Delta Airlines US route map

How a Hub-and-Spoke Model Could Improve Metro Rail Transit

Airlines utilize hub-and-spoke models of route mapping. For Delta, the Twin Cities’ local dominant airline, Atlanta (ATL) is a major hub of that map, along with Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), Salt Lake City (STL) and other airports.

Remember the refrain that the path to hell passes through Atlanta? Whatever your destination in the Southeast, chances are you will have a stop or change of planes in Georgia’s capital city.

Why do airlines use this model of route planning? It’s the most efficient solution to the problem of filling planes for hundreds of destinations around the world. Delta likely could not fill an entire plane for a flight from Duluth International Airport (DLH) to San Antonio (SAT), but if the airline has passengers change planes in MSP, where flight routes connect to many other spokes off the hub, then it’s more likely that Delta can fill up both plane flights.

Delta Airlines US route map
Delta Airlines United States route map showing hubs. Credit: Delta

Applying Hub-and-Spoke to Metro Rail Transit

If the goal is to have each flight, or train car, filled up but not overflowing beyond capacity, how can we apply the hub-and-spoke model to rail transit?

Let’s start by identifying the hubs of the route map. Minneapolis-St. Paul has something most metropolitan areas do not: two downtowns. With the confluence of buses, light rail and commuter rail service in these two areas, it’s clear the two downtowns would make great hubs for our route map. I would add MSP airport as the third hub. With the Metro Transit Blue Line and the future West Seventh street car or light rail converging here, the airport clearly is a hub in the triangle of the Twin Cities.

Here is a simple map, drawing a pink line connecting the three hubs of downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul and the international airport. With light rail extending from Target Field station, you can imagine it becoming a major hub — a place to switch light-rail lines or a board a commuter rail or express bus. The key is to converge these forms of transit so that passengers may easily switch from one route to another.

Metro Transit Map With Hub Connector Loop
Imagine a loop connecting the hubs and improving trip times. Photo: Metro Transit with annotation by author

Is This Route Realistic?

One-third of the hub loop is relatively easy to accomplish, albeit with an agreement among the rail companies. An 11.5-mile rail route exists from Target Field station to Union Depot that passes beneath road overpasses and other infrastructure. This would be the perfect route for a high-speed connector between the downtowns. In fact, more rail track could be used or added to ensure both a high-speed connector and a regular route that could spur transit-oriented development in the corridor.

For the high-speed connector, the 11.5-mile route at an average speed of 60 miles per hour would cover the distance in 11 minutes, 30 seconds. The midday drive time between Target Field in Minneapolis and Union Depot in St. Paul is 23 minutes, and the ride time on the Green Line light rail is 47 minutes.

11.5 Mile Rail Route From Target Field To Union Depot
The 11.5-mile route between Target Field and Union Depot could be completed by a high-speed connector in less than 12 minutes. Credit: Author

The Green Line light rail is not a true connector. It’s too similar to the Route 16 bus it partially replaced, but on track instead of road. It stops every half-mile for a station and stops at traffic lights, waiting for single-occupancy vehicles to cross the intersection. With the vision of a grander hub loop, building a high-speed connector between the two downtowns could improve travel times — not just between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul but also for journeys that connect to the hubs and go off on a spoke, like a bus route to a local neighborhood.

Building for the Future

Building out the network of light rail and bus routes starts with investing in hubs and connecting routes of transit in easily navigable spaces. The Twin Cities lacks that right now. We have some bus stops near light rail, and some bus terminals, but connecting routes can be a challenge.

As the Twin Cities increase in density, creating more efficient transit route models will be vital to keeping up with that growth and keeping vehicular traffic from choking our cities. A hub-and-spoke model could be one solution to the problem.

Conrad Zbikowski

About Conrad Zbikowski

Downtown Minneapolis resident covering local issues including parks, transportation, zoning, and development.