The Underappreciated Urban/Suburban Collector Bus

Southdale Bus

Quite a bit of the dialogue about how to improve transit, density, and general urbanism tends to be binary. Either you are for high density and the corresponding transportation solutions affiliated with that, or you may think that the expansion of park & ride facilities in suburban and exurban areas is the way forward. Like the conversation about the missing middle housing, there is a middle space in transportation that doesn’t get discussed often, but illustrates the reality of where we are and what works in our current environment. For purposes of this discussion, this is the non-local, non-park & ride, express bus. For example:

Minneapolis: 133, 135, 146, 156, 552, 553, 554, 558

Edina: 578, 587

Bloomington: 579, 589

St. Paul: 134

 

Why do these work in some places but not in others? Density to some extent, but even more than that, basic urban planning and design. How many people in this community could walk to the bus within 10 minutes? Yes that’s Florida,but it could be many (though not all) of the fastest growing cities in the Twin Cities Metro. What’s the difference between Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, and Edina compared to Blaine, Woodbury, Lakeville, Plymouth, and Maple Grove?

The first are either entirely or mostly on the grid. Many of them have sidewalks. Most even have (some) local bus service to supplement where or when the commuter bus doesn’t operate. A bus can run on well-spaced arterial roads that are fed by the grids on all sides. In this model, even predominantly SFH neighborhoods can function as dense enough to make service like this viable. Metro Transit to their credit does a good job of spacing their routes in south Minneapolis for example to provide the opportunity to access transit within 6-8 blocks, at least for the commuter function.

 

As we’ve seen recently, we’re not in a place in which Metro Transit is awash with funding, resources, and political capital to be all things to all users. We understand that one of the organization’s current goals, but certainly not the only one, is to increase transit use by choice riders. As a means of disincentivizing unsustainable development by building car-dependent growth that can only access transit via park & ride, maybe we should be looking at what can expand ridership with the tools we already have. Yes hard choices need to be made, but that doesn’t mean that trip eliminations on routes that use existing infrastructure and assets should be the first choice.

We could even experiment with trying having routes that begin at P&R facilities do some limited collection between origin and destination. Some of the above routes already do a little of this. Why couldn’t we try piloting more limited stop versions of core local routes that would potentially attract more or different riders than ride the standard local routes? Until we change how we plan, design, and build our cities or allow for greater density within our existing cities, we should try to grow what has been successful so far. Obviously there are myriad funding challenges for Metro Transit right now, but trialing, expanding, or increasing services on some routes like this when the inevitable spike in gas prices comes could be a good test balloon.The areas of the metro that were built during the streetcar era are still well-suited to transit, despite the relative lack of density. Even in this era of tight Metro Transit funding, it would be a mistake to leave them behind.

 

 

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7 Responses to The Underappreciated Urban/Suburban Collector Bus

  1. Aaron Isaacs
    Aar November 20, 2019 at 12:19 pm #

    I was part of the Metro Transit staff that developed the express bus routes in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. At first we designed them for mostly walk-up ridership, even in places like Burnsville, Brooklyn Park, Coon Rapids and Cottage Grove. At the time park-ride lots were small, usually using existing church lots or shopping centers. In the 3rd ring suburbs and beyond, that model simply didn’t attract enough riders, but big park-ride lots did. We learned that a park-ride needed at least 250 spaces to support a route with 30-minute frequency. 500-1000 spaces would support frequencies of 15 or even 10 minutes. That level of service created a virtuous cycle–show up anytime and there would be a bus. Passengers also preferred non-stop service to downtown.

    There are still a few places where suburban expresses serve walk-up passengers, then stop at the big park-ride before hitting the freeway. As a rule, however, the walk-up route segments can only justify 30-minute frequency at best.

    • Saumik Narayanan
      Saumik Narayanan November 21, 2019 at 12:35 pm #

      When you say that passengers prefer nonstop service to downtown, and you come up with your guidelines for P&R sizes and frequency, I’m curious on what type of analysis you guys did. Obviously with all else being equal, riders want a fast and direct bus from home to work, but changing one variable will change other variables as well. In a previous article, I’ve argued that if riders are able to accept a slightly longer travel time and multiple stops, riders can have access to much more frequent service.

      At a larger scale, we should try to evaluate whether park and rides as a whole are the best use of our transit funds.The Apple Valley Transit Station is currently going through an $8 million dollar expansion to add another 400 spots. Perhaps it might be a better idea to create frequent feeder service to the AVTS, or adding more trips to other, unfilled P&Rs, like Rosemount or Lakeville Cedar. I don’t know if this alternatives analysis was done, but it might end up being more cost effective in the end.

      • Brian November 21, 2019 at 6:57 pm #

        Are you okay with a bunch more people driving downtown if park and rides didn’t exist?

        I work in the North Loop and I commute by express bus from a park and ride. My commute currently takes two and a half to three hours on a typical day. If my bus ride got any longer I would probably switch to driving at a higher cost. Driving would save me an hour a day.

        I took a limited stop bus to St. Paul earlier in the week and it sucked. The bus took an hour to get to St. Paul.

        • Saumik Narayanan
          Saumik Narayanan November 22, 2019 at 9:29 am #

          No, I don’t want more people driving to downtown, and I’m certainly not advocating for getting rid of park and rides. I use a park and ride everyday myself. I should have said whether expanding park and rides is the best use of our funds, as opposed to other possible alternatives.

          For example, instead of using $8 million to build 400 more parking spots at AVTS, we could use that $8 million to extend route 477 to Lakeville Cedar P&R and 157th Ave P&R. These two park and rides alone have more than 400 empty parking spots between them, and I’m sure extending the 477 an extra 10 minutes will cost much much less than $8 million. Current riders don’t lose anything at all, since AVTS will still exist with the same service. In addition, 477 riders who currently drive past these two stations to get to AVTS now have the option of a shorter drive.

          Technically, there are are already some buses that go to these stations, but service is so infrequent that it might as well not exist. I’m not sure why anybody would ever park at Lakeville Cedar, with 30-minute headways, when you could instead drive to the nearby AVTS, with service every 6 minutes. There’s a reason on average only 4/190 spots at Lakeville Cedar are filled every day.

          I want to point out that I’m not necessarily saying that this solution is better than the current $8 million dollar expansion, just that it deserves some analysis.

  2. John Charles Wilson November 20, 2019 at 5:45 pm #

    I remember a lot of these “walk-up” expresses, especially on the Saint Paul side of the metro.
    Routes 17 and 18, not technically express, stopped in Newport and Saint Paul Park on the way to Cottage Grove. The various 35s in northern Ramsey County. Route 45 to Eagan and Burnsville with local stops once crossing the river. Route 50 to Southdale (from Saint Paul!) stopping all along 77th Street in Richfield. The various 94s to the East, express on I-94 to the Sun Ray area, then: One went to Tamarack Apartments at the north end of Weir Drive, another to about where the Woodbury Park and Ride is now. One went to Stillwater, stopping all along 10th Street in Oakdale/Lake Elmo.

    Great buses, all of them.

  3. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs November 20, 2019 at 8:48 pm #

    The Stillwater one is still running, Route 294. Route 264 still makes local stops in St. Paul Park and Newport.

    • John Charles Wilson November 20, 2019 at 11:39 pm #

      The 294 doesn’t go via 10th Street past Hadley. The old 94S went 10th to Lake Elmo Ave. (Cimarron mobile home park – which actually used the service), then Lake Elmo to Stillwater Blvd.

      The 364 is a shadow of its former self, the old 18, only running 3 times a day and without the old Burns Ave. stops. The old 18 ran hourly on weekdays midday and every 2 hours on Saturday.

      The 361 could be said to be the replacement for the old 17, which ran weekdays midday as well as rush hour, and had more local stops in Newport and Cottage Grove.

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