I started writing this piece in my head on December 2nd, a cold, slushy evening on which I attempted to take the bus from downtown Minneapolis to Lyndale and 28th in order to attend a public meeting about street safety.
I say “attempted” because—although I did eventually get to where I wanted to go—very little of the trip went according to plan. The scheduled #4 bus that I was trying to take was full and passed my stop by. The next to come was nearly as full, but I was able to squeeze on with just a bit of space to spare, and was pressed up against the windows. After my stop, our bus took on no more passengers. We lurched, block by block, down Nicollet Avenue, then came to a near-standstill in rush hour traffic on 11th Street. A trip that Google estimated would take twenty minutes ended up taking forty-five. A man on a phone call near me said something to the effect of “this is why I usually drive.”
A great deal of ink has been spilled parsing data to identify the leading causes for the significant drops in bus ridership that have been observed in nearly all American cities. But the root of the problem is obvious to any semi-frequent rider. The quality of service is just plain bad.
The path forward then, is to make service better. Metro Transit and the Twin Cities have learned this lesson firsthand, as the A and C rapid bus lines have increased ridership year-over-year while the rest of the bus system has continued to lose it. Riders respond to service. If it’s legible, reliable, comfortable, frequent, fast, and comprehensive, they will ride it. If it stops being these things, they will not.
My one miserable trip encapsulated a couple major problems with transit that are endemic across the United States. First, the frequency of service is inadequate for the demand. Second, the speed and reliability of the service is at the mercy of outside factors like traffic, weather, or (as on that December night) both.
Metro Transit deserves more sympathy than blame for this situation, although many riders may not be so charitable. But the agency is not responsible for the underlying causes of the degrading service. Solving the frequency issue will require money that Metro Transit doesn’t yet have, plus a good bit of time, for capital spending and recruiting and hiring operators (there is a one-stop-shop hiring event on Saturday, January 11th, spread the word). Only a session of the Minnesota legislature can address the funding shortfall. But addressing the reliability issue is a much cheaper and faster fix. Everyone knows the primary solution, it’s been repeatedly proven to work, and it’s even been partially implemented in the Twin Cities. In 2020, it’s time for local leaders to get serious about bus lanes, and nowhere is the need greater than in downtown Minneapolis.
Why Bus Lanes?
Bus lanes are in many ways a unicorn in the world of transportation policy. They accomplish three critical objectives all at once. First, they significantly improve the speed and reliability of transit service. Second, they take road space away from cars. Finally, they are the rare piece of transit infrastructure that costs nearly nothing. Usually achieving any one of those first two goals is an extremely costly proposition. To achieve both at next to no cost is a triumph.
The primary obstacle to bus lanes is often anticipated to be a political backlash from drivers. Some backlash is surely inevitable. But often the fear of the pushback is stronger than the pushback itself. Minneapolis’ bus lane pilots were implemented with little opposition last year, even among the malcontents in the Star Tribune comments section. In New York City, once several meritless lawsuits filed by a small cadre of malcontents were overcome, a conversion of 14th Street into a bus-only street has gone off nearly without a hitch, and advocates, planners, and political leaders are calling for the model to be rapidly replicated.
The case for bus lanes is bolstered by the simplicity, obvious efficacy, and moral clarity of the solution. There are a deep bench of arguments for all parties: bus riders see clear gains from faster movement, cities see the flow of people to their destinations improve, and transit—with its abundant environmental, economic, and social benefits—gains a key competitive advantage. Yet the most powerful argument of all is the image of a rush-hour bus, crammed with uncomfortable commuters, waiting several light cycles behind a handful of sparsely occupied private vehicles. Even from behind an adjacent windshield, the injustice is plain.
Bus Lanes Of Today
Minneapolis would not be starting from scratch. In addition to the pilot projects the city launched last year, the downtown does already have bus lanes. One of the city’s best transit ideas was to consolidate commuter express service onto 2nd and Marquette Avenues, and to reserve two lanes in the same direction for buses to load and to pass each other. The commuter busway is an effective solution that plays an important role in sustaining downtown Minneapolis as one of the country’s largest employment hubs. But this system has a critical weakness. After picking up passengers on their reserved right-of-way, these buses lose their privileges and must mix with general traffic for at least several blocks before getting on the highway. Almost all of the traffic is also headed in the same direction, which makes for slow going. The gaps between the downtown commuter busway and the free flow (or hard shoulder running) of the highway can add significant, agonizing delays to what is otherwise a highly useful service.
Local buses also enjoy dedicated bus right-of-way on Nicollet Mall, which was the first transit mall to open in the United States. But these buses are beset by the same weakness as the commuter services. Outside of the friendly confines of Nicollet, traffic can approach a standstill at peak hours. Even though local buses do not need to get on the highway, they must still deal with highway traffic before over the freeway loop and onto to their local routes. The problem is aggravated for the moment by the reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue, which has overloaded bus service onto Nicollet and forced a number of routes to make more turns. The same was true during the three-year reconstruction of Nicollet during which buses were all pushed onto Hennepin. Taken together, downtown Minneapolis will ultimately register nearly six years of frustrating local bus congestion that has compounded the normal traffic issues.
Bus Lanes Of Tomorrow
Just before the end of last year, Minneapolis declared a climate emergency. There are a few specific tasks included in that declaration, but its primary importance may prove to be rhetorical. An “emergency” requires prompt and unlimited action. Having publicly acknowledged the dire fate of our planet, the city’s leaders must now act in 2020 as if they understand the import of those words. Bus lanes are the kind of climate strategy that can be rolled out on an ’emergency’ timeline.
What might downtown Minneapolis look like if the city responded to our climate emergency by bolstering bus service with dedicated lanes? If the city were to assert the principle that no bus should ever be delayed by private vehicle traffic, what paths would it need to clear?
— The lowest hanging fruit is Hennepin Avenue. In the coming years, the street will be intermittently closed to all traffic as it is fully reconstructed. When the street re-opens in 2022, after years of providing zero lanes of general traffic, why should four lanes of general traffic be restored?
Once Hennepin reopens, it will carry five local bus routes, ultimately expanding to six when the E Line (France) is split from the #6 (Xerxes). Hennepin is also the natural path of the #4 (Lyndale), #12 (Excelsior), and #17 (Minnetonka). In contrast, Nicollet is the natural path of just two; the #10 (Central) and the #18 (Nicollet)—both of which should be combined as a single aBRT route. For better balance we might also assign to it the weirdly routed #25 (Stinson and Lake of the Isles neighborhoods). It makes sense to give six buses at least the same priority afforded to three, and allow all of these Northeast-to-Southwest routes on both streets to run free of traffic.
— Buses running in the perpendicular direction, Northwest-to-Southeast, do not even have the luxury of a single bus lane today. But that should change right away, with the one-way pair of 7th and 8th Streets each getting a bus lane. Already these streets carry six local routes; the C Line (Penn), the #5 (Emerson/Fremont and Chicago, soon to be the D Line), the #9 (Glenwood and Longfellow), the rump #19 (Penn), the #22 (Lyndale N and parts of South Minneapolis), and the #39 (Wells Fargo shuttle). The heavy volume of buses on these streets, especially with two aBRT lines, makes a clear case for bus lane priority.
Just like with Hennepin, it’s a mystery to me why this has not already been done. In seemingly clear defiance of the city’s modal priority, 8th Street was recently reconstructed with three general travel lanes and no new facilities for bicyclists or transit. This error could be partially corrected by painting the rightmost lanes red and giving the downtown the transverse bus priority lane that it conspicuously lacks.
Local bus service would be the beneficiaries of the changes proposed above. But express commuter bus service represents an essential service that supports the dense and sustainable concentration of jobs in downtown. The riders of these services are disproportionately white collar workers, giving an important political constituency a stake in the transit system. Finally, local and commuter buses must face the same traffic nightmares at the edges of downtown, as vehicles naturally bottleneck around the highway entrance and exits. Bus lanes cannot simply focus on travel through downtown, they must also clear the path for buses to exit it. There are four directions that commuter buses enter and exit downtown. (1) I-94 Northbound, (2) I-394 Westbound, (3) I-35W Southbound, and (4) I-35W Northbound. But just two sets of bus lanes could provide connections to all four highway routes, closing the gap between the 2nd and Marquette busway and the highways, where buses can run on the shoulder to pass congestion.
— At the southwest end of downtown, the one-way pair of 11th and 12th Streets connect to ramps for I-394 Westbound and I-35W Southbound. Each have three general travel lanes and feel even wider. Bus lanes could easily be painted on these routes, serving forty commuter routes (by my count) and the Orange Line BRT. Only at the far end of 11th Street, where buses in the right-most lane would need to cross lanes of traffic to turn onto Hawthorne/Linden Avenue is there a clear conflict that would need to be designed around. That issue could be addressed with a painted “bus box” to allow buses to jump the queue, and a dedicated bus signal in the long run.
— At the northeast end of downtown, where twenty three commuter bus routes (by my count) need to travel, the best possible solution would be to install bus lanes on Washington Avenue. Of the bus lanes proposed in this article, this one may be the toughest nut to crack, first and foremost because Washington is owned by the notoriously prehistoric Hennepin County. But the issues are a bit more complex than that. Washington has different layouts throughout the course of its right-of-way, making for a trickier design challenge than simply putting down red paint. More design work is needed than simply laying down some paint.
For all of its difficulty, Washington is the right choice because it offers some significant benefits. It directly feeds into I-35W Northbound at the southeastern end of downtown. It also directly feeds into I-94 Northbound, not in downtown at all, but in North Minneapolis. Instead of having to make a series of turns to get onto the North Loop viaducts, buses would instead continue up Washington all the way to Broadway Avenue, where there is an interchange (in a future where the North Loop ramps are removed and perhaps replaced by shorter ramps at N 10th Ave, buses could get on the highway there instead).
This routing may seem out of the way, but it has three big advantages: first, it brings buses through the North Loop, which is an increasing employment area where there is likely demand for commuter expresses. Second, it straightens out the route for buses, meaning that they do not have to make time-consuming turns until an area with far less congestion. Third, bus lanes on Washington would also be used for local bus routes, supporting the better bus routes in the North Loop and Mill District that would be created by eliminating the #7 and #14’s jogs. As a bonus, there is also the option of using Washington for I-394 westbound buses as well.
Many of these lanes could be open next year. What they require is for political leaders in Minneapolis to take the need seriously. There is the necessary space and service for bus lanes to be painted immediately on 7th, 8th, 11th, and 12th Streets. Other steps might take a bit more time. Certainly Hennepin Avenue will not available for bus lanes until 2022. Convincing Hennepin County to get on board with bus lanes on Washington, and designing solutions for some of the road’s geometry challenges will also not happen overnight. But by that 2022 date, Minneapolis could have a downtown that rolls out the red carpet for buses and their riders with the priority they deserve.
The need is clear. The politics are favorable. The space and the service are calling for better use. Bus ridership is falling and the planet is on fire. If the city leads the way and the county follows (and potentially comes around on Lake Street, too?), here’s what downtown Minneapolis could look like for buses in 2022:
The Coming Opportunity
As I wrote last week, there is a coming confluence of approved and anticipated plans that will make the next two years absolutely pivotal for the future of transit in the Twin Cities. It is no exaggeration to say that the question of whether or not MSP will become a ‘transit city’ or remain a city with token transit will be answered in the near term. Rail investments, land-use policy, and car policy are all essential. But these things also take time. Re-apportioning street space for buses is the fastest and cheapest thing that cities can change, and nowhere is the need greater right now in Minnesota than in downtown Minneapolis.
Wonderful instructive reading!
I’m e mailing this reading to my councilmember Cam Gordon.
Fantastic article and ideas, Alex.
One comment: it’s been poorly publicized, but the Orange Line project will eventually produce a bus-only contraflow lane on 12th St from the 35W ramp to 2nd Ave S. I think that instead of an 11th St bus lane, the best bet would be to extend that contraflow lane all the way to Hawthorne/Linden for the use of 394-bound buses (and install a eastbound bus lane as well), which would halve the number of intersections and signals that need reworking (and force safety improvements to the deadly 12th/Linden intersection, incidentally). Then, with no more buses on 11th, there’d be no remaining reason not to finally build a quality two-way protected E-W bikeway on the south side of downtown.
(Well, no reason besides a certain CM blocking it on general principle, but here we are.)
I was clearly not aware of that, and that would be a fantastic improvement.
Great write up. I agree that bus lanes make a lot of sense for downtown Minneapolis.
One of the biggest issues the current downtown bus lanes face isn’t from congestion in the lanes themselves, but from cross traffic. Cars trying to beat red lights end up blocking buses for entire light cycles, leaving buses with no way to get around. Over the summer, commuter buses in bus-only lanes sat downtown, full of passengers for almost an hour trying to move four or six blocks just to get to the freeway.
Until the City of Minneapolis gets its act together and starts enforcing traffic laws, we’re crippling the bus lanes we already have.
Yes, I saw this daily at Nicollet and 9th this summer. The box-blocking was absolutely constant. Sometimes it was even hard to get through on a bike. I wrote to Lisa Goodman about it, citing the fact that there was already a traffic cop at 11th and Nicollet helping the buses that need to turn there get through. I asked why we are not ticketing people who block the box at 9th and Nicollet aggressively until they stop doing it, or at least getting a traffic cop to control that intersection similarly to Nic & 11th. She explained “It might be that it is not often enforced due to staffing issues and that does make sense to me. At any given time there are less than 10 folks doing that job citywide and they are all not deployed downtown.”
I am not totally sure what she means, there, though, because you have Regulatory Services with its traffic enforcement component, the people who drive those little white crossover vehicles around and give you a ticket if you park incorrectly, and then I think MPD has a traffic division of its own. Either way, one of those departments only has 10 people, which would seem to be part of the problem to me.
Lastly, it irks me that you have private parking garages hiring off-duty cops to help their traffic get out on the streets, but we can’t get the city to do anything about traffic flow with those same officers. We know they aren’t stingy about paying overtime, nor are the cops reluctant to take it, so I don’t think the “only 10 people doing this job” is a very good excuse.
We need to move traffic signals to the near side of intersections in downtown Minneapolis.
Great article! More bus lanes in downtown Minneapolis is desperately needed.
What are your thoughts on the heavy bus congestion on Marquette and 2nd? There is already not enough room for all the commuter buses during the peak rush hour, and that is before more buses from the Orange Line will be added. The MVTA has already moved six routes from 2nd Ave to 4th Ave during the afternoon rush hour because of the heavy traffic (464, 470, 472, 476, 478, 479). Travel times have improved by up to 10 minutes per run, but splitting the system comes with its own drawbacks. For example if somebody is trying to go to Burnsville, they need to choose between the 460 and the 464, instead of just waiting for whichever one comes to their bus stop next, which cuts effective frequency significantly. Additionally, just getting to the bus stop is an extra 5 minute walk for many people.
When I spoke with the MVTA, the bus congestion was one of the primary blocks for increasing service. They want to add more trips, and there is very strong demand to do so, but there is no space for new buses. Without building a bus tunnel in downtown (which is obviously the dream scenario), what would be a cost-effective way to add commuter capacity on Marq2?
One idea I had was to make both Marquette and 2nd bus lanes going both directions, and only allowing cars on the street for one block at a time. For example a car leaving the IDS Parking Garage and going north on Marquette would be required to turn left on 7th, they couldn’t continue straight on Marquette. In the same vein, the only way they could get to the IDS Parking Garage is by turning left from 8th. This way, the number of cars on Marquette and 2nd would diminish drastically, so we could have 2-way bus lanes going north and south on both Marquette and 2nd.
Also, quick comment that your graphic seems to be missing a few routes: The 464, 470, 472, 476, 478, and 479 connect with I35w southbound, and the 490 and 493 connect with I-394 westbound.
the 14th street thing in NYC allows cars to pick up and drop off and then immediately turn right.
There are a lot of routes, I resigned myself to missing a few, and it makes sense that I would miss the ones that were detoured.
I’m not entirely sure about 2nd/Marq congestion, I was under the impression that it was mostly due to road construction. If it’s a bigger issue than that, then there’s always the option of making both streets bus-only.
You could have a helpful division: say I-35W NB and SB routes use 2nd and I-94 NB and I-394 WB routes use Marquette.
As for relieving bus congestion on Marq2, building out more light rail will help somewhat. That is, assuming that Southwest Transit will actually reduce some number of express trips once LRT is running to Eden Prairie. It would stand to reason that they could redirect some current service hours used on express trips to shuttling people to/from the new LRT stations, becoming more of a “last mile” provider, though in their service area, it’s more of a “last 3-5 miles”.
I’d also like to study the idea of putting the Orange Line on 3rd Avenue instead of Marq2. It would obviously be advantageous to have both directions of the service on a single street instead of one-way pairs. Plus, if the line is ever extended over the river, 3rd Avenue has a direct route over a bridge, whereas Marq2 requires several turns. Once you put bus-only lanes and station infrastructure on 3rd Avenue through downtown, it would make sense to relieve Marq2 by shifting a few other routes to 3rd Ave (though not so many as to delay the Orange Line).
In retrospect, looking at: (1)what was spent on Marq2, (2)it not living up to expectations for speed of service / reliability, (3)the asinine routing for Southwest LRT tunneling in a park instead of beneath a street, and most importantly (4) the massive, unprecedented population growth in Uptown/Downtown since 2010, it is crystal clear that the city/county/metro should’ve built a bus & LRT tunnel under Marquette or 2nd from the get-go. It feels inevitable that Minneapolis will someday need a north-south transit tunnel, whether for bus or/and rail.
It is beginning to make me crazy that no significant transit improvements are planned for downtown Minneapolis, post-Southwest/Bottineau/Orange (aBRT is significant, but you know what I mean). How is there no discussion whatsoever of a light rail line to Northeast Mpls (and onward to Rosedale or wherever)? Are we seriously done building LRT in downtown Minneapolis after Bottineau? Why? The County has a half cent tax in perpetuity…operational costs on those next 3 lines aren’t going to chew up 100% of it, and the county refuses to pay for aBRT construction. How in the heck does Hennepin County not have any transit projects lined up after Bottineau? Like not even an idea…
To the Marq-2 point, I’ve also thought we should do an east-west Marq-2-style corridor with double bus lanes to ease some of the burden and replicate the success. Buses approaching downtown from 394, 94 to the north, or 35w to the northeast could just as efficiently and effectively serve downtown via east-west streets vs north-south Marq2 on our grid. East-west streets are also more abundant since they don’t die off west of Nicollet due to grid skew. For example, 394 express routes that currently connect to Marq-2 could instead use 7th and 8th across all of downtown – there are already ramps to the freeway from those streets. This would also work well for all the buses to/from St. Paul on 94 – some fresh elmo on a short section of 11th Ave could connect the eastbound 8th St busway to the 6th St HOV ramp to eastbound 94.
I would suggest moving at least 1/4 of the existing routes off of Marq-2. Then move the Nicollet Mall buses (other than the ones that really belong on Hennepin) over to one of the four boarding zones on Marq-2. Even of 1/4 of the buses moved and the zones were replaced by an equal number of buses, it would also speed up peak passing capacity on Marq-2 since there’s a lower momentary route-to-bus ratio on the corridor.
Of course, one of the main benefits of the Marq-2 corridor is that the double bus lanes are contraflow – something that significantly reduces scofflaw motorist use of the lanes, and something that would be difficult to implement on east-west routes without some major street changes. Despite that, I’m sure there are still ways to do double-lane busways in the same direction as traffic to behaviorally prevent incursions by motorists… Special skip-queue signals (like what you already suggest for 7th/8th above) or pylons or short curbs.
You might as well just make Washington Ave bus only if a bus lane was added in each direction. That would leave Washington Ave with only one traffic lane in each direction. It wasn’t that long ago that Washington had three traffic lanes in each direction.
For years Washington Ave was essentially the only way to north 35W from downtown which was the main reason for congestion on Washington.
Express buses going north on 35W have mostly been using University Ave to enter 35W to avoid the congestion on Washington Ave.
With bus lanes, Washington would have one through-lane, but still dedicated turn lanes at intersections, which should ensure that private cars still flow. If bus routes were relocated to Washington, I think the division of road space would be pretty equitable; private vehicles would still get one through lane and two turn lanes on most blocks; that’s quite a bit.
As you allude to, the rebuilt I-94/I-35W should provide an extra way for private vehicles to leave downtown, relieving some of the pressure on Washington as well.
Maybe it wouldn’t work—I mention that Washington needs more study and design—but I’m tired of planners always having to figure out how buses will fit in the overall picture, with private cars treated as the default, instead of the reverse.
“For years Washington Ave was essentially the only way to north 35W from downtown which was the main reason for congestion on Washington.”
And then the all-expanding highway gods built a $13.5 million ramp from 4th St.
This ramp would be great if it wasn’t closed as often as it is open.
The ramp was closed for periods during Green line construction, long periods during stadium construction, and even for periods during 35W construction.
It is also closed regularly for stadium events.
Are buses even using this ramp as promised when it was being planned? My express bus still makes the longer trip to enter 35W from University due to congestion on Washington.
I thought the reason MVTA moved some bus routes was due to a road closure downtown?
That period of the construction was intolerable, however it was really bad for months up to then. MVTA didn’t just redirect route for those few days out of the blue. The months up to that had already had them thinking about it eagerly. That period of nightmares just made it a no brainer to move those routes off and keep them off. I’ve been riding express buses on Marq2 since Feb last year and saw countless terrible days that we’re not that lane closure.
This article states the congestion is (was) caused by a road closure between 11th and 12th.
I’ve become convinced that dedicated bus lanes is quickest and easiest thing to do clean up our transportation system.
And in quality, frequent aBRT and BRT on these dedicated bus lanes with electric buses as they improve, and we could transform our cities.
This isn’t hard to do.
The biggest issues with transit are the extra time required and all the places transit doesn’t go.
It is not unusual for a 20 minute drive by car to take takes 60 minutes or more by transit.
Wider stop spacing
More frequent service
Transit does not always need to be faster than driving, since transit riders get that time to themselves to read, watch videos, play games, talk, etc. But once you start to take twice as long, or trips over 30-40 minutes, then you lose people fast.
It doesn’t matter how fast the bus moves if the bus has to travel three times as far as driving straight to your destination.
I used to live at 694 and Rice St. I wanted to take the bus to Minneapolis, but I had to go all the way to downtown St. Paul and then to downtown Minneapolis. It was at least three times as long as driving. I moved in early 2014 and I think things are a little better in recent years.
It is true that transit can’t work to get every resident to every destination, like for you.
It is true that transit can work for a good number though. For me in Hopkins flaky bus transit vs driving is a toss up because with busing I weigh unreliability of afternoon and midday bussing vs daily downtown parking costs and hassle.
It seems reasonable to me that the better transit becomes for those to whom bus rising is barely not worth it to become barely better, it seems to me that is a win win for the drivers who still drive as we’ve just reduced the competition for road space
Another fantastic post. Thank you.
I read somewhere recently that the FHTA (or similar Federal agency) changed their rules about painting red bus lanes leaving it up to municipalities to decide where they go. They previously required cities and counties to go through a time-consuming application process to get permission to put the lanes in. That was followed up by yearly reporting justifying the red lane treatment. So, it should be even easier for Minneapolis and Hennepin County to make these improvements.
By the way I’m hoping the upcoming Minneapolis Transportation Action Plan includes a whole network of red, bus-only lanes…
Yes, if the draft of #GoMpls calls for something like this, than we’re in business. If it falls short, then it’s up for people to demand it.
I am a metro transit operator. And the rapid transits is a great idea. Because I get to drive more and passengers have to pay attention. When I driver the #5 line. I might have to stop on every stop. IT DRAGS AND COSTUMERS GET BORED. Faster always better.
bus lanes everywhere plz!
In a few of your routes buses would need to use a block to turn around and head the other direction. Add more buses, and the space that they use, and those streets and lights would pretty much need to be blocked off and marked as bus only or else they start to cause some congestion. This happens on 2nd ave up by the post office, and it may not be enough to really delay a system, but it’s something to think about if more bus traffic is routed to specific streets.
For better or worse Washington is pretty much it if a person is trying to get from parts of downtown up through the North Loop and to a few ramps. Shut down traffic to one lane and those vehicles are going to get stuck in traffic elsewhere, potentially plugging up some of the bus lanes if a few cars are stuck in the middle of an intersection. That whole mess could partially be resolved if 2nd was opened up all the way through downtown. Then that could be used for either buses or a more dedicated through street to get up around Plymouth and have bus and 394 traffic on Washington.
I don’t go East through downtown so can’t comment on Washington in that direction although it isn’t too bad if I need to get off River Road and take it across the freeway then whatever bridge that (11th?) is up to NE.