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.

22 thoughts on “How a Hub-and-Spoke Model Could Improve Metro Rail Transit

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      Yeah, between the speed to get out of downtown Minneapolis, going through multiple railyards, and not really connecting to the heart of either downtown, I don’t see it being successful even with the current planned build-outs.

      If we want a 15ish-minute rail connection between the downtowns, we’d be much better off trying to use the line along the east side of the Midtown Greenway, connect to the Blue Line on the west end, build a new connection between the two around East 27th St, and then in St. Paul hop onto CP’s trackage along Ayd Mill and up the Mississippi. It’d require more rehab work, but it would probably be easier to execute (less competing traffic and existing rail yards) and better connect the totality of the downtown cores (you could have a couple of stops in downtown Minneapolis, perhaps a stop at Snelling/Marshall, and a couple stops on the river with connections up to the Wabasha and Robert Street bridges.)

      As for the other two legs, I think upgrading the Blue Line to have semi-express service would be adequate. Same with a proposed Riverview line – make sure that they’re able to be upgraded to run both express and local service and I think you’ll do better than trying to put in separate lines to make a hub connector service.

      That all said, until such time as we dismantle the freeways and have a very-well-built-out rail network, I think a Gold Line extension to Minneapolis to replace the 94 (with frequent, all-day-every-day service) would be by far the most economical option to offer upgraded express service between the two downtowns, especially considering the speed you could get with dedicated lanes. (The 94 from HCMC to Xcel Energy Center already is around 15 minutes even during rush hour, so a Gold Line with dedicated lanes through downtown and strong signal priority could probably connect the two in 25ish minutes, even from Ramp B to Union Depot.)

      1. Brian

        How would anyone outside of Minneapolis or St. Paul travel anywhere without freeways? Is government going to build Soviet style high rises so everyone lives in Minneapolis and St Paul where there is transit?

        1. Eric Ecklund

          Believe it or not, we used to travel around without freeways. Am I saying we should dismantle all freeways? No. Should we dismantle urban freeways? In my opinion, yes.

          1. Brian

            Removing urban freeways would solve the problem of too many vehicles going downtown. It would also mean a lot of people who quit going downtown as it would be painful to get there via bus or car.

            1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

              Removing urban freeways without any additional investment in alternate transportation options would likely result in a lot of people no longer going downtown.

              This isn’t an either/or option, though, where we either keep our existing freeway system as-is or simply rip them out completely without offering any additional alternatives. There can be gradual shifts in making alternate options easier to use and more accessible and, as those options ramp up and become more feasible and more convenient, disincentivize driving into our downtown cores. Once traffic levels were at the point where they could be handled by surface streets, we could then remove the urban freeways from general vehicle use and make them bus-only, and let surface streets handle any necessary truck and passenger vehicle traffic.

            2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              I don’t think so. I think the ven diagram of people who complain about it being hard to get downtown and those who don’t go downtown is a circle.

              Even if it isn’t, it’s close enough. Downtown needs to stop killing itself for people who don’t and won’t come anyway.

              1. Monte Castleman

                That may be true but that doesn’t mean that more people will start complaining and stop going to downtown if you make it harder to get to by car, or that more people will stop complaining and start going to downtown if you make it easier to get their by car.

        2. Jeb RachJeb Rach

          I’m sure people in New York City would be able to do pretty well without a freeway system. No need for them to move to Minneapolis or St. Paul. 🙂

          1. Andrew Evans

            I’m pretty sure that trucks and other utility and service vehicles need to get around the greater NYC metro area to provide resources to the residents there. If you’re really serious about removing all major freeways then you’re also serious about making a sister subway and transit system to move goods and freight into the area. Trash removal is already an issue, the city already smells in the summer anyway, let’s not want to make that worse and cause all of them to move here.

            1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

              I was mainly trying to point out the absurdity in Brian latching on to one small part of my comment, specifically the part where I suggest there may be a future where our freeway system doesn’t exist, and immediately jump to proposing that everyone will live in Soviet style high rises and ignoring anything else in my comment. There’s an entire world that people live in, many with better transit systems than ours, and in such a far-off future I doubt absolutely everyone would move to Minneapolis and St. Paul.

              While there’s certainly issues with simply dismantling the entire freeway system with our current transportation setup, there may be a future where our freeway system looks very different from today and I-94 going through our urban core may no longer exist. Until such time, though, an upgraded bus using that freeway as an express link between our two downtowns is probably the most prudent use of limited transportation funds. The immediate savings could be better spent finding ways to expand our public transit network and make it work better for more people.

        3. Will

          Probably not a bad idea. If you remove or reroute just a portion of an interstate highway, Communism is right around the corner.

          After all, the government had no say in where they went in during the 50s and 60s.

  1. Scott Walters

    It is almost completely grade separated from the street network. There might be one at-grade crossing on Nicollet island, and one just east of downtown Saint Paul, both very minor streets. The two bigger challenges would be getting the railroads to go along, and speed through the switch-yards. There are two or three big switch-yards this route traverses, and I’m guessing the speed in the switch-yards would be restricted.

  2. JF

    This doesn’t counter your proposal of a high-speed link between the downtowns, but isn’t it generally agreed that a grid system is much better for transit users than a hub-and-spoke model? That way in 1 transfer you can get pretty much anywhere. Hub-and-spoke models require 0 transfers going to/from a hub, but 2 transfers between non-hub areas. I grew up in a hub-and-spoke city and transit was pretty unusable to go between suburban neighbourhoods, though it did work to go downtown, to the mall, or to school.

    Again, that doesn’t go against your proposed high-speed rail link between downtowns. I agree that the Green Line is painfully slow to get between the two. Crossing street traffic and the frequency of the stops makes it take too long. It’s great for people going only a few stops, but end-to-end it’s too much.

    1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

      I’m beginning to wonder if the shape of St. Paul in addition to its internal obstacles (bluffs, highways, lakes, railroad tracks) make a grid system impossible/impractical.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        The biggest improvement would be interlining Minneapolis and St. Paul routes like 74-46 and 23-70. Right now many of these buses act like a hub system, where Minneapolis and St. Paul riders need to transfer at 46th St Station, Highland Park, etc. Connecting these routes would be a simple way to give more people a one-seat ride between South Minneapolis, Downtown St. Paul, and other neighborhoods.

  3. Andrew Evans

    I’m just not sure what that would replace vs what’s already existing with buses, greenline, and “gasp” the freeway systems if someone has a car. I’m also not sure what the demand would be like that someone couldn’t wait another 15 to 30 min on the greenline to make a buss connection at either downtown. Seems like a lot of money for a marginal gain, that may not even be used.

    In the cities here we have at least 3 large rail yards, and the proposed north loop line between downtown touches on track that connects all of them. I’m do not believe it’s as simple as asking the rail companies to allow a passenger train along that track, and that it even could make the time proposed. Which goes back to my point before that it seems to be a lot of hassle for what’s really a 15 to 20 min savings on the greenline. Even to get Amtrack to cross the mainlines by the river in St. Paul so the trains could use Union Depot took a lot of money and effort, this may be similar.

    The above isn’t even a point because there is no way a train could average 60 through that congested track, let alone run often enough to make it a time savings over what’s already existing.

    The same goes for the comment about using the midway path as a rail connector. It’s a good idea and may be faster than using existing freight track, but again it’s a lot of money to spend on a project that wouldn’t shave that much time on the travel between the downtowns.

    Personally I’d be fine with a limited stop Greenline train, and seeing that happen, but even then the money and planning to do that may not be worth the 10 min it would take off of travel times.

  4. J. M. Johnson

    I think a more practical high performing rail transit routing between downtowns would instead follow the current Amtrak right-of-way along And Mill Road in St. Paul, past the old Amtrak station, through Dinkytown on the old Great Northern ROW (by MacDonalds) and then over the river on via the Stone Arch Bridge into downtown Minneapolis. You would need to double deck the Stone Arch to accommodate the current trail or, at the risk of armed rebellion, force the trail users about a half mile south to the other trail bridge connecting the U’s east and west banks (the old Northern Pacific bridge). There are few, if any, freight rail shippers to displace on the Amtrak route through town and the small number of freight trains on that route can easily be diverted to one of the other three freight routes between downtown STP and the northeast Minneapolis rail yards.

    1. J M Johnson

      Oh, forgot a key point re the Merriam Park route for the high performance downtowns link: That would be inserting two strategic stops, one at the Snelling/Marshall intersection that is a short walk from Allianz Soccer Pitch and the rapidly developing Snelling/University/Selby corridor. Running over the former Great Northern ROW crosses Snelling between the fairgrounds and Hamline, but not much else within a 10 minute walk. The other stop would be at the U in Dinkytown.

      1. Andrew Evans

        So a few things on that.

        My point still stands that in the end it would be millions if not billions to save about 15 to 20 min. That may or may not be worth it, and it may warrant a study to be done, but that same amount of time could be gained by adding an express track and scheduling on the existing Green Line.

        With the Amtrack route, sure that could work. But look at the issues that came up with the southwest line when they floated the idea of displacing the beloved bike path. Now think of what would happen when you’re putting track back over the stone arch, and along the river front. Again it may be a good idea, but politically I doubt anyone would be for it. Even then you’re only saving the same 15 to 20 min.

        Personally I sort of like the idea of expanding the light rail down through downtown st paul and over to the old Ford site, then over the bridge to connect with the blue line. Although the neighbors hate the idea, but then again the redevelopment of the ford site seems to be going through without taking neighbor consideration, so I’m not sure it would inhibit the rail plans. It also seems like a better idea to me than running light rail or a trolly down 7th.

        On a different note there is a website that talks about abandoned freeway projects in the area. One example is the proposed interstate 335. It seems there was a sweet spot to politically get the freeway system done, and or to demolish a ton of buildings here and across the country. That spot is gone now, and as CA has shown or even the SouthWest corroder here, that whatever happens won’t be met by property owners (or bike path users) with the same sense of nationalism (or whatever helped the freeways happen), and it will turn into this long drawn out expensive process that seems perpetually 10+ years down the road. I’ve said it before, but I think grand rail plans aren’t in the cards or realistic for at least the next 20-30 years.

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