Orange Line bus at Heart of the City Station in Burnsville

Chart of the Day: Where Is the Orange Line Attracting Riders?

The METRO Orange Line opened in December 2021, offering higher-speed bus access between downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville, through Richfield and Bloomington. All told, the line has been running for a little more than 18 months, and we now have some data on how it’s doing.

That year and a half has been good for the line’s ridership numbers. Overall ridership for the Orange Line and other Metro Transit METRO lines is released with a month’s delay. Data shows that ridership has risen steadily on the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route since its opening with some fluctuations during the winter months.

Seasonal variation is typical for transit ridership and for travel of all kinds, but some of the Orange Line’s winter declines can be explained by other factors. Service on the Orange Line was reduced in December 2022, along with other major reductions in service, due to an ongoing bus driver shortage. Last December, midday service on the Orange Line was reduced from every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes, although that change is being reversed this month.

Although overall ridership on the Orange Line is released monthly– with a month’s delay– ridership by station is available only for the fall of 2022. The Metropolitan Council releases ridership for every stop and station they serve every year on the Geospatial Commons. The Orange Line serves a mix of stations on Interstate 35W and nearby the freeway. The surrounding land use is a mix of some residential areas, some commercial businesses and even park-and-rides. Overall, this mix means the Orange Line operates in what former Metro Transit planner Aaron Isaacs called a “strange transit corridor.”

Stop-by-Stop Analysis

I was eager to check out the data on stop-level ridership to see how riders may be using the Orange Line.

For the purposes of these charts, I paired up the parallel stops, traveling opposite directions, on the Marq2 corridor (here’s an alternate link:

Total weekday boardings at Orange Line stations.
  • The busiest station is at 98th Street, formerly the South Bloomington Transit Center. That station features a park-and-ride and several connecting routes that spread throughout Bloomington.
  • The station pair at 7th Street — meaning two stations on the same street but serving opposite directions — are the second busiest stops and arguably serve the center of downtown.
  • The Lake Street station is the third busiest stop, and the second busiest outside of downtown.
  • The least-used station is the Burnsville Parkway station, which serves only riders heading north. All northbound trips on all days of the week stop at Burnsville Parkway, but there are no southbound drop-offs.
Boardings and alightings by station on northbound trips
Boardings and alightings by station on southbound trips

The majority of the ridership travels in downtown on at least one leg of the journey, either to alight downtown on northbound trips or depart downtown on southbound trips. Interestingly, 30% of rides do not include a trip to, from or through downtown. The percentage of people not traveling in downtown may not be very big compared with other routes, but I was surprised to see it given that the Orange Line operates in such an important express service corridor.

Riders boarding at stations at 46th Street or farther south are mostly heading north to downtown. At Lake Street, meanwhile, more people are heading south than north. While a trip into downtown from Lake Street is very fast, many other options exist from that area of south Minneapolis into downtown such as Route 18 and Route 11. Riders living in south Minneapolis may be visiting the commercial areas in Richfield and Bloomington to shop or work. Riders in the south metro may be traveling to jobs near the Lake Street station, where Wells Fargo has a large presence and where there are several hospitals.

From this data, it appears that riders are using the Orange Line for a more diverse set of trip purposes than a 9-to-5 downtown office commute. Lake Street riders, for example, are heading to the suburbs more than they’re going downtown. Riders could be commuting to jobs outside downtown or shopping/socializing in downtown, but the importance of downtown Minneapolis as a transit destination has shrunk — even if it is still the most important destination in the Twin Cities.

About Eoin Roux

Eoin's interest in transportation began with the development and construction of the Green Line in his childhood neighborhood. He is interested in transportation, land use, and local history.

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