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.