Several weeks ago, I published a series of articles on a potential path forward for rapid bus projects in the Twin Cities. I made an inventory of possible corridors, compared their current transit performance, and finally proposed a 2035 network of twenty routes. I got phenomenal feedback from a number of people who are excited about the future of the arterial bus rapid transit (aBRT) model as I am.
One negative critique also stood out. Nick M, who lives in Northeast Minneapolis, west of the railroad corridor, took objection to my proposed “Q Line,” which I envisioned running down University Ave NE/SE, traveling through the University of Minnesota, continuing down University Ave, before turning on Cleveland Avenue and heading down all the way to Sibley Plaza. His critiques or my responses were not a matter of wrong nor right, but rather a question of priorities and tradeoffs. The issues raised are broadly applicable both to my proposed map and transportation planning as a whole. At the same time, a single bus route is narrow enough to be easily digestible and a useful case study. As a follow up to my 30,000 foot view of the aBRT system, I wanted to dive into this one situation in more detail, with the hope that it explains some of how the future could differ from the present.
In my proposed aBRT map, I mostly used the existing local bus system as a template. In several instances, I created connections between corridors on both sides of downtown that had not previously existed. In just a couple of situations, I changed the arterial that existing service runs down (e.g. shifting service from Bryant to Lyndale). In a couple others I made a significant route change that would alter the character of the existing service (e.g. continuing Franklin Avenue service over the river instead of replicating the current “Z” pattern).
It makes sense to talk about the route I proposed as the Q Line, because it is unique. It presents not just one change, but two major changes to the status quo. The Q Line would substantially replace two existing Metro Transit local routes, the #11 (primarily on 2nd NE) and the #17 (primarily on Washington NE), shifting the service on these routes to an arterial that currently has no service. The Q Line would also significantly alter the function of those routes by not turning into downtown Minneapolis, becoming a circumferential route instead of a radial route. These changes are separable, but their justifications stem from a similar philosophy. I’ll defend the purpose behind each in turn, and then tie it together in the end.
Why Consolidate The #11 and #17 Routes Into One?
One of the big improvements that come when an existing transit route is upgraded to aBRT service is that bus stops are consolidated. Instead of stopping every block, as most current local routes do, the aBRT buses stop at intervals between a quarter to a half of a mile. By stopping less often, the bus can travel faster and more predictably. More resources can be invested into making each stop a pleasant place to wait, as there are less of them. At the same time, the stop intervals are not long enough to put service out of reach for most users. Most transit riders are comfortable walking a 5-10 minutes to the nearest stop or station, and a lot of transit planning is built around this assumption.
Many of the same principles apply to route consolidation. Metro Transit currently runs a number of locals buses that take confusing, winding routes, and have a number of branches. It can be difficult even for a regular bus rider to keep track of which route goes where and when. By consolidating winding or branching routes, aBRT service can improve a system’s legibility.
The area of Northeast Minneapolis west of the railroad has a legibility problem. The #11 bus runs on 2nd St, then Grand St north of Lowry Ave. The #17 bus runs on Monroe Street for a stretch, then bends back and runs on Washington St. If you were to walk across this area of the city, it wouldn’t be particularly apparent where you might be able to catch a bus. The two largest and busiest routes in the area, Marshall St and University Ave, do not carry bus service.
The spacing between these routes is also a little inefficient. The diagonal railroad has isolated an inconveniently-sized section of Northeast Minneapolis. The distance from Marshall to the railroad is a little over a mile at Broadway, but only two thirds of a mile at Lowry. The area is on the small side to be served by two local bus routes, but too large to be appropriately covered by one. Hence the compromise routing in place today. The #11 runs about a quarter mile east of Marshall. The #17 runs a bit less than a half mile east of the #17. The #10 bus, across the railroad on Central, is a bit less than a half mile further to the east.
I previously wrote about how the Minneapolis and St. Paul grids are set up with a grid of arterial streets every half mile, with bus service running in a downtown direction on each of these routes, and bus service running in a crosstown direction on every other of these routes. That pattern doesn’t fit easily into Northeast’s grid, and Metro Transit has done a fair job of trying to shoehorn it in. But it could be better.
Legibility doesn’t matter a whole lot for the rider who takes the same route at the same times to and from work every day. But legibility matters a great deal for anyone considering whether to make any other trip via transit. Less than 20% of all trips are commute trips. The Twin Cities have a transit system designed to serve that 20%, but not the other 80%. Riders may know their own daily route, but how quickly can they learn and trust the rest of the transit system if they decide to make a trip to a buzzy new restaurant, or visit a friend in a different neighborhood? If all you know is that rapid buses move on most major arterials then you can trust that you’ll always be able to find and understand your way across the city. The main arterial in this part of the city is University Ave, which runs as close down the middle of this part of the city is possible.
In addition to its legibility problem, Northeast has frequency issues. Both the #11 and the #17 have a peak headways of fifteen minutes, and the #17 only runs through NE every half hour at off peak times. These frequencies may be decent by the poor standards of American transit, but they’re not convenient enough for people anywhere to rely on, and so people don’t. By the metrics that I assembled for my previous series of posts, the 2nd NE and Washington/Monroe corridors are in the bottom half of performers.
Given this, it makes more sense to consolidate the #11 and #17 bus into a single, much higher frequency route. This new route would combine the ridership base of both the #11 and #17, while providing a higher level of service. By combining the number of buses currently used for both local routes into a single route, Metro Transit could achieve headways of 7-8 minutes, which are far more in line with global standards for high frequency service. Experience and data show that potential riders are willing to walk further for service that comes more quickly. Any regular rider knows that the worst transit experience is when your ride pulls away just as you approach the station, and the second worst experience is waiting around at the station wondering when the ride will come. Both problems are fixed when you know there is always a bus coming soon.
Just as important is that this service improvement could be achieved with the same amount of resources as before. This is particularly essential. Metro Transit is not funded adequately. Part of the duct-taped financial formula for aBRT service includes cost savings from reducing or eliminating the underlying local bus service. In this case, there is the rare opportunity to prune two weaker lines and pool their resources in a single, strengthened route. In this way Metro Transit can more efficiently use its resources and justify the investment.
The tradeoff of consolidating two routes on local streets into one combined route on an arterial is a tradeoff that Metro Transit should not have to think twice about making. The shift makes sense for both the agency and its customers. Transit riders would gain access to a much-improved service, in an obvious location. Meanwhile, Metro Transit would have more capacity to support aBRT expansion by saving the costs from two routes.
Past transit planning has focused on providing more routes that go more places, but slower and less frequently. aBRT’s success comes because it inverts these priorities. Instead, it puts legibility and frequency first. Growing ridership for Metro Transit’s light rail and aBRT service demonstrates that riders are responding to this shift.
Why Move From A Radial Route To A Circumferential Route?
Currently, both the #11 and #17 buses travel down their respective corridors, then make a turn towards downtown Minneapolis. This makes a certain amount of sense. Downtown Minneapolis is the largest concentration of housing and employment between Chicago and Seattle. It’s a huge generator of transit origins and destinations. It’s only natural that tons of buses go straight there.
But should every bus go there? Obviously not. There are other destinations that need service as well. Travel demand across a city is everywhere to everywhere. The goal for the Metro Transit network is to make sure that riders have the option of reaching downtown Minneapolis as easily as possible, at the same time that the system serves other major nodes of housing and employment and as much in between as possible. In order to do this efficiently, because all buses cannot go to all places, every transit network must rely on connections.
The only problem is that riders don’t like connections. Connections add time and uncertainty to every transit trip. People who have alternatives tend not to choose to wait for a connecting bus in the blistering cold, with no idea of when it will come (and speaking from experience, the possibility that pulling out a phone to check might kill the phone’s battery). The current Metro Transit local bus network is built around this understanding. Most routes, at some point in their journey, make a turn and touch base with downtown Minneapolis, or downtown St. Paul. Even a bus like the #3, that hits several large employment nodes and makes connections to multiple routes that go downtown, also duplicates that service by going downtown as well.
But is the problem really connections, or is it the poor experience that riders have understandably come to expect from connections? As many have pointed out, riders don’t seem to care too much about making connections in a subway or elevated system. That’s mainly because service comes quickly. If you know your connection won’t be long, it stops becoming such an inconvenience.
The high frequency, high legibility service of aBRT helps make transfers as painless as possible. With ten minute headways, the average wait at an A or C Line station (if you just showed up randomly with no knowledge of the schedule) is exactly half the headway, or five minutes. That’s manageable. You may have already spent more time reading this article. Even better, at aBRT stations, you can take one look at the real-time travel information and immediately be reassured that a bus is coming, and informed as to just how long you can expect to wait. That makes the waiting easier.
That’s ultimately why there’s no reason to worry if future aBRT service from University Ave NE continues along in that direction to the University of Minnesota, instead of turning to downtown Minneapolis. In my proposed plan for aBRT expansion, the Q Line would, as the letter designation suggests, be one of the lower priority routes for conversion. In fact, it would be implemented only when all major connections in Northeast Minneapolis were already complete. It would come after aBRT on Lowry (L Line), Broadway (M Line), Central (G Line), Hennepin (H Line), and the current E Line, which would run along University Ave SE, before turning at Hennepin and making a bend towards downtown. All of these connecting services would be available to future Q Line riders.
A hypothetical commuter who lives directly next to Sentyrz Liquor and Supermarket (on 2nd NE), and works at the IDS Center (on Nicollet Ave) can walk right out of their door and hop on the #11 for a fifteen minute trip to downtown, then hop right off the bus just steps from their office building lobby. It’s an almost ideal trip. In the proposed future, they would have to walk three blocks further to catch the Q Line at University and 18th NE, and walk a block and change further from their destination stop on Hennepin to their office. But they stand a good chance of making up the difference in time on the way.
In this future, the Q Line comes more frequently than the current #11 and is more reliably right on time. It also moves faster. While our current commuter waits for their neighbors to board the bus and fumble with change at seven stops between their boarding and the bus’ turn at Hennepin, the future commuter stops just three times, with speedy all-door boarding at each one. At that third stop, this hypothetical commuter gets off and waits for less than two minutes before an E, G, or H Line bus rolls up. Again, this trip moves faster (the aBRT target is 20% time savings) than the current trip, skipping a number of stops.
This hypothetical commuter has the perfect situation in the present day. They live and work directly on streets served by the same bus line. This is someone who in theory has the most to lose from this switch. But in the future scenario, they don’t lose much, if anything. Despite having to walk slightly further and make a transfer, their commute takes nearly the same amount of time, thanks to less time waiting and stopping.
Now consider the situation from the perspective of a planner, who is interested in more than just a single trip. When the time comes for aBRT for Northeast Minneapolis between the river and the railroad, three buses will already be traveling from Hennepin and University to downtown. Just one will be traveling from that point to the University. Does it make more sense to send a fourth line across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge to downtown Minneapolis? Or a second line to the University of Minnesota?
I believe there’s greater utility in adding the second line. At the main transfer point, where Hennepin and University intersect, waiting times to go to downtown Minneapolis will be just one minute and forty seconds. (Three buses, evenly spaced, with ten minute frequency average out to a bus every three minutes and twenty seconds. Divide that by two to find the average waiting time.) But average waiting times to transfer to the University of Minnesota will be five minutes. By adding a fourth bus to downtown, we could cut the average waiting time in that direction by twenty-five seconds (1:40 to 1:15). By adding a second bus to the University, we could cut the average waiting time in that direction by one hundred and fifty (5:00 to 2:30).
The Q Line’s proposed route also makes connections that are not easily available today. There is no bus that goes from Northeast Minneapolis to Southwest St. Paul. That’s not to say that there is robust transit demand between these two places. But there is surely some, and right now, transit does not serve it at all. Someone wanting to travel by transit between, say, Brasa on Grand Avenue and Brasa on East Hennepin, would need to travel for nearly an hour on three buses. In my proposed aBRT network, that trip would take just two aBRT buses. The proposed Q Line would fill a major gap in the existing network.
The Future Is In High Frequency, High Transfer, Anywhere-To-Anywhere Bus Service
To make its future rapid bus network everything that it can be, Metro Transit will need to make some moves that will seem like political risks. Aligning aBRT as I’ve proposed with the Q Line would be such a risk. But supporting this decision is a philosophy of transit service that is backed by experience and data. The future of transit in America is the present of transit elsewhere in the world.
Barcelona is an exceptional example of what a shift in perspective can do. The city’s spaghetti-tangle of a metro has long confounded experts, tourists and even locals. But its reformed bus system is an e(i)xample for the rest of the world. The Catalans have built a system that relies on frequent buses (7-8 minute headways) that travel the city in a pure grid. You may not be able to get to the Gothic Quarter or La Sagrada Familia from anywhere in the city on just a single bus. But you can almost certainly get there in two, with just a single brief transfer.
Barcelona took a risk, but it is paying off with more access and more ridership as a result. American cities like Houston have also started to move towards more grid-style systems relying on transfers. Metro Transit can take a similar risk and reap similar rewards. Close examination of situations like my proposed Q Line show how a system of rapid buses that facilitate easy transfers can seem like a negative tradeoff when looked at in isolation. But those downsides are minimized in reality, and the benefits are potentially enormous. With its aBRT conversions, Metro Transit not only has the opportunity to upgrade existing bus corridors, but it has the opportunity to completely rethink the bus system, with the principle of high frequency everywhere-to-everywhere service at its core.