The Quarterly Transit Report-December 2017

Buses return to Nicollet Mall

Once again it’s a pretty quiet schedule change, mostly putting the buses back on Nicollet Mall. Returning from exile on Hennepin Avenue are Routes 10, 11, 17, 18, 25 and 59. The detours worked operationally, but caused substantial ridership reductions, so hopefully riders will return over the next year or so.

A little history

Streetcars never ran on the downtown portion of Nicollet Avenue. They used Marquette. Buses (gas-electric hybrids actually) first appeared on Nicollet about 1926 when the Nicollet-Hennepin line (today’s Route 17) started. After streetcars quit in 1954, the heavy Route 18 Nicollet-2nd Street NE-Monroe line shifted to Nicollet.

To celebrate the end of streetcars in 1954, Twin City Lines staged this parade of new buses down Nicollet Avenue.

Over the years, routes have shifted on and off the Mall. This had a lot to do with the creation of contra-flow bus lanes on Marquette and 2nd Avenue S., and the development of a huge network of rush hour express buses starting in the 1970s. It didn’t take long for those lanes to become overcrowded, with the congestion causing buses to be late. The all-day local Route 10 Central Avenue-Grand Avenue S. line was shifted from Marquette and 2nd to the Mall, freeing up some bus lane capacity and adding local capacity to help the 17 and 18.

The Mall in the 70s.

As Marquette-2nd congestion increased, the I-394 expresses were shifted to the Mall, and some other routes were moved to 3rd Avenue S. On the Mall, the expresses still experienced bad delays behind the slow-loading locals. Part of the problem is that buses stopped every block, and travel times on the Mall were no greater than walking speed. Clearly something had to be done.

The solution was a comprehensive study of downtown bus routings that resulted in the Marq-2 double-wide bus lanes, with the bus stops divided into four groups and improved traffic signal timing. This finally broke the express bus log jam, and made it possible to remove them from the Mall and 3rd Avenue S. At the same time, half the Mall bus stops were eliminated, which speeded up throughput, although it was still pretty slow. I’ll be curious to see if there have been any changes to traffic signal timing to improve it.

Downtown circulation

Downtown interests have always wanted a cheap, convenient downtown circulator for out-of-towners and locals to travel up and down the Mall and to the Minneapolis Convention Center. Way back in 1971 minibuses were purchased and the Mall QT (Quick Transit) circulator was created.

The Mall QT minibus of 1971.

They ran every 10 minutes and cost only 10 cents when the regular fare was 30 cents. They did the job for about ten years but ran a significant deficit. The State Legislature, viewing them as a giveaway to downtown, passed a law requiring the city to pay half the subsidy. By the early 1980s the minibuses wore out and the city couldn’t sustain its share of the subsidy, so the Mall QT quit.

The early 70’s also saw QT minibus shuttles on the 4th and 5th Street pair in downtown Minneapolis, plus two QT-branded shuttle routes in downtown St. Paul. All were unsuccessful and lasted only a couple of years. The cities demanded some kind of substitute service and that caused the creation of the reduced fare Downtown Zones, which continue to this day. Within downtown, anyone can ride for 50 cents, much cheaper than the regular $2.00 ($2.50 peak).

The problem with the downtown zone is that the bus system is too complex and intimidating for out-of-towners to understand. The only exception is along the Mall, where all buses run its full length and there is some hope of communicating that to hotel guests. In fact, routes that formerly left the Mall at intermediate points were changed to run its full length to avoid any confusion. Now if only the service was free, thus eliminating confusion about fares.

Fare-free service along the Mall and to the Convention Center appeared several years ago thanks to a little bus routing sleight of hand. Routes 10 and 18 were formerly through-routed between south Minneapolis and northeast. By shortening both to terminate in downtown, fare-free rides within downtown became possible.

Here’s how it works. When northbound Route 18 Nicollet Avenue buses reach the south end of downtown at Grant Street, the Free Bus destination sign turns on and anyone boarding the rest of the way through downtown pays no fare. It works the same way on the southbound Route 10 Central Avenue. As soon as the bus enters downtown by the Main Post Offce, up goes the Free Bus sign and anyone boarding the rest of the way through downtown pays no fare. Route 10 ends at the Convention Center, which solves that connection with the Mall. Returning northbound, boarding at the Convention Center is free. Both routes run every 10 minutes, so now there is free service up and down the Mall and to the Convention Center.

Other Mall miscellany, and peering into the future

There have always been critics of the buses on the Mall. Although bus engine emissions have been dramatically reduced to very low levels, the stereotype of the smoke belching bus lingers. Metro Transit now assigns only its cleanest buses, the hybrids, which also happen to be its quietest, to the Mall routes.

Speed on the Mall has been an issue. For decades the speed limit was 30 mph. Then a bus killed a bicyclist. Since then the bus speed limit has been 10 mph, which partially explains why a trip down the Mall takes so long. Bikes had been banned from the Mall, but now they’re back. Add to that having to dodge double parked taxis and service vehicles, plus pedestrians crossing everywhere and the 10 mph speed limit seems unlikely to change.

First day back on the Mall, Dec. 2, 2017.

Bear that in mind when thinking about future streetcars on the Mall. The City of Minneapolis proposes to replace the Route 10 and 18 buses with a modern streetcar line that would connect Central Avenue with Nicollet Avenue via the Mall. I’m personally skeptical that the streetcar can ever happen, because the funding mechanisms are not in place to either build or sustain it. But we know it would be a slow ride through downtown.

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.