The Quarterly Transit Report–August 2019

These are not good times for bus ridership. It’s down 7 percent in the Twin Cities metro area for the first half of 2019 compared with 2018. In contrast, Green Line light rail ridership is up 5 percent, the Blue Line is down only 1 percent and the Northstar line is down 3 percent. What’s going on?

Besides proving again that rail is more attractive than bus, I think the Green Line’s performance has benefited from the surge in residential development along the line, plus the opening of Allianz Field, the new soccer stadium. Blue Line ridership has been mature for some time and tends to float up and down with the number of big athletic events at Target Field, Target Center or U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis.

Back to buses. Minneapolis and St. Paul are adding population in the urban core where Metro Transit‘s best service already is in place. Why would that not translate into more ridership?

Declining ridership on all forms of transit is a national trend, and the same factors likely are in play here. But why do fewer people ride buses in the Twin Cities? Little solid research exists so far, so I will offer some speculations, based on decades of experience in various roles at Metro Transit.

Here’s what I think:

Urban local routes

The decline in urban local bus routes coincides with the rise of rent-by-the-minute cars, bikes and scooters, plus Uber and Lyft. All of these options offer ways to be car-free with little loss of convenience; they can be summoned through an app and paid by credit card. Although individual transactions can be expensive, they still cost far less in the aggregate than owning an automobile. They offer door-to-door service instead of having to walk to a bus stop. They’re often faster than a bus. Perhaps most important, they offer freedom from a schedule and privacy during the ride. It doesn’t hurt that they’re trendy. We are herd creatures, after all.

Folks utilizing these new services may well have Go-To Cards in their wallets, but transit has become only one of several options, and that’s enough to suppress ridership for short trips on urban local bus routes.

Turning this around is a real challenge. The first try at superimposing high-frequency bus rapid transit (BRT) service on a high-frequency local route was a big success with the A Line on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. If the new C Line on Penn Avenue North in Minneapolis is as successful, that bodes well for the BRT’s to follow.

Freeing buses from traffic congestion is always a good idea. The City of Minneapolis has committed to rush-hour bus lanes on Hennepin, Nicollet and Chicago avenues. With-flow bus lanes are notoriously hard to enforce, but anything has to be an improvement.

Metro Transit is missing a market by failing to extend high-frequency local buses into the new apartment concentrations in the North Loop on North 2nd Street and into the Guthrie Theater area on South 2nd Street. It wouldn’t cost much, in my estimation, and would be worth the expense in training some non-users how to ride.

Express buses

Scooters, Uber and Lyft don’t explain the decline in express bus commuter ridership. Those trips usually are long distance, connecting the suburbs and the downtowns. Not a good fit for Uber or Lyft, which would be expensive and pretty slow. Most of the Twin Cities express bus routes get a time advantage thanks to ramp meter bypasses, MnPass lanes, bus-only shoulders and downtown bus lanes.

Bus Only Three SmStudies we ran at Metro Transit clearly demonstrated that a single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) cannot beat an express bus in most corridors. The bus is also cheaper — no parking costs.

So why is ridership of express buses down?

Telecommuting is a factor. The number of downtown jobs has remained pretty constant, but the percentage of people who can work from home at least some of the time has increased. So the lack of midday or evening service on many express routes may be a disincentive.

When you ride the bus, you’re often stuck at work for the entire day; that doesn’t wash in an era of flexible work schedules. Metro Transit has some expresses with a midday trip for half-day workers, but it’s hit or miss. The big express routes from Minneapolis to Maplewood, Woodbury, Oakdale, Cottage Grove, Forest Lake and Lakeville don’t have a noon trip.

Then there’s the powerlessness factor: I subscribe to an unproven theory that when buses are caught in traffic congestion, especially during road construction, the bus rider feels powerless and frustrated. Some decide to abandon the express bus because they think they can make better time in their car, where they’re in control, at least in their minds. It’s an emotional response.

One opportunity is on the horizon. We’re about two years away from completion of the new I-35W station at Lake Street.

Lakeupstairsview2016

The I-35W-Lake Street transit station.

An enormous amount of express service will funnel through it. I think it’s ripe for connecting express routes to the University of Minnesota, downtown St. Paul, and perhaps other employment concentrations like the St. Paul Midway and the St. Louis Park West End area. All would bypass downtown Minneapolis, saving considerable travel time.

August schedule changes

Because ridership is down, and also because Metro Transit still can’t field enough bus drivers, this schedule change sees the elimination of 80 weekday trips. Most occur during the rush hours and are spread over many routes: half urban local and half express. These happen to be the trips that are most expensive to operate and the hardest to staff.

Route 614, a suburb-to-suburb minibus between Ridgedale and southern Minnetonka, is being cut. It ran 12 hourly round trips on weekdays and had an extremely high subsidy and little ridership.

Perhaps the most reported change is the dropping of weeknight hourly overnight Green Line service between 2 and 4 a.m. A pair of bus round trips will replace it. This creates a window for maintenance and will discourage the line’s use as a rolling homeless shelter.

HomelessTo its credit, Metro Transit has created working relationships between its police and human service agencies and reports that 80 families have been moved into housing as a result.

 

 

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23 Responses to The Quarterly Transit Report–August 2019

  1. Andrew Evans August 5, 2019 at 9:50 am #

    I wonder if some of the decline is due to amazon and grocery delivery along with restaurant and food delivery services. My partner orders food delivery about once a week, and although we don’t take buses it does cut down on our car trips. We also order on Amazon seemingly once a week or so, and that cuts down on another random trip or two. I’d also argue that with the uptick in crime downtown, that many wouldn’t want to transfer through there later in the evening. So more people may be staying home or driving.

    With all the construction I don’t blame people working from home. I can’t wait to be able to do it a few days a week with my job sometime next year.

  2. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker August 5, 2019 at 10:09 am #

    I saw the 7% reduction reported for Q1, 2019: http://www.startribune.com/metro-transit-ridership-falls-7-during-first-quarter/511185882/

    I hadn’t heard anything about the Q2 numbers. Is it true that the pattern continued for another quarter? That’s definitely a problem then. The first quarter could justifiably be chalked up to poor weather, but you can’t make the same excuse for the second.

    Anyway, Uber is rumored to announce a loss of nearly $5 billion in the last quarter, so uh… things are going great. Imagine if Metro Transit had the kind of VC money that has been sunk into Uber.

    • Andrew Evans August 5, 2019 at 10:17 am #

      fwiw some thoughts.

      My NYC friend, years ago, continually complained about the money that was spent on transit, and wondered where it all went. From the way they made it sound that opinion about the system being wasteful or maybe corrupt was wide spread. Meaning that losing money isn’t just limited to private companies.

      There is a reason taxi companies charge what they do.

      Maybe we’re going to see other private or regional bus services spring up. Maybe the days of having one monolithic authority like MTC are starting to be over.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller August 5, 2019 at 12:41 pm #

        Is there anywhere that taxi rates are not regulated?

      • Allen August 11, 2019 at 12:05 pm #


        Maybe we’re going to see other private or regional bus services spring up.

        Personally, I’d love to see STPLville and MPLStown open that up. But IIRC most places don’t legally allow for such a thing. That is legally, you couldn’t go buy a passenger van and start driving up and down Broadway based on some schedule.

        As for downward trends, there are a few different ones worth noting. Transit’s share of travel in the Twin Cities has been on a long downward trend for generations. IIRC something like 50% of the trips in the Twin Cities 4 decades ago were via transit. Today it’s down to the equivalent of a statistical rounding error, less than a percent.

        Now the picture is relatively better when you look at a narrow subset like commuting, it’s something like 4% of the trips.

        Nevertheless, as a whole it’s been dropping massively over time.

        As for express buses, downtown has something like 20% less jobs today than at the turn of the century. And that’s jobs, not a proper measurement like Full Time Equivalents ( FTEs ). The drop could be worse.

        But totals doesn’t speak to the type of jobs. With the growth in entertainment and downtown living, it’s likely that downtown’s been losing a lot more of the 9-5 jobs that take the express buses but adding a lot low paying, variable hour service jobs that take local buses, car pool, etc.

    • Aaron Isaacs
      Aaron Isaacs August 5, 2019 at 10:58 am #

      The downward trend for buses has been in place for the last couple of years.

      • Alex Schieferdecker
        Alex Schieferdecker August 5, 2019 at 11:20 am #

        Yes, but I’m asking a specific question about the 7% drop. It hasn’t fallen so drastically in recent years, 7% would be a big escalation.

    • John August 5, 2019 at 3:50 pm #

      Typically quarterly results are compared to the same quarter the previous year, not the most recent quarter. So if there was a 7% reduction in both quarter 1 and quarter 2, those are not compounding, it’s the same flat reduction compared to the previous quarter 1 and quarter 2.

      At least that is how it is typically done, someone please correct me if I am wrong in this specific case.

      • Alex Schieferdecker
        Alex Schieferdecker August 5, 2019 at 4:12 pm #

        Correct. My question is: the Strib reported these numbers for Q1, and Aaron used the words ” first half of 2019″, and I am just curious about where the Q2 numbers have been released, if they are public.

  3. Scott August 5, 2019 at 11:03 am #

    In general buses are too infrequent and are slow because they stop too often and get stuck in auto traffic. It’s just too unreliable if you have other choices, which many people do. Add inclement weather, crowded buses, and safety concerns and it can be downright unpleasant to ride a bus.

    Add more bus lanes, fewer stops, signal priority, and more frequent service on busy routes like Lake Street. Instead millions of dollars goes into the silly freeway BRT like the Orange Line providing fast and frequent service to un-walkable, car-oriented places.

  4. Sam August 5, 2019 at 11:58 am #

    I can tell you why I personally stopped riding the bus. The Marq2 Corridor. It’s horrible. When it was created, it was efficient and an effective way to get out of downtown quick. However, by the time I had stopped riding it was so far over capacity and was a complete disaster. There would be a few fixes in my mind… Actually enforce them as bus-only lanes… Way too many drivers used them because they know the cops would look the other way. Secondly, the use of coach buses with only one door are a significant slowdown. On some of the popular routes, it can take 2 green-cycles before these coach buses will be loaded and ready to depart. Meanwhile, other buses are waiting to pull into the stop, and the others behind are waiting to pull into the driving lane. This causes significant cascading backups.

    Now I can’t say why everyone else is ceasing to ride the bus, but there’s no denying that Marq2 is horrible and certaintly not attracting new riders lik it once did.

    • Brian August 6, 2019 at 8:42 am #

      My express bus uses the Marq2 corridor and I have no issues. It probably helps that no coach buses use the stop. One day recently a whole bunch of cars were on 2nd Ave in the bus lanes and it really screwed up the buses. My guess is the city directed cars there due to construction.

      The whole reason to use coach buses was to encourage my ridership because the ride is nicer. A 60 foot bus rides terribly, and is even worse on most of the shoulders. A mine field would be smoother than some of our shoulders. The shoulders often get neglected compared to the traffic lanes.

      • Monte Castleman August 6, 2019 at 10:06 am #

        It’s not just a nicer ride, it’s that the map lights, different seat, different paint, and wifi send a message to suburbanites: “this isn’t just a plain old ordinary bus that you only ride if you got your license pulled for DUI, this is a super deluxe COMMUTER COACH!!!. Sort of rail bias without the rails. From what I remember of MTC buses the last time I road them in the 1980s I actually preferred the ride on them and school buses to coach buses- softer suspensions tend to fgive me motion sickness.

        Google tells me that coach buses with two doors do exist.

        • Brian August 6, 2019 at 5:14 pm #

          Nearly all Metro Transit buses have WI-FI now. They quit advertising it since they all have it. (I am using it to post this comment.)

          Some have said that WI-FI should have a cost instead of free. I wouldn’t pay a penny for their slow WI-FI. I suspect most don’t use it since phones mostly have unlimited data now. I would just use my phone data if I had unlimited since it is faster.

  5. Mark August 5, 2019 at 12:27 pm #

    I agree that road construction, especially the current downtown projects, is definitely a factor in the decline of express ridership. I know several people commuting from various suburbs that have switched to a hybrid of telecommuting, driving, and some continued bus ridership depending on their schedule. Getting out of downtown shouldn’t be the ordeal that it currently is, and until that is fixed Met Transit will continue to have issues in attracting and retaining ridership.

    • Andrew Evans August 5, 2019 at 2:28 pm #

      Well and a quick search of “MTC Ridership” or something brought up a few recent articles from around the country about rider levels falling off in similar amounts. There has been all this talk about working from home, this and that, over the past 20 years, and it may finally be here.

      My partner has a small laptop and her company has a remote meeting system. At my job, although it’s somewhat data heavy at times, I have a small’ish laptop and all of our meetings automatically setup a remote/cloud conference room. If it wasn’t for data I could easily work from home, likewise if it wasn’t for in person meetings my partner could easily work from home.

      Maybe that’s finally catching on, and we’ve reached “peak officeing” nationally.

  6. dennis August 5, 2019 at 5:22 pm #

    Metro Transit needs to improve the services starting with the 2 central cities and first ring suburbs which have the highest ridership.
    Expand the Hi-Freq lines:3 4 62 63 68 74 for total of 20 routes .None of HFN bus lines are running at high freq for the entire routing.
    Trim the numerous branches and create a more legible system maps
    #3 6 62 68 18 are some examples of excessive branching
    Metro transit has too many buslines many with low frequencies and are competing with each other in some areas there are several local routes with corresponding limited stop with few trip that leave long gaps .

    #6 Henn Ave 6 can run limited stops along Henn Ave,4/17 serve the local stops
    #21A can run limited stops on Lake/Marshall ,21E local stops

  7. Eric Ecklund August 5, 2019 at 7:37 pm #

    I stopped taking the 589 and 597 because downtown is a mess, and buses were always extremely late or never showed up. Now I bike to a local bus, local bus to light rail, and light rail to the office, and all of that takes about the same amount of time as a so-called “express” bus.

  8. rohan August 6, 2019 at 1:31 pm #

    There are too many low frequency routes to make them redundant such as 27 39 415 417 .
    Some areas there and an abundance of routes while other routes are starving
    .
    From St Paul to Uptown the #21A is about 70-90 minutes ride while driving is 20mins why would one give up driving to use transit?. The21A is one of the busiest buslines and one of the slowest with 2 deviations that adds significant amount of time .
    Mpls isn’t NY why have route spacing every1/8 of a mile ,with high car ownership ,cheap gas and free parking transit will continue to decline .

  9. Elsa August 8, 2019 at 11:26 am #

    You mention at the end how the Green Line was being used as a “rolling homeless shelter,” and I think this may be a non-negligible issue as well. Just based on observation (non-scientific, it’s true) many of the buses seem to function as rolling homeless shelters; certain bus stops, also, are routinely being used as a place to hang out, sleep, etc. There are always 5-6 people spending the day at the stop at Lake and Minnehaha, or at Franklin and Chicago, for example; I stopped transferring at the Franklin Avenue Station bus stop because I got sick of panhandlers there.

    On the one hand, these people are usually not threatening (although my partner takes the bus at night and has occasionally felt threatened) and obviously they’ve got some tough problems to deal with. Homelessness is a big and complicated issue. On the other hand, a bus ride sounds less appealing to me when I know there’s a decent chance I’ll ride with some loud and pungent drunks, and then get hit up for money while I wait. I can deal with these things if I have to, it’s unpleasant but not intolerable—but “tolerable” is a pretty low bar. When faced with the choice between a potentially unpleasant hour on the bus and twenty minutes in my car, the car wins easily. I suspect I am not the only one who makes that decision.

    I’m glad to hear Metro Transit is doing some outreach to the people who use the Green Line as a shelter, but I think they need to expand that program across the system, because it’s not just the Green Line.

    • Aaron Isaacs
      Aaron Isaacs August 10, 2019 at 8:40 am #

      I think you’re right on about encounters with homeless and panhandlers. Tough problem but it drags the entire transit system down.

  10. dennis August 9, 2019 at 6:01 pm #

    Here is a wild idea build housings(micro apartments without parking over the new garage this will save on land .
    Maybe the Fed/ State can get some funding for housing the homeless .
    I saw apartments in NY city over the highways .Buses are getting cleaner in the future more will be electric.

  11. lenny August 10, 2019 at 2:54 pm #

    Most Transit Agency bus routes are simple without branches or limited branches .Metro Transit have excessive branching that is extremely confusing
    .They are trying to serve too many people with one-seat rides and places where there are limited demand which result in low frequencies for many key routes
    When moved here on 4 &6 used to serve SE now thy added #2 3 this one-sq mile area has #2 3 4 6 10 11 17 25 61 plus UM circulators routes except for #10 most routes have lots of empty seats .
    GREEN LINE are rarely over crowded except for big events

    Untangle the mess on #11C 68

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