Do Cities Like Minneapolis Have High Transit Ridership? (Part 2)

A bus in the snow.

In the last post, I discussed which foreign cities are most like Minneapolis in terms of population distribution. In this post, I’m going to present some numbers about the transit systems of those cities, in order to determine how extensive Minneapolis’ transit system could be, given the distribution of its population.

Transit share in New York City is 56%. Various dense American cities like Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston have transit shares around 27-36%. Minneapolis is at about 14%. However, the calculation of transit share is often difficult to ascertain in other countries due to methodology differences. An easier metric for comparison is overall system ridership for high frequency rail, tram, and bus lines; compared to population. In Minneapolis, the two light rail lines had 23.8 million riders in 2017 on 35 km of rail (US and Canada ridership from APTA reports: Q4). Including buses, ridership was 81.1 million. Commuter rail (the Northstar) adds another 0.8 million riders.

For the other cities in our list, here are some comparison numbers:

Calgary: The CTrain light rail system had 88.0 million riders in 2017 on 60 km of rail. The overall transit system had 157.5 million trips including buses.

Brisbane: Brisbane’s rail system, Queensland Rail City network had 52.4 million riders in 2015/2016 on 689 km of rail. This is a primarily suburban rail system. A BRT network centered in the city had 70 million riders per year on 27 km of dedicated busways. The entire TransLink network saw 178.3 million trips in 2010-2011. It is important to note that this system extends much further from the main city than many of the other systems on this list, so neither the suburban rail or bus networks outside the BRT will be considered.

Ottawa: Ottawa’s OC Transpo had 134.5 million riders in 2016. Of these, about 2/3 were served on BRT lines with dedicated busways (the Transitway system); there are 26 km of dedicated bus lanes, but total route length for Transitway is 60 km, so the BRT is not strictly fixed-route. There is also a light rail line (Trillium) with 4.2 million annual riders on 8 km; a second line is opening later this year.

ZurichVerkehrsbetriebe Zurich operates trams, trolleybuses, and regular buses. The tram and trolley fixed route systems carry 268 million passengers on 173 km of track. The buses carry an additional 37 million passengers in the urban network.

NottinghamNottingham Express Transit is a light rail system with 16.4 million annual riders on 32 km of track. Nottingham City Transport’s 67 bus routes carry 51 million additional people.

SheffieldSheffield SuperTram is a hybrid tram and light rail with 12.6 million annual riders on 29 km of track.  The local bus routes are privatized (?!?!) so I was unable to compile good bus ridership data.

Mannheim: Mannheim, together with adjacent cities Heidelburg and Ludwigshafen, form a region called Rhein-Neckar. In Germany, urban rail systems are generally divided among trams in the densest city centers, U-Bahn that operate at higher speeds and partially underground, and S-Bahn suburban rails, which may extend 100 km or more from large cities. We will focus on U-Bahn and tramways, ignoring the regional rail networks. There are two separate transport companies that do travel within the main three cities of Rhein-Neckar.  Straßenbahnnetz Mannheim/Ludwigshafen is a tramway with 83 km of track and is part of the Rhine-Neckar-Verkehr network with 161 million total riders between tram and bus. I could not find figures that distinguished ridership between tram and bus. The Busverkehr Rhein-Neckar is an alternative bus network carries 44 million passengers per year. 

Stuttgart: Stuttgart’s Stadtbahn is a light rail or tram system with 174.9 million riders on 130 km of track. Given that all but one of the lines run underground at some point, and 14 downtown stations are underground, this system could be considered a U-bahn equivalent. The bus network has 190 million passengers per year.

Antwerp: Antwerp’s tram system has 128.9 million riders on 82 km of track. This system includes about 12 miles of tunnels; so, as with Stuttgart, it is more of a subway system than a light rail. The underground parts are called the Pre-metro. I couldn’t find any information on buses.

Nuremberg: Nuremberg has a large, integrated regional transit network called Verkehrsverbund Grossraum Nuremberg that offers U-Bahn, S-Bahn, and tramways. The U-bahn serves mostly the city limits and carries 128.9 million riders on 37.1 km of track. The trams carry 39.2 million passengers on 38 km of track. A neat integrated system map is found here. The bus systems of Nuremburg and adjacent Erlangen carry 59.8 million passengers per year; there are other bus companies that operate in the area as well.

With that data in hand, we can pull out some information into a table. For each city, let us try to compare the population within 500 square kilometers (the ‘local’ population) against fixed-route transit ridership within that area and total transit ridership. The populations come from this Google Sheet from the Part 1 post. I select only those transit systems that are primarily within the 500 square kilometer area. Minnesota’s light rail fits the bill (though both Blue and Green line extensions won’t…food for a future article!); the Metro Transit bus network extends outside this area, but almost all of the high ridership routes are within it.

Fixed transit consists of subway, light rail, trams, trolley-bus, and Brisbane’s dedicated BRT tracks. The ‘Rides/Pop’ columns in the table below is average number of annual rides per resident of the ‘local pop’ area.


City Local Pop Fixed Rides Fixed Rides/Pop Total Rides Total Rides/Pop
Minneapolis 1041000 23.8 23 81.1 78
Calgary 1047000 88.0 84 157.5 150
Brisbane 982000 70.0 71
Ottawa 907000 4.2 5 134.5 148
Zurich 991000 268.0 270 305.0 308
Nottingham 1050000 16.4 16 67.4 64
Sheffield 935000 12.6 13
Mannheim 881000 205.0 233
Stuttgart 1095000 174.9 160 364.9 333
Antwerpen 966000 128.9 133
Nuremburg 891000 168.1 189 227.9 256

Minneapolis’ ridership is generally below those of other cities, except the British ones. Total ridership is roughly half that of our two closest Canadian comparables; and light rail has about triple the ridership in Calgary. In continental Europe, ridership is even higher. To answer the motivating question, a city with a similar population distribution as Minneapolis could have light rail ridership 10 times higher, and total transit ridership four times higher, following the examples of Stuttgart and Zurich.

One fun thing to note is that every English-speaking city on this list fall below every non-English speaking city in both categories (fixed route and total ridership). Another fun thing to note is that of our 5 non-English speaking comparables, the primary language is German or Dutch in each: no Latin-language cities made the list! Perhaps there is a language barrier to higher transit? Time to embrace Minnesota’s Teutonic heritage!

Another useful comparison might be riders per track mile for urban rail systems:

City Riders Track Riders/Track
Minneapolis 23.8 35.0 0.7
Calgary 88.0 60.0 1.5
Brisbane 70.0 27.0 2.6
Ottawa 4.2 8.0 0.5
Zurich 268.0 173.0 1.5
Nottingham 16.4 32.0 0.5
Sheffield 12.6 29.0 0.4
Stuttgart 174.9 130.0 1.3
Antwerpen 128.9 82.0 1.6
Nuremberg 168.1 37.1 4.5

Minneapolis is lower than any of the high use systems, but not by as much as in other metrics. If the city doubled its ridership per track mile, it would be on par with high use systems like Zurich, Stuttgart, Antwerp, and Calgary.

Upcoming, in the last post of this series, I will do a more extensive comparison of Minneapolis against two of the selected cities that have higher overall ridership: Calgary and Nuremburg.


6 thoughts on “Do Cities Like Minneapolis Have High Transit Ridership? (Part 2)

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    These are such useful and interesting comparison lists. Thanks for putting this together Daniel. My takeaway is that there’s a LOT we could be doing to improve transit here.

  2. Sam J

    This is interesting (and shows how much better transit could be). Thanks for putting it together. I have to argue with how you picked populations to compare, though.

    The Twin Cities urbanized counties (all within the control of the Met Council) have a combined population of 2.98 million. The vast majority of those 2.98 million people have access to transit service coordinated/funded through the Met Council, and as such I would argue they should be included when you’re calculating rides/population. The majority of the cities you listed as comparables have much smaller metros, so the population listed here is much closer to the actual population of their transit systems’ service areas. While cutting off at a specific distance might seem cleaner, it kinda ignores major differences in built form between very centralized cities and very spread out ones.

    In the end it all the same point that our transit ridership isn’t very high, but if you actually compared total rides to entire population served for these cities, Minneapolis would easily fall much further behind Nottingham, Sheffield, and Ottawa, since they’re all so much smaller.

    1. Daniel HartigDaniel Hartig Post author

      Minneapolis’ light rail does not extend beyond the 500 square kilometer area; nor do any of the comparable trams or U-Bahns or BRTs in the other cities. That is why I compare the population of the area in and around the urban fixed transit systems, and that is why I chose that distance.

      Minneapolis’ bus system goes outside the 500 square km area, but only marginally. Of the metro’s 10 busiest bus routes in 2014 (, the 5, 21, 6, 3, 16, 19 while the 18 extends marginally past in Bloomington, the 10 goes into Findlay, the 17 goes to Hopkins, and the 4 goes to New Brighton.

      So 6 of 10 busiest bus routes do not go outside the 500 square km area, while four others do for one end of their routes, never more than 1/4 of the total distance. I think that the population of the Twin Cities living outside the 500 square km area is only marginally served by Met Council; and that is by design! You don’t buy a house in Wayzata, Stillwater, or Apple Valley in order to ride the bus!

  3. jf

    It’s worth noting anecdotally that Calgary’s train system is strained beyond capacity during the rush hours. Without expanding track length, more frequent & more-reliable service would increase ridership. E.g. the train runs on a transit-only road in the downtown area, but often there are conflicts with private drivers that slow down the whole system.

  4. Stuart

    I really wished that you had included maps to identify your 500 square km boundary for the multiple cities.

  5. Michael DaighMichael Daigh

    I actively try to use transit, but it’s really difficult when dragging three children along, and the frequency of bus service for both routes near my house is roughly once an hour.

    You just can’t put a day together like that. One potty break, one little hitch, and the entire day will be shot if depending on once an hour service. Or the time we got to the stop 10 minutes early, but the bus had actually been ahead of schedule and had passed barely 3 minutes prior. I checked the time for the next one, sighed, and walked back home with the kids to load up the car.

    The 1 mile round trip walk was good for them, but still.

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