Burnsville Heart of the City Station

How a Former Suburbanite Learned to Love the Bus

I grew up thinking I’d never be a transit lover. I expected to go down the usual path of the suburbanite, which was to eventually get my license and drive everywhere. Growing up, I knew that driving was something I really wanted to do. I had a tub full of Hot Wheels, I played a lot of racing video games (still do!), and most importantly of all, my family and I got around almost exclusively by car. 

Yet, the pieces for me to get to this place in my life — a transit lover who rides the bus or light rail throughout the Twin Cities — were still there.

Even though I grew up in Burnsville, I still walked to a lot of places on my own. I was right off McAndrews Road, a main thoroughfare in the city, not far from County Road 42. Across the street from me were a Cub Foods, a Holiday and a Little Caesars. Not far away was Burnsville Center and one of my favorite thrift stores, Unique. Despite the car-centric built environment, I still walked a lot. I remember having a sense that everything felt wrong — the wide roads, driving such short distances — but you didn’t walk or take transit if you had another choice. Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA), the bus operator south of the Minnesota River, was seldom used by those more well off. I never rode my first MVTA bus until well after I moved away from Burnsville. 

Despite these signs that I wasn’t at ease with being stuck driving everywhere I needed to go, I thought it was the only realistic path for a suburbanite like me. But, as it usually does, life happened.

County Road 42 at Nicollet Avenue in Burnsville. Photo by Katie Nicholson
County Road 42 at Nicollet Avenue in Burnsville (photo by Katie Nicholson)

Now, at 22, I have moved a few times since — from Inver Grove Heights to East Bethel to St. Louis Park and now landing in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, conveniently right near a bus stop.

Inver Grove Heights wasn’t so bad, as it lacks the typical wide suburban stroads (a street-road hybrid that fails at being either) of newer suburbs, still had a couple of bus routes where I was and has the bones to be perfectly set up for biking.

East Bethel, an exurb 30 miles north of Minneapolis, was terrible. I had no real way of getting my license due to circumstances beyond my control. Because the school I attended was so far away, I couldn’t get to after-school driver’s education courses. I was stuck and isolated with nowhere to go. But in summer 2017, everything changed when I discovered the video game Cities: Skylines.

Viking Boulevard at Highway 65 in East Bethel. Source: Google Maps

I was terrible at the start; I had trouble grasping the controls, I was designing the worst cities known to humankind and was generally not understanding how a city functioned. Eventually, however, I started to take inspiration from the street grids of Minneapolis, a place I could visit when I was able to get rides out of the house. I started to take note of public transportation and how it worked. All of a sudden, things started clicking. As someone who grew up knowing only suburbia, I started to understand what can make a city an amazing place to live.

Yes, Bussing Takes Longer

By summer 2018, it was obvious I had to get out of East Bethel. So, I made a move that I wasn’t sure was going to pan out. I moved out of the house I was living in with my aunt to my great-grandparents’ house in St. Louis Park. 

I started to take public transit to many places across the Twin Cities metro due to my newfound access to Metro Transit Route 17. I learned about how long it can take to get to other parts of the metro by only using public transportation. What were 20- to 30-minute drives in a car, even in traffic, became two- to two-and-a-half-hour rides. Every once in a while I would take an Uber, and I was lucky enough to get rides from friends sometimes, but I became pretty dedicated to getting places by public transportation.

A Route 17 bus running on Minnetonka Boulevard. Source: Metro Transit

Route 17 is an inefficient bus route. It runs from Knollwood Mall to Downtown Minneapolis and Northeast Minneapolis. I’d come to later learn that its off-peak 30-minute frequencies are not ideal for getting people to ride public transportation. It gets stuck in traffic on Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue, and trying to make connections into Downtown Minneapolis is like rolling dice.

But having a bus is much better than having no bus, and 30-minute frequencies are more convenient than hourly (it’s every 15 minutes during rush hour). My hope with this route is that with the Southwest light rail (Green Line extension) coming in the next few years, the B Line (scheduled to start service in June 2025) gets a western extension to serve the Minnetonka Boulevard corridor. Because if my predictions come true, the majority of Route 17 riders going into Downtown Minneapolis are going to choose to transfer at West Lake Station to speed up their travel times significantly. Right now, in order to continue east on Lake Street into St. Paul, you must transfer to the impossibly slow Route 21, but a B Line extension would give people new, direct connections to the A and E rapid transit lines and the Blue Line LRT, as well as other local bus lines within the Lake Street and Selby Avenue corridors.

This is what happens when you ride Metro Transit all the time. You become experienced with the routes and likely the most qualified to make recommendations for the better, faster service that will get more people riding.

The Freedom of Walkability

By summer 2019, it was time to say goodbye to my beloved Route 17. It may have been a pain to ride a lot of the time, but I learned a lot that year about public transit. I actually enjoy riding it a lot! Even with how long it can take, transit became my favorite way of getting around. So, big city, here I come!

Despite being within St. Paul city limits, Highland Park is designed similarly to St. Louis Park, with the same medium density I was already used to. And yet, I felt like a whole new world had opened up! I had places I could easily walk to, like the grocery store and a wide selection of restaurants along Ford Parkway and more places to which I could take direct public transportation, such as the Midway neighborhood. This is also the first time I was introduced to a new type of bus transportation.

METRO A Line Bus Rapid Transit. Source: Wikimedia / User Central Corridor

Arterial Bus Rapid Transit (aBRT) arguably cannot be considered true Bus Rapid Transit, given the lack of dedicated lanes for the bus. The A Line has its fair share of problems due to the lack of dedicated lanes and spotty transit signal priority, but it felt like such an upgrade compared with just a regular local bus! I find myself often pulling at a stop too early whenever I ride a local route due to the stop spacing. I also no longer had to wait as long due to its 10-minute headways (now 15 minutes outside of noon to 6 p.m. weekdays). The A Line was the first aBRT project in the region, and happens to be my home route. I love riding it and use the A Line to get to work at the airport, but the shortcomings of the A Line — and the Twin Cities transit system overall — have become apparent to me over these past five years.

Our current Twin Cities transit system is rigid. The majority of routes assume you’re going to Downtown Minneapolis, Downtown St. Paul or the Mall of America. Exceptions like the A Line exist, and I’m lucky to be able to take transit to a job that isn’t in one of these cores. But my final destinations rarely are the core downtowns, and I suspect that’s the same for other people, too. The best way forward — if we want to get more people riding transit — will be shifting toward a more grid-like system. The best public transportation systems are flexible, allowing you to choose when to leave and where you can go.

Despite the shortcomings of our public transportation system in the Twin Cities, I look forward to seeing the ways we can improve, with initiatives like Network Now, Metro Transit’s short-term implementation of local route improvements, as well as Network Next, Metro Transit’s long-term implementation of Arterial Bus Rapid Transit, Highway Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail Transit. In the long term, I hope to see public transportation improve in our cities and suburbs.

About Katie Nicholson

Pronouns: they/she

Katie grew up in Dakota County, but has now landed in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood, giving them experience on the different ways people get around the cities we live in. They enjoy a car-free lifestyle, preferring to get around on foot, bicycle and especially public transportation. Outside of transit and transit advocacy, Katie enjoys their time watching cartoons, using old technology, taking a walk in the park and spending time with friends.