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 A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging ( and is executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County.

12 thoughts on “Metro Transit Gets Creative to Lure More Riders

  1. Anon

    I love riding a warm, cozy, professionally-driven metro transit bus when the weather is terrible. When the roads are icy and dangerous, the 20 tonnes of city bus is a great comfort.

    1. Rosa

      definitely. And I don’t have to make the choice of “scrape my windows and run late” or “don’t scrape and risk killing someone because I can’t see”. You would think our terrible winters would be the best argument for the bus, especially for people with regular first shift jobs who commute during rush hour.

  2. Cobo R

    I live in Metro transit land but my job is in SW transit territory so taking the bus is difficult as their routes don’t seem to play nicely with each other (does SW even have regular bus routes that aren’t express to downtown?).

    Overall my life is oriented in the geographic area between my house and and the building that I work in, so very few routes provide any utility to me, I figured out that I could almost walk the ~13 miles in less time then take the bus after all of the connections, back tracking, and waiting.

    I like the bus and support it in principle, but except for the rare occasion I need to go downtown I almost never use it.

  3. Scott

    The ‘getting people to try transit’ thing works even better when first-time riders have a positive experience. My neighbors and family seem to really like LRT and the A Line because they are so frequent, easy to use, and fast. They are much less enthused about riding the Route #23 with me down 38th St. because it is infrequent, pretty slow, and there are almost no bus shelters along the route.

    For example, I took my mom to the fair on the bus. We rode the #23 eastbound to E. 46th St. Of course, the bus was 15 minutes late, it began to rain and there was no shelter at the stop, and it seemed so slow. We then transfered to the A Line at 46th St. & 46th Ave just missing the connection. However, another A Line came in about 6 minutes and seemed to make great time getting us to the front door of the Fair. It all turned out okay, but I’m certain mom isn’t going to want to take the #23 as part of our trip to the Fair next year. We’ll probably drive and park near an A Line stop.

    1. dexter raval

      The #23 is very very slow bus frequently is late , the deviation into 38th St Station is works fine for riders to/from the LRT but adds significant time for others. riders ,another delay for buses getting out of the transit station to HENN Ave.
      It is very infrequent with connection to every 3 rd train.
      This route should be running every20mins weekdays and rush hour and run until midnite ,they keep cutting trips out at night to hourly.

      The LAKE Street is another agonizing bus ride with 2 deviations LAKE/Chi Transit Center location is poor choice adding extra 5 mins for buses on an already slow route.
      Snelling/Univ adds another 5mins+ mins .The early 80s the buses used to be faster to St Paul before these 2 deviations
      This route need double buses and should convert the 21A to 53 limited stops Lake/Marshall) connection to LRT .
      Use the 21ED for local stops.They should wait another 20 years before a BRT will in operation

    2. Rosa

      of course, if you’re used to wide open spaces, driving in the Twin Cities is also terrifying and awful. My folks do nothing but complain about traffic when they are here and I have friends whose parents will only drive as far in as the 494 loop and then someone has to come chauffeur them.

  4. Alina

    Metro Transit is missing the biggest factor to get more riders: buses going to places people want to go, at most times of day. When I lived in Richfield, taking the express bus to work was great, but the last express left by 6 pm. This bus was full! After that time we would have to take #6 bus, which only stopped at Southdale, meaning I had to walk more than a mile to get home. This is not a very fun walk in the winter. Driving was just a much more viable option based on convenience.

  5. bryan b

    Expand the High Frequent NETWORK to at least 24 buslines with simpler routing serving more destinations ! Frequent services will reduce travel time .Start with the major streets in the 2 central cities and some first ring suburbs.Get rid of the infrequent useless routes such as #27/39 111 115 134 where many alternatives are available.
    Restructure some routes and trim the useless branches and deviations.
    COMO #3 move off Rice St and in Se replace the6U,too many routes in SE Mpls .
    Johnson/Bryant #4 end at 35W/46th
    Robert #68
    Grand/E3rd #63 end all trips at Sunray
    E7th/Randolph #74
    Rice St #62
    35W Orange line/#535 .
    Broadway North #14

    #3/4 Bryant /62 Rice already operating every15mins so adjust the schedules eliminate the branches ,use the branches as feeder routes .
    SE,Rice ,Highland has too many routes trailing each other and competing for the same riders .

  6. Pine SalicaPine Salica

    Love that last line. Getting people out of their cars and into public, looking other people straight in the eye once or twice a day – what a world of change that would do for our discourse.

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