, and operates like a bus, utilized primarily for in-and-around errands.

I understand. Rail is sexy now, and if that’s the only transit option that’s going to get any financial and political love, and I live around there, I want some of that too.

London’s new Routemaster courtesy of The Guardian. More than we need at 1mil BPS, but praised as a “stately vehicle” that “conveys a sense of privilege”.

Keep in mind that “Separate but Equal” started on train transit, and wasn’t successfully fought in public transportation until the year long Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, which brought the system to its knees, and caused authorities to attempt the last-ditch effort to simply price poor black people off the bus until a court stopped that action.

To complete and close the historical loop: Immediately after transit was desegregated, Federal funds built highways to get whites out of the cities, and later built rail to help them get back in…and those kinds of distances are one of the best uses for rail. However, to gloss a lot more history about busses: they are so racially stigmatized, and occupy such a bad cultural niche, that as urban areas gentrify, municipalities are willing to spend millions on rail systems that replicate what a bus does best, all so we don’t have to ride the bus, rather than spend fewer millions on a modern, comfortable, bus system. The political will isn’t there when it comes to busses.

Anecdotally, here in Saint Paul, I’ve noticed that a number of friends that are choice commuters don’t call the new “A-Line” the “bus” in conversation. Ever. It’s always “transit” or “the A-Line”. If Saint Paul wants a streetcar because it’s “cool”, or because it will attract tourists, or because planners think it will culturally enrich the city, then we can and should discuss those points. But if the justification for an expensive streetcar is because it’s intrinsically faster and more reliable than a bus, or even promotes better access – that simply isn’t true, by any measure.

Who doesn’t want to catch a ride here? Amirite?

Aside from historical stigma, what else is wrong with buses? For starters:

  • Cramped and, shall we say, dumpy conditions.
  • They arrive late, and then two at the same time when they do finally show up.
  • Byzantine schedules, and impossible-to-remember naming conventions.
  • Overall treatment as a second-tier system.

These complaints are easily fixed:

  • On a bus that costs easily $500K, a mere $5K extra can result in flowing lines, more and bigger windows, and a better flowing and more comfortable interior. That’s pennies compared with the cost of a bus, and especially compared with building a streetcar.
  • GPS prioritized signals, designated bus lanes, and digital readouts at stations as well as phone apps can take the mystery out of bus sightings.
  • Trains get labels like “Green line” and “Blue line”, while buses often get alphanumeric codes on 1980s dot-light boards. Give bus routes similar conventions, and print route maps with solid, easy to follow lines that look like train lines.
  • That guy on the bench is what makes all the difference here.

    Spruce up all the stops/stations to “A-line” appointments, or at least better than an 8 ½ by 11 aluminum sign tacked up just below “No Parking from 2AM to 6AM”. Print transit maps that show bus and train routes on the same map, and don’t distinguish between the two. Typically, buses have a completely different map, with no differentiation between routes that run every 30 minutes, and routes that only run every Sunday. Put the bus on the same regularity as a train. And integrate the fares seamlessly, with the same fare schedule for everything, and fully integrated payment forms; in Washington, D.C., commuters sometimes only train and walk because they lack the change for the bus.

No matter what, at the end of the day, don’t spend money on what is effectively an expensive, rail-bound bus.

So what is a more ideal solution?

Heavy rail, or at least nearly-heavy, exploiting the third dimension and moving at high speed from the airport to downtown Saint Paul, with a single stop at the halfway point. That stop would be a modern, well-appointed, bus transit node (though we can call them something else if the term “bus” makes it impossible to get funding and political commitment) with regular and easy to understand routes through the metro area. Imagine if that node, at the south part of the city, had a bus line that went to a similar node at the halfway mark of a Green Line that moved quickly, and above or below traffic.

This is a bus stop too??

In New York City, the greatest and most heavily integrated transit city in the world, even JFK doesn’t connect to Manhattan by dedicated rail. The AirTrain will get you to Jamaica station. After that you need to get on the E train, or the A train, and if you want Upper Manhattan, even transfer to a (gasp) bus! Or you can take Long Island Railroad from Jamaica Station to Penn Station. And a bus is the ONLY public transit option to LaGuardia.

Bottom line: develop the right tool for the job. Don’t shortchange buses while spending millions to make rail that behaves like buses. I think the first step in getting past the irrational love of the streetcar, and addressing our distaste for buses, is identifying with historical honesty why that distaste exists, and then doing something about it. The most flexible, cost-effective, and equitable form of transit would be an innovative and thoroughly modernized bus network augmented by rail utilized efficiently and to its own best advantages.

Michael Daigh

About Michael Daigh

You might have seen Michael Daigh riding his bike around the Twin Cities metro. He resides in St. Paul, but only since 2015, so his opinions don't count. Michael holds an MA in History, and is the author of the book: "John Brown in Memory and Myth". He is also a decorated fighter pilot.

39 thoughts on “Get on the Bus

  1. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

    I strongly disagree that the Green Line, as built, shouldn’t have been rail. It’s true that it stops frequently (though not as frequently as the buses it replaced) and doesn’t have signal preemption (which is dumb), but, if you remember, we used to have buses on that route. We were running them about as frequently as possible, between the 16 and the 50, and they were still always overcrowded. The Green Line is a capacity upgrade more than anything, and was sorely needed. I see no problem with a train being used for short rides, if there’s enough people making said short rides that you need the capacity of a train, like the University corridor does. The mindset that a train should stop infrequently and be used mostly for end-to-end trips is how we got to the point that we’re spending billions of dollars to extend trains to Eden Prairie and Brooklyn Park – trips that the current bus system is serving very well.

    This is not to say that the Green Line shouldn’t have been grade separated. Of course it should have been. But, even at-grade, even stopping at the lights at Snelling before it pulls into the station, it can’t be honestly put into the same class of boondoggle as the KC streetcar.

  2. Will

    One move in the right direction would be getting rid of those signs that just say “Bus Stop.” Especially when they’re followed with a paper sign below that says “Buses do not stop here.” I can’t imagine looking at the many signs like that, beyond all the other issues with current stops, is attracting anyone other than those that absolutely have no other option.

    1. Rosa

      I don’t know what suddenly happened at Metro Transit in the last 2-3 years, but the signage has improved a ton. They’ve started putting route numbers on those bus stop signs! That used to never happen. Maybe one day they’ll say “eastbound” or “northbound” or whatever too.

      1. GlowBoy

        What happened in the last 2-3 years was a committed project to improve bus stops and signage:

        Having moved here at the beginning of 2015, I was kind of shocked that Metro Transit didn’t have route and stop numbers on its signs. Having spent 25 years riding Seattle’s and Portland’s systems, I just assumed that was normal. As a newbie to the system, I would have found that really helpful.

        – “Oh, there’s a bus stop here! I wonder what route it’s on? Is it a rush-hour-only Express, or a regular bus? Might be nice to know.”
        – Or, “Why didn’t that bus stop for me?! Oh, it travels this route but doesn’t stop at THIS stop? Yeah, that would have been good to know.”

        Don’t get me wrong: overall I’m very pleased with the quality of Metro Transit’s system, but the lack of basic bus stop signage was a major problem, and I’m glad they’re fixing it.

        The other shock to my system was what this article mentioned – how racially divided the transit system is by mode. Maybe that’s true in most cities, but not in Portland and Seattle, where I’ve lived: those bus systems are used across racial and class lines, not just primarily by poor and/or nonwhite people. Except for the express buses, which seem dominated by middle class white people like myself, on most local buses here I often find I’m the only white person riding. Riding with people from other walks of life doesn’t bother me at all. But the fact that most other people demographically like me seem to be scared or uncomfortable riding buses DOES bother me.

  3. Joe

    I exclusively ride the bus (or ride a bike in the summer) for transportation. So I agree that buses are great. But buses were not the answer on University. Unless we got a grade separated bus route. But 1) Building a grade separated bus route would also be very expensive, and 2) Getting funding for a grade separated bus route would have been nigh on impossible.

  4. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

    One big advantage to rail transit over bus transit (generally speaking) is that it’s harder to co-opt the transit capital investments as a subsidy of automobile mobility.

    Yes, the Green Line has its flaws (but signal pre-emption is a flaw of political will, not a technological flaw) but it is largely perfect for the high-demand corridor it serves despite being sandwiched in the middle of four lanes of car sewer (only to be outdone by the extension of the Blue Line along Olson Mem. Hwy. in the middle of a six lane car sewer).

    But keep in mind the Red Line “METRO” service with 30 minute headways on the weekends, on-board fare payment, and lots of mixed-traffic mileage in the south metro. The majority of the CTIB transit funds which paid for this line actually went to rebuilding the Cedar Ave corridor for Dakota County and expanding capacity for car commuters. It consolidated intersections to increase capacity, replaced millions of dollars worth of aging stoplights for Dakota County, widened the stroad from four to six lanes south of 153rd Street (a segment where the Red Line doesn’t even operate), etc. It was an automobile subsidy paid with transit capital dollars. That’s a very real risk of BRT.

    To be fair, that’s also a risk of a shared right of way streetcar as well. But that’s more reason – not less – to push for LRT-style dedicated rights of way for the Riverview line, transit priority, etc.

  5. Karen E Sandness

    Buses can work if they 1) run often, 2) run often on weekends and evenings, and 3) go places where people need to go OR provide easy transfers because of 1) and 2).

    That’s why I was able to live car-free with the greatest of ease in Portland, Oregon and found it ridiculously complicated in the Twin Cities. Portland is famous for its light rail and streetcar systems, which are indeed wonderful and well-used, but it is the bus lines running frequently among the light rail lines that really make the system work.

    My first rude awakening came when I was invited to a gathering at 54th and Lyndale. There was no way to get there from Linden Hills without two transfers, with the weak point being the linkage between the #6, my “home” line, and the #4. In order to ensure a connection with minimal waiting, I would have to go all the way to Lake Street. This highlighted a significant problem with the bus system, namely, the lack of frequent crosstown service, so that transferring between lines can require a trip all the way downtown.

    The #6 line links Southdale and downtown, and sometimes the U. It is supposedly “frequent service,” but that is true ONLY if you live between 39th and Sheridan Ave. So. and downtown west of Whole Foods. In many cases, especially on weekends, I would have the choice of arriving at my destination either far too early or far too late, especially when I was taking a class at the U.

    The longer I have lived in Minneapolis, the more I have found myself driving, and I hate that fact. Having switched gym memberships from a bus-accessible location to a not-so-accessible location that actually offers the classes I need, I’m now driving more than ever, but in order to take the bus, I would have to either luck out amazingly well on the timing for two buses or else spend twenty minutes standing around outside.

    I’m a fan of light rail, and I think that the main problem with the Green Line is that it doesn’t circle around to the Ordway and the attractions near it, which would have brought in more leisure-time riders from Minneapolis. It absolutely made the Women’s March possible, since the bus system and cars alone could not have handled the crowds, and it is a boon to students at the U, which is where you are most likely to see large numbers of riders getting on and off.

    But I think the Southwest Line and Bottineau Line are both rail lines to nowhere and should be rerouted to hit more existing population centers and destinations and to terminate in places that are already walkable.

    Run the Southwest Line through Uptown and out on the Greenway through Excelsior-Grand and past Methodist Hospital to Hopkins and maybe Excelsior.

    Run the Bottineau Line past North Memorial Hospital and through downtown Robbinsdale (the best decision in the current plan) out to the cluster of shops in Maple Grove instead of stopping in the middle of nowhere in Osseo. This would both give I-94 commuters an option and give Minneapolis residents easier access to jobs out there. Or at the very least, if you can’t afford to build past Osseo, at least route the train past the populated parts.

    Sometimes I can’t fathom the thought processes behind the planning of these lines.

  6. Jeff

    The virtue of LRT (and Green Line specifically) is, to be sure, not it’s speed. But a lot of people ride it (ridership has already surpassed 2030 expectations. Why? It stops where people/places are. If it was faster it would have fewer stops and fewer people would ride it. Another virtue of LRT is its capacity. I would be willing to bet you wouldn’t see people use it to get to and from sporting events if it was a bus. And businesses and residential properties wouldn’t be locating alongside it if it was a BRT line.

    That’s not to say I wish it wasn’t faster from my stop (University) to downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, but its not as though signal pre-emption and other things can’t be engineered into the line after the fact.

  7. Heidi SchallbergHeidi Schallberg

    I’m a big bus supporter. Ridden them for decades now. But if you want to diss a streetcar, at least do it based on accurate facts. I’m from KC too, so I’m pretty familiar with their downtown (actually downtown, not “adjacent to” as you wrote) streetcar that just opened a little over a year ago (not three). It’s laughable that you claim they can’t fill it. In fact, they had to order additional vehicles to keep up with the ridership because they were at capacity. You can go check out their ridership online. Their daily average ridership for in 2016 was 5,830. The forecast was for 2,700.

    1. Michael DaighMichael Daigh Post author

      Didn’t want to get too into the weeds, but the fact that the route is along Crown Center, KCP&L, and a loop around my favorite little block of restaurants is why I said “adjacent to”. The streetcar is primarily a tourist novelty…it’s not transit, per se…and is part of a last ditch effort to get white suburban tourists to move among these areas without driving and parking at each one. An admirable goal, to be sure, and a good use for a streetcar, but it is predicated on the fact that the target audience won’t ride busses.

      Beyond that, my estimation of ridership is admittedly wholly anecdotal. I get back rather frequently, and walk the very street that the streetcar runs. The emptiness has been noticeable, as has been the derision of friends who live there still.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Just my 2¢ but I think it’s worthy enough. Some good points… and a vision for a possible transit future. I’d encourage you to respond with some criticisms if you feel up to it.

      1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        Can we start with the flat out incorrect statement that New York City is the greatest and most integrated transit city in the world?

        It is neither the most ridden, nor the longest, nor the oldest. It excels only in having the most stations, which is a design feature that the author explicitly attacks.

        1. SSP

          NYC it is not the oldest and Beijing has it beat for daily riders. But longest? I’m not so sure. Most NYC figures quote MTA numbers which include the length of subway but not bus lines and do not include daily commuter trips on the LIRR or NJ Transit to Penn Station or Metro North trains to Grand Central. I’m not sure MTA figures includes Path Trains between NY and NJ either.

  8. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Just a few nits to pick.

    IMO the Green Line is great and many people ride it every day. Rail has material qualities such as reduced noise, more space, level boarding, legibility, and higher ride quality, that make it very attractive to people who have choices, and also make it much more appealing for folks who do not.

    I have heard people say “why don’t folks take the bus?” many times, but it doesn’t change the fact that many people don’t take the bus. If we had a metro area where congestion or parking constraints were a significant factor in people’s decision making, and the bus offered an alternative, that would be one thing. But we don’t…

    Also, the main reason why Riverview folks looked at the KC Streetcar was because of its street design, not because it’s a similar project. For example, a Hwy 5 Riverview rail line would have 10 stops total over the 10 mile stretch, and would offer competitive travel speeds. KC’s design was appealing to people because of how it fit into the street. I am not an expert on whether that project is or is not successful.

    1. Michael DaighMichael Daigh Post author

      I should clarify: I like the Green Line, but I ALSO think we’ve reached a point where we (not just the Twin Cities) are starting to build rail to perform like a great bus system, and it raises many questions which I tried to raise.

      Beyond that, I’m nearly always a proponent of heavy rail over light rail, because I do think that light rail is a half-way compromise that doesn’t require the political will and commitment that good heavy rail does.

  9. howard miller

    The biggest problem facing those who rent or buy in the new Ford development will be how to get out of and into it. Unless these folks forswear the use of cars in order to get a lease/mortgage (find a developer who’ll go along with that one) they will own and probably use cars. When they do, if they work/study/play during conventional hours they will be using them from about 6 to 8 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. If 7000 people live there and another 1500 work (and ‘x’ plus who shop) there that means that about that most of those vehicles will be plying those streets (Cretin and Montreal) during that period.

    Without going into the obvious chaos that will result (especially with trolleys plying those same streets more frequently during rush hour blocking the entrances to all those 2nd story garages), this newly dense community will be hopelessly constipated 2x/day, a fact which may deter many potential renter/owners.

    A designated, high-volume LRT system on a dedicated route is the only sane answer. James Schoettler who has apparently been ignored by most planners concerned, has described such a system at great length using the existing CP routes running from the Union Depot to the VA complex (transfer to Blue line) with stops at Ford (c. Montreal Ave.), Sibley Plaza and six or seven more. The only sticking point would be the requirement for a new (alt transpt only) bridge, such as the one in South Portland.

    Why faster, larger, more frequent rapid transit is less desirable to those in charge is beyond me. As an opponent of the current zoning proposal of the Ford development I should encourage this thoughtlessness but, I really would like to see whatever ends up growing on this site, to actually work.

  10. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    I am very much on the record as seeing the Riverview Corridor study’s conclusions as erroneous, but I found this article to be extremely unhelpful in both tone and point of fact.

    The author makes a few small errors (NYC does not have the world’s greatest transit system), a few medium ones (at no point along its route can the Green Line be said to “share space with cars” except at at grade crossings, and the Stops For Us campaign added three new stations to the Green Line, “sprouted stops all long [sic] its route” is an overstatement), and a few larger ones, even in the service of broad points that I think are correct.

    For example, I agree that the fetish with streetcars is wrong, and it comes from a perspective of people who do not have the best interests of transit riders in mind (I have made this point at length on this site). But I do want something along Riverview that operates, either like the A-Line or like the Green Line, because both projects have been, in my view, significant successes. The author unfairly maligns both, especially the latter. Ridership, which is the payoff that matters, is high on both routes. People do not just make trips from endpoint to endpoint, and if they did, the 94 bus serves that East-West need extremely well. The purpose of any transit line is to expeditiously connect people to destinations, and both do that reasonably well. The lack of signal preëmption is a frustration, but it is something that, as political winds change, I have faith will ultimately occur.

    Ultimately, the process of building a transit system and decoupling Twin Cities life from the automobile will be a long process, and as much as I criticize it, I am in the whole inspired by the work that has gone into it so far. In 2017 it is harder to drive and easier to take a bike or transit around MSP than it was in 2007, and as far as I can tell, the work on this front is only accelerating. A Riverview streetcar would be a half loaf instead of a full loaf, but I think it’s still possible to get the full loaf later, and there are plenty of further priorities to pursue. In this article, which I felt was nasty and full of suggestions that felt less like aspirations and more like threats, the author does not contribute productively to the work that needs to be done to bring about the future that most of us on this site want to see come about.

    1. Michael DaighMichael Daigh Post author


      “In the world” is a bit of hyperbole, but I’m always just amazed when I go through Penn Station, or really take transit around NYC anywhere. It’s really quite incredible.

      I’m sorry you feel that this wasn’t a productive contribution. I’ve found I get that reaction in MN, since I talk and write very directly about things. For instance, I really want to talk more broadly about the racial stigma associated with busses, and the preference for streetcars which cost more but function the same…and yet everyone wants to get really up in arms about the technical details of the Green Line. I really thought that the controversial (deliberately so) things I wrote were about history and race…but the anger is about technical issues.


      Incidentally, while on the subject, the fact that at any point the Green Line has to stop for cars, or can be hit by a car, means it shares space.

      Beyond that, I like the Green Line, but I favor heavy rail in general. And I only brought it up to ask the broader question; why are we (not just the Twin Cities) investing the capital to build rail that functions a lot like a bus?

      My contention is that there are historical and racial stigmas that lead any logistical considerations…even if a good outcome is achieved.

      1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        I think the way that buses were racialized is fairly uncontroversial, at least among transportation planners and lefty urbanists (i.e. many of this site’s active users!). At the same time, folks are battle-worn from the various fights just to get the quality of transit that MSP currently has, after years of sweating the technical details.

        With regard to “shared space”, when I think of “shared space” I think of trains and cars sharing the same ROW in the same direction. Intersections are unfortunate and the lack of signal preëmption is a political issue, but it’s fixable.

        I think that the rail in MSP does function differently than a bus, by making fewer stops, at larger and nicer stations, with greater capacity, and a high degree of separation from traffic. I’ve been delayed by red lights on the train, but never by traffic. So I do think in terms of how it runs, there are meaningful differences.

        But the biggest intangible difference between a train and a bus is the legibility of the former. You see the tracks, you see the cables. You know it’s there, even when it’s not. It feels more available, at all times. It feels as though you’re on the train, getting closer to your destination, even when you’re at the station watching a countdown clock. You never worry about the train being too behind schedule, and you don’t have to scan the road constantly looking for your vehicle (as you do with a bus). I think this is one of the most powerful explanations for the so-called “rail bias.” (Other contributing factors include a smoother, more predictable ride, and racial and economic stigmas.) But I think the legibility is one of the primary factors behind MSP policy makers’ push for rail. It signals transit permanence in a way that even the A-Line stations do not.

        1. Michael DaighMichael Daigh Post author

          I agree, and the legibility of bus routes, as well as the regularity, are points I raised as things that are wrong with busses.

          Legibility and permanence are subtly different, though.

          I don’t have the answer, but I want to propose the questions, and I have questions, both locally and beyond, regarding the disdain for busses, and the fact that we (broadly, nationally) are now willing to spend a lot of money on rail that mimics what a bus can do, when I think it is in the realm of possibility to engineer a bus system that does it.

          I think part of that reason is unacknowledged historical burdens, and implicit racial stigma. And I just wanted to spark the debate.

          The reasons given for projects like this streetcar tilt in the direction of efficiency, and that’s what raises an eyebrow for me. I did state that reasons other than efficiency are reasonable to discuss, and worthy of discussion. Cultural enrichment? (Like SF’s streetcars), Tourist attraction and unique novelty? It’s just neat, and will make people happy? These are valid reasons to spend more than a bus. But pitching it as more efficient makes me wonder what the “real” reason is.

          While I criticized the KC Streetcar for being a tourist novelty rather than “transit”, that’s really a criticism of our desire to copy it. The KC streetcar is well employed in that role, and is an effective way to get white, suburban visitors to downtown to quit driving from parking lot to parking lot along that restaurant and attraction heavy route. County officials should have visited a place where a similar system is being employed in a wider-ranging transit role.

          They also should have asked: why a streetcar, on such a tiny route? My point is that it was intelligently chosen for its target audience. And then I also wonder if that’s why we favor it so heavily.

      2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        Additionally, you are I think the first person I’ve ever encountered who speaks of Penn Station with anything bus extreme disdain. It’s a terrible place, New Yorkers and New Jerseyans deserve the same respect that Westchester County commuters get at Grand Central.

        1. Michael DaighMichael Daigh Post author

          Yeah, Penn is terrible in many ways, especially compared to Grand Central. But I still remember the first time I went there, just marveling at all the places I could connect to. It’s a first impression that has stuck with me.

  11. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    As busses can run in tunnels or on elevated roadways and on dedicated rights of way, I don’t think you’ve correctly identified the advantages of rail. Which you pretty much reveal with your suggestions on how to make busses more appealing – make them more like rail. (Let’s do it!)

    To me the main advantages of rail that can’t be replicated by good quality buses are ride quality, speed, and, critically, capacity.

    The second one isn’t that relevant when rail is operating in dense urban areas (absent expensive tunneling), but gets to be important when, like the future of the green line, it connects more distant destinations.

    The last one is really important for those dense areas though. The value of having rail for the Green Line is that you can move a whole heck of alot more people than you can with buses.

    Anyway, the proposal one-stop subway from the airport to downtown sounds almost entirely useless to me.

    1. Michael DaighMichael Daigh Post author

      A one-stop rail is completely useless, unless that stop is a transit node. I envision something like Jamaica Station in Queens, with multiple bus bays.

  12. Jonathan Hunt

    I agree that buses make sense for this area but saying that the Green Line is a failure for being slow but saying NYC’s subways are worth the price tag is pretty crazy. For the Dowtowns it may make sense to have tunnels but the train goes through Midway about as fast as you can expect it. Sure, the train averages only 12 mph but NY’s subways average only a few mph faster. If the train got better signal priority then it would be pretty much on par with NY speed wise.

  13. Paul Nelson

    There are advantages and disadvantages to all modes of transport; bike, walk, car bus streetcar, LRT. There best applications of all modes. For our region with our winter climate rail transit and the bicycle have significant advantages over cars and buses. Every winter we have periods where we have difficulty maintaining and fixing our roads. Those periods when the media reports, we get a pretty good comparison between busses and our rail lines. Last winter was not a difficult winter, but we had a couple of stretches. Last March 16 (I recall approximate), 70% of the buses were off schedule and the rail lines were on time. This happens with some frequency in our winters. Is rail transit 100% immune to wither problems? No. More often than not rail transit streetcars and light rail, particularly our LRT systems with separate ROW, run very well.

    For the Riverview alignment, I think rail transit is not just the best option, but may be nearly the only good option. The streetcar provides some flexibility in application, being applicable on streets in the same line as cars and buses, or as a rapid transit in a separate ROW space at higher speeds. The streetcar can be designed for a turf track with the rails embedded in a grass field space. The bus will need a road. The streetcar can be implanted in alignments where there are no roads, or where a road would be difficult or impossible to build, or take up far too much space. This was the issue in the Midtown Greenway. Electric rail produces no on-sight air pollution, and overall is quieter in operation.

    I need to spot here. I will write again.

  14. David MarkleDavid Markle

    When this article appeared I was hiking in a mountain area where wheels are illegal, but I’ll belatedly (8/14/17) attempt to remind readers that the Green Line is probably the slowest U.S. LRT line that’s been created in at least the past 30 years. It should have been placed along or above I-94 where it could have run as a train should, or else any rails on University Avenue should have been a streetcar line which would have given better local service because sparsely distributed local service is all the present Green Line offers).

    I appreciate Mr. Daigh’s regard for heavy rail, and wish that it had been given serious consideration for the central trunk line that we still lack. The main problem with our system here is that any journey of significant distance simply takes too long for a busy person’s day. But that fact points, in turn, to the big chunk of time that many automobile commuters waste every day. Design, design!!!

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      There must be a lot of people that aren’t busy riding it then!

      i think the concept of “busy people” can be redefined in an era where smart phone technology keeps us all connected 24/7. Time spent on the Green Line is not wasted, but can be used in a whole bunch of different ways.

      1. Monte Castleman

        It seems like the Green Line is functionally a streetcar, not just because time spent at stoplights but because it stops every couple of blocks. (Isn’t 1 mile spacing the norm for light rail outside the core downtown areas?) And yes this applies to the Blue line in Bloomington too. It’s like we wanted it to run like a streetcar or bus despite being the wrong mode choice for that and still having the options of running buses. Would a better outcome have been streetcar down University and heavy rail or light rail with less stops down I-94 or one of the two rail corridors?

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          We built a hybrid to do both jobs with one train. It’s more train than needed for current build, but it’s going to be needed when they’re extended.

          That doesn’t seem unreasonable given the length of time involved in building two trains.

  15. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Apparently Monte Castleman and I are in agreement. A streetcar line on University Avenue would provide better local service by offering access comparable to a bus line, and I’d wager that it would attract higher ridership than the present LRT, especially in St. Paul. (A disproportionately large part of the present ridership occurs in Minneapolis.)

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