Metro Transit Service: Chicken or Egg?

These are unprecedented times for all of us, and how and when we return to some semblance of normal is still uncertain. But now is the time for our transit providers to seek out new ridership and do everything in their power to support the return of transit riders who have stayed home for some or all of the pandemic. There are only a few windows in which people can be open to changing their transportation routines and behaviors, and we cannot afford to miss the moment.

It is, unfortunately, far easier for people to find reasons not to take transit than to take it. This is potentially more pronounced among choice riders, but it can apply across the full spectrum of all riders as well. Our planning and land use as a metropolitan area has tilted the balance against transit, and a pandemic that has yielded anxiety about being in close quarters with others has only exacerbated this trend. Every day that goes by when another person considers their new normal routine and debates the trade-offs of their commute mode is another opportunity to capture a new transit user or ensure that a prior user returns.

The past 15 months have been trying for all public transit agencies, and Metro Transit is no different. At its worst during the pandemic, ridership was down 53 percent from pre-pandemic levels, and even today, it’s still only incrementally improved from 2020 despite gradually increasing service over the past six months. Recently, Metro Transit preemptively sent out a service update, beginning August 21. This update added service to some routes that have been running all along, in addition to reinstating service for some routes that had been suspended. However, a significant number of routes still have not returned to service at all with no timetable for when some portion of service on those routes may return.

Metro Transit is in a tough place. Many employees in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul and other major employment centers continue to work from home some or all of the time, and employers continue to debate the permutations of hybrid work that may become the new normal. To Metro Transit’s credit, the short- to medium-term emphasis on increasing all-day service and frequency on core routes is a nod to how transit may evolve as a result of the pandemic. And, of course, those who never stopped using transit continue to be dependent on the core network, so applying limited resources to those first is the right decision.

Time to woo riders

The state of transit presents a tradeoff between being overly conservative and cost-effective until demand reaches some tipping point and turning off existing or new riders forever. Studies have shown that the opportunity to capture new transit riders is when people are experiencing a significant change in their home or work situation. As has been documented at length, people are moving to new places and new jobs at a pace we have not seen in years. In addition, people are trying to figure out how to get around as a part of this new and attractive hybrid work world. While it seems apparent that returning service to pre-pandemic levels would be a bad decision in the near term, the current service has holes that present long-term risk to transit ridership.

Streets A Line
Bus Rapid Transit will become key in a new, post-pandemic model of mass transit.

Metro Transit can take several approaches to get ahead of where transit riders’ future needs may be while remaining cognizant of budget restraints.

  • Update schedules more often: Continuing a quarterly-only service update schedule is not nearly flexible enough to adapt to the frequency of changes in riders’ needs in the coming months. As we have seen with the advent of the Delta variant, public health guidance and people’s behavior and reaction can change in a matter of days. Planning and communicating in August for what transit needs to expect in October is just too far away to make the most informed decisions. Certainly, a portion of this practice is necessary for lead time in recruiting, hiring and training drivers and other staff. Acknowledging that, there is a need to be able to respond to changing service needs sooner than once a quarter –- whether increasing or decreasing service depending on demand. Instituting monthly updates through the end of the year or even into the first half of 2022 would allow Metro Transit to capture demand when it becomes apparent and cut losses sooner where demand doesn’t materialize as expected.
  • Phase in and analyze route changes: On routes that continue to be suspended indefinitely, consider a phased approach to piloting what service is desired or needed in the short-to-medium term. An example is route 578, in which Metro Transit is running one morning trip downtown and two return trips daily to Southdale. This pales in comparison to its pre-pandemic schedule of eight northbound trips and seven southbound trips, but it provides an opportunity to begin gathering real-time current ridership data that’s hard to get from surveys or other sources. Observing trends from implementing one or two runs per day can be used to analyze whether a particular route should be sustained, have its frequency increased or revert to suspension. Absent real-time trials, it’s difficult to see how the agency can gather enough tangible data to determine how and when to return certain routes.

Now is an opportunity to experiment with changing service and service patterns to reflect the new normal (mostly) post-pandemic. While a significant proportion of the service offerings historically cater to the downtown commuter, it seems unlikely that traditional demand patterns will ever return as before. Instead, seize the opportunity to strengthen all-day service between cities and suburbs and between neighborhoods within larger cities. Undoubtedly, not all of these will end up seeing ridership that warrants expanded or net new service. But without investigating opportunities to capture new riders or bring back prior riders who’ve since changed their routines post-pandemic, the risk of the oft-cited transit death spiral increases when there isn’t the ridership to support pre-pandemic service levels on pre-pandemic routes.

It’s a period of uncertainty for Metro Transit and other mobility providers. And there’s no clear way to accurately gauge what demand will look like in the next week, month or even year. That said, the risk of doing too little is greater than the risk of doing too much in the short term. We can’t wait for people to vocally ask for transit service that they may have forgotten about over the past year and a half. To bounce back stronger from the pandemic, transit providers need to show current, potential and future users that they are ready and available to meet their needs, even as those needs have changed since March 2020.

Andy Lewis

About Andy Lewis

Aspiring urbanist, living in Edina via Minneapolis via Chicago. Advocate of walkability, transit, and biking of all sorts for all people. Teaching our two girls that driving is "annoying" and to ask "why can't we just walk there?".

13 thoughts on “Metro Transit Service: Chicken or Egg?

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Amen! My understanding is that the commuter buses are still at 10% ridership levels or something. Do you have the latest info?

    1. Keith

      I especially agree with updating more frequently than quarterly. It always seemed silly that even minor improvements they could start overnight won’t happen until a few months out. Perhaps the biggest step Metro Transit could take is to end discriminatory commuter routes. For example, I was looking at a job with Ramsey County but it was in White Bear Lake and it turns out the commuter route only serves suburbanites commuting to the city and back. Urban residents don’t get a commuter bus to WBL, not even a slowpoke local bus route.

      That discrepancy aside, commuter buses largely run empty and largely only serve as a novelty for suburbanites. Cutting these routes and redirecting funding for these buses and drivers to expedite the implementation of aBRT lines would go much farther. It’s not as though these suburbs are trying to make the most of these commuter routes anyway. The 578 mentioned above ends in a collection of drive-thrus with a couple of hotels and zero apartments or homes. Literally nobody lives within walking distance. Edina doesn’t care to provide ridership here, so why should Metro Transit throw away money serving it?

      Local routes in the meantime should become aBRT-lite. With COVID no one wants to be stuck on the bus for an extended period of time. Having routes that stop every block or two in this environment is essentially suicide for a mass transit agency. Even with people wearing masks and social distancing people don’t want to be in a small enclosed place for 45 minutes just to travel a handful of neighborhoods away, especially if they’re immunocompromised.

      1. Sheldon Gitis

        Frequent, low-fare/no fare service on all the major city through streets makes sense. Running big, heavy, expensive, 100-plus passenger BRT vehicles carrying a handful or fewer riders most of the time makes no sense, unless the crazy idea is to accommodate a permanent state of pandemic with transit vehicles large enough to allow social distancing. The high-frequency, continuous throughout the day service requires a large fleet of small transit vehicles – not 100-plus passenger BRT vehicles. The 100-plus passenger BRT vehicles may be appropriate for rush hour highways – not much else.

        1. Brian

          The only way you are getting 100+ passengers on a 60 foot BRT bus is with standees. Seated capacity for a current model 60 foot New Flyer bus is 61. Most riders would much prefer to have a seat than to stand. It would be very difficult to get 100+ people in a 40 foot bus since they are rated for around 85 passengers with standees.

          1. Sheldon Gitis

            Thanks for the clarification.

            Whether 60 or more than 100 with standees, the 60ft BRT buses are inappropriate for a frequent, throughout the day and evening service on arterial city streets. Unless the idea is to accommodate a permanent state of social distancing, you don’t need a 60ft bus to carry 6 or fewer passengers around at 10a in the morning or 2p in the afternoon.

            1. John Wilson

              I really doubt anyone is proposing BRT for routes which are only going to carry half a dozen people at a time.

      2. John Wilson

        In all fairness, the terminal loop of the 578 exists mostly for turn-around purposes. However, the route serves almost no unique areas, it is mostly an express version of the 6, the only exception being the residential area just north of Southdale.

  2. Brian

    I’m not riding the bus to the office because I’m still mostly working from home. I took the 250 bus from the 95th Ave park and ride downtown every weekday prior to COVID. I had to transfer to the 7 to complete my trip to the North Loop which really increased my commute time. The 250 buses were way more than 10% full. It was not unusual about once a week to have to wait for another bus if you wanted a seat.

    I have to go to the office occasionally and I just drive even though my Metropass is still active. There is a pretty limited number of 250 buses now, plus the 7 is on detour which makes it hard to transfer from the 250 to the 7.

  3. John Dillery

    An important problem facing transit operators locally is a great difficulty hiring enough operators. This wasn’t mentioned in the article that we are reacting to. The situation we are in can’t be understood completely if this important fact is left out. PS: Transit customers must be “attracted” to transit never “captured”. Captives seek escape. Word choice matters a lot to the message. Thank you.

  4. Smith, Diana

    Diana Smith August 11, 2021 at 9:04 a.m. I am a frequent rider of the Metro Transit Route #11, (Riverside) bus. I don’t drive and depend on the bus in order to get back and forth to where I am going. I am retired and still need to get to my Doctor appointments, the grocery store (Walmart) Beach & Belknap area and other misc. errands. You can imagine my surprise when on yesterday I was waiting for Bus #11, (Riverside) and noticed the posted signs saying these routes all the way into Downtown Fort Worth were no longer going to be in service as of Sept. 1, 2021! It took years back in the 70’s to finally get a bus to come south of E. 4th St. (across the tracks) into our neighborhood. The formerly (T) bus service has served me well throughout my (35) years of working in the Downtown area. I would like to know is the #11 (Riverside) bus being terminated “permanently” and could there be a reduction in service (which already runs once an hour) put in place rather than “no” service at all?

    I appreciate that changes may have to be made due to the drop in passenger ridership, but does it have to come at the loss of service to a community that is less than (10) minutes away from Downtown Fort Worth? I am asking not only for myself but for riders that I have seen pack the bus so much to the point that on my way to work I had to stand up! The #11, (Riverside) bus served our community by providing timely services to the community (Food Bank), Library, Schools, Walmart, U.S. Post Office and other local businesses we otherwise would not be able to reach. Please re-consider your option to remove all routes from this area. Thank you, from one satisfied rider!

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