Over the weekend, after two years, Metro Transit eliminated the midnight trip on the 645 as part of its quarterly service changes. Metro Transit cited low ridership to justify the cut.
I’ve reported before that the trip came into fruition at the behest of the Wayzata Chamber of Commerce. In fact, Drew Kerr, who is the Public Relations Specialist at Metro Transit, told me that Wayzata employers “believed it could benefit service industry employees.”
The midnight trip had been on life support for awhile. Earlier this year, Metro Transit warned employers that “these [sic] trip would be eliminated in August if ridership did not increase”. Kerr goes on to say that “the trips continued to have an average of four riders per trip, short of the goal of having 12 riders per trip.” As a result, the trip was axed.
But just because ridership was low should not mean that trip was worth eliminating. This is especially true if money were no object. So, on Friday night, myself, Jeb Rach, and Peter Vader decided to see how the midnight trip performed for ourselves.
The Trips Are Low Ridership, But Very Important
We discovered that, despite it being low ridership, the route is a lifeline for people who work along the line, as well as the businesses along it. We were surprised, then again, we don’t ride the 645 every day; in fact, it sounded like out of all of us, only I had ridden it at least once before.
We met at 7th and Nicollet shortly before 9pm. Jeb, a St. Paul resident, just got a haircut and made it 10 minutes early by successfully timing the transfers with the Green and A Lines. As Jeb and I were talking, Peter, a Minneapolis resident, appeared from the west side of the street, a short gap from the Mary Tyler Moore statue. I had arrived first, after getting off the 18 at 9th and Nicollet to stop by the Target that was there. As I got off, I was greeted by Hare Krishna practitioners chanting the Hare Krishna.
After we decided that no more people would be joining us, Jeb and Peter headed off to the bus stop. I did a quick sweep of the stop, because what if we missed someone who was waiting for us at the shelter? After no one responded to me saying “midnight trip to Wayzata?” I ran to catch up with Jeb and Peter.
We made it just in time. At 9:15pm, a 645 pulls up and we all got on. Confused as to whether or not it is a “Pay Exit” route, we all paid as we boarded. It turns out that it is a “Pay Exit” route, but we already tagged on. We sat by the front, and the bus left.
We weren’t the only ones onboard. There were 3 others who boarded before us. I didn’t talk to them, as they all seemed very tired.
As we wound our way around the 394 corridor, the riders got off one by one. One got off at Colorado, by the railroad tracks. Another got off at a strip mall in St. Louis Park’s Shelard Park, which I affectionately refer to as the turkey head (sidebar: originally a part of Minnetonka, it was annexed by St. Louis Park in 1955 for a proposed mall that fell through). Finally, after a circuitous detour that made us think that we were bypassing Ridgedale for the evening, we made it to Ridgedale to drop off one last person.
From there, it was smooth sailing to Wayzata. As we got to our stop, we saw one person waiting across the street for the bus home to Minneapolis. The bus we were on would very soon pick them up, despite running 6 minutes late. Later that evening, after wandering for a bit, we found out that the same driver would also take us back at midnight.
We were the only ones to get on at Wayzata. Expecting that no one would get on along the way, we were surprised to see three board at Ridgedale, and another one board in Shelard Park. Silence, a South Minneapolis resident, just wrapped up his first day of work in Shelard Park. He took the bus in to work on his first day. He also took the bus back.
When I told him that the bus was being eliminated, he was shocked. He proceeded to tell a friend who he was on a phone call with, who was also shocked.
Drew Kerr, Metro Transit’s Public Relations Specialist, said that “Customers who had signed up to receive Rider Alerts for this route would also have received a text or e-mail about the change.”
But Silence didn’t know that such a thing existed. While he says that he can get his hours adjusted in order to make it home by bus, or find other ways to get home, not everyone is able to do so.
The three people who boarded at Ridgedale all work at the same place. I’m not identifying their employer because they were not speaking on behalf of their employer, and I do not want to get them into trouble. None of them had heard about it until I told them as they all got on the bus after they got off work. Fahiym, a North Minneapolis resident who worked at Ridgedale for a month, said he could probably get a ride. Donell, a South Minneapolis resident who worked at Ridgedale for 2 years, said that it would be difficult to find another way to get home because money is tight.
It seems that Metro Transit did all they could to get more riders on the 645. Arguably, their efforts fell short. For the time being, four people are out without a way to get home from work.
Was The Route – And Others Like It – Set Up To Fail?
People should know by now that Metro Transit ridership is steadily decreasing as of late. According to the Met Council in their Performance Evaluation report to the Legislature, from 2016 to 2018, ridership decreased from 59 million to 55 million. That’s a 7% decrease.
What are some factors that contributed to this? Service cuts, for one. After all, Metro Transit is no stranger to cutting service, especially within the past 3 years. The changes that happened over This past weekend was no exception. Low ridership begets service cuts, which in turn, begets further decreased ridership and increased service cuts. Hasan Minhaj, host of Netflix’s Patriot Act, explains it wonderfully in his most recent episode.
To give credit where credit is due, Metro Transit is working hard to keep service with the resources they have. Cutting service is a last-ditch effort on their part. After all, they’ve done all they can to get riders – and drivers – on the seats.
But, are they trying hard enough?
I was surprised when I heard from Metro Transit that their goal for the midnight trip was 12 riders. That’s more than what is outlined in the region’s transportation performance standards. The Met Council calls for 5 riders per trip on suburban local routes. According to them, any trips that have fewer than 5 riders should be considered for elimination or restructuring. The 645 is a suburban local route. My question is, despite the trip struggling to meet either threshold, why was that particular trip subject to a high threshold of riders? “Discretion can also be used in the decision-making process,” says Kerr.
Why not focus on what works and do away with what doesn’t, instead of doing away with it all? Jeb wondered if the trip could have survived had Metro Transit curtailed it to Ridgedale instead, since that was where the most people got on. Kerr tells me that “there has been no discussion about adding a late-night Route 645 trip between Ridgedale and Downtown Minneapolis.” Maybe that’s something Metro Transit should think about doing.
Metro Transit talked about doing outreach to employers to increase ridership. But why stop at employers? Why not market the 645 to tourists, or residents looking to get out of the Cities for a day, or even people who would normally drive but not want to risk getting a DWI? Yes, Metro Transit does do outreach on a broader scale to get people on the buses. Nonetheless, ridership continues to decline.
So why not make it faster and better than driving?
We’ve all rode the 645 – and the 675, which preceded it – before at some point. Peter rode it to Ridgedale, St. Louis Park’s Costco, and the West End a number of times. Jeb used it many times when he lived in rural Minnesota; he drove to Hopkins Crossroad and transferred to the 675, the predecessor to the 645. I’ve rode it a number of times coming from Excelsior, and out to Mound.
But there are times when some of us would rather not ride the 645. For me, I prefer the 645 because I don’t have a car, and the segment west of Wayzata – particularly when it operates adjacent and between the lake – is very soothing (I personally can’t stand it as it winds its way up and down 394 to serve the different attractions along the corridor). Peter once contemplated a trip out to Wayzata on the bus, but ultimately biked out there instead. Jeb prefers driving more to riding the bus because, simply put, it was way faster.
So maybe the bus needs to be as fast and as reliable as driving. Maybe then more people will start to ride the bus. After all, two Harvard studies found that commute time is strongly tied to how well a person does economically. Workers who have longer commutes are more likely to dislike their jobs and are less likely to get out of poverty. Malcolm Moore, a friend of mine who grew up in Minnetonka and saw transit service in his home community decline over the years, puts it perfectly: “People drive cars because there’s no goddamn other reliable way to get around. You can’t make people wait around for 60-120 min and expect them to take you seriously”.
But Metro Transit is strapped for cash at this point, so any changes to make it faster won’t be coming anytime soon.
In The Meantime: Be Better At Getting Word Out About Service Changes
While Metro Transit waits for an infusion of money and political will to drastically improve the system, Metro Transit can improve the way it lets its riders know of the changes it makes. It wasn’t surprising to hear that the riders didn’t hear about the changes before I told them as they got on the bus for the ride home that night. Yes, Metro Transit has an opt-in system for rider alerts. Yes, Metro Transit warned employers that the midnight trip was about to be cut. Kerr told me that they, along with the Chamber, reached out to five restaurants in the area.
But because none of the riders had heard about it before I told them, it’s possible that they are not subscribed to receive rider alerts, and possibly don’t even know that such a conduit exists. It’s also possible that either the employers didn’t tell their employees, the employers were left out of the communication, or the employers simply weren’t interested in Metro Transit’s changes.
Having employers work with the agency to improve service is a powerful asset and a powerful partnership. However, Metro Transit shouldn’t just hinge on employers to get the word out to their workers. One way that Metro Transit can improve how they communicate the changes they make is to take a page out of the playbook of my hometown: San Francisco.
As a San Francisco native, I have to plug my hometown system. Almost 10 years ago, at the height of the recession, Muni made service cuts because of reduced funding. To get the word out, they played audio announcements in 3 different languages about the impending changes. The announcements were further tailored to the routes that were affected, which, at the time, comprised a little over two-thirds of all the routes in the system. The announcements worked; calls to San Francisco 311 increased by 40%, and most of those riders called to request more information about the changes. They eventually expanded it to include announcements soliciting feedback on their transit improvement initiatives; an example is included in the video at the top of this section.
The 645 is a very important route. It is definitely a major lifeline for workers. But it also has the potential to save lives, as well as make life in the Twin Cities more fun. Metro Transit is doing the best they can. But it doesn’t hurt to think outside the box and ensure that they are able to do what it should be doing: serve the people.
Thanks Henry. Your organizing this ride and documenting it is truly admirable, as nobody else in the media is paying any attention to bus cuts like this.
Thank you Bill, I appreciate that.
The sad truth is that the last passengers still riding a trip that falls way short of the subsidy standards will always be transit dependent persons probably headed to or from work. Metro Transit has limited resources (and that also goes for marketing and outreach) and those must be spent to benefit the most people. The alternative is to steal money from healthy routes to keep the lightly patronized ones running and that is bad policy.
So what are they supposed to do, Aaron? Ride Uber/Lyfts they can’t afford?
What would be the cost of Metro Transit driving them in a minivan, or else just paying for their Uber rides?
Good question. Metro Transit does have a guaranteed ride home program (https://www.metrotransit.org/guaranteed-ride-home) where they will pay for people to get home if they have to stay at work late or leave work early for an emergency. Maybe they should expand this to include service cuts and that their employers won’t change their schedule.
I should also ask if any of the riders affected are eligible for GRH for the time that they are working there.
Metro Transit (or, perhaps more broadly, the Metropolitan Council) also has to provide at least some “coverage” services – ones that don’t justify themselves based on ridership numbers alone, but are needed for equity reasons, serving certain political subdivisions, etc. If Metro Transit was focused on 100% ridership, I’m sure our bus network would look quite different than it does today.
Coverage services aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they need to be competing on how well they’re serving that market, not whether that frequency might be better on a route that’s primarily ridership-based. Of course, the balancing act between those two is always difficult, but it needs to be clear why we’re funding a route to make sure we’re not cutting a route or frequency for the wrong reasons.
Metro Transit discovered years ago that concentrating service on fewer routes yields more ridership than spreading that same amount of service thinly to achieve coverage.
I’d certainly agree with that. But coverage routes aren’t justified on a ridership basis. They’re there to provide coverage – an option for those that have no other options. Having the 645’s resources going to the 18, for example, does nothing for someone who works second shift at Ridgedale, but can’t drive.
If Metro Transit is doing routes based solely on ridership, it’d probably lose a fair amount of political support. Why would many of the communities stay in the tax base if they didn’t have any service, or only had the limited express-hour service that could be justified based on ridership alone? Would the state cut funding even more if routes weren’t available in most of the suburbs?
It’s a balancing act, but simply writing off a route because it can’t be justified on ridership alone is a recipe for political failure.
I have a friend who works in the western suburbs (who prefers to remain anonymous). He needs a car due to the nature of his job, but he is also in touch with members of the State Legislature. The ones he knows from rural Minnesota and the farthest out suburbs all dislike Metro Transit because it is “too Minneapolis-centric”. Things like this service cut are good examples.
Part of the transit funding solution is to improve service in these distant suburbs to please the Republicans so they and their constituents see the value in it. Most needed, according to them, are suburban crosstowns like the also-abolished 614, and express service to the State Capitol similar to the U of M service.
To expound a bit more on why I’d opt to drive instead of take the bus:
When I have a car already that I’m paying for, the cost difference isn’t a whole lot – maybe a couple bucks more to drive. However, I can get there in under a half-hour from Snelling/University, versus the hour and a half on the bus. There’s also the frustration of once-an-hour service and worrying about whether you’d make or miss your bus going home, versus a car where I can head home whenever I feel like it.
I honestly wonder how much of a boost we could get out of this route if we built decent walking infrastructure and had either inline stations on 394 (like what’s at 35W and 46th St.) or do what the 535 does at times and have a stop on the off-ramp, then get right back on the interstate. Given that the majority of this route is a half-mile or less from the interstate as the crow flies, a bunch of time could be trimmed by using the interstate versus having to wind through frontage roads.
FYI – the strip mall referenced is in Plymouth, not St. Louis Park
Thanks for catching that, Mark. I didn’t want to confuse readers as to access the strip mall, you do need to technically get off in St. Louis Park.
It depends on the direction you’re going. If you’re going westbound you get off on the north side of Shelard Pkwy which is Plymouth. Going eastbound you get off on the south side and cross Shelard Pkwy, both of which are SLP.
Each and every bus has a Metro Transit employee- the driver. This person could easily be directed to make announcements about service cuts, detours, or upcoming schedule changes. Alas, that seldom happens in my experience.
True. It’s possible that the operator didn’t receive instructions to do it. Another issue is that the operator spoke limited English. It’s also possible that, when one is driving a bus at night trying to navigate all of the turns, especially with a front riddled with blind spots, safety comes first before the announcements.
When I rode the 535 on the weekend the driver handed everyone flyers about the impending cut to weekend service on that route. You would think they would do the same for the 645 cut.
Northstar rail is subsidize at $20 why not cut NS rail esp the weekends I sure it is even higher on weekends Ridership is down 3% so the weekend services should be cut there are only 3 trips RT to be even useful use the money to improve #852 on weeknds ..
I thought no one was riding the #645
Historically the Ply Ave #7 C bus this is a low performing route but keep getting upgraded inspite of being duplicated and everyone are within 1/4 of many buslines.
Rt645 is an important route maybe combine #9 /645 at night and weekends
One option is run the 9N to Ridgedale if all the riders are working there ?
9N to Ridgedale is a good idea. As for Northstar, I believe there are projections that show cost subsidy coming down if extended to St. Cloud since way more people will ride it.
Do they no longer post the red-trimmed rider alert signs at stops? It seems like every stop on this route should have one notifying riders of the service change.
They did not post red-trimmed rider alert signs at the stops, unfortunately.
Trim service where there are duplications The #663 is duplicated with #9N & ,643 extend them to Park/Ride @Co RD 73 this will eliminate the need for #663 the 9 also connect with #645
.Hwy 394 corridor have many jobs where there are accessible by bus
The #645 is too long maybe cut it back to Ridgedale or Wayzata at nights and weekends ?
The subsidy can be reduce if this route is better marketed for events.
Its near many P/R in downtown run to Washington to 5th garage to be near Target Field/Center for one-seat ride
For Viking games to GAteway ramp.Add additional buses after events downtown
Weekdays there are many deadhead buses so put them into services from the P/R as #645 only extra buses needed for after events.
The 663 is an express route meant to run in lieu of the 9N during rush hour. If you look at the 9 schedule you will see a major gap in 9N runs during the time the 663 runs. Also, the 643 is simply the reverse run of the 663, literally the same bus. These are not duplicates!
Wow, this is a shocking example of how ridiculous and counterintuitive our transit service patterns are, and also why transit is so hostile to newcomers (particularly away from frequent urban routes or where branching gets weird).
Depending on the time of day and direction I’m going…
– I’d need to know if I take the 663, 643, or a specific branch of the 9.
– I’d pay a different fare.
– I may or may not be able to access the area north of 394 near Louisiana/Xenia.
I think the original plan was to increase 9N service to once an hour every day throughout the day. I don’t think that ever happened. The 9N used to run six times a day, maybe slightly more. It was more frequent on the weekends.
At four passengers a bus can be less efficient than each passenger riding a car.
Citylab says you need five passengers to break even. State of Delaware says seven passengers to break even.
But let’s make it harder for those who live without great access to transit to drive into downtown and park for work…