Can Suburb-to-Suburb Express Service Work in the Twin Cities?

Two years ago Route 494 began service between Shakopee and Maple Grove as part of a partnership between Southwest Transit, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, Plymouth Metrolink, and Maple Grove Transit. There were station stops at Marschall Road Transit Station in Shakopee, Southwest Station in Eden Prairie, United Healthcare and Optum campuses in Minnetonka, Hopkins Crossroad Park & Ride in Minnetonka, Station 73 in Plymouth, and Maple Grove Transit Station. The service lasted only three months with an average weekday ridership of 20 (yes you read that correctly). Soon after Route 495 between Marschall Road Transit Station and the Mall of America with limited service to the Amazon Fulfillment Center began with better results.

First day of service for Route 494. A rare chance to see suburban opt-out operators in different territories such as this MVTA bus at Southwest Station.

I rode Route 494 twice. Once just for fun between Maple Grove and Southwest Station, and transferred to a local route to Bloomington. The other time it was one of only a few options available to get back across the river after a long bike ride from Bloomington to Shakopee.

So why did Route 494 fail? It was an express service with most stations only being park & rides, not places where people actually live and work. It was expected that riders would get off at a transit station and transfer to a suburban local route or Dial-a-Ride service.

Despite this failure, the Metropolitan Council is studying “bus rapid transit” (that term being used loosely as I’ll explain later on) either between Shakopee and Minneapolis or between Shakopee and Brooklyn Park along Highway 169. In 2014 Highway 169 was one of several corridors studied for highway bus rapid transit. Total construction cost was estimated to be $46.4 million, an annual operating cost of approximately $8.9 million, and a projected daily ridership of 7,800 by 2030. However most of the stations would be located at entrance/exit ramps, and so would require riders to either transfer to/from a local route or walk to/from their actual destination. This proposal would not pass for official standards of bus rapid transit as it would operate mostly in mixed traffic, an off-peak frequency of 20-30 minutes, and very limited availability to transfer to other transit routes. It would be the Red Line of the west metro. The study recommended that before most of these corridors jump straight to BRT a regular service is provided and in theory the transit market matures overtime to warrant improvements and possibly eventually introduce rapid transit.

Can highway BRT work in the Twin Cities? Yes, but done correctly and in the right corridors. Can express suburb-to-suburb service work in the Twin Cities? Not for the foreseeable future, and its best to focus on expanding and improving the hub-and-spoke routes first. However a limited-stop suburb-to-suburb service could work. This is already done on hub-and-spoke routes including Route 535 along the I-35W Corridor (to be replaced by the Orange Line in the near future) and Route 645 along the I-394 Corridor. Instead of only serving park & rides a limited-stop service along the Highway 169 Corridor could provide an option for suburban residents who are traveling short distances to other suburbs, people (particularly suburbanites) who depend on transit, and bridge the gap between suburban transit operators’ territories (something that is long overdue).

A limited-stop service would require a small investment for buses, standard bus stop signs, intersection modifications in certain areas, and a few online stops to serve neighborhoods while buses remain on the freeway. Starting in the Arbor Lakes area of Maple Grove and ending at Marschall Road Transit Station, this route would directly serve numerous regional destinations where people live and work, but also a few transit stations and intersections for transfers to other transit routes.

A cheap way to implement an online bus station. Unlike the bus stop at Lake Street & I-35W, this one in Oslo, Norway is easily accessible whether you walk, bike, or are disabled. There are a few of these around Oslo used by limited-stop and express buses.

I had little hope in Route 494 succeeding, and whomever decided an express park & ride-to-park & ride service was the best option either doesn’t use transit or didn’t consult with the public and employers about how this should be implemented. While a limited-stop service such as the one I propose likely wouldn’t have many riders going from Maple Grove to Shakopee and vice versa, it would serve a much larger potential ridership base than Route 494 and make traveling by transit between bordering suburbs much easier.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.

10 thoughts on “Can Suburb-to-Suburb Express Service Work in the Twin Cities?

  1. Monte Castleman

    I guess I didn’t realize that the Orange Line was supposed to replace the 535. I have no interest in ever working in downtown Minneapolis, but if I had to I’d consider riding the 535, which stops two houses down from my. By contrast the orange line stop is over a mile away so if I have to get out of my car I might as well just drive downtown.

    1. Eric Ecklund Post author

      I’m in a similar situation. I bike to Normandale College to get on the 535, which is a 10 minute bike ride. When the Orange Line starts I would have to bike to South Bloomington, which is a 25 minute bike ride (and biking along 98th/Old Shakopee isn’t the greatest). Hopefully they beef up and improve the local bus service in Bloomington like Route 539 so it isn’t as difficult getting there.

  2. jerome

    They need to quit wasting money to study their proposed routes .Right now it takes 45mins from St Paul to Mpls on the Greenline with the extension to EP it will be almost 2 hours plus most riders are transferring from other routes.
    From downtown St Paul to Uptown the #21 is over 90mins even without transferring ,. .

    These proposed routes like RED LINE are mostly for riders who would drive to the P/R ,how would these routesbenefits transit dependent riders ?Most people eventually will buy cars whent he commute is long and infrequent.
    It is time MET COUNCIL guide surburbs with better land use and stop building along the highways withlimited access to transit .
    #535 would have been better to run to France Ave serving Southdale area which is dense with many jobs,apartments nearby

    1. nm

      The people driving these studies are policymakers from the cities and counties, not the met council. Naturally these places want their piece of the pie and think that exhaustively studying the same thing multiple times will somehow prove a different result. They’re wrong, but in the current political climate the met council can’t say no, even though the council members are probably very aware that it’s a waste of time and money.

    2. Monte Castleman

      I’m still scratching my head at who the Red Line is actually for. Doesn’t seem there’s be a lot of demand for captive riders to go between the Mall of American and a strip mall in Apple Valley. I know the new zoo is out there, but it doesn’t seem to be as relevant as it was a few decades ago and at any rate the Red Line doesn’t stop there. It’s hard to see how it better serves choice riders than a coach bus that goes directly from a park and ride to downtown rather than making a lot of extra stops and then forcing a transfer.

      I can see BRT a little more in Shakopee. Again commuters to downtown are going to hop on a commuter coach from a park and ride instead, but in Shakopee you have Valleyfair, Canterbury Park, Seagate, Amazon, Shutterfly, and a traditional town center.

      1. Eric Ecklund Post author

        The problem with BRT in Shakopee is how do you route it to directly serve all those destinations? It would be a very windy route if existing roads can only be used, and if buses stay on the freeway then its a straight route but a long walk to/from the station.

        1. Monte Castleman

          I don’t see that as a deal breaker. The Orange Line is taking a long slow windy detour around Best Buy and Southtown. The Green Line extension is taking a long slow windy route through the Golden Triangle and people think it should have taken a long, slow windy route through Uptown.

          If it went down County 101 Valleyfair, Amazon, and downtown Shakopee are all close enough highway stops would be feasible. It could take a short detour down and back Canterbury road to pick up Canterbury downs and Seagate.

  3. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    The problem is free parking combined with dispersed trip ends. Route 494 tried to concentrate trip ends by using park-rides. It didn’t work.

    Unfortunately the alternative suggested here doesn’t look promising either. It requires hopping on and off the freeway to serve apartment complexes. That will slow the bus to the point that it won’t be time competitive. It’s a problem that may not have a solution.

    1. Eric Ecklund Post author

      I do agree that free and abundant parking is an issue, but I think its a bit generalized to say this is serving just apartment complexes. There are plenty of other destinations it would serve, and the purpose of it isn’t for people traveling from Shakopee to Maple Grove. More so someone traveling from Shakopee to Minnetonka, or Maple Grove to Plymouth where there currently isn’t an existing direct route.

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