Making Transit Work in the Suburbs

Transit has always been mostly an inner-city thing. It struggles in the suburbs, where lower densities, greater distances between destinations and inadequate pedestrian infrastructure stack the deck in favor of the automobile. That said, there are many suburbanites who don’t, or can’t, drive and need transit to get around. Transit planners need to serve their needs, too, and suburban transit has come a long way toward doing that in recent years.

For this post I’m not talking about commuter expresses to downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis. Although their ridership has shrunk with the COVID-instigated rise of working from home, the commuter express formula still works for the reduced market and doesn’t need fixing.

I’m talking about the suburban local market, the last resort for people without an alternative. The goal is to achieve some kind of basic mobility within and between suburbs. Given that ridership will always be lower and subsidies much higher than city routes, we have to answer two questions:

  1. What service strategy will be the most successful at attracting riders?
  2. Can we afford it?

That second question is important, because the suburb-to-suburb market is so hard to crack and thus so expensive to run. Any transit planner will tell you that a dollar of subsidy spent in the inner city attracts at least twice as many riders. The temptation is great to fund the minimum in suburban service needed to mollify the politicians and spend the rest elsewhere. That policy guarantees continued inconvenient service and low ridership.

For purposes of this article, let’s assume that we can spend what’s necessary to create reasonably convenient suburb-to-suburb service.

Market Areas

We have to take a more nuanced view of the transit market than the urban/suburban dichotomy offers. Metro Transit has broken the metro into market areas based on its data.

Map courtesy of the Metropolitan Council

Market Area 1 contains the two downtowns, a narrow strip connecting them (roughly along the routes of I-94 and the Green Line), and the closer-in neighborhoods where apartments were never restricted. In Minneapolis, that’s 38th Street on the south to Lowry Avenue on the north. In St. Paul it’s the Midway, the North End and part of the East Side. Market Area 1 can support high frequencies and long service hours. It’s way more productive than anywhere else.

Market Area 2 covers most of the rest of Minneapolis and St. Paul and extends into the first-ring suburbs. Ridership falls off dramatically from Area 1, but densities are still moderate, and the gravitational pull of the downtowns can still be felt (although much reduced from what it used to be). The traditional heavy local bus routes actually have most of their mileage in Area 2. Everything runs at least every 30 minutes, with better frequencies not uncommon.

Market Area 3 is what we really think of as suburban service. It’s the second- and third-ring suburbs: Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, Minnetonka, Burnsville, Blaine, Maplewood, Woodbury, Inver Grove Heights. St. Paul and the east metro have always been the weaker transit market, due to smaller populations and a much smaller downtown.

Market Area 4 covers the exurbs, including Chaska, Victoria, Minnetrista, Long Lake, Corcoran, Rogers, Ham Lake, Columbus, Grant, Cottage Grove and Coates. Basically, this is where transit throws up its hands and walks away. Other than maybe park-ride based downtown commuter expresses, there is no market for fixed route service. Long distance demand responsive (dial-a-ride) is a social services safety net with advance reservations, not a viable everyday way of getting around. As part of this analysis, I don’t propose increasing service to Market Area 4.

How We Got Here

When Metro Transit took over the privately owned transit system in 1970, transit was local routes radiating from the two downtowns, a couple of urban cross-towns and that was it. Except for Richfield and Bloomington, no suburb-to-suburb service existed, unless the trip happened to be on one of the downtown-oriented routes like Nicollet Avenue, which went all the way to southern Bloomington.

Metro Transit first extended the local routes farther out. Next came the network of downtown commuter expresses based at park-ride lots. Finally, starting in the 1990s, suburban transit hubs were created. The ends of the radial local routes to downtown were all diverted to the hubs, where they connected with new suburb-to-suburb services, hopefully with timed transfers. It should be added that routes that dead ended in center city residential neighborhoods were extended to connect to longer routes that reached into the suburbs.

I should explain how the transit hubs happened.  Up until the 1990s, the timing of almost all transfers was completely random. It still is in places where routes cross each other to form a grid. Under that paradigm, unless the connecting bus routes run frequently— at least every 15 minutes— few riders will make the transfer. It’s too inconvenient.

At Metro Transit, where I worked as a planner and manager for 33 years, we started to hear about a new approach to timed transfers being advocated by Professor John Bakker of the University of Alberta and applied in Canada. Today we’d call this setup “hub and spoke,” like the well-known model used by the airlines.

Bakker proposed a network of transit hubs located a 20- to 25-minute bus ride from one another. Bus routes would radiate from each hub, in the process connecting the hubs with each other. All the buses would leave all the hubs at the same time, arriving at the next hub 20 to 25 minutes later. All the buses would have five to 10 minutes to exchange passengers, then off they’d go again. The short route lengths and generous layovers would ensure reliability, and all transfer connections would be guaranteed, even if service was infrequent. By hopping from hub to hub, trips could be made reliably, even with hourly frequencies.

Given the realities of geography, it’s hard to make all the routes 20 to 25 minutes apart so all the timed transfers work. Nevertheless, we created the hubs and, with some exceptions, they work as planned.

The network of transit hubs, making suburb-to-suburb trips possible.

I wrote for in 2014 about the hubs active at that time. Here’s the updated list:

  • Southdale
  • South Bloomington (98th & I-35W)
  • Mall of America
  • Blue Line 46th Street Station
  • Sunray Shopping Center
  • Maplewood Mall
  • Rosedale Center
  • Columbia Heights (41st & Central)
  • Northtown Mall
  • Brooklyn Center Transit Center
  • Starlite Center in Brooklyn Park
  • I-394 & Louisiana Avenue in St. Louis Park

We at Metro Transit weren’t the only ones reading up on Bakker’s ideas. Minnesota Valley Transit Authority created the Burnsville Station, Apple Valley Station and Eagan Station. SouthWest Transit built the Eden Prairie Station. Although not an off-street hub, the opening of the Orange Line BRT (bus rapid transit) line included a timed transfer point at the American Boulevard Station in Bloomington.

The transit hub network is almost complete. The only suburban corridor without a hub is northern Dakota County. It’s always been the weakest in the metro, but it needs an outlet to reach the suburbs beyond it. A hub would connect the Metro Transit routes in West St. Paul, South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights with the airport, the Mall of America and Minnesota Valley Transit’s routes in Eagan.

When the Green Line light rail extension is completed in 2027, it will connect St. Louis Park and Hopkins to Eden Prairie for the first time and create a first-time feeder bus network within St. Louis Park and Hopkins. Similarly, the Gold Line BRT will bring all-day service to Woodbury for the first time, feeding connections at the Sun Ray Transit Center.

Connecting the Hubs

Timed transfers at the hubs currently allow transit riders to move around within the hub’s service area as well as head into the city, often by more than one route. What is less common is the ability to move from hub to hub across the suburbs. Connecting the hubs is the real requirement to complete the suburb-to-suburb network. Here are the direct links currently in place:

  • Southdale to Mall of America
  • Mall of America to South Bloomington
  • Mall of America to Burnsville Station
  • Mall of America to Apple Valley Station
  • Mall of America to Orange Line American Boulevard
  • Southdale to Orange Line American Boulevard
  • Sunray to Maplewood Mall
  • Rosedale to Columbia Heights to Brooklyn Center
  • Columbia Heights to Northtown
  • Brooklyn Center to Robbinsdale
  • Brooklyn Center to Starlite
  • Starlite to I-394 & Louisiana

These links are missing:

  • Orange Line American Boulevard to Eden Prairie Station
  • Maplewood Mall to Rosedale
  • Southdale to the new Green Line LRT
  • I-394 & Louisiana to the new Green Line LRT
  • West St. Paul to Eagan
  • West St. Paul to MSP airport
The Mall of America's rebuilt transit station hosts the Blue Line, Red Line , D Line and ten other bus routes.
Photo courtesy of Metro Transit

More Frequency

With the hubs and links in place, the next step is to increase frequency. In the past, much of the Area 3 service has been hourly, which is inconvenient at best. Although half-hourly may not seem great, it’s a huge improvement over hourly, and should be the standard in Area 3. The transit operators have been moving in that direction.

By far the most successful transit hub has been the Brooklyn Center Transit Center, where 10 routes meet for true timed transfers, almost all running every half hour. Together the route network spans North Minneapolis, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and Robbinsdale, also reaching into Columbia Heights, Arden Hills and Roseville. Among them is Route 724, where the frequency has increased to every 15 minutes due to demand.

Route 515, the 66th Street Crosstown in Richfield, is unique among suburban routes for making random transfers where it crosses major routes 4, 6, 7, 14, 18 and D Line. Before COVID it was part of Metro Transit’s High Frequency Network, running every 15 minutes. It now runs every 30 minutes as an economy move. It should go back to every 15 minutes.


The average Twin Cities commute takes about 25 minutes, and few people are willing to commute more than an hour. Local suburban bus routes average 15 mph, which means a six-mile trip takes 24 minutes. Any transit trip taking an hour probably involves a transfer, which would limit it to about 12 miles at the outside. That rules out transit for any longer trips unless faster transit can be part of the trip. It’s happening in a few places. Light rail and BRT have made some suburb-to-downtown trips much faster.

The Red line at Apple Valley Station.
Photo courtesy of Metro Transit

If shortening the trip became an important enough goal (and money was no object), fast links between hubs could make a difference. We have one example. The Red Line BRT is really fast (35 mph) on its journeys from Apple Valley Station to Mall of America. Not well patronized, but fast.

The Last Mile

Perhaps the biggest suburban transit challenge is getting transit service within walking distance of all origins and destinations. There simply isn’t enough money to achieve half-mile route spacing like in the cities. The suburbs often lack street grids, so walking routes are circuitous. Although there has been a huge increase in the number of suburban sidewalks, plenty of gaps remain. Also, there tend to be barriers between the street and adjacent private properties: berms, landscaping and no sidewalks into the property.

How to bridge that last mile from the transit station to the destination? In warm weather you can bring a bike or battery-powered scooter with you. Otherwise, it comes down to three alternatives:

  1. A fixed-route bus.
  2. A demand-responsive (dial-a-ride) vehicle.
  3. A friend or family member with a car to pick you up.

I’m watching to see what happens at the new Southwest LRT’s Opus II and Golden Triangle stations. Both serve large, spread-out employment concentrations with defined boundaries. One vehicle, either fixed-route or demand-responsive (dial-a-ride), ought to be able to meet all the trains. If there’s a large employer, they may send a van over.

The Southwest LRT will serve the Opus II and Golden Triangle employment concentrations, much of which is beyond convenient walking distance. These are ideal locations for last mile feeder buses.

Some have suggested that fixed routes are too inflexible and that dial-a-ride is the right mode for suburban transit. On the positive side, it can take passengers directly to their destination. Unfortunately, its efficiency declines dramatically as its service area increases. If dial-a-ride trip length isn’t constrained, passenger capacity per hour drops to one or two, and cost becomes the same as taxis or Uber. Dial-a-ride is only affordable if it’s tethered to a transit station and has a small roaming area. It can be a viable alternative if it has to return to the station to meet the scheduled trains and buses at a certain time, and can’t wander far.

One More Hopeful Sign

The population density of the suburbs is increasing. Recent years have seen an unprecedented boom in apartment construction, much of it clustered around established transit service. Despite slowing down due to higher interest rates, the building trend is going to continue. That can only be good for transit, and could make all these improvements easier to fund, build and expand upon.

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.