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.