Building A Network Of Rapid Buses — The Universe of Alternatives

Originally posted on Streets.mn

This past weekend, dignitaries and Metro Transit staff helped cut the ribbon on the C Line, the Twin Cities’ newest rapid transit service. The C Line is the second project in a planned set of five “Arterial Bus Rapid Transit” (aBRT) routes, the most exciting thing that is happening (and not happening fast enough) for transportation in the region.

Last fall, I wrote a review of the early success and possible future of Metro Transit’s Arterial Bus Rapid Transit (aBRT) program. The first aBRT route in the Twin Cities—the A Line along Snelling Avenue and Ford Parkway—increased ridership in the corridor by offering a superior transit product. With aBRT, buses come more frequently and stop less often. Stations are highly visible, provide real-time arrival information, and allow fare prepayment to enable all-door boarding and shorter dwell times. The result is first-rate transit service that experts rank among the best bus routes in the country. All of this was achieved for a cost in the tens of millions. That’s a fraction of the expenditures needed to boot up a new light rail or highway BRT line.

Metro Transit will hope and expect that the C Line service along Penn Avenue N, running from the Brooklyn Center Transit Center into downtown Minneapolis, is a similar success. Three more routes are currently in stages of planning and engineering. The D Line will also start from Brooklyn Center, motor along Emerson and Fremont Avenues in North Minneapolis, and along Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis to the Mall of America. The B Line will start from the future Green Line West Lake Station, traveling along Lake Street in South Minneapolis, Marshall Avenue in West St. Paul, and possibly beyond to downtown St. Paul. The E Line will chart a course from Uptown via Hennepin Avenue in South Minneapolis, to the University of Minnesota via 4th Avenue SE and University Ave SE, and possibly further at both ends.

Despite this obvious success, aBRT has been slower to scale up politically than hoped. This year’s legislative session moved to help Metro Transit fill its growing Metro Mobility funding obligations, but failed to deliver the money needed to build the D Line, nor proposed long-term funding for the aBRT program. These set-backs are frustrating, but there remains strong support for aBRT at all levels of government, especially among urban legislators. Over the next two legislative sessions, which will include a 2020 bonding bill and a post-election shift in power in 2021, there are reasons to hope for a breakthrough in time to complete this initial slate of very strong projects by 2024.

But what comes next? In proposing a new sales tax to fund bus expansion, Governor Tim Walz proposed to fund ten new BRT routes. In addition to the five routes already proposed, this could put MSP on the path to a network of fifteen aBRT routes by 2030, a goal I also proposed last year. That’s still possible, if local and state leaders commit to moving in that direction. The primary delay in booting up aBRT routes is not technical, but political. If funding were secured for the next five, ten, or fifteen routes, planning, engineering, and construction could proceed much more quickly. But because detailed engineering and construction are still well in the future for of these any new proposed routes, work should begin on the overarching planning for the next expansion of aBRT routes today.

The existing framework that the region has for bus expansion is the 2012 aBRT corridor study. That study is inadequate. The list of corridors studied is slapdash. Clearly inferior routes, like American Boulevard, are included, while obvious ones like Franklin and Lyndale are omitted. Meanwhile, other corridors (like Lake Street) are cut short in unhelpful ways, and natural corridor combinations (like Nicollet and Central Avenues) are not made. More worryingly, the Met Council is now promoting a “vision” for rapid transit in the Twin Citiesthat—and I take no pleasure in pointing this out—is galaxy-brain stupid, plotting BRT routes through fields of corn while neglecting the places that best support transit.

In short: there’s a compelling need to revisit the 2012 study, nip this new “transit vision” in the bud, and provide a better plan for bus rapid transit in the Twin Cities.

The first step is starting with the right premise. Just thirteen bus routes provide over half of Metro Transit’s local bus ridership. It’s realistic to set a goal for over half of bus trips to be taken via aBRT by 2030, and over half of all trips in the entire Metro Transit portfolio to be taken by aBRT sometime shortly after that. For about the same investment as a single light rail line, the Twin Cities could improve the quality of transit for over a hundred thousand weekday rides, and increase ridership along these routes by 30% or more. The proposition is too good to pass up. The future of rapid buses will be as the flagship transit service of the Twin Cities.

In order to achieve this, all future plans must first be comprehensive, beginning with the full universe of arterial roads in the best transit market areas in the metro. Next these routes must be measured against each other. After that, a future network can be illustrated, with lines that compliment each other and follow important, easy-to-understand routes. The last step is to develop a scheme to prioritize these routes and determine the order of construction.

This article is the first in a three-part series, going through the process outlined above, in a rudimentary way. It is not meant to be the final word. It is not peer reviewed research. What this series will be, I hope, is a conversation starter for what a future Twin Cities rapid bus network could look like, and how to get there.

Identifying Corridors

The core Twin Cities have a funny kind of symmetry; Minneapolis looks a lot like St. Paul turned ninety degrees counter-clockwise. Both cities also share a similar pattern of streets. As a general rule, arterial streets run in a half-mile grid. Because of this similarity in layout, both cities also have similar patterns of bus service, b Metro Transit runs its highest frequency buses on every downtown-bound arterial corridor (radial routes, every half mile), and runs decent bus service on every other crosstown arterial corridor (circumferential routes every mile). We can use this pattern to collect a set of corridors for further study.

South Minneapolis. The underlying grid provides the scale. Each line represents a quarter-mile, so two boxes equals a half-mile.

South Minneapolis. The underlying grid provides the scale. Each line represents a quarter-mile, so two boxes equals a half-mile.

The purest expression of this form is in South Minneapolis. Hennepin, Lyndale, and Nicollet Avenues are each a half mile from the other, and support frequent north-south bus service towards downtown. In the perpendicular direction, Franklin, Lake, 38th, and 46th Streets are one-mile apart from the other, and support frequent or reasonable east-west bus service.

For the perspective of transit, this distribution makes some sense. Transit planners often describe a quarter-mile “walkshed” around transit stations, within which people can easily access that service within five minutes. For higher capacity transit, you will also see a half-mile walkshed illustrated. It makes sense to use intervals of a half mile to a mile when assigning transit routes and stations. In much of South Minneapolis, nearly everyone is within a five-minute walk of good transit service to downtown, and a ten minute walk of good transit service crosstown, with connections to the METRO Blue Line.

Although lakes, the river, and highways create some disruptions, you can find a similar pattern of streets and transit service across the other three quadrants of the two core cities.

North Minneapolis.

North Minneapolis.

In North Minneapolis, Penn and the Emerson/Fremont pairing are slightly further than a half mile apart, and across the river, University NE is also slightly further from Central. But the deviations are minor. Johnson and Stinson resume the usual half-mile spacing. The two primary crosstown routes, Lowry and Broadway, are a mile apart. Closer to downtown, things are slightly more condensed. Just a half mile separates Broadway from Plymouth on the west side of the river, and E Hennepin on the east side, both important crosstown routes that also connect easily to downtown and carry bus service that behaves like radial routes.

West(ern) St. Paul

West(ern) St. Paul

In West(ern) St. Paul, the pattern is also strongly apparent. Here, corridors in the north-south direction are the crosstown routes, like Cleveland S, Snelling, Lexington, Dale, and Rice. Each of these sits a mile apart from the next. East-west downtown-bound routes can be found every half-mile starting from the top with Minnehaha, University (LRT), Marshall, Grand, St. Clair, and Randolph. Only Selby and Ford Parkway (both slightly further south than expected) tweak the mold. North of the railroad, where there are some trans-MSP corridors, and where the the state fairgrounds and Como Park sit in the middle of the grid and make crosstown travel more difficult, Como and Larpentur are a mile apart.

In contrast to Minneapolis, St. Paul has far fewer high or medium-frequency routes. Its best transit service, exemplified by the Green Line, A Line, and #54 bus on W 7th, are extremely good. But there is a steep drop off. The #21 bus doesn’t serve Selby as well as it does points west across the river, Grand Avenue has only decent service, and the transit service on St. Clair, Randolph, Cleveland S, and Dale is a step above non-existent. Worst of all is Lexington Parkway, which serves neighborhoods that should support transit. But because of absurd laws that limit buses on “parkways,” and a bad northern terminus, the #83 bus is one of Metro Transit’s worst services.

East St. Paul

East St. Paul

East St. Paul is a tricky area, carved up by two highways and one pseudo-highway. It has the messiest roadway grid of these four quadrants. It is also already targeted for a lot of highway bus rapid transit. There are still important and well-spaced arterials, and some additions corridors to keep in mind. Edgerton and Arcade are a half mile apart, but the principle neighborhood drag in the area is along Payne, just one block east of the former. Maryland and Minnehaha are a mile apart, but it’s also important to pay attention to E 7th, which sits inconveniently in between them. E 3rd is a half-mile further south of Minnehaha. There are few crosstown routes in this area. Maryland and Larpentur Avenues come into this part of the city from the west. In the perpendicular direction, a mile east of Arcade is Johnson Parkway, which is a short, curvy road that terminates at Lake Phalen and isn’t covered by any bus. A mile further east is White Bear Avenue, which is a heavily trafficked road that has some transit but (like a lot of Ramsey County’s handiwork) just isn’t pleasant for anyone but drivers.

South of the river in St. Paul doesn’t fit so easily into my simple divisions of St. Paul, but there area is served by two arterial streets, Smith and Robert, which are one mile apart, and both lead directly to river crossings. Currently Robert has respectable transit service, and Smith does not.

There are thousands of roads in the Twin Cities, but only some of them make sense for transit service. Even so, our list of corridors is extensive. But to get a comprehensive network, you need to start by casting a wide net. While the aBRT process ultimately advanced a limited series of corridors, a fresh look needs to start from the full universe of arterial corridors in the core, transit-supportive areas of the Twin Cities.

A city map, and a look at Metro Transit’s existing local bus network provides the starting point for this analysis. But this fresh look needs to also be able to step outside of these sources. The current local bus network is fairly useful and comprehensive, but is undermined by low frequency branching, duplicative routes, and inadequate off-peak service. aBRT is a balm for a lot of these issues by providing direct, highly legible, all-day service. Both the A and C Lines provided the justification needed for deleting a counter-productive web of branches on the #84 and #19 buses respectively.

aBRT expansion must necessarily use the existing bus system as bedrock, but from there, we must have the license to ask questions about whether the current layout is appropriate. For example: Is it necessary to run the #11 bus on 4th St S, when the D Line becomes available on Chicago just a quarter mile to the east? Or: Why does Lexington Parkway and so much of West St. Paul have such poor service, and does that make sense? Or: Do the bends and jogs on so many East St. Paul routes hit valuable destinations, or only serve to confuse?

We can’t answer questions like these perfectly, but to start getting at the answers and more, the next step is to measure corridors against each other. Tomorrow’s post will tackle that challenge.