This summer, for the first time, I had the opportunity to use the A-Line arterial bus rapid transit (aBRT) on Snelling Avenue.
I don’t mean ride the A-Line. I’d done that for the first time during a visit to the Twin Cities (I live in Philadelphia) the summer before, soon after the service had started operating. But for a few days this summer, while staying at Macalester College for reunion, the A-Line became my portal to the cities. I used it on every trip. I used it to get to and from the Blue Line light rail on my way to the airport, and I used it to get to the #21 bus and to the Green Line light rail. It was a perfect solution to the first and last mile problem. Walking to any of these connections would take longer than the ten minute headway of the bus, and the travel time was just a couple minutes. So every trip was accelerated at the start and end by the speed and frequency of a better bus.
I had used the old #84 bus with some regularity while in school, but it only came every fifteen minutes, and sometimes less frequently. Two fewer buses an hour makes a big difference for a traveler. I had a bus schedule in my dorm room and I memorized the regular arriving times. None of that was necessary for the A-Line. I walked to the stop and it came. In fact, throughout my trip, the bus assumed an uncanny ability to arrive just moments after I arrived at the station. This happened so often, it seemed more than a stroke of luck. If the bus didn’t materialize immediately, I noticed that even when the bus was listed as up to three minutes away, it felt as though its appearance was imminent. Even the mere confirmation that yes, a bus was on the way, put my mind at ease and I never felt any anxiety about waiting.
That’s life with high-frequency, high-capacity, congestion-free (or light, in this case) transit. It gets people where they need to go, when they need to go. It is space efficient and cost-efficient. It allows people to move around while burning far less carbon. It allows people to live closer together, fostering deeper social ties and supporting diverse and successful economies. It allows cities to get more value out of their land and more mobility out of their right-of-way.
Typically, investments in high quality transit come with a high up-front cost. Every city in the world pays heavily for the kind of transit service provided by network spines like the Blue and Green Line light rail lines. But the A-Line demonstrates that for other arterial corridors, major improvements can be made for minor amounts of money. For just $27 million, transit service along Snelling Avenue and Ford Parkways was transformed by the A-Line. For just $37 million, the same will happen next year when the C-Line opens on Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis. Three other lines; along Emerson/Fremont and Chicago (D-Line), Lake and Marshall (B-Line), and Hennepin (E-Line) are in planning stages. In five to six years, these routes could all be operational, providing residents along them the same freedom that I enjoyed this summer.
That’s what high quality transit is. Freedom. It’s the freedom to go. Go to jobs, go to social events, go to explore. There’s a moral and a practical imperative to extend this freedom to as many people as possible. It can be done with aBRT.
Corridors Of Opportunity
In a metropolitan area where major light rail projects slouch agonizingly towards completion, with budgets in the billions and development timelines of over fifteen years, Metro Transit’s aBRT program has been lauded for its quality, cost efficiency, and relatively fast turnaround speed. The accolades are deserved, and the new routes cannot come soon enough. But as the aBRT model is reproduced at scale across the Twin Cities—with four routes in various stages of planning and construction—I’d like to revisit some initial assumptions made when the program was first planned, and ask whether they still make sense. Are the right routes being planned? Who do they serve and why? What is the ultimate goal of the aBRT program?
The aBRT system was originally conceived as a way to boost ridership in key corridors where there were constraints on dedicated right-of-way services like LRT and BRT. The 2012 aBRT study focused on these key corridors, and that approach and those corridors continue to frame the aBRT effort today. From the initial eleven corridors that were the focus of the work in 2012, just two changes have been made. Penn Avenue North was added to the list after it was ruled out of the Bottineau LRT alternatives analysis, and planned improvements to West 7th were deferred after decision makers decided the corridor was better suited for slower transit at much higher cost.
The aBRT program’s planning staff have developed a methodical, data-driven approach to evaluating the corridors designated for these upgrades, and the projects in the current pipeline are uniformly good ones.
But take a step back, and consider the situation as a whole. The 2012 corridor analysis increasingly serves the aBRT program poorly. The selected routes suffer from several weird inconsistencies. Without tracing the entire history of the program’s development, it’s no longer obvious they were chosen and others were not.
Were the corridors chosen to match existing bus routes?
Consider the curious case of the C and D-Lines. The northern terminus of both lines will be the Brooklyn Center Transit Center. The C-Line will then travel along Penn Avenue N towards downtown Minneapolis, where it will end. In contrast, the D-Line will travel along the one-way pair of Emerson and Fremont Avenues N towards downtown Minneapolis. But instead of ending there, the D-Line will continue down Chicago Avenue, all the way through South Minneapolis to the Mall of America. Why does the C-Line terminate in downtown, while the D-Line runs through it? The obvious answer is that both routes are planned as reflections of existing bus routes. The #19 bus, which the C-Line will substantially replace, terminates downtown. The #5 bus, which the D-Line will substantially replace, runs through downtown.
But this rule is not upheld throughout the program. The B-Line is mostly a reflection of the existing #21 bus. But instead of completing its full route all the way to downtown St. Paul, the B-Line is planned to terminate at Snelling Avenue Station, with uncertain impacts for the roughly 2,750 riders along Selby Avenue who will not see the aBRT upgrades, and will surely see their existing bus route service become far less useful. The same is true of the E-Line, which is partially a reflection of the existing #6 bus, but will cover far less territory, potentially impacting riders along University and 4th Streets in Marcy Holmes, and riders along France and Xerxes Avenues in South Minneapolis.
Were the corridors chosen because they had the highest ridership?
The order of aBRT implementation has not been a reflection of high ridership getting priority. When the A-Line debuted in 2016, it mostly replaced the #84 bus, which had ranked just nineteenth among Metro Transit local bus routes in 2015 weekday ridership. The originally planned B-Line on West 7th, was expected to mostly replace the #54 bus, which ranked eighteenth in 2017 weekday ridership. When the C-Line opens next year, it will mostly replace the #19 bus, which ranks seventh in 2017 weekday ridership.
But while upgrading the most popular routes has not historically been the top priority of the aBRT program, it might be now. After the A and C-Lines are constructed, the next three projects in line, the D and B-Lines, will replace Metro Transit’s two top local bus routes, the #5 and the #21 (although without the Selby Avenue segment, the #21 bus would rank third). The last route currently in planning, the E-Line, will replace a portion of the region’s fourth most popular route, the #6 (although the small portion selected so far would rank thirteenth at the highest).
A stronger focus on the highest ridership routes suggests that the current selection of corridors deserves updating. The list does not include the Como/15th SE Corridor, which is currently served by the #3 bus and ranks sixth. Nor does it include the Franklin-Riverside Corridor, which is currently served by the #2 bus and is ranks ninth. Also missing are routes like Lyndale N-Cedar (the #22 bus, tenth), Johnson-Lyndale-Bryant (the #4 bus, eleventh), and Grand-E 3rd (the #63 bus, seventeenth). The list also ignores clear opportunities to combine routes (more on this further down). On the flip side, one corridor in contention is an obvious clunker. American Boulevard is currently served by the #542 bus, which ranks 106th in ridership, behind eleven other suburban local routes and even the zombie #84.
Were the corridors chosen because they had the highest development and ridership potential?
I’ve written before about my skepticism towards using projected and hoped-for future growth as a guide for transit investment in 2018. The transportation planning done by the Twin Cities in the early 2000’s was substantially influenced by the TOD concept. It also understandably did not anticipate the changes in the political, economic, social, and environmental landscape that have occurred since. The American Boulevard corridor is a great example of how assumptions and priorities change over time, and should cause planners to reevaluate prior choices.
American Boulevard is a suburban stroad that parallels highway 494 and is fronted by a number of office towers and upscale strip malls. It is also completely unsuited for transit use. The maxim that every transit rider is, at some point in their trip, a pedestrian, is useful here. American Boulevard is a disaster for any mode of travel besides the car. As a result, few people care to live alongside it, and traditional metrics, like population within a certain radius, are inappropriate because few local neighborhoods have pedestrian connections to it. However the city of Bloomington and Hennepin County have been trying to make American Boulevard happen as an urban corridor for some time, and thus it was included in the 2012 aBRT report. Planners projected increases of population and jobs in the corridor and surmised that better transit service and a connection to the Eden Prairie end of the Green Line would convince many of these residents and workers to take the bus. These planners weren’t idiots, the projections anticipate a paltry ridership compared to the more urban proposed aBRT routes. But since then, ridership has fallen 28.22% on the #542 in the past five years, the starkest percentage drop of any corridor in aBRT consideration. Moreover, a renewed focus on density of employment and population among the planning profession and local politicians has emerged since 2012. There’s no justification for spending money on upgrading a bus route in places that do not suit it and are unlikely likely to do so in a reasonable timeframe.
In contrast, the Rice Street corridor is an example of how facts on the ground can change in ways that ought to come to the attention of aBRT planners. Rice Street is a horrible four lane road in north central St. Paul. But it used to be served by a streetcar, retains some of that scale of land use, and is connected by the city grid to urban neighborhoods. The street is also a leading candidate for a road diet that could further restore pedestrian life and commerce to the street. In 2013, the #62 bus serving that corridor ranked thirty-sixth in ridership, behind some suburban commuter express routes. But thanks to an increase in service coordinated with the opening of the Green Line, ridership spiked, and the #62 now ranks twenty-first, having seen use increase by over 50%. The #62 is one of just four of the top twenty-five local routes to increase in ridership from 2016-17, and one of just two to increase from 2013-17. Much of the corridor is still gutted after decades as an auto-centric suburban commuter route. But as our perspective on transit and development evolves, investments like aBRT ought to shift in focus from hopeless cases like American Boulevard, and back towards urban routes with true development potential and an upward trajectory like Rice Street.
Corridors Of Missed Opportunity
The proposed and studied aBRT corridors are not just inconsistent, the overall scheme also is a genuine problem for a couple of places. Consider this excellent map from one-time Streets.mn writer Peter Bajurny, which shows planned transitways in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro, overlaid on a map of poverty rates.
I’ve marked up the map with four red circles (I’m not sure where Peter originally shared this map, but I found it here). Each circle highlights an area of high poverty that is conspicuously not being served by planned transit routes.
Circle #1 shows the area around Cedar-Riverside. Of course, this general area is extremely well served by both existing light rail lines. But look closer for the string of high poverty along Franklin Avenue which has been targeted for better #2 bus service, but not formally designated as an aBRT corridor. The area to the south, between Bloomington and Cedar Avenues, is also an area of medium poverty that is not part of current transit plans.
Circle #2 highlights the Selby Avenue corridor, which is conspicuously not targeted by the proposed B-Line that runs directly at it, then stops. These neighborhoods must otherwise cross the I-94 trench to access the Green Line, their nearest high quality transit service.
Circle #3 highlights a broad area north of the state capitol and west of I-35. The primary arterial in this area is Rice Avenue which is not currently targeted for aBRT service.
Circle #4 highlights the Marcy Holmes neighborhood and the student areas northwest of the University of Minnesota. Student areas are always a bit misleading on poverty maps, since many of their residents are low-earning, but only temporarily poor and can count on parental support before they ever experience any of the deprivations associated with poverty. But from the perspective of transit planning, they are also a ridership gold mine. The success of the Green Line has, in large part, been driven by enthusiastic use by students. It would be a strange choice not to extend the proposed E-Line route to cover this area.
Each of these areas is unique, but taken together, they suggest that proposed transit investments, including aBRT, are not targeting populations in poverty, who may benefit from the kind of service provided by aBRT the most. While the current C and D-Line investments will bring much-needed high quality service to North Minneapolis and high-poverty areas of South Minneapolis, key areas of St. Paul especially are being left out of plans entirely.
Rethinking aBRT: From Corridors To A Nework
The planning process for Metro Transit’s aBRT program has so far tried to be several things at once. While overall an excellent initiative, it suffers from inconsistency in some of its priorities and is currently on track to miss some serious transit needs. If all of the designated future aBRT corridors were completed tomorrow, would we feel as though the work of building out this part of the transit system were complete? Definitely not.
But the central problem for the program is deeper. Although it gets a lot of ink on pages like these, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the aBRT program is the red-headed stepchild of MSP’s transit planning process. Many of the routes in the aBRT program were not selected for aBRT so much as they were ruled out for anything else. Initially, corridors identified in the 2008 Master Plan that were not suitable for LRT or BRT were passed along to the aBRT study. Then, both Minneapolis, St. Paul, and various other groups embarked upon multiple conflicting studies of potential streetcar routes, which continue to this day to pointlessly delay and defer aBRT investments on certain routes.
The best example of the embarrassing lack of interest in aBRT is the Nicollet-Central corridor, which has been targeted for a streetcar route that increasingly looks dead. But until that bad idea officially dies (Mayor Frey, tear down this streetcar route!), the Nicollet-Central corridor is unlikely to get the attention it deserves as an aBRT corridor. That’s a glaring error, because the Nicollet-Central corridor doesn’t just deserve consideration, it deserves to be at the head of the line. Consider that one reason that the #5 route is the region’s most popular is simply because it is really long. If the #18 (Nicollet) and #10 (Central) buses were merged into a single through-running route as long as the #5, that new route would become the region’s most popular, with nearly 17,750 combined weekday riders, over a thousand more than the #5 and two thousand more than the #16 bus before the Green Line started operating. You could make an argument that the Nicollet-Central corridor is the best single route for transit in the Twin Cities, and yet it languishes in purgatory, held hostage because the unlikely idea of transit on rails is taking precedent over the easily achievable reality transit on wheels.
It ought to be the other way around, and it still can be. The Met Council is currently working on a 2018 Transportation Policy Plan Update, which is currently available for comment. The 2018 TPP Update blurs the distinctions between the region’s Commuter BRT program (the Red Line, and future Orange, Gold, and Rush lines), and the aBRT program. But the costs, benefits, and characteristics of these two modes of transit are distinct. Putting them on equal footing does a disservice to aBRT, which should be prioritized by any metric. The staff at Metro Transit working on aBRT planning and engineering have done a fantastic job so far. Let them do more!
The TPP Update ought to separate out the aBRT program, and regional transit decision-makers ought to rethink the aBRT program in two significant ways:
First, establish aBRT as the bedrock transit product of the region. Assume aBRT as the standard, and justify service that does not, or is not planned to meet that standard. Many routes do not have the ridership to justify aBRT investments for now, and thus can be justified as appropriate for local bus service. Some routes connecting major employment and residential nodes with each other, and have the physical character (either wide roads or existing rail or highway right-of-way) that would justify an upgrade to BRT or LRT. The routes that remain ought to be thrown into the aBRT hopper.
Why should aBRT be the standard? Because it is the cheapest, quickest-to-build model of transit that meets the threshold of providing a high-enough quality of service that users can rely on it for all types of trips. This is the true measure of success of a metropolitan transit system.
Second, revisit the corridor-based approach of the 2012 aBRT Study, and refocus the program on building an aBRT network. I’ve already sought to illustrate some of the frustrations of the current corridor-based approach. Sometimes it makes sense to build out a system in phases, with each phase focused on a specific corridor. That’s fine, especially for a product like LRT or commuter BRT. But planning service around individual corridors is extremely limiting, especially when that service is high quality. Instead, by planning aBRT as its own network, it becomes easier to think about how to provide the kind of routes that reinforce each other and make each other more useful. In particular, there would be two advantages:
- Rethinking aBRT as a network would allow planners to learn from existing routes, but not feel bound to replicate them with aBRT. Good transportation routes through-run their most popular destination, providing service on both sides and also making new connections through the destination easier. aBRT routes should not terminate downtown like the C-Line, but pass through it, like the D-Line and post-extension Green and Blue light rail lines.
- Rethinking aBRT as a network would allow planners to create more circumferential routes, which help shape transit service in the ideal form of a grid. With the exception of the B-Line, the current planned routes do little to build upon each other and make each other more useful. While the existing aBRT program supports several other circumferential corridors beyond that Lake-Marshall corridor, like the current A-Line, and the American Boulevard corridor, it also omits Franklin Avenue, and bends the Broadway corridor to downtown. Other corridors with middle-of-the-road ridership (mainly functioning as connectors but lacking major trip nodes on their own), like 38th in South Minneapolis, Lowry in North Minneapolis, and Lexington and Dale in Central St. Paul might eventually come into consideration as the quality of their connections improves.
Imagine if the governments of Minneapolis and St. Paul made a commitment to providing the freedom of high quality transit service to every single citizen of their cities. If MSP is to be serious about transit, it must be serious about blanketing the cities with aBRT. There is no faster, less costly way to provide high frequency, high capacity, congestion-light transit service of the kind that American cities have mostly abandoned. But outside of this country, this level and extent of service is the norm, and it has profound effects for cities economically, environmentally, and socially. MSP can be that kind of city if it wants to, and an aBRT network is the only possible way to achieve that vision, regardless of what progress is made on other modes.
A 2030 Rapid Bus Network
Imagine the future in 2030. With the support of successive DFL gubernatorial administrations and grudging acceptance from mostly rail-skeptic GOP legislative majorities, Hennepin and Ramsey Counties were able to further raise the transit sales tax (helped by the ahead-of-schedule payoff of Target Field), and invest these resources heavily in aBRT. The investment is paying off:
- Fifteen aBRT routes are now in operation, providing service at ten minute frequencies, eighteen hours each weekday, across the Twin Cities. 91.5% of residents of the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul live within 1/2 of a mile from high frequency, high capacity, congestion-light transit service.
- The aBRT lines have largely replaced local bus routes accounting for nearly 60% of 2018 ridership. Ridership along these corridors has increased, by roughly 40,000 to 60,000 additional weekday trips, the equivalent of two new light rail lines. (Back of the napkin math: that’d be somewhere between a 30-50% ridership jump on each of these corridors. Ridership is up on the A-Line-Snelling corridor is up 43% just since 2015).
- The cost of the fifteen lines, totaling about 190 miles of routes, came out to be around $800 million in 2018 dollars, similar to the cost inflation of the SWLRT project alone. (Back of the napkin math: current aBRT routes are estimated to cost about 4.25 million per mile).
The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul alone are home to 850,000 people in 2030, continuing their 2010-2017 growth rates. Thanks to municipal zoning reforms, the bulk of new development has occurred in dense interior neighborhoods that already were supportive of transit, and was spurred by the fast roll-out of aBRT in these areas and the publication in 2020 of the aBRT Network Master Plan, which gave developers a way to anticipate expansions of the system, which is ongoing.
Three new routes are in planning and engineering; along 38th St. St in Minneapolis and Lexington and Dale Avenues in St. Paul. One route is planned for removal, but that’s a success story; the O-Line route will be replaced by light rail along Broadway Avenue and Marcy Holmes and Dinkytown, and then making a new connection through the Ayd Mill Corridor to downtown St. Paul. Autonomous buses are also expected to start coming off production lines, opening the possibility of even faster headways.
Less than twenty years after the Twin Cities first began working on aBRT, and less than fifteen years after the first route went into operation, imagine a future where nobody can remember life without the brightly colored buses that arrive every ten minutes, have space for everyone to easily hop on and off, speed through their routes, and have become an essential part of navigating the cities.