Moving Twin Cities Transit Forward

During and after COVID, I suspended my Quarterly Transit Report posts for There was nothing to report but bad news, and frankly, I was bummed out. The transit system I spent my career helping to build had shrunk by almost half. It kept shrinking because Metro Transit couldn’t hire enough employees, even when the ridership demand was there.

The situation seems to have stabilized and is back on a gradual upward trajectory:

  • The Legislature approved a new funding source.
  • There are more new hires than attrition.
  • Service is being added.
  • Ridership is slowly recovering. The new normal of remote work with sporadic office visits is pretty well established.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has reported the new shape of traffic congestion by time of day. We now know enough to speculate on the future of the transit system.

Peak Period Commuter Expresses

Metro Transit and the opt-out providers used to run almost 500 commuter express trips every rush hour. That number has shrunk by half and will never return to its previous size. The transit authorities have done the right thing, retreating to fewer routes that serve only the biggest of the park-and-ride lots. The small express routes with 30-minute service are almost gone and won’t return.

The big Metro Transit expresses that used to run every 10 minutes now run every 30, and that’s probably the way it will stay. The only missing piece is adding midday trips for half-day workers. A few of the big opt-out transit authority routes — Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, SouthWest Metro Transit and Plymouth Metrolink — are still running frequently, but one wonders if that will continue.

Even though demand is down due to working from home, the expresses are still an attractive option for the remaining downtown and University of Minnesota commutes. They all have transit advantages — ramp meter bypasses to enter the freeway, then E-ZPass express lanes and shoulder bus lanes on the freeways. And they’re cheaper than parking.

Although MnDOT reports less peak morning traffic than pre-COVID, the afternoon-evening rush hour is actually more congested. Speed, cost and reliability are still incentives to use commuter expresses.

Bus Rapid Transit

Metro Transit is investing big in bus rapid transit (BRT). The results seem divided into two groups. The arterial BRTs that largely replace heavy center-city local routes are doing well. The A Line (Snelling Avenue), C Line (Penn Avenue North) and D Line (Chicago-Fremont) all report ridership increases of about 30 percent above the previous all-stops local routes. It seems likely that the B Line (largely replacing the slow 21A Selby-Lake line), the F Line (replacing 10 Central) and the E Line (replacing Route 6, from downtown Minneapolis to Edina) will have similar success.

Bus Rapid Transit (photo courtesy of Metro Transit)

The original plan was to install arterial BRT and keep a local bus running on a less frequent schedule to still serve the local stops bypassed by the BRT. However, BRT diverts so many riders that there aren’t enough left to support a local service, so it has been eliminated along the A and C Lines and the Green Line. People who can’t or won’t walk multiple blocks to a BRT stop don’t get any service.

Not doing well are the Red Line (Mall of America to Apple Valley) and the Orange Line (downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville), both of which lack potential transfer ridership from other routes. They’re fast, but they make few stops, and there is little density of population, employment or retail at most of those stops, especially compared with the arterial BRTs. Most of the way they’re stopping along freeways, which places them a considerable walking distance through an uncomfortable environment.

Routemap 20190327 Hazel R01

I predict that the Gold Line (downtown St. Paul to Woodbury), the most expensive BRT route of all, will have anemic ridership for the same reason. One example: Given that the Gold Line will run along the north side of I-94, the freeway blocks walk-up ridership from south of the interstate.

Light Rail

Pre-COVID, light-rail trains (LRT) were carrying one of every three riders on the transit system. The trains are fast and reliable. They can knit the whole transit system together. They still could if crime, homelessness and anti-social behavior can be controlled.

Politicians who have no technical understanding have blithely suggested enclosing the stations to control access. Consider for a moment what that requires. Every station would have to be completely surrounded with fences. That includes gates across the tracks that would have to open and close with the arrival and departure of every train. This has never been done before anywhere. Would the track gates stand up to that level of use? It would only take a single failure to tie up the line.

Though I don’t support it, free fares on LRT would be the better alternative. In the end, enforcement is the only solution to fare evasion, crime and anti-social behavior on the trains.

The Metro Green Line Extension to the southwest suburbs will finally open in 2027. It’s too late to dwell on the mistakes that delayed it and ballooned the budget. The question is, how will it improve the transit system?

A Green Line train approaches Government Plaza between City Hall and the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis (Wikipedia Commons).

Travel to and within the southwest suburbs will be noticeably improved. The current transit infrastructure is bare bones. Reverse-commute service to the large employment concentrations in Eden Prairie and southeast Minnetonka has been almost non-existent. Now it will be a real option, especially if last-mile shuttle buses meet the trains to distribute riders through the Golden Triangle, Opus II and at Eden Prairie Station.

LRT, coordinated with feeder buses, will create a modest route network for the first time in St. Louis Park and Hopkins. Suburb-to-suburb crosstown trips will be possible for the first time. Travel times to downtown Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota from St. Louis Park, Hopkins and the area west of Bde Maka Ska will be greatly reduced.

Since the project’s beginning, I’ve believed that the Green Line extension from Hopkins to Eden Prairie was an expensive white elephant. All those bridges plus a short tunnel were very costly, yet it has little online or off-peak ridership potential.

  • Most of the Hopkins-Eden Prairie segment runs through industrial parks and other employment centers.
  • There is little residential or retail development.
  • And the rush hour potential won’t be realized unless shuttle buses meet the trains and fill that “last mile” gap to the employers beyond walking distance (which is most of them).

The exception will be for sporting events (direct to the Twins, Timberwolves, Lynx, Vikings, Gophers and Minnesota United) where the ridership should be spectacular.

The Metro Blue Line Extension, also known as the Bottineau Corridor through north Minneapolis to Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park, has more potential and should be less problematic.

Regular Route Local Buses

In the post-COVID world, most of the “choice” riders have abandoned transit, making it once again primarily for “transit dependents.” Unlike the 1960s, when ridership had a similar profile, this is a much more user-friendly transit system: better buses, much better trip planning information, faster service in some corridors and a route structure designed to enable more origin-destination options.

The ridership rebound has reaffirmed that the humble local bus routes are the heart of the system. Now the question is where to allocate the financial resources to maximize their ridership potential.

Photo courtesy of Metro Transit

There has been a national movement to advocate for making transit free. Should it be done here? There are arguments on both sides.

  • Pro: Free fares increase ridership, no question. They also eliminate fare disputes that result in assaults on bus drivers.
  • Con: Metro Transit spends a lot of money administering the fare system, but their staff tell me that the revenue far exceeds the cost to collect fares. Fare evasion is a clear-cut crime. Policing it is a convenient way to discourage the criminals, regulate the homeless and reduce anti-social behavior. Without it the police need to build individual criminal cases for every offense.

Given the reality of limited transit subsidies, I oppose free fares. The money would be better spent increasing service frequencies. The route structure is good, but more trips are needed to spur demand. Nothing discourages ridership more than long waits. Too much of the system today runs only every half hour. Most potential trips require a transfer to a second bus or train, and it just doesn’t work at half-hour frequencies.

Except for timed transfers at some transit centers, most transfers are randomly timed and cannot be changed. I’ve studied this, and where two routes with 30-minute frequencies cross, there is very little transfer activity. It’s too inconvenient. The frequencies need to get down to 15 minutes to encourage transfers. The place to start is with cross-town routes: 23, 30, 32, 46, 83 and 515. They’re short enough that 15-minute service can be achieved at a modest cost. From there, improve the lines that connect directly with the LRTs and BRTs.

In the suburbs, where most lines feed transit centers with timed transfers, buses should run at least every 30 minutes. There’s a huge difference in usability between 30 and 60 minutes.

Fewer bus stops makes transit less convenient in the suburbs (photo courtesy of Metro Transit).

Lately Metro Transit has been re-spacing bus stops to about every quarter mile instead of the former one-eighth mile. That makes sense in the heart of the city where buses are stopping at every corner, making for a slow trip. It makes no sense in the predominantly single-family neighborhoods farther from downtown. That’s where ridership is much thinner and buses stop infrequently. Wide stop spacing doesn’t speed up the trip — it just discourages ridership by eliminating conveniently placed stops.

I’m resigned to transit once again being the transportation of last resort, but at least we can make it as user-friendly as possible to maximize ridership.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.