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?".