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The Future of Transit

Several current pilot projects in Minnesota point toward exciting possibilities for public transportation. Let’s take a look!

Episode summary

00:00 | Intro
01:21 | Micro Transit
23:00 | Southwest Transit Lyft Integration
32:57 | The parklet with Kyle
36:24 | Electrifying buses
42:51 | Self-driven buses, goMARTI
59:01 | Outro

Additional info

After wrapping the audio for this episode, we received information about Metro Transit Micro’s operating costs from Sheila Holbrook-White at Metropolitan Transportation Services. “In the period between the September 10, 2022, launch and the close of the year on December 31, 2022, micro provided 4,181 trips in a 2.5 square mile area, using five buses during peak demand, for a cost per ride of $72.57.  It’s important to understand that it took time for customers to learn about and use the new service after launch. The startup period resulted in an inflated cost per trip in 2022.  Also note that the calculation for micro includes only the cost of the contracted services and software and does not include fuel, admin or overhead.  

“In February 2023, the service area was expanded to 5-square miles, again, using the same 5 vehicles during peak demand.  Holding the vehicles and drivers steady, the number of completed trips rose sharply and the cost per ride has dropped due to that expansion.   In May 2023, micro provided 6,026 rides for an average cost per ride of $15.25, again, including only the cost of the contracted services and software and does not include fuel, Council admin or overhead costs.

“The average cost per passenger trip in 2022 for local fixed routes 5, 7, and 14 that serve the pilot area was $11.29, a cost that includes fuel, admin, and overhead.”

Even though we aren’t comparing apples to apples, I find it notable that increasing ridership brought the cost almost down to the level of local fixed route service. This shows that with right-sized service areas, micro transit can be a significant addition to our transit service, without unbearable costs.

On the subject of Southwest Prime’s Lyft integration, it is notable that as of May 2023, Southwest Transit is exploring the feasibility of operating fixed-route service to MOA and the MSP airport. This is a more conventional response to the problem of micro vehicles being tied up for long stretches on those trips, I look forward to seeing how that goes.

MVTA recently announced that in order to continue scaling up Connect, they are reducing service on some of their low ridership fixed routes. This isn’t a good look, but Connect does seem like it’s a very good service and integrates well into the rest of the system. The best place for us to be would be if we provided dedicated funding for micro transit so that it didn’t have to steal money from fixed route services, but I have a lot of faith in the staff at MVTA tweaking things and adjusting and finding that sweet spot of balance on how much to fund each of their micro transit and fixed routes so that they can work together really well.

Images

MVTA’s cutaway buses and the e-jest electric bus.
Comparing the interior of cutaway buses to e-jest.

Connect with us

Attributions

Our theme song is Tanz den Dobberstein, and our interstitial song is Puck’s Blues. Both tracks used by permission of their creator, Erik Brandt. Find out more about his band The Urban Hillbilly Quartet on their website.

This episode was hosted, edited, and transcribed by Ian R Buck. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the show, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at podcast@streets.mn.

Transcript

Ian: [00:00:02] Welcome to the Streets.mn Podcast, the show where we highlight how transportation and land use can make our communities better places. Coming to you from beautiful Seward, Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m your host, Ian R Buck. We’re big fans of public transportation around here, and we’re always looking for good ways to make our transit systems even better. We recently won a lot of funding at the state legislature. Go back a few episodes to listen to more about that. And, you know, there’s a lot of really exciting ways that that’s going to help us make our public transit better. But a lot of the things that have been talked about so far have been kind of, you know, iterative improvements. Right. Taking existing well-used transit routes and turning them into BRT lines, things like that. Right. But what happens when we really have a paradigm shift in how transit can work? What if we could get a glimpse of what’s coming in the future right now?

Chorus: [00:01:19] [singing] The future is now! 

Ian: [00:01:21] Here in Minnesota, we have had a few recent pilot projects that have really exciting promise for improving our transit systems, and I would like to highlight them in today’s episode. First up, we’re going to focus on micro transit. So micro transit is a type of public transportation that is an on-demand service.

Ian: [00:01:46] So there aren’t fixed routes. And you know, you as the writer, you contact the agency, ask them for a ride from one spot to another, and they provide it if they have the capacity. Now, many of you are probably thinking, especially if you have ridden public transit in small towns, “Ian that’s just a dial a ride service.” And you’re right, it’s very, very similar to a dial, a ride service. But there are some like key differences here. One, micro transit services typically use an app for booking your rides. And number two, a lot of them, instead of being the kind of thing where you have to schedule your ride way out ahead of time up to like two weeks in advance. Micro transit services encourage you to just like right away when you need the ride, you open the app, you say where you’re going to from and where you’re coming from, and then you book the ride. Um, so we’re going to talk about there’s a few of these micro transit offerings in the Twin Cities right now, and we’re going to start off by taking a look at the Metro Transit Micro Pilot program in North Minneapolis. So let’s chat with Victoria Dan, who is a senior transit planner at Metro Transit.

Victoria: [00:03:11] So we launched Metro Transit Micro as a pilot micro transit Service on September 10th, 2022. We started the survey as a seven days a week service with a pretty wide span from 5 a.m. to midnight, um, in a portion of North Minneapolis, roughly from I-394 up to West Broadway and Golden Valley Road. If you’re familiar with that neck of the woods. We recently expanded our service area and adjusted our span of service so that we can serve more of North Minneapolis again 394 and up to Lowry Avenue, actually just north of north of Lowry Avenue, up to 34th Avenue. Again, if you’re familiar. And we kind of trimmed our span of service to respond to demand that we had seen in the prior roughly 4 to 5 months to begin around 5:30 a.m. and end at 10:30 on weekdays. And on the weekends we operate from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday. And it’s a pilot that is very affordable as far as on demand services go, especially compared TNC like Uber or Lyft or Taxi. It’s the same fares as you would experience on a local bus. So if you’re already a local bus rider in North Minneapolis, you just pay the fare exactly the same way that you would on any regular bus.

Victoria: [00:04:37] It’s about $2 for off peak fare, $2.50 for peak fare. And those transfers that you would get on local service applies also to micro as well. So you can transfer for free between those different mode offerings. And if you have discounts as well, those will also work. It is an app powered app enabled pilot service where we encourage people to download the app to their smartphone, create an account and start booking from there. But we know that’s not preferred or possible for everybody who would like to be able to use this service. So we do offer a dial in option as well for those who want to talk to a live reservationist and make their on demand trip that way by on demand mean that we offer trips within a 30 minute window of your request. So anything that can’t be delivered within 30 minutes is not offered. It’s truly an on demand service in that respect. We’re not going to provide, you know, a one hour window for that trip. It’s got to happen pretty reliably in in that span of time. And to that effect. We also do not offer standing reservations at this time. So you cannot reserve ahead and you cannot reserve multiple trips that are recurring. All right.

Ian: [00:05:51] Some quick stats about Metro Transit Micros pilot. So far throughout the pilot program, they have seen growth in ridership month after month, especially in March of 2023 when they expanded the service area. There was a big jump in ridership then. But, you know, even aside from that, every single month has been, you know, breaking records. Some common destinations that they are seeing. You know, there’s kind of the obvious ones. Like a lot of people are using it to go to the grocery store, run daily errands, going to school, stuff like that. But staff have also noticed that a lot of metro mobility users find that Metro Transit Micro pairs well with metro mobility, because metro mobility, you have to schedule your ride ahead of time. And so Metro Transit Micro pairs very well with this because it is a, you know, spur of the moment service. So those riders are able to choose which one of those services they’re going to, you know, contact, depending on whether this is a trip that they’re planning ahead for or a trip that is like right now, I need to go and do a thing. I was very interested to learn that only about 3% of trips are to or from a fixed bus station. Um, this is probably a little bit of an undercount because, you know, a lot of riders will sometimes take Metro Transit Micro to like drop their kids off at school and then the parent will walk to a, you know, a fixed route bus to complete the rest of their trip. But even so, like, I was expecting to see a lot more people trying to make connections to fixed routes to go somewhere else outside of the Metro Transit Micro Service area.

Ian: [00:07:48] Um, though now that I’m thinking about it, that is one of the challenges that I have had in, in, you know, the times that I have considered using Metro Transit Micro was like, I wanted to go somewhere else that was outside of the service area. And so what that would mean if I was already inside the service area was I would have to book a metro transit micro trip to like the C line or the D line or something like that, and then go downtown Minneapolis and then transfer to some other route. And at that point it was like, Well, okay, I might as well just hop on like the Route 7 bus and go downtown instead of, uh, going through these multiple transfers. So I do wonder if that if that dynamic might change in the future if we have many, many different micro transit service area zones. But we’ll talk a little bit more about zones in a couple of minutes. One thing that always makes me a little bit nervous when using an on demand transit service is, you know, is there actually going to be a ride available for me when I contact them? And I’m very, very happy to hear that about, um, the stats for Metro Transit Micro’s pilot is about 1% of riders did not accept the ride that was presented to them in the app and a little less than 2% of requests were not met with a ride that was available.

Ian: [00:09:18] So if if I could be assured that 98% of the time that I open the app, that there will be a trip available for me, like, that’s awesome. That’s a great rate. I would definitely use a service like that. Um, I think that that kind of thing is definitely helped by keeping the service area small, um, and, and not expanding it too much. I think that’s one of the reasons that like Transit Link really struggles is because they are, you know, it’s trying to cover way too vast of an area. You know, the entire seven county metro area outside of the places where we have fixed routes. Um, it’s, that is a very, very challenging, uh, distance to, to cover with a limited number of vehicles. Let’s kind of think forward into the, into the future because expanding the service area a little bit resulted in large ridership gains. Like what? What is the goal from this pilot? Are we are we thinking about, you know, I’m putting my galaxy brain hat on now. I’m like, okay, are we trying to build a transit system where we have like, you know, regular fixed route, high frequency stuff between like the two downtowns and between like downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America, you know, like the big ticket trips and then have a bunch of like small service areas, you know, throughout the metro, but like to get between those service areas for micro, you have to like take fixed routes. Like what what are we what are we thinking here?

Victoria: [00:11:01] That is a great question and one that we are continuously working through. And I’ll start by saying that there are kind of three overarching goals to this pilot, and especially it being Metro Transit and MTS’s first pilot for On Demand Micro Transit. You know, we’re operating in a very different. Text from some of the other suburban suburban transit agencies that also provide micro transit as well. Our service is also operationally different in some very key aspects too. So with that said, we are really just focused on being able to kind of test out some key components of how this service works. One, we want to test the equity factors of the service. We want to be able to serve low income and bipoc communities with this and not just the fact that we’re serving a service area with low income and bipoc community members, but we want to make sure that, you know, through the survey we can learn whether or not we’re meeting that goal. You know, who’s actually on board. Second, we want to expand access to our network, especially our high frequency network. So this is sort of an overlay on top of an area that already has a number of fixed route services, including transit ways C line D line. And we want to again see if people are using the service to truly expand their mobility options and connect into the broader network as well. And then third is a big umbrella of testing how the service works from an operations perspective, from a service perspective. We really want to know how specifically urban point to point micro transit pilot works for us in this region.

Victoria: [00:12:50] And, you know, certainly we’re learning a lot about how what we’re doing now works and there might be nuggets that we could take for, you know, future potential scenarios. But we are still very much in progress on determining as a as an organization, Metro Transit, MTS and all of our stakeholders. You know, what is what is that vision for, for micro transit and not just again, not just us, but also for, you know, our region, which includes many providers as well. So there’s a lot to be determined. So the survey that I’ve been talking about is part of a mid pilot evaluation process that is going on this spring and will wrap up by the summer. And there’s that survey component where we want to ask riders, you know, what their experience has been like, kind of rehashing what I’ve already said about, you know, their trip purposes or why they use it, but also, you know, how that interaction with the service also overlays with maybe their interaction with other services Metro mobility, transit link, fixed route, maybe other modes walking, rolling, driving their own vehicles, getting rides, TNCs, things like that. We also want to learn, you know, are there potential design tweaks that we can make to better meet kind of the expectations for customer experience on this service? Maybe this one, maybe, you know, again, potential future scenarios and there’s also a side of this evaluation that is very kind of quantitative. We’re looking at things like cost and efficiencies, how productive the service is.

Victoria: [00:14:33] And we also want to know things like how many of these trips that we know have been made on micro, how many of those could happen on the fixed route? How where are people going? What are those flows of of people? So it can inform not just this pilot, but also tell us more about how we can improve our other services as well. One of the challenges that we know, the offset of piloting this service and with really, truly any pilot is that you offer something new. And, you know, there’s a lot of uncertainty in that process. So this being a 12 month pilot, you know, we started in September, our kind of default end date would be September of this year. So so this midway point where we’re evaluating, that’s going to feed into some summer decision makings about what what does happen after 12 months. It could look like a variety of of scenarios kind of depending on, you know, what not just what our information tells us, but how we interpret that information. So we you know, we’re going to bring together some different perspectives internally to, you know, work through what what all of this means. And, you know, whatever does happen at 12 months, you know, I, I agree. You know, it’s not desirable to pull the plug and pull, you know, a fast one on on folks, especially if they’ve come to to enjoy and derive value from this pilot. So whatever we do, it’s going to require, you know, engagement with the public.

Ian: [00:16:11] Now, as I alluded to, the Metro Transit Micro Pilot project is not the only micro transit offering that we have in the. Twin Cities. I would like to focus a little bit on MVTA’s MVTA Connect Service. It’s a it’s a pretty interesting one. And here we have some audio from Patrick Chilton, who’s a senior manager of external affairs at MVTA. He made an appearance on a webinar hosted by Move Minneapolis, by the way. Move. Minneapolis has a great series of webinars if you’re interested in transportation stuff. Um, but yeah, he talked a little bit about the MVTA Connect service and would like to share those details with you.

Patrick: [00:16:57] Connect started as a pilot in June of 2019, operating only in Burnsville and Savage, but that quickly scaled up to include more cities in our service area and dramatically more rides. Connect is zone based, which is considered a best practice for on demand Micro transit. We currently operate two zones. There’s one Eagan zone and then there’s a Savage Burnsville, Apple Valley and Rosemont zone. Trips do not cross zones, but riders can ride to a fixed route service on micro transit cross zones on that fixed route bus and then ride again to get another Connect vehicle to take them to the rest of their way if that’s what they like to do. We recently implemented with our new RideMVTA app a three hour booking window, which was a pretty substantial change from being from folks being allowed to book up to a week in advance. And since we’ve solely been running that three hour booking window, we have seen wait times cut by five minutes and no show cancellations dropping by 2%. The data we’ve gathered from Connect has shown us potential gaps in our fixed route service and actually helped to kick start our ongoing County Road 42 BRT study. The map on this slide, on this slide shows straight lines between origin and destination.

Patrick: [00:18:05] Unfortunately not exact trip lines. Um, but you can kind of see the trends of where folks are going. And that orange line on the screen is a trend we saw of connect trips along CR 42. And so you can see how easily a BRT style service or an express service would fit in along that corridor. The primary issue for Connect and in reality, all micro transit is funding. There is no ongoing funding support for micro transit operations. Connect included funds connect ourselves at a rate of about $180,000 per month. Again, with no external funding support, dedicated funding for micro transit would allow fleet and service expansion and make transit more accessible for all Minnesotans. I think it’s safe to say that micro transit is here to stay in Minnesota and thanks to Southwest Transit for bringing it to Minnesota. But if we want to grow and be an effective transit option, we need to prioritize funding, we need to prioritize expansion, and we need to prioritize electrification to achieve the goals of micro transit, which is more options and better, more reliable and more affordable transit coverage for our communities.

Ian: [00:19:12] One thing that I really, really appreciate about MTA’s micro transit service is that it is integrated like very, very well into their app. So the RideMVTA app, it is the one stop shop for like everything that you might need in the MVTA system. They integrate Connect into the trip planner. So if you are requesting, you know, some advice on like what routes to take to get from where you are to a destination, it might suggest MVTA Connect as one of the legs of the trip. Quite often that would be like taking a fixed route express bus into the service area of Connect and then like, you know, from a transit center taking a Connect bus to your final destination. And you know, it has a button right there in the trip planner for like, okay, do you want to like book this ride and set that up? And just like it’s it’s seamless. It’s integrated, love that. [chef’s kiss] So I’m simultaneously kind of glad that we have multiple different agencies in the Twin Cities that are all trying out slightly different things in the transit micro world. But also it’s really frustrating because as a rider, like I don’t want to have five different apps installed on my phone for five different systems. I don’t want to have to remember which ones you can book rides ahead of time and which ones are like. You can only book them within the next half an hour.

Ian: [00:20:58] I don’t want to have to pay for a trip in one system and then be reminded that like, “Oh yeah, that doesn’t transfer over into this other system. So you have to pay twice.” Like it’s it’s too much for one customer to juggle all at once. Um, and I. And I really. I just. I want one regional transit authority, please. And if we had one regional transit Authority, I would love to see it operate, you know, like a series of micro transit zones throughout the Twin Cities region. Right. With fixed routes connecting each of those zones to each other. And then once you’re in a zone, then you can take a micro transit solution to anywhere else in that zone. I think that’s a really, really elegant, you know, next evolution of what public transit can look like in our region. Um, and you know, if you’re thinking to yourself like, well, is that going to just encourage us to, to like do, will we not have the goal of building dense, walkable, bikeable neighborhoods anymore? I don’t think that’s the case because like, as Metro Transit Micro is showing us, like even in the urban core, even in a, you know, dense, walkable neighborhood, it’s people are getting good use out of a service like Metro Transit Micro. So, um, I think I honestly, I think that’s probably my ideal scenario for, for public transit in the Twin Cities.

Ian: [00:23:00] In the meantime, one of the agencies here in the Twin Cities that is doing something a little bit different is Southwest Transit. So Southwest Transit was actually the first agency to start doing micro transit in Minnesota. They started up there actually, I think in the nation. They claim that they’re the first. They started Southwest Prime in 2015. And what Southwest Prime is, is they have kind of their home zone of where Southwest Prime mainly operates. And and that’s pretty much the cities of Edina, Eden, Prairie, Chanhassen, Chaska, Victoria, that area. Um, but then they also have what is called Southwest Prime Edge, which is if you want to take a trip from that area and leave to go to like Shakopee or anywhere along like the 494 corridor all the way to like the Mall of America or the airport? Uh, you can, you can book a trip from the main Southwest Prime area out to one of those destinations. Or you can book a trip from one of those exterior places into the Southwest Prime main area. So they recently announced that they are starting up a partnership with Lyft. You know, Lyft, the ride hailing company, the private ride hailing company. Kind of strange to see a public transit agency, you know, partnering with with a private company like that. So I wanted to learn more. And I chatted with some staff members at Southwest Prime to get some more info. Sure.

Ben: [00:24:50] So I’m Ben Schuler. I’m the senior systems and operations analyst here at Southwest. So right now it’s just a pilot program. So we under prime, we have a bunch of different services and two of them would be Southwest Prime Edge and then our MSP airport service. So that’s really the two areas that the Lyft partnership is going to help out for this pilot, mainly because those trips are typically a lot longer. So with the wait times being what they are in today’s environment, it’s just going to allow people to have another option. They might have to pay a little bit more. Um, but it’ll usually get them a lower wait time as well as lower trip time.

Ian: [00:25:29] Okay. So and so Edge is for trips where you’re taking them from like the Southwest Transit main area over into like Shakopee and those surrounding communities. And then.

Ben: [00:25:44] Yeah, so.

Ian: [00:25:44] And then your.

Ben: [00:25:45] Airport services.

Ian: [00:25:46] Airport.

Ben: [00:25:47] Yeah. The trips have to originate or terminate within our service area. And then it’s to and from Shakopee, Edina, the 494 Corridor Mall of America. And then, yeah, our airport service. The main reason why we just did the edge and airport services are because of the longer trip times. So if you take a vehicle that’s going to the airport, typically you’re losing that vehicle for a good hour, hour and a half. So really the thought is, you know, getting those more onto Lyft, we get our vehicles within our service area and a lot of those shorter rides we would be able to do.

Ian: [00:26:22] Have you have you seen like a decrease in wait times for rides? Because you mentioned that that was kind of one of the impetuses for like getting this off the ground.

Ben: [00:26:32] We have a little bit, but it’s nothing, you know, that makes a major impact. The hope is as the program continues to kind of grow, that that’ll that’ll end up helping with our wait times because realistically this is meant to supplement our service right now. Um, like I was alluding to earlier, in the past, we had the capability just to get vehicles and add them into service. And in today’s environment, we, we really don’t see vehicles until like 18 to 24 months after they’ve been ordered. So that’s really where this program we’ve been looking at integrating Lyft and Uber in the past. And I think because we had the ability to put vehicles into service, we just didn’t pursue it heavily. Now that we have no more resources to throw into service, that’s that’s kind of the reason this program came about.

Ian: [00:27:22] Right? And that’s and that’s not because, like, Southwest Transit doesn’t have a budget for new vehicles. That’s because, like, literally nobody can get their hands on new vehicles right now, right?

Ben: [00:27:32] Yeah, that’s that’s just the state of the transit vehicle world right now. Just not producing as quickly.

Ian: [00:27:38] What what kinds of vehicles does Southwest Prime usually operate? Are they like the like 20 foot half size buses or whatever?

Ben: [00:27:47] We do have some of the cutaways. I believe we have eight. The majority of the fleet, though, are braunability minivans, dodge caravans. Okay. Um, yeah. And we’re actually we’re expecting more. I think we’re supposed to see like three Ford Transit vans. Those are like a six passenger vehicle with a wheelchair lift on them.

Ian: [00:28:11] Those don’t have bike racks on them, do they?

Ben: [00:28:14] They don’t. We only have. So the cutaways have bike racks and then we have some Dodge Pro masters that have bike racks. The minivans just don’t have the capability for those. So essentially on the app, the rider would get a pop up saying, Hey, you know, Lyft service is available in this region. Please read the terms and conditions. If they agree to those, it’s just like booking a Prime ride. It’s just rather than seeing only Prime as an option, they would start to see a Lyft option there as well. So it’ll show the rider both options as well as the estimated drop off pick up and drop off times and the cost.

Ian: [00:28:51] Okay. Does the does the rider have to have like a Lyft account that gets like tied to their Southwest prime app?

Ben: [00:28:59] They don’t.

Ian: [00:29:00] Okay.

Ben: [00:29:00] Spare Labs is the platform we use for Prime. They’re actually the ones who hold the partnership with Lyft, so they have Lyft’s APIs integrated right into the app.

Ian: [00:29:11] We’ve been talking about using the, the Prime app. Um, is that can you, can you also call a number if you don’t have a smartphone?

Ben: [00:29:20] At this time? We don’t have it. I know it’s something that we we can explore. Just our biggest concern was making sure that the rider does get those terms and conditions in front of them before they’re agreeing to a program that they might not have all the information for. So that’s something that we are working through internally to figure out what would the best way to do that. But for now, currently it’s just through the app.

Ian: [00:29:42] Are you able to schedule any of these rides ahead of time or is it just like like right now, immediate rides?

Ben: [00:29:48] Yep, it’ll work just like it would with our regular ran edge and airport services. So Edge you’ll be able to book same day scheduling for your rides and use the Lyft option if you choose as well as airport, you can do that up to two weeks out and choose a Lyft option for that as well.

Ian: [00:30:06] It might cost a little bit more for a rider to use a Lyft option. Like what is what are the details there? Is there any subsidizing that’s going on?

Ben: [00:30:14] Yep. So basically how it’s structured is the rider would pay, you know, the first $5 we cover, the next $10, anything above that, it’s the rider’s responsibility.

Ian: [00:30:25] Okay. And is that based on like that first $5? Is that because Southwest edge rides usually cost $5?

Ben: [00:30:34] Correct. The price will vary depending on how much the rides are shown for. On the Lyft option at that time, Southwest Transit will cover up to $10 of their ride when choosing the use of Lyft, the price that the customer will see when they are booking their ride will be what they personally will pay, so that will already have Southwest Transit’s contribution deducted from it.

Ian: [00:30:56] Do you have any like data so far on the first few weeks of like how how much our customers typically paying for for Lyft rides?

Ben: [00:31:05] You know, I haven’t been tracking too closely, but I know anecdotally it’s typically under $10. Um, so, so I haven’t seen anything too excessive. I think the highest I’ve seen was maybe like $28 and that was a airport trip.

Ian: [00:31:21] So right off the bat there, you know, I can think of a lot of drawbacks to this system, right? Because it is just a Lyft ride that you are booking through a different app. You know, you’re never going to have like shared rides. So depending on who you are, you might consider that a feature or you might consider that to be, well, you know, now it’s less efficient. The drivers are never going to be like, you know, union bus operators, right? These are individuals who are at the whims of of Lyft. And you know what kinds of rates Lyft is going to decide to give them. You won’t be able to take like a bike on one of these Lyft’s you won’t be able to take, you know, a wheelchair if you have any ADA needs, right? Lyft can’t guarantee that they’ll be able to get you a ride for for that. So you know, there’s there’s a lot of drawbacks there. And ultimately like, you know, I, I would really question whether we want to, you know, allow like a private company to be eating up the, you know, the the funding that we’re trying to put into a public good like public transit. 

Ian: [00:32:31] Looking into the future since this is a pilot like what kind of data are you guys looking to gather here to inform like what the next steps are?

Ben: [00:32:39] I guess essentially seeing the impact on wait times and just seeing how many people end up using it. I mean, if it makes sense to have the option there permanently, I think that’d be something we’d we’d definitely pursue. I mean, giving riders multiple options for whatever their transit needs may be is always a good thing.

Ian: [00:33:00] So we’ve just talked about some ways that we can change like operations to improve our transit systems. In a minute, we’re going to talk about like things that we can physically change, about the buses, about the vehicles that we are riding in. But first, we’re going to take a little break in the parklet. Here we are in the beautiful Boom Island park, Minneapolis, Minnesota. We are at the tail end of the Streets.mn Picnic annual picnic. And Kyle here just won the raffle item for getting to have a guest spot on the podcast. So Kyle, do you want to introduce yourself a little bit for the audience?

Kyle: [00:33:44] Yeah, absolutely. My name is Kyle. I’m a Saint Paul resident and proud Streets.mn Reader. Happy to be at the picnic. I’ve been here lots of years and this year I was determined to win this spot.

Ian: [00:33:59] Yeah, you really called your shot. You announced very early like “I’m going to win.” You hadn’t even bought any tickets yet.

Kyle: [00:34:04] I pulled the Babe Ruth with. With the podcast. Yeah.

Ian: [00:34:07] So do you have any favorite pieces on Streets.mn?

Kyle: [00:34:11] Absolutely, yeah. There’s one in particular that I love. I believe it was written by Pine, and it’s about a sneckdown It’s really, really short, and a sneckdown is a feature that gets created in winter on corners in city streets where the the snow extends from the corner so much that it basically makes the walking pedestrian area larger. And it’s called a sneckdown.

Ian: [00:34:37] Like a it’s a it’s a it’s a curb bump out that wasn’t planned by any city planners. It just kind of happens naturally because of where everybody drives in the winter.

Kyle: [00:34:45] Yeah, yeah. Winter just insists that it happens. Yeah, it makes it happen.

Ian: [00:34:49] You bought some tickets for the raffle. So you believe that Streets.mn is a worthy cause to be supporting. What’s your pitch? Why do you think that people should be donating to to Streets.mn?

Kyle: [00:35:00] I think the reason Streets is, you know, needing and deserving more money now is because they’re doing more things that cost more money. They’re doing more work to to kind of increase the diversity both in the organization and and and, you know, for their readership mostly Streets does a lot of good journalism that is valuable if you want to be a local person that knows about local things, it can be really, really hard to find it out otherwise. So Streets is one place that you can go to to learn about it.

Ian: [00:35:27] Yeah, One of the missions, you know, the stated missions of Streets.mn is to be delight cultivating. Kyle do you have any recommendations for people on like what’s something that they could do in their life today to just cultivate a little bit of delight?

Kyle: [00:35:41] You could start literally dancing in place wherever you are and singing a song because that way you’re you’re making art and and, you know, creating joy for yourself. You can also just go find a dog to pet or follow an ant around on the sidewalk.

Ian: [00:35:58] That’s delightful. Yeah. Anything else that you wanted to add before we say goodbye here?

Kyle: [00:36:03] What a privilege and an honor to be on the Streets.mn Podcast! It’s a dream come true. Ever since the Streets podcast got launched, I, you know, have dreamed about being on it.

Ian: [00:36:14] Long time listener, first time caller. Right. That kind of thing. Yeah, absolutely. All right, Kyle, thanks for coming on.

Kyle: [00:36:19] Okay. Thank you for having me.

Ian: [00:36:27] All right. And we’re back to talk about ways that we can change the vehicles that we ride in with public transportation. First up, let’s talk about electrifying buses. MVTA actually has gotten to operate a small electric bus as part of their MVTA Connect Micro offering. So let’s hear from Patrick a little bit about that. He’s going to reference some pictures of like of the interior of the bus. And so I would encourage you to take a look at those in the show notes to to see exactly what he’s talking about.

Patrick: [00:37:09] So we’ll talk a little bit about the vehicles. And this is not going to be anything new, I think, for folks if you’ve seen micro transit. I think the majority of most micro transit fleets are cutaways, as you see on the bottom left of the screen, the gray vehicle. A cutaway is a vehicle is a non purpose built vehicle. It is a bus body built on top of a truck chassis. It’s pretty similar to like small RVs that you often see and ultimately does have typically the lifespan of those small RVs. Our other Connect vehicles are kind of a mix of vehicles like transit vans or just actual vans. Kind of ultimately, as we scaled up to meet demand, it was really vehicle whatever vehicles we could acquire and get on the streets safely that could carry passengers in an accessible way. We are also operating the e-jest mini bus, which has been in the news quite a bit lately, and that’s seen below. That is the orange vehicle and we’re operating that as a connect vehicle during its demo. I’m happy to talk a little bit about that if there are any questions.

Patrick: [00:38:14] Um, cutaways typically have a useful life between 4 and 7 years and depending on the make and model. But once they’re beyond their useful life, they really start requiring more significant time and money committed to maintenance. As a near-perfect example of this, 6 of our 19 Connect buses are beyond their maximum useful life, and we typically have between 2 and 6 connect vehicles in the shop and not running routes, which kind of gets to the ongoing issues that I’ll talk a little bit by the end of this presentation, a little bit more about the vehicles here on this slide, you can see the inside of a typical cutaway bus on the left with the greenish seats that are fabric covered. And it’s the e-jest mini bus on the right. One thing that we really like about e-jest is you can see how much more like a standard bus it looks like compared to the cutaway. We do like this because a vehicle like this can help make the user experience standard across all modes of service.

Ian: [00:39:10] There’s a few more interesting details about the e-jest bus than what Patrick was able to talk about in that webinar. So this is a small bus that’s made in Turkey. It was, you know, custom designed as an electric bus. So it has a few advantages over the the typical cutaway buses like Patrick mentioned. It has a longer lifespan, but also the the floor is lower. And so wheelchair boarding is much, much easier because it has a ramp that just comes straight out from from a door in the center of the bus instead of having to have like, you know, a whole like lift and whatever that’s going to bring the, the wheelchair up to the level of of the bus. Um, also the operators have been really enjoying this vehicle because the operator sits directly above the front wheels. And so it handles in a very similar manner to a normal like full size bus. And the pilot that they had going this bus was only operating in Minnesota for a few months in, in early 2023. Um, and, and so it did get to experience some of our winter season and they said that it was, it was doing very well. It was handling very well in the winter conditions here in Minnesota. So let’s think of some other reasons that we might want to electrify our bus fleets. Obviously, you know, from the community’s perspective, it’s really nice that they are much, much quieter. They have no direct emissions other than, you know, like the rubber tires on the road leaving small particulates of that. But it gets rid of all the exhaust from from the engine, which is also good for the climate. Right. Obviously, you know, number one priority for reducing carbon emissions from our transportation sector is just reducing vehicle miles traveled.

Ian: [00:41:23] So getting people to switch from their private vehicle to public transit is kind of the first major step. But then also being able to electrify the fleets that we’re using for public transit is going to be a big positive as well. Um, like I mentioned, a lot of these electric buses are going to have longer lifetimes than the diesel buses that they would be replacing. So ideally they would have lower lifetime costs because they you know, you don’t have to replace them as often. And also, you know, they’re less susceptible to the volatile prices of gasoline. Um, but, you know, none of that stuff is, is guaranteed. Um, but there is, you know, of course the higher upfront cost of, you know, the transit agency having to get like the charging infrastructure in their own garages, right. In their facilities. Um, and, and the buses themselves typically at this point, you know, cost more than the internal combustion engine versions of a similar bus. So yeah, if we can, if we can, uh, put funding towards, you know, making those higher upfront costs more palatable for these agencies, then I think we’ll see a big returns down the road.

Ian: [00:42:57] Another potential change that we can make to the vehicles that that drive us around is, hey, we could have the vehicles drive us around instead of having humans operating the buses. Um, self driven vehicles. Of course, the, the technology that is perennially just five years away from, you know, going prime time. Um, we have had a few different pilot programs in Minnesota testing out like self driven vehicles in various different contexts. And right now there is one that MnDOT is operating up in Grand Rapids, Minnesota called goMARTI.

Thomas: [00:43:37] So I’m Thomas Johnson-Kaiser I’m an engagement and project manager in our connected and automated vehicle office at MnDOT. goMARTI Pilot project is a really exciting, community driven self-driving shuttle project, so it’s really the result of working closely with the community of Grand Rapids to introduce this self-driving vehicle technology to the residents and visitors of Grand Rapids. So it’s initially an 18 month pilot project that launched back in October. So we’re about halfway through the pilot here. And what we have is we have five self-driving vehicles that cover about 17 square miles within the city of Grand Rapids. The vehicles operate point to point and on demand. So we have about 70 pick up and drop off locations throughout the city so folks can request a ride, either using May Mobility app on their smartphone or calling into a local call center 211 to request a ride. They’ll let them know where the closest pickup point is. They’ll let them know what they want to go and they’ll drop off at the closest drop off point. It’s free to ride during the pilot. We operate six days a week. Tuesday through Sunday, and we’re really looking to complement the existing transportation options. Grand Rapids currently has some transit options with Arrowhead Transit, but like a lot of places in rural communities, it is a limited transit compared to what you might see in the Twin Cities.

Ian: [00:45:16] Was that like was that a dial, a ride? You know, in town service, I know that Arrowhead also offers some like, you know, from one town into another, uh, but don’t know all the details. Yeah.

Thomas: [00:45:28] I believe it was more of that dial route ride in town type of service. Okay.

Ian: [00:45:33] Yeah.

Thomas: [00:45:33] So we have four main goals that we’re looking to accomplish with the project. The first is really we’re trying to advance and inform this automated vehicle technology, especially in rural winter conditions. So this self-driving vehicle technology is often tested in warm weather climates like California or Texas or Arizona. And in urban environments. So we’re wanting to test this technology to see how it performs in our harsh Minnesota winters, especially in in northern Minnesota. So we’re collecting a lot of data around that winter weather performance and kind of all weather performance, kind of looking at how the the vehicles perform in those weather challenges.

Ian: [00:46:19] Is that data going to be like publicly available or is this something that like a private company that partnered with you guys is just collecting all that and they’re only going to be able to use that for their self-driving research?

Thomas: [00:46:32] No. Yeah. So we’ll definitely, as the pilot concludes, we’ll be, you know, have a final reporting and that kind of data will be available as part of that. And we’re working very closely with the city of Grand Rapids and other local partners to be sharing that data and, and be yeah, also for MnDOT’s purposes of looking at at the technology itself as well. So it will be publicly available when the final reporting for the project wraps up here in early 2024. Okay.

Ian: [00:47:02] And who built the the self-driving vehicles that were that we’re using?

Thomas: [00:47:06] Yeah. The technology provider we’re working with is May Mobility. They’re a company out of Michigan, so they have a few other pilots throughout the country. But yeah, so they’re the providers of our we have five self-driving vehicles for this pilot and we’re really excited because three of them are fully ADA accessible with wheelchair ramps. So, um, can provide those transportation options for folks that might have some mobility challenges as well.

Ian: [00:47:33] Nice. Yeah. Okay. So that was, that was one goal, right? Yeah.

Thomas: [00:47:36] So yes, exactly. So next, we’re looking to really engage and educate the local community by providing that real world experience with automated vehicles. So we’re wanting it to be that two way engagement. So we’re wanting to educate them on here’s where the technology is. Currently at. And we’re awaiting to hear from the community in terms of what they might think about the technology, what use cases might be good for them. So we have pre and post ride surveys that we have people fill out when they take a ride. So that is really some more data we’re collecting to understand how people are experiencing goMARTI and what their thoughts are. On self-driving vehicles. We have a number of engagement events we’re doing within the community, so we’re also kind of tracking the effectiveness of those engagement events to to get that ridership and that feedback from the community.

Ian: [00:48:29] Is that so? Is that feedback the kind of thing where it’s like, okay, did it did it feel like the vehicle was driving safely or we like doing feedback about the service itself?

Thomas: [00:48:39] Yeah, both. So there’s questions on how safe it felt, how comfortable you were. And then also, yeah, just the, the service itself in terms of, you know, what would you typically use for transportation if you weren’t using goMARTI or things like that to kind of understand how they felt about the overall experience? Okay. And then something else we’re trying to do is really provide that safe, accessible mobility options for residents and visitors in Grand Rapids, especially those with transportation challenges. So some of the things we’re doing with that is we’re having a lot of the typical ridership type of data we’re tracking. So number of riders looking at repeat riders, number of wheelchair riders, kind of wait times that people are experiencing, the distance that people are having to travel to get to the various stops to better understand kind of where in the community they may want to go. So tracking a lot of data around ridership. And then the last thing we’re looking to do is really understand what the potential economic and economic development that bringing this type of technology to a rural environment may bring. So working closely with the city and other partners such as the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, which is another state agency in the area that focuses on economic development, to understand what the potential impacts of bringing this technology to Grand Rapids are.

Ian: [00:50:07] Okay. Yeah. How did you settle on Grand Rapids as the location to do this pilot project?

Thomas: [00:50:14] Yeah. So the city of Grand Rapids was the submitter, the proposer for the project. They brought it to us. So there’s been a really grassroots movement for a number of years in Grand Rapids of looking at how they can help solve some of their transportation challenges that they have. And they wanted to see if self-driving vehicles could help with that. So we’re very happy to partner with the city and other local partners to provide this pilot and and see if it can help address some of their transportation challenges.

Ian: [00:50:43] Yeah. What kinds of transportation challenges were they like talking about when they were applying for this?

Thomas: [00:50:48] Yeah, I think a number of things. So the accessibility aspect of having, you know, transportation for folks who may not be able to drive themselves. So going to make sure that was a big piece of it with those ADA accessible vehicles and then just the the variety. So our hours are operating mainly on evenings and weekends to really complement the existing transit options so that they don’t typically they didn’t have those options in those time periods before. So looking for more of those social events or that community building within the town of having those options for folks who may not be able to to drive themselves or just looking for another way to get around town.

Ian: [00:51:29] Yeah, yeah, that’s I mean that’s a time of day that is often overlooked by smaller transit agencies for sure. Right? So this pilot project has been going on since October. So you’ve had one winter season so far. Anecdotally, you know, how does it seem to be going?

Thomas: [00:51:48] Yeah, so it’s been going really well. We learned a lot in the first winter and that’s what’s really great about this 18 month pilot, is that we have a second winter coming up. We’ll be able to implement a lot of those lessons learned, but we did see a really drastic improvement from the beginning of winter. Definitely some challenges. You know, as we all know, this was a very snowy, harsh winter in Minnesota. So definitely had some challenges, but we saw great improvement even from the beginning of winter to the end of winter for the the technology. And we’re looking really to see how we can further improve that in this second winter and implement a lot of those lessons learned. And there’s a lot of things we didn’t necessarily initially think about in terms of accessibility, for example, with our stops. So when we were planning the stops, we weren’t exactly sure what they would look like in the summer versus the middle of winter. So some great lessons learned. On needing to be aware that these stops itself are very accessible for folks to to access goMARTI beyond just the technology being able to operate in those wintry conditions. Mhm.

Ian: [00:52:52] Mhm. Yeah. Yeah. Real important pieces of the picture.

Thomas: [00:52:56] I should have mentioned initially that there is a operator behind the wheel at all times to take over as needed. So there is that that safety aspect and that that piece that can help with with winter driving and help the vehicle know where to operate in some of those extreme challenging conditions. But currently for this pilot, all of the route that the vehicles operate are pre mapped. So it helps them to to know and all winter conditions. But there definitely are some adjustments that needed to be made. And one of the things that we found out which is interesting is that it wasn’t necessarily the road being covered itself, which was the challenge. It was in winter when there’s heavy snow banks in the side and there’s cars that are parked along the street, they they narrow and make the street a little narrower. So that kind of we mapped in summer conditions where there wasn’t that that situation. So having to be able to adjust to some of those winter conditions, not just the road itself, but kind of the whole transportation infrastructure environment that comes with winter. So definitely good to be testing and it’s exactly what the lessons learned. We’re trying to to find what this pilot is, how these vehicles do operate in these winter conditions, since, as I mentioned before, really a lot of this has been tested in those warm climates.

Ian: [00:54:15] Yeah. Um, and I guess it yeah, it definitely helps having a company as a partner that’s based in Michigan, right? Exactly.

Thomas: [00:54:24] Yeah. So this isn’t their first winter pilot, but definitely probably the the coldest in the snowiest one, right?

Ian: [00:54:30] Yeah. Do you know, like off the top of your head what other pilots they’ve, they’ve been involved in.

Thomas: [00:54:37] Yeah. So I know they’ve had, um, they recently launched one in Arizona. They have one currently operating in Texas and they’ve completed a few. They have one in Michigan going on right now and a few others throughout the country. And I believe they also have a pilot that they have had in Japan as well. So mostly it has been more in the urban areas. So this is also one of the first pilots, not just with May Mobility, but anyone with operating in a rural environment. So most of the testing has taken place in urban environments.

Ian: [00:55:08] The folks who are using this service, is it is it mostly like folks who live in town, or are we seeing people who are visiting town who are taking advantage of this as well?

Thomas: [00:55:18] It’s a mix of both. I would say mostly people within town. We have seen a very high percentage of repeat riders. So people who are seeing the value in using it consistently to to further transportation needs, but would say, especially in those summer months, as Grand Rapids gets more tourists. We have definitely seen some some folks from out of town that are wanting to check it out as well.

Ian: [00:55:41] Nice. Yeah. Is there anything about the project that we haven’t chatted about yet?

Thomas: [00:55:46] One thing I want to highlight is that which is really exciting is that recently the project received a federal grant to expand for another three years. So that just got announced recently and it was actually the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation agency that applied for the grant. And MnDOT is happy to to be supporting them just in the early stages of figuring out what that will look like. But we do know it was to expand the pilot for three years. So did see some positive nature with that and wanting to continue to learn more.

Ian: [00:56:17] So that’s so that’s three years on top of the 18 months?

Thomas: [00:56:21] Exactly.

Ian: [00:56:22] Nice. Okay. So four and a half years. Yeah. Looking at pilot projects from the perspective of like, you know, somebody from the community who like, you know, comes to really enjoy the service and likes you know, comes to rely on it. Like it’s always sad when they have to end, even though like, yes, we know that they’re, they’re learning good stuff and you know, hopefully are going to be able to implement that in a future service. But it’s always a bittersweet moment when when pilot projects have to have to end.

Thomas: [00:56:53] Yeah, exactly. That’s why we’re excited to extend it longer and continue to learn and see if this is something that the city and the community wants long term.

Ian: [00:57:02] Have you had any feedback from like bus operators unions or anything like that around. You know, what we’re looking for in the future as we move towards, you know, a time when we will be able to possibly like replace bus operators with, with just self driving technology.

Thomas: [00:57:20] Yeah, we have tried to work closely and involving all different people that could be impacted by self-driving vehicles. And we are looking at ways that we may need to reskill or upskill folks or new train. But at this point we haven’t heard any significant feedback. We currently in Minnesota law is that you need to require to have an operator behind the wheel at all times. So there would need to be a change in law to to have any substantial impacts. And the technology is also not quite there yet. So I think there we’re looking we’re planning to prepare for the future, but we haven’t heard significant feedback or concern from folks at this time.

Ian: [00:58:03] And in terms of like the. Yeah, the safety aspect, you know, like bus operators are the drivers on the road who we hold to the highest standards and you know, like they, they are the safest people. So yeah reaching that high bar is, is a lot more difficult than, than you know, trying to make a car that’s driving itself safer than like your average driver. Right.

Thomas: [00:58:32] Exactly. Yep. So yeah, safety is always top of mind. So yeah, that’s the number one priority for all of our projects.

Ian: [00:58:40] All right. Yeah. Thomas, any other final thoughts?

Thomas: [00:58:45] Uh, no. I just encourage folks, if they’re ever up in the Grand Rapids area to check out, goMARTI, and let us know what you think. We’re we’re wanting to get as many riders and feedback from the community as possible. So really appreciate the opportunity to talk about our exciting project up in Grand Rapids and yeah, really encourage people to take a ride.

Ian: [00:59:03] Awesome. Thanks for joining us.

Thomas: [00:59:05] Yeah, thank you.

Ian: [00:59:07] Thanks for joining us for this episode of The Streets.mn Podcast. This show is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Non-derivative license, so feel free to republish the episode as long as you are not altering it and you’re not profiting from it. The music in this episode is by Eric Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was hosted, edited and transcribed by me, Ian R Buck. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the Streets.mn Podcast, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at [podcast@streets.mn]. Find other listeners and discuss this episode on your favorite social media platform using the Hashtag #StreetsMNPodcast. Until next time, take care.

About Ian R Buck

Pronouns: he/him

Podcaster and teacher. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation. "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"