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Bus Lanes Now For Downtown Minneapolis

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?

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What a network of local-serving bus lanes could look like in downtown Minneapolis, with two paths in each direction forming a “#”.

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.

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What a network of commuter-serving bus lanes could look like in downtown Minneapolis, with the central commuter busway bracketed by paths to the interstate highways, forming an “I”.

— 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:

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What a full network of bus lanes could look like in downtown Minneapolis. Commuter and local bus services are slightly differentiated by color. Click here for the full size version.

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.

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is a transportation planner. He grew up in New York City, lived in Philadelphia for seven years, and now lives in Minneapolis. His twitter handle is @alexschief. He is on BlueSky at @alexschief.bsky.social