OPINION | Adapting transit for the 21st century

A lot of attention has focused lately on the Green Line, the Twin Cities' second light-rail transit project, scheduled to begin service June 14.

This will be the backbone of a true 21st century regional transit system, connecting the two downtowns via the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus, the busy Washington and University Avenue commercial strips and the State Capitol complex. It's no surprise that it has already spurred $2.5 billion in real estate development along its 11-mile route, with much more expected to come.

What's less understood is that the sleek new trains are only a part of widespread changes in Metro Transit service throughout the heart of the Twin Cities, all of it designed to get the most out of the $957 million federal-state-local investment in building the Green Line. In all, more than 20 bus routes will be affected, including a brand new one on Lexington Parkway and, late next year, the introduction of speedy, high-quality arterial bus rapid transit on Snelling Avenue. Other buses will get schedule or route changes for better links with the light rail.

With 13.2 million annual riders predicted on the Green Line by 2030 -- don't be shocked if, like the (Hiawatha) Blue Line, it blows past the projection much sooner -- 40 percent are expected to connect with the rail stations by bus. Bargain transferable fares ranging from 75 cents for seniors 65-plus and children 6-12 at off-peak hours to $2.25 during the weekday rushes will make this an attractive option.

While the Green Line opening may be the catalyst for the single greatest transit reshuffle in Twin Cities history, this too is only one step in ongoing updating of Metro Transit's service. Like most city transit systems, ours closely follows the paths of streetcar lines laid out more than a century ago. But as the region has grown, service has expanded far beyond the original network. Metro Transit now runs 125 bus routes and independent suburban agencies provide many more. Freeway express routes such as the No. 467 from a Lakeville park-and-ride are some of the more recent additions.

Wholesale changes in transit operations can spark controversy if efforts to make a system efficiently carry more people result in less service for a few others. In many places, streetcar legacy routes offer expensive, slow and meandering bus service to not many riders.

Houston Metro has just floated a "Reimagined Network Plan" touted as more than doubling the number of residents, to 1.1 million, within a half-mile of frequent transit service and increasing by 55 percent the number of jobs within a half-mile -- all without higher operating costs.

"The trade-off ... is that some residents who currently rely on the bus will likely see their access get a little worse," Eric Jaffe noted on The Atlantic Cities blog. But the plan's designer, Jarrett Walker, says only one out of 200 riders will end up more than a quarter-mile from service, "and most of them just over that" but often with a "longer walk to better service."

Best of luck to Walker and company with the plan, but big changes in public services tend to be contentious if anyone is disadvantaged. In the Twin Cities, we've largely avoided this pitfall in three ways.

  • Metro Transit is developing a service improvement plan for the next 10 to 15 years heavily informed by workshops with officials and community groups as well as 4,000 online surveys submitted by people the agency calls its customers. The goal is to prioritize long-term transit improvements in line with actual needs.
  • When major adjustments are undertaken, as with the Central Corridor comprehensive transit plan, they are predicated on a new service with its own operating costs -- less per Green Line light rail passenger than for the Route 50 limited-stop bus it will replace. The Route 50 budget will go toward the new No. 83 on Lexington and improved service for other routes connecting to the Green Line.
  • Metro Transit also regularly reviews individual routes to respond to rider input, changes in housing, job centers or school schedules or issues with on-time performance.

These efforts are a full-time job for a 12-person planning team whose goal is to "optimize our resources," said spokesman John Siqveland. It's an indispensable endeavor to keep providing efficient and affordable transit mobility to our ever-changing Twin Cities area.

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Conrad deFiebre's picture
Conrad deFiebre

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020.