Building A Network Of Rapid Buses — A Future Network

Originally posted on

If you take away anything from the first two of this series of articles, it should be that we need to know more. Only Metro Transit has the data and staff hours needed to do a thorough review of the options for aBRT expansion. But such a review is clearly needed. While my basic analysis completely supports the choice of corridors for the next three aBRT routes, it doesn’t support the routes remaining in the hopper from the 2012 aBRT study. Given the data available, only Nicollet and Central Avenues should be a clear priority for aBRT conversion, while Robert Street and West Broadway belong in a second tier of corridors and American Boulevard belongs in the dustbin.

The opening of the C Line and the advancing planning and engineering work on the B and E Lines are cues that Metro Transit’s aBRT program is graduating to a new stage. If better buses are to become the flagship transit service of the Twin Cities, as they easily could be, the work to develop a new list of priorities has to begin now.

Corridors, Comments, and a Crayon

What would that list ultimately look like? There’s so much more work that ought to go into answering that question. But since you’ve come so far in this series of articles and because this is the fun part, here’s are my proposed routes, in their proposed order, along with some comments about each route, and finally a nice crayon fantasy map to tie it all together. My goal for each was to order projects in the way that seemed most efficient and impactful. For each route, I tried to choose natural groupings of corridors, through-running downtowns when applicable, that maximized legibility (with a few turns as possible, especially of greater than 90 degrees). Most radial routes serve two of the city quadrants profiled earlier, while most crosstown/circumferential routes serve just one.

Okay, here’s the list:

Routes Completed, Or In The Current Pipeline: (Corridors Listed West To East)

A: Ford—Snelling (completed 2016)
B: Lake—Marshal—Selby (late planning)
To a far greater extent than I expected, my research convinced me that this is the single most important project in the pipeline.

C: Penn (completed 2019)
D: Emerson/Fremont—Chicago (engineering)
E: Xerxes(?) — Hennepin—University/4th SE (early planning)
Metro Transit planners are still debating whether to extend this route to Southdale Center, along either Xerxes and France Avenues. Southdale is a major job center and deserves strong transit service. Unfortunately, my data does not really provide a clear answer in terms of which route to it is better. Both Xerxes and France score poorly in the ranking of corridors, perhaps because the existing #6 bus is hopelessly split between a number of branches in southwest Minneapolis. Of the two, Xerxes scores slightly higher.


Proposed Next Five Routes (2030):

C (extension): Bloomington or Cedar
The strong performance of Bloomington Avenue in the data and its current relatively low transit frequency despite supportive land-use, suggest to me that aBRT conversion of this corridor would be one of the highest impact projects that Metro Transit could undertake. To make matters simpler, this corridor could be served without finding a corresponding route on the other side of Minneapolis, but rather by extending the C Line.

A more difficult question is on which street this future line would run. Bloomington Avenue sits just a quarter mile from Cedar Avenue. Transit service on both roads would be duplicative, and resources would be better spent if concentrated. Both are similar roads. While Bloomington carries the existing service in the area, Cedar has several advantages. For one, buses running down 7th and 8th Streets in downtown Minneapolis could use Hiawatha Avenue as a shortcut to Cedar, while maneuvering onto Bloomington Avenue requires several confusing moves down smaller streets (albeit where some potential riders live). Cedar also extends all the way to a logical terminus at the Mall of America, while buses traveling down Bloomington would need to eventually turn, likely onto Cedar.

F: Franklin—Raymond(?)
Franklin Avenue has some of the highest density of transit ridership in the metro, and a lower-income population that benefits substantially from transit service. There is also an opportunity to capitalize on the under-construction Green Line extension by tying an aBRT route on Franklin to the future 21st Street Station, providing a direct link to the population of Franklin Avenue to Cedar Lake and the jobs served by the new light rail. The availability of the letter F seals the deal.

But there’s one issue with Franklin, and that’s legibility. The #2 route, although relatively simple, is unique in that it follows a “Z” route, backtracking onto Riverside Avenue, before crossing to the University of Minnesota. In rethinking the Metro Transit system, does this “Z” make sense? A strong case can be made for it. The #2’s contortions allow it to serve Augsburg University, the University of Minnesota Medical Center, and the University itself, three huge trip generators. On the other hand, hypothetically extending a Franklin aBRT route across the river would allow it to tie into the Green Line at Raymond Avenue, and ultimately serve the University’s St. Paul campus and the State Fairgrounds. Riverside Avenue could then be served by a separate route, probably one that also brings aBRT service to Washington Avenue in downtown. This choice requires data on where #2 riders on Franklin and Riverside Avenues are actually going that I don’t have.

G: Nicollet—Central
Bundled together, this route would make the highest ridership bus route in the metro area, beating the #5/future D Line. It’s a no-brainer that is being held hostage by the dumbest possible thing; a stalled streetcar proposal. It’s time to give up the streetcar dream, and worthwhile to at least try to convince the taxpayers of the special streetcar taxation district that aBRT, with its actual better transit service and wider coverage, would be a superior direction for their money. But regardless of whether that fiscal jujitsu is possible, this corridor should rise to the top of any list. What might determine the exact timing of implementation would be the progress made on reopening Nicollet at Lake Street. With city control of the K-Mart, there’s an opportunity and a good case to be made for reconnecting the road for all modes but cars. If there’s an opportunity to build out the aBRT infrastructure at the same time as the K-Mart site is being redesigned and developed, that’s a natural time and money saver.

The main questions about this route overall should be its starting and ending points. Both Nicollet and Central Avenues go a long way. The route should certainly hit Medtronic’s headquarters in the north, and American Boulevard in the south. But should it continue all the way to the Northtown Mall and the South Bloomington Transit Center, as the #10 and #18 currently do? Ridership and frequency in these far-flung segments drop off.

H: Lyndale S—E. Hennepin—Larpentur
The lack of existing Metro Transit service on these routes is surprising to me. Lyndale is a highly trafficked route through the dense, transit-supportive neighborhoods of South Minneapolis, and E. Hennepin and Larpentur form the primary east-west spine for a significant area. This route would pass through a number of destination areas, from Best Buy’s headquarters, two future Orange Line BRT stops, Uptown, downtown Minneapolis, the St. Anthony Main area, the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus and the Bell Museum, the State Fairgrounds, and Lake Phalen. In the process, such a route would provide a huge number of connections to existing transit service, including nearly all South Minneapolis and West(ern) St. Paul crosstown routes.

The only issue with this route is that it would probably be the longest in the system. But there are stretches along the route where it would be able to travel more rapidly than is common on other buses, and electric bus technology is advancing rapidly.

J: Rice—Robert
Although Robert Street is named in the 2012 aBRT study, Rice Street is actually the more important corridor for aBRT service. It has higher ridership, higher ridership from areas of concentrated poverty, higher ridership per stop, and higher ridership per bus. It also has a better balance of trips in both peak and off-peak directions, while Robert is heavily commuter-focused. But both streets can improve their case by being connected for better bus service. Both routes serve communities that are largely isolated from the rest of the city, one by heavy industry, the other by a river. Both serve routes that could use significant redesigns, for which aBRT would provide needed political capital.

Rice—Robert are St. Paul’s best aBRT corridor, and in the perpetual battle between the east and west metro for resources, it’s important for fraternal peace that there is an eastern route included in the second wave of projects. That is not to say that the capital lacks transit investment. Two highway BRT routes and one rail route are also planned. But aBRT is needed to help balance the ledger, and this route is an important one.


Proposed Quick Win For A Tenth Letter Route

I: I-94
I don’t think all letters should necessarily be reserved for an apropos route, but the letter I is hard to distinguish from a 1 on the display on top of a bus, and also uniquely fitted for a downtown-to-downtown route. This is the cheapest aBRT conversion imaginable, as the #94 bus already operates much like BRT. It runs from downtown to downtown, using shoulders when needed to pass traffic. But given how many people have consistently complained that the Green Line does not travel quickly enough between downtowns, I suspect the #94 is not well known enough. aBRT branding might fix that issue. This conversion would require only new electric buses, and use stations that at this point will already exist in both downtowns. The only other addition, should be a restoration of the stop at Snelling Avenue. With soccer and increasing density at that intersection, there should in the future be demand that justifies that intermediate stop.


Proposed Next Ten (2035):

Once aBRT is operating on major radial routes, there will be increased utility for circumferential service that don’t just serve homes and businesses, but make vital connections. This proposed third wave of aBRT routes includes a number of critical crosstown connections that will connect to other aBRT, highway BRT, and light rail transit. This proposed timeline also is based on a hope that once a secure stream of funding is secured for these upgrades, they will be able to be launched far more quickly. Staff will be able to be hired, and lessons will be learned so that the entire process of putting together a route will get much faster. While it may be pragmatic to forecast ten aBRT routes by 2030, the faster they roll out, the better for the region and the planet.

K: 38th—France(?)
The 38th Street corridor and #23 bus showed up in the data as a surprisingly well-patronized crosstown route, and I think there’s a good case to be made for increases in local bus service today to test the corridor’s viability for future aBRT tomorrow.

This route has an obvious eastern terminus, given that 38th Street does not cross the river. But nailing down a direction on the western end is far tougher. 38th Street ends at Lakewood Cemetary, and the #23 bus turns towards Uptown. Future aBRT service could continue this route, ending at the future West Lake Station, or continuing on down Excelsior or Minnetonka, two corridors on the urban side of suburban, which show decent ridership that is heavily skewed towards commuters. My slightly preferred option would be for this aBRT route to continue west instead, running briefly in the same path as the E Line, but going further, to France Avenue, and serving Southdale. Depending on how much either of these corridors develop over the next decade, this calculus may completely change.

L: Lowry—Stinson
Another strong crosstown route with a case for an early-action boost in service. Lowry has impressive rider numbers and serves a population that predominantly lives in areas of concentrated poverty. At both ends of the route, it makes sense to bend northward. On the western end, because there is frustratingly no Blue Line station planned for the Sochaki Park area, aBRT should instead turn up Bottineau Boulevard, past North Memorial Hospital, and link up with the light rail in downtown Robbinsdale, not altogether a bad compromise. On the eastern end, the best ending point involves a short trip through along the urban Audubon Park and Waite Park neighborhoods to the Silver Lake Village Shopping Center.

M: Golden Valley—Broadway—Johnson
The third major Minneapolis crosstown route ought to be on Broadway. Because of the methodological issues unique to Broadway, I don’t have great data that supports this corridor, but I suspect that, like all of its peer routes, there is a compelling case for better transit service. The future Golden Valley Station on the Blue Line strengthens the case. Unusually, Golden Valley Road crosses Basset Creek and travels west. I don’t know enough to say whether there is a reason to provide aBRT service to the more suburban neighborhoods and industrial parks of Golden Valley, but the western end to this route is not necessarily the light rail station. On the eastern end, just like with Lowry, there’s no great stopping point. Buses could serve the Mid-City Industrial area or The Quarry shopping center, but the better option to me seems to be a turn up Johnson (a former streetcar route) and an eventual end also at the Silver Lake Village Shopping Center.

N: Grand—E 3rd
These two corridors are currently tied together in the system by the #63 bus, and there’s no real reason to pull them apart, as they meet all the criteria of a good aBRT line. Both corridors rank among the middle of the pack, although they are quite different in character. Grand links the University of St. Thomas (a natural western endpoint, and apparently an athletic club of some sort), Macalester College (the region’s most prestigious educational institution), and a major retail corridor. On the other side of downtown, E. 3rd is a mostly residential corridor, with a natural stopping point at the 3M Headquarters.

O: Omitted
Even worse than the letter “I”. For the purposes of helping people understand what route is coming, it seems smart to skip over O.

P: Plymouth—Washington—Riverside—(?)
The fourth and final major Minneapolis crosstown corridor that ought to be included in this wave of aBRT proposals. Plymouth breaks the mold a little bit, running only a half mile from another crosstown route. But Plymouth is so close to downtown that it’s not really a pure crosstown route or a pure radial route, and the existing #14 bus treats it that way. That formula seems fairly successful for the current route. Starting at the future Plymouth light rail station, this route would then run along the corridor until Washington. Although there is the opportunity to continue crosstown and meet up with Broadway, it seems better to turn into Washington, provide aBRT service to the North Loop and Minneapolis riverfront, and then continue along Riverside Avenue. It could also continue south in Seward, Cooper, and Longfellow, given that the route so far is very short, but I’m agnostic about which combination of streets would best to serve the inconveniently triangular area between Highway 55 and the river in a legible way.

Q: University NE—Cleveland N-S
When riders take the #11 bus down 2nd Street NE (just one to two blocks from University), they are taking it to downtown Minneapolis. But with aBRT service proposed to already be running to downtown from the E Line and Central aBRT, this proposed route is a bet that the frequency will be so high that riders won’t mind making a short transfer to complete their journey across the river. In the meantime, this bus would stay on the east bank, run down University all the way (in itself, not a small destination for trips), almost to the Menards, before turning on Cleveland Avenue and going past the University of St. Thomas and St. Catherine’s University, through Highland Park and the Ford Site, and ending at whatever station is built for Riverview Rail in the Sibley Plaza area.

It all sounds good in theory, but Cleveland already sees decent bus service via the #87, and ridership is really poor for this corridor. In between the present day and a hypothetical future in which this route is being discussed, it’ll be important to figure out why this corridor does so poorly.

R: Randolph—Arcade
Currently Randolph is tied to E. 7th Street and Minnehaha. For legibility reasons, I’ve reassigned partner corridors between West(ern) and East St. Paul a little differently. Because these St. Paul corridors are so poorly served by transit, with low frequencies and a variety of strange jogs, there’s an opportunity with aBRT to make the system a bit easier to understand and more direct. Randolph is a poor-performing corridor that currently gets poor to medium service. Arcade is a major county road on the east side, with suffers from a darkly comedic road design and has developed into a well-used but less friendly retail corridor than nearby Payne.

S: St. Clair—Edgerton
In much the same vein, this pairing would make a new west-east connection through downtown St. Paul. Of all of the odd quirks with Metro Transit’s service patterns in East St. Paul, the lack of a route along the length of Edgerton (or Payne) makes the least sense to me. This route would fix that oversight. There’s a question about whether this route should run along Edgerton or Payne, one block away. I chose Edgerton, mainly to be a bit closer to the Payne-Phalen communities just east of I-35E, who don’t have great access, but at a cost of a direct connection to the proposed Payne Station on the Rush Line. Ultimately, it would be best if the station, or this route, were on the same page. A route up Edgerton probably would go all the way up to the Little Canada Town Hall.

T: W. Minnehaha—E. Minnehaha
Both of these corridors fill gaps in the plan. But there’s an interesting argument to be had over whether this route is better as a radial route or a circumferential one. Minnehaha Avenue is not entirely whole. It disappears and reappears on either side of I-35E. But via Pennsylvania Ave, Phalen Boulevard, and a pretty short bridge, you might be able to make a direct connection. Is it worth it? Probably not. The path of least resistance is to run this route through downtown St. Paul in the middle. It could start at Raymond Avenue Station on the western end and 3M’s Headquarters on the eastern end.

U: Como—Maryland
The last of these twenty proposed aBRT routes. Como is a weird, bendy road, but when it ends, Maryland is a natural continuation. This is another route that would fill a major gap in the network and provide a crosstown connection between the western and eastern ends of St. Paul. It would also provide reliable and comfortable accommodation to thousands of students, who use it every day to get to the University of Minnesota.


Twenty aBRT Routes, And Beyond


The Twin Cities with twenty rapid bus routes is an urban area deeply connected by transit. All four quadrants of the central cities are served by radial and circumferential transit. From major job centers to neighborhoods in poverty, aBRT transit is a glue that brings disparate places ever closer. Over 250,000 trips are made every weekday on aBRT, and less than half of Minneapolis and St. Paul residents come to own a car.

Not all gaps are fully closed. Perhaps there is growing demand for an aBRT route that links 46th Street in South Minneapolis to the Green Line in St. Louis Park. Maybe Lexington Parkway, and a Dale-Smith aBRT route are moving forward with the hope of closing the biggest remaining crosstown gap in the system. Or else, growth along Excelsior and Minnetonka Boulevards is calling out for aBRT expansion into the western suburbs. But in the core areas of the city, where the streetcar network once nurtured transit-supportive neighborhoods, the same forces are once again at work.

This future can become reality. The politics of transit funding are frustrating, but the weight of the evidence is strong and the winds are blowing in the right direction. While we wait for that to get sorted, the groundwork for a vision like this can be laid now. Let’s start dreaming.