The BRT/Local Service Dilemma

Thanks to new funding, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is picking up steam. Work on the B, D and E lines is underway with others soon to follow. Based on the available pre-Covid data for the A and C Lines, total ridership in those two corridors increased by about a third. On the surface, that’s wonderful. We always knew that transit centers, major intersections, and transfer points contribute the majority of riders. BRT is designed to serve those stops with faster, more attractive service, and it is doing just that. But there’s a dilemma that accompanies every BRT plan: how to serve the bus stops bypassed by the BRT.

Metro Transit first dealt with this issue when the Green Line opened. Local bus Route 16 was shortened to travel from downtown St. Paul to 27th Avenue SE in Minneapolis. Frequency dropped from every 10 minutes to every 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly, the Green Line diverted most of the riders and Route 16 ridership dropped dramatically. Rush hour peaks disappeared and it soon became clear the remaining riders were transit-dependent as ridership correlated strongly to retail store hours.

Even in its shrunken form, Route 16 ridership was too low to justify the level of service still being offered. Subsequently, hours of service were shortened, frequency was reduced to every 30 minutes, and the west end of the line was cut back two miles to Fairview Avenue.

Something similar happened with the A Line. It largely replaced Route 84, which had two branches on the south end. The A Line completely replaced the branch crossing the Ford Bridge to the 46th Street Blue Line Station. Routes 46 and 74 duplicate that portion of the A Line, so local stops are still served. Route 84 continues to serve the other branch that turned south at Cleveland Avenue to reach the Sibley Plaza area.

Where it runs together with the A Line, Route 84 services the local stops every 30 minutes, compared to every 10 minutes before the A Line. Originally Route 84 ran all the way to Rosedale. This was too much duplication for very little ridership and it was cut back to Midway Parkway. The service days were also shortened. Even so, ridership is low, and the question is whether even this modest service can be sustained.

Should BRT be allowed to kill local service?
We know from experience that overlaying BRT on local service drastically reduces local service ridership and may make it non-viable, putting local service at risk of being partially or completely eliminated. When local service is retained, even at a reduced level, the total cost of a given corridor increases by perhaps 50 percent. Thus, Metro Transit is faced with a choice.

  1. Retain high subsidy local service despite tight funding
  2. Eliminate local service and strand the remaining transit-dependent people who really need it

However, this is an unnecessary dilemma, created by Metro Transit’s inflexible approach to BRT. They’ve decided that BRT can never stop except at formal BRT stations and fares can never be collected on-board. Here’s why that is flawed.

Lines that radiate from a downtown area first pass through high ridership neighborhoods and then progressively through lower ridership areas the farther they get from downtown. An example of this is the D Line from downtown to Mall of America, replacing most of Route 5. From downtown to 38th Street is where Route 5 stopped every block. That’s where duplicating BRT and local service makes complete sense. South of 38th Street ridership drops off dramatically and Route 5 buses really only stop every half mile of so, the same spacing as BRT. Route 5 provides better service because it stops where each passenger chooses. Because they’re making the same number of stops, there is little or no travel time savings for BRT south of 38th Street. That negates the primary argument for BRT.

The answer is a BRT hybrid
Metro Transit’s design philosophy requires it to either fund expensive duplicate local service or eliminate it and strand people. This would be unnecessary if Metro Transit adopted a hybrid approach to BRT. Equip BRT buses with fareboxes. Make local stops in lightly trafficked areas where we know those stops would be infrequent. Duplicative and expensive local service would be restricted to high ridership inner-city areas where BRT’s speed advantage is most obvious and needed. Outside those areas, BRT would serve local stops and still achieve some travel time reduction thanks to traffic signal priority. As a byproduct of this approach, local stops in lightly trafficked areas will see more frequent service, which ought to increase ridership instead of abandoning it.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.

10 thoughts on “The BRT/Local Service Dilemma

  1. Nathan Bakken

    As someone who works with these routes regularly planning trips, there are very few people who still use the 84 and 19. Most people will walk to a BRT Station, adding local stops and fareboxes to BRT buses literally takes away the whole point of speeding up service, which is what a majority of people want.

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      It also adds a layer of confusion to the system. You can buy on board, but only before/after this point, and also you have to use the front door at those stops. If it’s a standard fare box, it also couldn’t take credit cards directly like the TVMs at the stations can.

      As someone who would semi-regularly take the 16 instead of the Green Line when I lived in the Midway neighborhood, it was basically because the stops were a bit more convenient for where I lived, and when taking a trip I preferred its drop off spot at Union Depot. I’m wondering how many other people are in a similar camp with the 84 and 19 – they take it since it’s there, but would be able to get to the station fairly easily if the local bus went away. For those where that isn’t the case, it might be better to have those served by demand-response services like Metro Mobility or Transit Link, even with the much higher per-rider cost. It would also offer door-to-door service, which likely is something that’s almost needed anyways if someone’s unable to walk to one of the aBRT stops after a local stop is removed. Perhaps partnerships with taxis and/or TNCs could be used as well for those that need door-to-door service but not the other services and accommodations that Metro Mobility has.

      1. Elizabeth McCabe-Boyer

        I think this is likely. I lived off the C Line for a while and used the 19 on occasion, but pretty much exclusively when it came first.

    2. James Schoettler

      Given our cold winters and hot summers, what transit riders want most is frequency of service. Speed doesn’t mean anything if you are freezing, broiling in the sun or soaked with rain and wondering if the bus will ever come. And, a 30-minute frequency means you are waiting up to an hour if a bus breaks down or there is no driver available.

      I love the A-Line primarily because I typically wait less than ten minutes to get on. The BRT speed is nice, but it is largely at the expense of people who can’t walk the extra distance to reach an A-Line station. And the A-Line gets stuck in traffic, construction delays, snow plows, etc. plenty of times, so how much time do you really save? Our BRT does not have platform loading (big mistake), so picking up someone in a wheelchair consumes five or more minutes. (We are all glad that person is accommodated, but platform loading would have made it better for everyone.)

      The fundamental problem in the Twin Cities is that we are not building a public transit SYSTEM across the region that utilizes bus, BRT, LRT, ride-share, etc. (and someday autonomous vehicles) in ways that maximize their advantages and minimizes their disadvantages and operate them TOGETHER so that people can quickly and reliably get from one place to another, using multiple components of the SYSTEM.

      Instead, we are mostly tinkering with legacy components of the current bus network.

      1. Eric Ecklund

        I think it should be noted the A and C Lines are not BRT, they’re arterial BRT, which is an upgrade over regular bus service but not enough to be considered actual BRT where buses have a dedicated roadway for most or all of the route.

  2. Sheldon Gitis

    I think the point Mr. Isaacs was trying to make, is that in off-peak periods, when ridership on the BRT is light, it would make sense to have the mostly-empty BRT vehicles pick up mostly transit-dependent riders, who might have a long wait for the next bus otherwise. I agree with Mr. Isaacs, the “fireboxes” make sense.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I’ve been thinking more about this, and i don’t know. Most of my time living in St. Paul taking transit, half-hour headways was the norm for me. It doesn’t seem that bad, but maybe my standards are too low. I think there are better priorities for MT to focus on than these small gaps, given how good aBRT service is.

  4. Keith Morris

    Our aBRT lines already are hybrid BRT lines: they have more stops than a BRT line should have (much like the Green Line has more stops than a LRT line should have and functions like a streetcar-LRT hybrid). The problem I’ve had with the 16 or 84 is that they’re run at exactly the same time as a train or aBRT bus, totally negating any reason for me to ever catch one of those instead. Much like I have no reason to depend on falling back on the 17 if I miss the 18 on Nicollet: the 17 shows up at the same, so if I miss one I’ve missed the other.

    The gaps we should focus on are all of the non-existent aBRT lines that should be up and running on every major commercial corridor. It’ll be years overdue before we even get a single aBRT on Hennepin, Nicollet or Lyndale. We’re stuck at a snail’s pace on any of those until then with overly redundant stops every block. Metro Transit has proven they simply won’t for whatever reason go more than two blocks without a stop: aBRT is the only way they’re willing to improve routes. Talk about removing dozens of extraneous stops/sticks in the ground has moved nowhere beyond talk.

    1. Sheldon Gitis

      Rather than sticking the humongous BRT vehicles on the major arteries, with stops a half-mile or more apart, during non-peak periods, when the 100+ passenger vehicles are operating mostly empty, with a handful of passengers at most, wouldn’t it make more sense to operate much smaller vehicles, with very low (buck a ride?) fares, that stop everywhere a passenger wants get on and get off? Why the obsession with these costly, heavy, energy-inefficient and cumbersome BRT and LRT vehicles when much smaller, more efficient and flexible vehicles could be providing much better transit service at a much lower cost? And yes, someone would have to be paid to drive the large number small transit vehicles. Imagine how many jitney drivers you could employ for the cost of bulldozing the LRT line to the highway hellhole in Hopkins.

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