Commuting to Downtown Minneapolis Is Both Easier and More Complex Since COVID

Catherine Windyk has been an outreach specialist at Move Minneapolis since 2021, during the height of the pandemic. As a growing population of workers returns to downtown offices and work sites, she works to start conversations with employers and commuters about the benefits of alternative commuting options, which are particularly accessible in downtown Minneapolis.

Catherine Windyk of Move Minneapolis

“Sometimes drive-alone commuting is what you need to do, but it can be among a variety of ways that you choose to get around: carpooling, carsharing, teleworking, biking, taking the bus, taking the train, scooters, walking, all of those modes count,” Windyk says.

Multimodal transportation makes people happier and healthier, she contends, and creates a more livable downtown: reducing parking demand, improving air quality and allowing people to experience the city’s vitality.

Move Minneapolis works with employers such as Thrivent, Hilton and Four Seasons to implement multimodal commuter benefits, such as distributing Metro Passes and adding bike storage and showers.

Still, the system has challenges. “Employers can’t provide both a transit pass and a parking pre-tax deal. Commuters must pick one or the other,” she explains. “That’s hard, especially with hybrid working, because people are looking for flexibility.”

Move Minneapolis also works directly with employees who want to learn more about transportation options. If someone wants to start biking to work, for example, Windyk and her colleagues assess the person’s comfort level with cycling and help map out routes. They also help people learn to use the bus or train.

“If someone says, ‘Hey, I live out in the suburbs,’ we work with them to see what options are available. It’s also thinking about combining modes: biking to the bus, putting your bike on the train, driving to work when you have a thing that you need to do, using scooters to get between meetings,” Windyk explains.

Below are excerpts from an extensive conversation with Windyk about the possibilities and drawbacks of learning to commute in a more sustainable way.

On Commuting After COVID: “It’s both a challenge and an opportunity with hybrid schedules. Now is a great time to try forming new habits,” Windyk says.

Commuter buses used to serve suburban commuters who worked a 9 to 5 schedule. Hybrid work has made schedules less predictable. “Metro Transit is still evaluating their ridership and their routes. The express commuter routes from the suburbs have been changed the most and have been suspended at a higher rate. People are turning to us to navigate how to deal with the new normal, and we like to encourage looking at other modes.”

Bike ownership increased over the pandemic, a good sign for the future of multimodal commuting, Windyk says. “A lot of people bought bikes in 2020 and were biking more. Maybe they never thought about biking to work before. Also, the proliferation of e-bikes is a big thing for biking to work, if people previously thought it would be too far or too hilly. We are exploring these new technologies and options.”

On Carpooling: Metro Transit has an ongoing driver shortage, which has reduced service and increased uncertainty for riders. Carpools or vanpools are two options that Move Minneapolis suggests.

“Those are nice when a lot of people are working in the same company or even in the same area,” Windyk says. “They can share the ride and reduce the cost. But again, with hybrid scheduling, that can be difficult because people may not have the same schedule week to week, and [vanpools or carpools] have typically been organized around pretty solid schedules.”

Multiple people traveling in one car significantly reduces congestion and air pollution. Furthermore, carpooling makes sense because of how car-oriented the Twin Cities metro is.

Move Minneapolis encourages downtown workers to check out Metro Transit’s car matching service, “Carpool,” to connect with others who want to share a ride. Perks include access to preferred parking spaces, free use of MnPass Express lanes, the Guaranteed Ride Home program and a “Ramp and Ride” Go-To Card for free downtown zone fares.

Riding to work with a spouse or roommate or taking a child to a daycare center downtown also counts as a carpool, Windyk explains. “You can register your own carpool or request one through Metro Transit or ABC Ramps directly.”

Move Minneapolis partners with the ABC Ramps Mobility Hub to provide discounted carpool parking at the three ABC Ramps on the northwest edge of downtown. “We did see a significant increase in the level of carpooling registrations when the Minnesota Twins season kicked off,” Windyk says. “The people working at concession stands and in the Twins’ stadium increased the carpooling at ABC Ramps.”

On Safety: The perception and reality of safety in downtown Minneapolis impact how people choose to get around. If walking, transit and biking feel unsafe, people will turn to cars because they are private, create a barrier of protection and reduce the distance that people have to walk on streets they perceive to be unsafe.

“There’s been a lot of press about [safety concerns], both transit-related and downtown in general,” Windyk says. Large companies downtown turn to Move Minneapolis to boost recruitment for in-person work and help people feel safer.

“A lot of cities are experiencing that feeling of downtown being abandoned the past couple of years and nobody being there. This goes both to the reality and the perception that there is safety in numbers.”

Catherine Windyk

One focus is on people who work nontraditional hours. “We’ve had success in enrolling employees in Metropass,” an employer-based unlimited-ride pass. “We raise awareness of carpool options because with the service cuts and service reductions, it can be hard for people to get around if they are working past 5 p.m. or even later.”

Both the uptick in crime and the perception of more crime are not unique to Minneapolis. “Most if not all downtowns are experiencing similar issues,” Windyk says. “A lot of cities are experiencing that feeling of downtown being abandoned the past couple of years and nobody being there. This goes both to the reality and the perception that there is safety in numbers. When you go somewhere and you’re the only one there, it might feel like you’re more likely to experience something.”

Number of violent crimes in 2022 per precinct: Precinct 1, 676; Precinct 2, 387; Precinct 3, 1,100; Precinct 4, 1,173; Precinct 5, 699; undefined, 64.
This Minneapolis Crime Dashboard chart shows how downtown is not the most violent area for YTD 2022 totals.

Police reports show a variation in crime statistics, depending on the category and precinct. News reports increase people’s fears. “I’ve taken transit downtown since last September and I’ve not seen anything exciting or controversial,” Windyk says. “There’s a lot of focus on [crime], which isn’t to say that it’s not real or that it’s not valid to feel unsafe. Our hope is that once people get downtown, they have a great experience and want to come back.”

Individuals may define safety differently for themselves, depending on age, gender, ethnicity and physical ability. A greater police presence is not a solution for everyone, especially since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. “What does it mean to feel safe on the street?” Windyk asks. “Everyone has a different reaction to the word safety and public safety.”

The Downtown Improvement District (DID) provides alternative safety options like the Mpls DID Ambassadors, who are on the street daily beginning at 6 a.m. Move Minneapolis helps to connect people with these resources. The ambassadors, says Windyk, “are helpful, friendly faces. They provide more eyes on the street. The DID also provides personal safety and street safety workshops to help people prepare for coming back downtown.”

Metro Transit’s six-week experiment of switching to two-car trains was aimed at increasing the number of people in light-rail cars to promote a perception of safety. Keeping cars cleaner was part of the experiment. “We know that cleanliness and well-maintained transit vehicles feel safer, even though you might think that has nothing to do with it,” Windyk says. “Hopefully getting more people to ride transit will lead people to feel more safety in numbers.”

On Future Projects: Move Minneapolis is planning this year’s Annual Transportation Summit, November 30 from 8 to 11:30 a.m., with the topic of mobility justice. The event is open to the public, though the primary audience is employers. Details on location have yet to be announced. “We are going to be talking about different people’s experiences of safety,” Windyk says.

“We try to provide safety resources for all modes, whether you are driving alone and you’re afraid to walk to your car or whether you’re biking to work and are afraid of getting hit by someone driving a car. We act as a connector between different organizations and entities.”

Challenges exist downtown, she concedes, “and we are trying not to gloss over them. But we are trying to equip people with the knowledge and the confidence to be in these spaces.”

Photo sources for collage: Metro Transit Train, Metro Transit Bus, Flickr, Move Minneapolis, DriversEd, Wikipedia

Jasper Green

About Jasper Green

Jasper is a student at the University of Minnesota studying Urban Studies. He is from St Paul and is passionate about transit, land use, real estate, and sustainability.