It is 2am on a hot Wednesday morning. We are at 7th & Nicollet, onboard the 5 to North Minneapolis. There was a mother and their baby, seated on their stroller, playing peak-a-boo. Towards the back, four guys ran off at the last minute because someone they knew was in the area. Still, others were tired, ready to call it a day, either because they couldn’t find a place to go, or it was because they just completed a grueling shift, probably at the Mall of America.
For the most part, the bus was quiet. I was on a new bus, the one with the operator barriers and the frameless windows, the kind that doesn’t open and make the bus look like it was built in the 80s. Thank almighty the A/C was on. The inside of the bus – the blue and white lights, the two-tone gray panels, the blue carpeted seats, the black flooring – not the passengers, combined with the possibility of being sleep-deprived, made it feel like I was in an interrogation chamber. Once it arrives at 44th and Penn (Oliver during my ride, because of the C-Line construction), it will make a left turn and return to Downtown as the 19.
On our way Downtown, the bus doesn’t go its usual route. Instead, it weaves through side streets to avoid the construction. Along the way, it continues to drop off people who got on Downtown, as well as pick others up. The people who got on remain on board. By the time we return Downtown, 4 of us – not including me – who boarded Downtown, remained on the bus. I know by that time, I was on my way home. I wasn’t sure where the other 4 were going; I never asked.
I had the opportunity to ride Metro Transit’s Owl system in July. I did so because I wanted to understand how the ridership was like for the overnight routes, as well as to prepare myself for the Point-In-Time count the next evening.
You’re probably wondering what an Owl route is. First, you should read Tom Basgen’s primer on Owl routes to get a brief understanding of what they are. For the purposes of this article, I’m defining an Owl route as a route that operates continuously over a 24-hour period, with service scheduled at least every 2 hours.
The Owl system is heavily Minneapolis-centric. The 5 and 19 have been the mainstays of the system, operating mostly once an hour, except for a two-hour period where the northbound 5 becomes a southbound 19. In 2014, the Green line opened, offering 24-hour train service, as well as overnight service into St. Paul for the first time. Most recently, in 2016, the 10 and 18 began operating overnight, and in 2017, the 10 and 18 were combined so that one could have a one-seat ride from Nicollet and 46th to Columbia Heights.
Prior to this, I hadn’t tried the overnight routes in the Cities. I hadn’t the opportunity to stay out late, not that I know anyone who tends to stay out late, anyway. Even if I did, I didn’t want to get stranded. The overnight transit system is so skeletal that I wouldn’t be able to get home just by riding the bus.
Right. In this day and age, there are alternatives. Walking, biking, using a scooter, getting an Uberlyft, etc. But I’m not a fan of getting into strangers’ cars (or driving in general). We need fewer machines that are killing people and our planet as you read this. While I love biking and don’t mind biking late at night, sometimes I just don’t have my bike – or a helmet – with me. I don’t feel comfortable riding without a helmet, especially this late at night. Even if I did bring a helmet with me, there are times where I just don’t want to spend an extra dollar or two on a bike heavier and slower than the one I have that, until this coming season, aren’t around year round (though the dockless bikes are awesome, by the way, but I digress). And sometimes, it’s just too cold or far for me to walk home, especially if I’ve already spent an hour in the cold photographing long exposures.
Overnight transit service was a fixture where I came from. One major route stopped right by my house, and went pretty close to the county line. I could even take the same route to visit my relatives at 3am if I wanted to (not that I should); I just either had to walk 10 minutes, or, as of April 2016, transfer to another bus that also operated 24 hours. In addition to riding it just to see the ridership and where the buses actually went, there were mornings in high school where I was up as early as 5am to volunteer for a triathalon on Treasure Island, as well as to attend the annual commemoration of the Great Earthquake and Fire.
Later in life, there was one evening where I was attending a City Council meeting about a bus rapid transit project in Silicon Valley that did not conclude until midnight. At that time, I didn’t have a car or a license, and I was fortunate to be able to get home without having to drive. However, it took me 3 hours and one transfer. The mere existence of Owl service was the reason why I could feel confident about staying with friends and hanging out at bars past midnight while still being able to make it home in one piece. I also love taking long exposure photographs; the Owl routes in San Francisco basically gave me an excuse to photograph with the reassurance that I could still get home no matter how late I stayed out.
I began my overnight journey at Franklin Station at 12:30am, riding one of the last northbound Blue Line trains into Downtown. I arrived Downtown shortly before 1am. Here, all the Owl buses converged. The 10, 11, and 17 lined up behind one another on Nicollet as if they were rushing to the lunch line. On 7th, the 5, 7, 14, and 22 did the same. To me, I had choices as to where I could go. But to someone coming off from work late, they’re probably hoping that their bus exists, so that the can still get home safely.
I decided to start my excursion on the 10, which was waiting as part of the convoy at Nicollet and 7th. There were 15 or so people on both aboard. Everyone seemed tired, and everyone was quiet, save for the loud growling of the hybrid bus. Once we crossed the river, people began to get off, roughly two at a time everytime the bus stopped. By the time we arrived in Columbia Heights, everyone scurried off into all imaginable directions; only one expressed disgust that this was as far the 10 went this late at night.
The operator was a bit surprised when I chose to stay behind. I explained to the operator what I was doing. It turns out that the operator was a veteran, having been driving for 15 or so years. Normally, those driving late nights would be rookie operators who are just starting out, because those are the runs that are often left over when the higher-seniority operators finish picking their assignments. But this operator likes driving this late, specifically on the 10, because there’s no traffic and that it’s safer and calm. Indeed, it’s serene. Heading back Downtown, we pick up 3 more people, all of whom got off at 5th, presumably to wait for the train. I got off at 7th, bid the operator a good night, and proceeded to ride the 5.
The 5 Owl is somewhat similar to the 10 Owl. Some of the riders are getting off work late; it just so happens that the 5 that I transferred to is the last one that left the Mall of America about 40 minutes earlier. These riders could also be coming home from watching a movie or having other forms of fun at the Mall of America. But people on the bus were younger than those on the 10; few if any were probably over the age of 35. Some ended up staying on the bus because they had nowhere else to go. One rider, in particular, got off somewhere on Olson. He was dressed up in a tweed suit, eager to be somewhere but wasn’t sure where. He got on again when the bus we were on became the 19.
At 7th Street, we become a 5 again. I decided to get off at Nicollet Mall, only to get back on. I tried to hop on a scooter for the rest of my journey home, desiring not to walk the hour from Downtown back home. But I couldn’t activate it, for whatever reason. Seeing that I had seven minutes before the bus left, I sprinted from where the scooters were parked, at 6th and Marquette, to the waiting bus at 8th and Nicollet. I’m thankful that the bus waited there for 15 minutes so I could get back on; it’s good practice to wait for people who wouldn’t want to be stranded, especially if they’re coming from other buses.
Once 3:10 struck, we went. All is quiet until a lady boards at Park. Her transfer was expired, so she couldn’t ride along. She paid what she needed to, and we were on our way, after a 2-minute delay. It again became quiet, save for the roar of the A/C and the transmission on the bus. I got off at Franklin after bidding the operator a good morning, and walked off so I could head home to get some rest.
The Owl experience was quite similar to my experience in the Bay Area. It’s the bus of last resort, used mainly by workers working late or starting early, as well as those who have nowhere to go. There is potential for overnight transit service in the cities. If it operated all night at consistent intervals, people wouldn’t have to drive home drunk, sleepy, or unlicensed, for example. People who need to work but can’t or don’t want a car can get to and from work. Concertgoers and sport watchers could stay out late or attend venues farther out from the cities, or both. Photographers like me could ride to different parts of the cities to practice our hobbies. The possibilities are endless, but only if there were more consistent transit service that covered more ground.