State Fair gives Minnesotans a transit lesson

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Four decades ago, my in-laws would drive their Ford Galaxie 500 up from southern Minnesota early on senior discount day at the State Fair, just to be sure of getting a curbside parking spot in the middle of the fairgrounds.

You can’t park on the streets inside the fairgrounds anymore, although the fair has outlying lots for 9,000 cars and entrepreneurial homeowners around the periphery offer spots for hundreds more. You’ll pay $11 to park at an official fair lot ($22 with a trailer, $9 in advance) and probably more to a private operator.

These alternatives are all first come, first served. So with more than 100,000 people attending the Great Minnesota Get-Together on an average day – twice that many on the final Saturday — your chances of scoring a convenient parking place aren’t good at any price.

There are better options, however. You can park a bicycle for free at three of the fair’s entrance gates. Or you can chose from more than 52 bus services, including private charters, free park and ride, Metro Transit round-trip express runs for $5 ($4 in advance) and regular Metro Transit routes (75 cents to $2.25 each way, depending on age, disability and time of day). Details are in the transit brochure (PDF).

Last year, 42 percent of fairgoers, more than 700,000 in all, took the transit advantage. The free park and rides alone, for which the fair pays Metro Transit more than $1 million, transported more than 400,000. Bus patronage to the fair has increased nearly every year since records started in 1993 with just over 200,000 riders, and it has more than tripled over that span, while overall fair attendance has remained virtually flat at around 1.7 million.

Over the same period, total transit ridership throughout Minnesota also has increased, thanks in part to the State Fair’s example.

“It’s a great way to get people used to the idea of using the bus,” said Nacho Diaz, former director of transportation for the Metropolitan Council. “It’s been a tremendous, tremendous success. Everyone who has ridden that bus has told me they really like it.”

Even if you’re still fighting traffic in your private car to get to the fair, consider how much worse the gridlock would be if all those bus riders were drivers. It would be a nightmare.

Steve Grans, the fair’s transportation manager, said the 12-day Get-Together couldn’t attract the crowds it does without transit strategies. “We need all of them,” he said. “And anybody who rides a bus to the fair once will never drive again – especially with the park and ride, because it’s free.”

The fair launched park and ride service with a few small lots about 30 years ago, Grans said. Now there are 32 lots around Minneapolis, St. Paul and first-ring suburbs. Express buses run from 17 other locations, mostly in the outer suburbs. The fair’s transit success has prompted other big-drawing events such as St. Paul’s Cinco de Mayo, Minneapolis’ Uptown Art Fair and even the gearhead-oriented Minnesota Street Rod Association’s Back to the ’50s Weekend to establish park and ride.

For a century and a half, the Minnesota State Fair has been showcasing the latest advances in agriculture, technology and food on a stick. Now the fair is also demonstrating the economy, comfort, efficiency and time savings of transit service for crowded destinations. It’s a lesson transportation planners across the state should take to heart.

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