The “True Test” Of A Region’s Transit System Isn’t Serving Commutes

On Friday, May 11th, leaders in Minneapolis-St. Paul government and civil society, representing organizations like the Itasca Project, GreaterMSP, the Met Council, and others got together for a briefing on “Regional Indicators.” This event was an opportunity for people from disparate but powerful groups to come together and learn where the region is making progress and falling behind, both in absolute terms and terms relative to its peer cities. You can find lots of tweets from this interesting event at the hashtag #MSPMeasures.

Gatherings like this are one of the advantages that I think the Twin Cities have over a number of those peer metropolitan areas in the country, where local leadership is fragmented by political borders. It’s not hard to find major American cities where critical infrastructure cannot be built because it requires approval from governments in different states, or where policy goals in one municipality are being subverted by their neighbors. Minneapolis-St. Paul does a good job of avoiding this, and that’s mostly to its benefit. But I also think it’s important to be aware of the risk that so much coordination between these large groups that straddle the private and public sectors can lead to a kind of groupthink.

I noticed one telling example in this slide from the event, which was captured by McKnight Foundation president Kate Wolford.

The slide is formatted as a mock newspaper headline, and reads:

Transit Ranking Slips

Transportation infrastructure is a pillar of every region’s economic competitiveness. The true test of any region’s system is how effective it is at connecting residents to jobs.

The 2018 Dashboard data shows MSP maintains its number one ranking for the percentage of residents with less than a 30 minute commute. However, the percentage of population with easy access to job centers by transit declined from last year, resulting in a drop in MSP’s peer rank from six to seven.

Other regions are investing heavily in transit infrastructure and seeing results. Denver overtook MSP this year in transit access, and Seattle is improving the connectivity of residents to jobs via transit.

The purpose of this slide is to convey some interesting and useful data about one measure of how the Twin Cities’ transportation network, and especially its transit system, is performing. But the way the information is framed is problematic, and (more importantly) also emblematic of far greater issues with how transportation planning, especially transit planning, occurs in the region.

The trouble really starts in the second sentence. Allowing people to commute to jobs is obviously the most vitally important function of a transportation network. Cities are first and foremost economic hubs, and if your infrastructure is preventing people from reaching gainful employment, they will leave your city in a hurry. But that’s obviously not a problem in the Twin Cities, where the economy is experiencing steady growth and the population is growing faster than any other major city in the North, Midwest, or Rust Belt. What’s being measured in this presentation is the ease of commuting, and it is highly contestable that this is the “true test” of a region’s transportation system.

One general reason why commute trips are a poor test of a region’s transportation system is because they are comparatively easy to facilitate. Jobs are frequently clustered, whether in the urban region’s central business district or along its major (and preexisting) transportation corridors. No employer chooses to locate at an inaccessible location and waits around for the infrastructure to catch up. There is no major job center in the Twin Cities that cannot be easily accessed by—at minimum—the region’s road network.

But a more specific reason why commute trips are not a great measure of good transportation infrastructure is that they represent less than 20% of all trips that Americans make. For every trip to or from work, the average American makes many other trips to buy goods, visit friends, attend events, and everything else under the sun. Carrying these trips is another essential function of a transportation network, because cities are not just economic hubs but social ones. If your infrastructure is preventing people from buying what they need, making social connections, having fun, and doing whatever else they will, then people with the means to do so are also likely to leave your city, and the people who don’t have those means will live in misery.

Affecting non-commute trips is the true “true test” of a region’s transportation system (and also its land use planning, something that is closely linked to transportation policy). Non-commute trips are often just as important as commute trips, far more numerous, and difficult to facilitate, because they are much more diffuse. While many types of non-commute destinations are co-located with the largest job centers (many trips to go see a concert or a play are well served by transit to the CBD), many are not. Dense neighborhoods with strong retail corridors, like Uptown, are better targets for transit than suburban office parks, which may boast significant numbers of jobs, but no residents, bars, restaurants, stores, etc.

We have so much better data for commuting trips because it’s easy to collect. But it’s still possible to collect information about non-commuting trips, you just have to make an effort. The MSP Regional Indicators presentation would’ve been far more informative if it contained data not just about the ease of commuting, but the ease of getting to the nearest grocery store, meeting your best friend for drinks, or going to the lake.

Transit Has To Be Fundamental

All of the above applies even more strongly to transit. Certain types of trips are especially easy to serve using fixed route, high capacity, high frequency public transportation. Transportation to the largest local airport is probably the easiest type of service to provide, and Minneapolis does it better than any other city in the country. Transportation to a professional sporting event is also an extremely easy service to provide with public transit, and with every major sporting venue in the metropolitan area located near the Green Line light rail, this is another area in which the Twin Cities find themselves in an elite class.

Facilitating commuting trips is a third area in which is it not especially difficult for a transit system to have some success, and for that reason (and because it gets measured), it’s not surprising that commutes end up being the focus of a lot of transportation planning. Every large American city that I know of provides its best quality and density of service in the region’s CBD, and subsequent investments almost always follow major job corridors. The Twin Cities are no exception. The METRO Blue and Green light rail lines both serve downtown Minneapolis. The former also serves the airport and Mall of America, while the latter serves the University of Minnesota and downtown St. Paul. Current major transportation projects are similarly focused on jobs. The Green Line Extension/Southwest LRT will tour major office parks in the southwest metro. The Blue Line Extension will hit similar job centers in the northwest metro and terminate at Target’s North Campus. The Gold and Orange Line BRT routes are focused primarily on bringing commuters from the south and east metros into downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. A lot of time, money, and political capital is being expended to use transit to connect people to jobs, and improve MSP’s performance in the regional indicators peer ranking.

This, incidentally, is why transit projects like the Southwest LRT are often (misleadingly) pitched in some spaces as congestion relievers. Roadway congestion is primarily a peak hour problem, and peak hours are when the largest number of commute trips occur. Transit built to alleviate congestion tends to be transit that is overwhelmingly focused on serving commute trips.

It’s not at all a bad thing to serve commute trips. It makes fundamental sense to start off a budding transportation network with this focus. Of course the CBD should get great transit service, not just because it has lots of jobs, but because lots of people also live there, and it is packed full of other activities. But by continuing to focus predominantly on serving commutes with transit, regional decision makers risk missing out on serving the over 80% of trips that are not commutes. Just as serving these trips is the “true test” of the entire transportation system, so too is it the “true test” of the region’s transit system. This game is played for big stakes. A transit system that serves more than commute trips is a transit system that has ridership that increases exponentially. It’s a transit system that becomes far more essential to its users.

Best of all, such a transportation system allows for people to live without owning a car and rely on transit to get around. There is a galaxy of benefits to reducing car dependence and helping people live without a car (which many in the Regional Indicators briefing may not have recent firsthand experience with). Building a transit system that people can rely on for all of their trips allows these people to live in denser communities. Denser communities lead to greater innovation, knowledge, and commerce through agglomeration effects. Denser communities allow cities to spend less per capita on city services and get more property taxes for their land, which in the Twin Cities means more money for communities throughout the fiscal disparities region. Denser communities allow more people are able to make personal connections with people who come from different backgrounds, improving social cohesion, promoting empathy, and reducing segregation. Denser communities produce less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions per capita, improving community health and helping Minnesota do its part in the fight against climate change. In sum, the more people who can live without owning a car, the more a city profits economically, socially, and environmentally. (Not coincidentally, these are the three pillars of sustainability.)

There’s nothing wrong with building transit that helps people get to their jobs, but Minneapolis-St. Paul should not settle for that. Minneapolis-St. Paul should be trying to build—from the beginning—a transit network that doesn’t just help people get to work, but help people get to everything.

Mile High Misdirection

This critique would not be necessary if the issue were confined to some loose wording on a single slide. But tunnel visioning on commute trips is a real issue in MSP transit decision-making. I’ve written before about how a primary focus on getting people to and from work is a key flaw of the Met Council’s currently in-progress METRO system investments. We can see what happens when other metro areas make a similar mistake.

My favorite/least favorite example comes from Denver, which is approvingly highlighted in the Regional Indicators slide as a city that is passing MSP by in transportation investment. Parts of the story of Denver’s transit bug is well known. In 2004, voters in the Denver area approved a hike on their own sales taxes in order to fund a massive expansion of the city’s rail services. These projects moved incredibly quickly. In the fourteen years since, while MSP has built a single new light rail line, Denver has built six new light rail lines and two new commuter lines. The one problem is that the system that has been built is not actually very useful. The routes use dedicated freight railroad right-of-way or highway-adjacent right-of-way which has never been surrounded by high density uses of any kind. A recent rail expansion sited stations in pedestrian Saharas, where riders were expected to access the rich suburban job locations of the eastern Denver metro by waiting at stations by the side of the highway and subsequently transferring to free shuttles.

I don’t know exactly how the data presented in the Regional Indicators ranking was collected, but I’m wary about its ability to distinguish between transportation investments that provide connections to jobs on paper, and those that actually provide useful, safe, comfortable, simple, and dignified connections to jobs in practice. I’d like to know a bit more about what it means when we say that Denver recently “overtook MSP this year in transit access.”

The best way to measure whether or not people find a transit system useful is ridership, and we can compare this number to the amount of investment to see if the Twin Cities really are doing something wrong. The Denver light rail system has 58.5 miles of track and 54 stations. In the 4th quarter of 2017, it averaged 67,500 weekday riders, or 1,154 riders per track mile and 1,250 riders per station. The Twin Cities light rail system has 21.8 miles of track and 37 stations. In the 4th quarter of 2017, it averaged 71,900 weekday riders, or 3,309 riders per track mile and 1,943 riders per station. All told, Denver has spent $5.3 billion on their light rail and commuter rail investments (which counts 20,500 riders). The Twin Cities have spent $2.0 billion on light rail and commuter rail (the Northstar, which is a cautionary tale of a lot of things, including the peril of building transit only to serve commuters, carries 2,700 people daily) investments. All told, the Twin Cities have so far spent 37% of what Denver has spent on rail (and some of Denver’s public transit pre-dates the recent spending push), for 85% of the weekday riders. Given these numbers, I’m skeptical of any ranking which suggests Denver has anything to teach the Twin Cities about rail transit, unless it’s what not to do.

Towards Passing The True “True Test” Of Transit

Minneapolis-St. Paul is doing a lot of things right when it comes to transit. Foremost among these things is the aBRT program and Metro Transit’s overall improvement of its bus services, which is being noticed and getting deserved national attention. For the price of a rounding error in the Southwest LRT budget, the A-Line improved ridership by 30% along a corridor that passes through streetcar-era neighborhoods, brushes several colleges, and ties the Blue and Green Lines together. The future C-Line will upgrade the #19 bus route, which is far busier than the #84 (which the A-Line mostly replaced) was. The future D-Line will be an even bigger project, considering that the #5 bus that it will mostly replace already has ridership that is comparable to many American light rail routes. The C and D routes pass through downtown (which again, is fine), but the B-Line, which will run along the Midtown Corridor and mostly replace the heavily used #21 bus, will not. Investing in projects and corridors that serve a wide variety of trips and connect between existing services, like these aBRT corridors, is absolutely critical to achieving the “true test” of transit, serving not just work trips but all trips.

But the same cannot be said, as of yet, for the region’s more expensive METRO system investments, which are eating up the vast (vast, vast) majority of the money that is being allocated for transit. The Southwest and Bottineau LRT projects are pretty good projects if you evaluate them in the world of commuter rail projects, and should make car-free living much more possible for people in a select few areas, especially Hopkins and Robbinsdale, which will see their central commercial districts directly served, and which have leaned into light rail. But overall, their primary purpose will likely be to serve park and riders. Much of the same can be said for the METRO Orange Line BRT, which will serve some Minneapolis neighborhoods, but is mostly geared towards park and ride commuters from the southern suburbs. The METRO Gold Line BRT will serve some east side neighborhoods and urban commuters heading to the suburban 3M campus, but its primary focus will likely be to bring commuters from Woodbury and other east side suburbs in and out.

These projects will help Minneapolis-St. Paul rise in the Regional Indicators rankings for access to jobs. But they will fall short is in serving everything else, and we won’t know by how much, because data about access to destinations other than work isn’t being collected or measured.

For most important transit corridors, especially those that do not have heavy peak hour commute traffic, aBRT is the right tool for the job. These projects deserve certain funding and ironclad political backing from the powerful people in the room at the Regional Indicators presentation. Also there are good potential METRO system corridors which are not just centered around commuting, but instead simply link neighborhoods which are dense and active. The Midtown Rail project is the best and most obvious of these and it needs champions at all levels of government and civil society.

Projects that  should be being aggressively pursued, and they don’t seem to be, which is frustrating. After seeing the tweets and discussion from the Regional Indicators presentation, (slogan: “Monitoring the metrics that matter“) I have a feeling that one reason why is because regional decision makers are focused on only one of many important measurements of transit success, to the exclusion of the whole picture.

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is a transportation planner. He grew up in New York City, lived in Philadelphia for seven years, and now lives in Minneapolis. His twitter handle is @alexschief. He is on BlueSky at