It Should Be Easier to Take the Bus

We used to live downtown, where I walked to pretty much everything. Occasionally I’d fire up the ol’ car for a rare trip to a suburban place to shop, but mostly I’d pick up what I needed on Nicollet Mall or Hennepin Avenue.

Then we decided to look for a house and considered one pretty far down in South Minneapolis. As I detest driving in rush hour traffic, I spent some time researching how I could get to work downtown without driving. I knew I could bike as long as the weather allowed, but it also helped that there was a bus route only a few blocks away. Before we made an offer I poked around on the Metro Transit website and everything looked pretty straight forward.

Metro Transit buses at Coffman Memorial Union, By Runner1928 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Then we moved. I biked at the start, but then it started to get cold. On the way in, taking the bus was pretty straight forward (aside from the frequency of service lengthening right when I’d like to catch it, but that’s my fault and I could go earlier). Getting home less so.

It turns out I hadn’t paid very much attention to the letter variant at the end of the route number. It turns out that matters a lot. One day, I hopped on the 14E. I knew it didn’t go far enough south, because it turns to the east (logical!) to get over to the 46th Street Station but figured I’d hop off when it turned on 42nd and walk home. That was fine, I like to walk, but it would have been a real problem had I not already known that the bus didn’t go where I needed it to. In that particular instance, it wasn’t particularly hard to figure out, because the “E” makes sense and the deviation is big enough to be pretty apparent on the interactive map.

But I was thinking about it again on Thursday. I was planning to ride my bike to work on Friday for International Bike to Work Day (which I did with Ward 11 CM Schroeder, it was chilly) and I wanted to take the 5 down Chicago Avenue to do a little reconnaissance on the state of the bike lane down to at least 48th Street. I looked at the interactive route map (go click on that last link) and thought “no problem, it doesn’t look like there are any variants I have to worry about.”

I thought wrong. I looked at the schedule. The 5 is a “high frequency” route so I wasn’t particularly concerned about timing things to not have to wait too long, but I still wanted a rough sense of when to be there. Then I noticed that some of the potential buses I could take didn’t have a time listed next to the stops south of 38th Street.

That’s because some of them don’t run south of 38th Street.

As someone who lives south of 38th Street, and someone who was trying to travel south of 38th Street, this was an important fact that is not directly stated on Metro Transit’s webpage for the 5. Sure, it’s implied in the schedule, but it still seems like a direct statement that “Route 5A ends at 38th Street” is important enough to include somewhere. To the point that even looking at the schedule, I wasn’t sure I was reading right.

Looking for explicit confirmation, I searched “5A” on the Metro Transit website and found this:

Ah hah! A map.

This is most of the information I’m looking for when I’m checking out a new bus route. It tells me where the route goes, and labels the variants, identifying where they end. There’s box that says “5A” right there at 38th street, which combined with the legend tells me that route ends at 38th.

Looking at it again as I’m writing this, maybe it’s a little busy for a novice bus rider, but having seen these a few times (thanks to newish improved signage at some stops!), it’s what I’m looking for in a route map.

The problem is, aside from happening to encounter one at a stop, or happening to search the route name, I don’t know how you get to this map on the Metro Transit website. Certainly, the page for the 5 doesn’t direct you to it in any obvious way.

I don’t want to be too hard on Metro Transit, because I actually do find the service to be pretty good (the end of Big Game bus delays helps that feeling). And I do appreciate those new signs.

Nonetheless, it’s just weird to me when you can’t get the same information easily on the web.

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.

30 thoughts on “It Should Be Easier to Take the Bus

  1. LM

    Like you, I live in South and combine biking with the bus (and occasionally car trips) for daily transit. There are three bus lines that I can walk to in under ten minutes (7, 9, and 23), so you might think I’d feel well-served by Metro Transit. The problem for me is frequency and timing. My three bus lines all come every half hour during regular hours (less often late at night) and all around the same time, so if I’ve missed one the others are gone, too. Getting to work isn’t a big problem, but getting home often requires 15-20 minutes waiting for a transfer. It takes at least 45 minutes for me to get anywhere and often more. I’ve learned to build little errands into my trips to fill in the time, which helps, but still, this infrequency makes mass transit frustrating and likely deters potential users. I’m certainly looking forward to bike season, myself.

  2. Noelle

    I’d recommend using the schedules at the bottom of the main page in conjunction with the interactive map – those show the differences between the various letters and definitely show a cutoff for the 5A line after the 38th street stop. (Though since I’ve started riding the bus over 10 years ago, I got in the habit of using that with their trip planner vs the interactive maps for my trips.)

    However, I agree that working with the Metro Transit system can be a really confusing process if you aren’t familiar with their website and various resources…it feels like it shouldn’t take that much effort to just get from point A to point B.

    Part of the problem seems to also lie in the fact that bus service gets more spotty the further out you get from the core metro downtowns, so I think the answer might be more service 😉

  3. brad

    FWIW, you can get the map you found by clicking on the “View / Print Detailed Route Map” link below the Weekday/Saturday/Sunday radio buttons and above the schedules. I think that used to link to a pdf of the paper schedule.

  4. Eric W.

    This reminded me of when I lived in the Oak Grove Hotel apartments in the late 90s and took the bus to and from the U almost every day. I’ve long since forgotten the route number and letter, but here was only one rare letter variant of a particular southbound bus that turned onto Oak Grove street. *Every* time I was on that bus, when it made that turn at least half the riders would start yelling “What? Where is this bus going?” and the bus would be almost emptied at the next stop.

  5. DerekThompson

    I would be in favor of getting rid of the lettered routes on buses. Not only do they make looking at a transit map/schedule more complicated but they also deter me from taking routes I am less familiar with. With the buses I have to keep track of frequency, time of day, where the lettered routes go, and what the branches are. The #3 would be a convenient route for me but the map gives me such headaches I don’t even bother. It would probably be worth learning if I took the route every day but for the occasional night out I am probably better off just driving.

    At least with major routes like the Blue, Green, and A Line I know they run fairly frequently in more or less a straight line and with frequent service.

    1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

      The 3… There’s the A, B, C, E, S, K… and A* and B*… And I might be missing some.

      Only the K deviates before reaching the StP border (from the U of M), and WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY. I rode it daily, so A and B continue to downtown StP, A along Como, B along Energy Park, C, E and S all stop before… But… really… whyyyyyyyyy…

    2. Rosa

      Yeah, the variant routes should just have different names!

      I love the new signage, and in general the extreme helpfulness of Metro Transit drivers makes up for many deficiencies (I’ve seriously never been in another city where, if you don’t know where you are or where you’re going, the answer is “get on the next bus and ask, they will tell you”). But there were two factors in why we wouldn’t look at any place to live south of 35th street and #1 was that I knew from experience the north-south buses on several routes get weird south of that. Not just that they were weird back then, but that MetroTransit doesn’t make a ton of route changes between Lake & downtown but does seem to make a lot farther south.

      Still, twice in the last few years I’ve gotten on variant buses that just suddenly stopped – a 21 that ended at, like, Cretin on a holiday Monday when the bus was barely running anyway, and a 22X that I rode for 4 blocks because it just ends at Lake Street. Why can’t those routes have different names? The express routes do. They don’t go where most people are trying to get to. It’s like how half the highway signs happen after you already needed to change lanes. “You’re clearly not from here or you would know this.”

  6. Will

    Just use additional numbers, not letter suffixes for what can be very significant route changes. People can remember that the 5 and the 95 go to their particular stop, but if they want a point south of 38th, to take only the 5. It also makes it easier to spot when viewing an approaching bus.

  7. Dan

    Maybe this is an opportunity for someone more connected to Metro Transit or the coding community to jump in, but I was under the impression a lot of their bus location data is open, so it’s readily accessible for 3rd party app developers to build into transit apps. I personally use OMG Transit.

    That said, I agree with this article as I think signage is super important and funding spend on buses is a tangible low hanging fruit to improve transit. Cool thoughts, Adam.

  8. Eric Ecklund

    Worse is just a route number, but there’s still a catch. For example only certain Route 465 buses stop at South Bloomington, which is a pain for me.

  9. GlowBoy

    I too live in South Minneapolis near the #5 and #14, and below 38th where many runs terminate (and BTW, even more of those runs terminate at 56th).

    I understand the rationale for having a couple variants of a route, to handle varying frequency needs along different sections. I don’t have a problem with that (even in Portland, where I lived prior to here and still travel for work, I need to know what some Blue Line MAX trains go all the way to Hillsboro and some terminate at Merlo Road, which doesn’t get me all the way to my place of work – that’s burned me more than a couple of times). I use the Transit app frequently in both the Twin Cities and in Portland, and it seems to handle the idea of the same route having multiple possible endpoints, and telling you which one a particular run ends at. I think you’re right that it doesn’t always seem to handle MT’s multitudinous letter-suffixes correctly, though.

    And I think the issue is not that MT sometimes has more than one variant of a route, but that there are simply too many variants on some lines. Really more than a couple is too much for the moderate transit user to try to sort out. That might work for fixed-shift workers who take the same bus at the same time every day, but that’s not most of us anymore. It’s barriers like this that keep transit ridership from being higher than it is.

  10. Beth

    Google Maps is pretty awesome. Phone version works well for transit on the go. Computer version works better for planning with their “route explorer”.

  11. Cobo R

    Google Maps directions on my smart phone is the only way I do the bus. It works really well and can help you find the most efficient routes, and points you to where the bus stop is.

    Once I found Google maps, and other transit apps, riding the bus became easy. Now that smartphones are becoming ubiquitous across the entire socioeconomic spectrum it should get easier once people utilize the tools they already have.

  12. Lou Miranda

    I agree with Dan, Beth, & Cobo: use a phone/app, if you can.

    “Hey, Siri, how do I get to Hennepin & 9th by bus?”. Boom. I get 3 options/times, and a button for more routes. “OK, Google” does the same, if not more.

    If you want to plan the route ahead of time, the Metro Transit app or web site might be better.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that the route lettering isn’t still wonky. I live near the 6 line, and it has a number of lettered variants, which is why I always use an app. Apps also take care of special events screwing up routes, detours, weather, etc.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      The apps, and the Metro Transit website too for that matter, are great for planning a single trip. Sort of. That is, they will tell you how you can make the trip you have in mind.

      The issue I have is wanted to know more than how to get to point X right now. I want to know what the route is, because learning that is useful for future trips too.

      But I’m a map guy. Really, just give me a map and a frequency and I’m happy.

      1. Lou Miranda

        Apple Maps (and I’m sure Google Maps, too) has gotten quite sophisticated lately.

        1. Open Apple Maps
        2. Tap the “info” (i-in-a-circle) at top right
        3. Tap Transit view
        4. Search for a destination, such as “Uptown”
        5. Zooms to Uptown. Tap Uptown Transit Station.
        6. All the lines that go there are shown, sorted by north/south/east/west, along with frequency and how long a wait to the next 3 buses; also shows all out of service lines at the end, and when they will resume.
        7. Tap on a bus line, such as the 6B, then tap View On Map.
        8. Tap Add to Favorites—it tells you to add the Maps Transit widget to your phone, so you’ll always get updates about the latest conditions on your lock screen.
        9. The entire 6B line is shown. Zoom *way in* and you can see each stop.
        10. Tap a transit stop (near where you live or near a destination) then tap Add to Favorites: it will ask you if you also want to add *all* the transit lines that stop there to your Favorites.
        11. Tap in the search field, scroll to the bottom of the list and tap Favorites.
        12. At the bottom, tap Transit Lines, then tap 6B and you’ll get the map again, since it’s now a favorite.

        1. Lou Miranda

          To add the widget (you only have to do this once):
          1. Swipe down from the top of your iPhone, then swipe to the right to bring up the widget screen.
          2. Scroll to the bottom and tap Edit.
          3. Scroll down to Maps Transit and tap the “+”.
          4. You can move the different widgets up or down to sort them in the order that’s best for you.
          5. Tap Done.

          Now when you go back to the Widget screen (swipe down from the top, then to the right), the Maps Transit widget shows any delays or other status for your favorite transit lines.

          1. Jennifer Cannon

            This is so useful. I knew it was there but didn’t realize it did THIS. How do I add a line to my Favorites? Thanks!

    2. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      An app doesn’t help those who don’t have smartphones or decent data plans. While that’s probably a minority of users, it’s enough that we shouldn’t effectively exclude them from the transit system.

      It also doesn’t help in making the system feel like freedom or simple-to-use to people. If I have to pull up Google/Siri every time I want to go somewhere at a different time, I’m just going to skip the bus and drive instead. I don’t have to look up directions every time I go somewhere by car, and even with an address or a vague sense of where it is I can drive there without having to analyze directions each time. If the bus system isn’t simple enough to quickly understand, then it’s not simple enough.

      I’m generally fine with the ideas for letters for different terminating points along the same route – if I catch a 3C instead of a 3A and the bus simply stops at the end I can get off and catch a 3A the rest of the way. But any sort of major diversion (more than a block) needs to be a different letter. At minimum, someone needs to be able to get on the 21 and know that they’re not going to be unceremoniously dumped off at St. Thomas, a decent half-mile from the nearest 21A/E/whatever letters go along Marshall stop.

      1. Lou Miranda

        You’re right, smartphone penetration isn’t 100%. Right now, it’s about 70% in the US, predicted to get to about 80% in 5 years ( ), and likely it’s the lowest income and oldest people who don’t own one, although that’s changing.

        In terms of data plans, maps take very little data, as long as you turn satellite view and 3D view off, of course.

        If you frequent a route, you’ll eventually get to know the frequency and you can skip a phone or printed map/schedule. A widget on your phone (see above) can even alert you when the frequency changes, or there are delays.

        Both Siri and Google are introducing features where they proactively figure out what you do and where you go every day, and can provide alerts if there are anticipated delays. (This is both helpful and kinda scary!)

      2. Rosa

        and all these suggestions for how to get better at using the system are just workarounds for dumb design/labeling/signage decisions. One of the joys of a good transit system is that you can just learn it and have that knowledge of how to get around – like you said, people don’t use an app every time they go to walk or drive somewhere.

      3. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

        I don’t use data, only wifi in a money saving move. I simply text to find when the next bus is coming. Sure, that doesn’t map the ride but its something that is often overlooked by smartphone users.

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