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Metro Transit Gets Creative to Lure More Riders

Minnesota’s most predictable seasons — winter and roadwork — are no joke to the thousands of commuters who travel Interstate 35W through South Minneapolis every weekday.

The $240 million construction project, which has reduced lanes and is closing stretches of the freeway altogether some weekends, will last until 2021.I 35w

Inconvenience means opportunity for Metro Transit, which reached out to dozens of businesses before the 35W@94: Downtown to Crosstown project began to talk about flex hours, telecommuting and getting drivers to work via transit.

“It’s that pain point,” says commuter programs specialist Kelly Morrell, who also works with colleges to get students riding. “We’re getting the word out at a time when people are slightly interested. As an agency, we recognize that when things are bad in a car, people will start to look to us.”

Marketing to frustrated drivers has been key with I-35W, a freeway that connects the suburbs with three major sports stadiums, urban nightlife and, of course, downtown employment. The project has upped Metro Transit’s creative outreach overall:

  • A Ditch the Drive campaign is urging drivers to leave their cars at home in October.
  • Metro Transit offered free rides this summer to Open Streets Mpls events (the next ones are September 15 and 23).
  • It collaborates with the Twins to get northern suburbanites to Target Field via the Northstar rail line.

Morrell and public relations manager Howie Padilla sat down during the 12-day run of the Minnesota State Fair to talk about the lure of the automobile, fears of riding buses and helping potential customers see how convenient transit can be.

On maximizing the State Fair experience: Fourteen percent of visitors took Metro Transit from one of its 19 Park & Ride locations or a regular route that serves the fairgrounds in St. Paul. The fair’s busiest day ever — the Saturday of Labor Day weekend — also set a transit record with 83,500 bus riders among 270,400 corndog-eating attendees.

State Fair eaters“We’re not blind to the fact that many of those will be first-time or once-a-year riders,” says Padilla, a former Star Tribune reporter. “We do what we can to make it an enjoyable experience.”

Ambassadors at the Park & Ride stations answered questions and talked up how to use the system for work or family outings. “If we can show somebody how easy it can be to plan for and pay for your trip, then we’ve accomplished our goal,” Padilla says.

On the tyranny of busy lives: Even Padilla, the mouthpiece for Metro Transit, no longer can take the bus to work every day since he moved to Blaine.

“Today I have a dentist appointment and I have to get to soccer practice after work because I’m the assistant coach. Transit is not an option today,” he explains. Other days, “absolutely! I love sitting on the bus, zooming down the shoulder. I can read, do work, be more productive.”

Convincing consumers that no “cookie-cutter approach” exists — that riding the bus even weekly could alter the environment and their own mental health — is a theme of Metro Transit’s outreach. “We don’t have control over the choices people make: where they live, where they work, where their kids are in school,” Morrell says. “We want to focus on options.”

On convincing college students to use mass transit: Morrell helped train dozens of first-year students at the University of St. Thomas the day before fall semester began. From how to pay your fare to staying safe on a bus or train — a common concern among the largely suburban and outstate population — she laid out basic information calmly and without judgment.

“Research shows that being exposed to good public transportation between 18 and 24 impacts people’s travel decisions for life,” says Morrell, who customizes presentations to colleges depending on the makeup of their student body.

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Getting more college students to ride is one goal of Metro Transit.

“It’s interesting to talk to college students from larger cities or the East Coast, where transit has been ingrained in their culture for decades,” says Padilla. “For them, it’s a continuation of what they’ve learned.”

On the perception that transit is for the poor: Padilla describes the urban Green Line as a portrait of the Twin Cities’ economic spectrum. I thought of that when I rode the train to the St. Paul farmers’ market one recent Sunday and saw discarded clothing and piles of trash at the stops downtown.

“You don’t see that in the suburbs or rural areas,” says Morrell. She describes the “hand-holding” she had to do when a large company moved to downtown Minneapolis — and employees were shocked to see people sleeping on benches when they got off the train.

“Maybe it’s the idealist in me,” she says, “but I’ve always considered transit the place where you interact with the world. Think of the public discourse if everybody rode the bus with people who don’t look like them.”

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging (themiddlestages.com) and is executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County.