The Twin Cities Figured Out the Formula for Increasing Bus Ridership

On the A Line, riders can board at any door, buses get priority at traffic lights, and stops are spaced every half mile.

ALinetwincities

The reviews are in for the Twin Cities’ first enhanced bus route — the A Line — and riders want more.

Metro Transit calls the service arterial Bus Rapid Transit, or “aBRT,” but the A Line has no dedicated right of way as it runs along Snelling Avenue. Instead, the A Line has features that should be common on most bus routes.

Riders pay before boarding and can get on the bus at any door. Peak service runs at least every 10 minutes. Buses do not have to merge back into traffic after picking up riders. After consolidating stops, the A Line now stops about every half-mile along the 10-mile route. Traffic signals hold green lights for buses. And the stations are well-equipped with shelters, arrival displays, and bike racks.

Ridership has increased 30 percent since the $27 million A Line upgrades were completed in 2016, writes William Schroeer, executive director of the transit advocacy group East Metro Strong, at Streets.mn. Working with Better Buses MSP, an organization supported by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and East Metro Strong, Schroeer helped produce this video interviewing A Line riders:

Even Schroeer was a little taken aback by praise for the line, he writes:

Now, I knew about the 30% increase in ridership in this corridor since the A Line opened. But the numbers did not quite prepare me for people’s enthusiasm.

“It’s just really easy.”

“The A Line has helped me by taking 10 to 15 minutes off my commute every day.”

“I like riding the A Line because it’s very fast.”

“I really love the fact that it comes so often.”

There are 12 other bus routes in line for the same type of upgrades, and the success of the A Line seems to be opening up a path for more of those projects to get implemented.

Governor Mark Dayton has proposed $50 million in bonding for similar improvements to other bus routes. And the Pioneer Press gave this approach a resounding endorsement, saying the A Line is a good value that can be replicated quickly and help the region meet the needs of its growing population.

More recommended reading today: Bike Portland says Mayor Ted Wheeler can’t call himself a “climate change mayor” and still back pricey urban highway widenings. And Pedestrian Observations looks at how commute travel patterns differ between high-income and low-income workers.

  • TakeFive

    The trend for future successful bus transit is very much in BRT-style enhanced service. The problem is that usually portends cuts in lesser performing routes; it’s rarely just additive. It’s also true that some routes will perform much better than others… to state the obvious but the point being it doesn’t simply boil down to one simplistic answer.

  • calwatch

    A lot of cities are moving toward the European style “faster bus” service – Seattle RapidRide is the same way, and even Bakersfield did some stop consolidation and frequency enhancement for their “rapid service”. This also involves eliminating the underlying local service that might have stopped every sixth to a quarter of a mile, removing half or 2/3 of the stops, which is fine for able bodied people but is less fine when the sidewalks in the area are incomplete or inaccessible. It’s not BRT but should be a baseline for key corridors in every city.

  • East Metro Strong

    Thanks for spreading the word. Two small notes: the headline is not quite right; the route runs from Roseville, through Saint Paul, to Minneapolis. All those cities, plus MnDOT, helped implement this success. But they were led by MetroTransit.

    And (re one of the comments) regular non-aBRT service remains. When and how to adjust such service is a longer discussion. We just don’t want people to think this necessarily leads to losing in-between local stops.

  • Michael

    There’s got be a way to get these benefits for way less than $2.7 million/mile. A full street reconstruction on a road like snelling would cost only in the ballpark of $5M/mile.

    Was this like a streetcar project where half the money gets siphoned to improve intersections and rebuild the right of ways for cars as the political sweetener?

  • TakeFive

    $2.7 million per mile is dirt cheap. Consider Seattle which is spending $12 million and up per mile for protected bike lanes. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/930-million-move-seattle-levy-falling-behind-on-project-promises-review-finds/

    But yes, there’s beneficial improvements that go well beyond painting stripes. The upgraded buses would ofc add a lot to the initial capital costs.

  • calwatch

    In Seattle and Bakersfield that’s what happened. In San Bernardino when sBX BRT was introduced (although this was a heavier BRT than the Rapid Bus type improvements in Seattle) the underlying local service was cut to hourly from 15 minutes.

  • wklis

    Except when the NIMBY’s get involved, unfortunately.

  • Michael

    A pair of really nice curb bump outs with good bus shelters is $100K, a standard 40 foot bus is 200K, but new traffic signals can cost up to a $1M/intersection. On a road the width of snelling, a rebuild of the pavement is around a thousand dollars per linear foot. So it’s pretty likely that’s where the real money went.

    I looked at the street view history on a couple stops: it looks like they really cleaned up the intersections, adding decorative lighting elements, medians with brick accents, whole nine yards.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@44.9397262,-93.1670154,3a,75y,177.82h,80.77t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1se56loonrzL_fHyMepntb_Q!2e0!5s20170801T000000!7i13312!8i6656

    I’m guessing these got tossed in the transit project budget, which happens all the time. In Milwaukee, they are rebuilding roads, sidewalks, intersections, etc and slamming it all in the streetcar budget. If these projects didn’t come with the “walt dinsey world” treatment to butter-up drivers, we could do them at half the cost and twice the speed.

  • Student

    MIchael, where is the ‘price list’ for the approximate cost of improvements, like this? That would be really helpful information.

  • Michael

    I wish one existed. I’ve been paying attention to the transit & infrastructure projects near me in Milwaukee for a number of years. We’ve built really nice done curb bump outs by our elementary schools for about $40K/pair. Our most recent purchases of standard New Flyer 40’ buses have all been in the $200s per bus. A street by mine of similar width as Snelling is getting rebuilt for $8M for 1.3 miles, which I thought was a jaw dropping amount for a 4 lane surface road until I read through the DOT budget. Turns out 4 laners with turn lanes work out to around $5M/mile routinely. Roads are really expensive. Bridges are even more expensive.

    The state has been replacing traffic signals with roundabouts due to the significant cost of the signals. From which, I learned traffic signals go for hundreds of thousands, even up to a million for a major intersection coming off a highway, then the electrical & maintenance can be 10s of thousands per year/

    If we want to get into mind boggling numbers, a flyover is in the 10s of millions – some crazy interchanges have 2-3 dozens of them.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@43.0345246,-87.9254058,1042m/data=!3m1!1e3

    A highway tunnel is billions/mile.

  • LazyReader

    Commute travel patterns among high and low income workers. High income workers
    ….for the most part aren’t transit dependent. The solution is getting buses faster than lightrail schedule. Use minibuses, they’re lighter, nimbler on the streets, take up less space, cheaper, quieter. The typical transit bus is forty feet in length and seats over 40 assuming
    no standees or handicapped consolidation; and is barely 1/6th full to capacity so why carry around the other 5/6ths. A minibus has half the capacity, not missed since it’s mostly empty. And run one bus on schedule every 5 minutes. And GIVE it a Fancy paint job. And you can get a 30% bump in ridership. The Toyota Coaster is one of the most successful minibuses in history they’ve built thousands of them for the last 50 years https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5c334a79e581ebfb0e31a94cfcb1be575856ae99e8554bb024d178136a5893ab.png

  • Jeremy

    The issue with this is labor cost. Doubling the number of buses will double the cost of drivers. The cost of repairs and mechanics will probably increase, also. It might be worth the cost to have what might be better service, but the cost will be the focus of the resistance.

  • LazyReader

    Yes, and it doesn’t matter. And I’m not saying double the buses, I’m saying replace it’s most antiquated models with these. They use mostly off the shelf automotive tech and simple engines. Like I said, typical transit buses are mostly empty so why carry around empty space. Even a fleet of vehicles with half the capacity can carry the same commuter load. Metro transit route 16 runs parallel to the light rail which was built to the cost of over $1.5 Billion which could have bought 5,000 buses

  • Lora Tenenbaum

    In Manhattan, most of the people using buses other than rush hour seem to be people with mobility issues: seniors, people with walkers, wheelchairs. Stops every half mile would be a hardship for them. The best thing for NYC would be to have bus stops closer together during non-rush hours.

    Of course, if they started limiting Ubers and instituted congestive pricing in Manhattan, that would help a lot.

    Remember, buses are not only a means of commuting to work, they take people to doctors, school, friends, hospitals, entertainment, museums, etc.

    Having experienced buses with entries at all doors, and a faster way of payment (such as tapping a navigation or credit card) , I prefer that.

  • Jason

    Do skip stop if this is really a problem. An A and B branch of a bus stopping every half mile, with A+B providing service every quarter mile. Able-bodied people can take whatever comes first, those who truly need it can wait for the specific one they need.

  • Al

    metro transit already has minibuses

  • KJ

    Mini buses are generally much harder/slower to board and deboard… and I’m saying this as an able-bodied person. Add groceries, etc. and it’s even worse. The minis seem to work best for groups that are getting on and exiting at the same places rather than general-purpose buses.

  • kollidoscopeas

    Precisely because of this concern, Metro Transit still has the 84 line running along the same route with stops every 1/8 mile. Although there were some service cuts and frequency reduced, the 84 also had a horrendous numbering system (84A vs. 84F ended in wildly different places), and so overall, the corridor has better service for everyone than before.

  • Eric

    you’re not a particularly smart one are you? Most of the cost is labor (i.e. the driver) which has NOTHING to do with the size of the bus

  • joechoj

    Not a terrible idea, but they’d have to be electric & autonomous – limiting fuel, maintenance & labor costs – to really make sense.

  • Andrew

    This is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy: if bus stops are close together and bus service is slow, most people capable of walking to the subway will use the subway, and buses will carry predominantly people who can’t use the subway.

    That isn’t a major problem for trips reasonably well served by the subway. But it is a problem for east-west trips in most of Manhattan, and it’s even a problem for north-south trips on the eastern and western extremes of the island.

    Note that the SBS lines in Manhattan are on corridors without subway service: east-west service on the M23, M79, M86, and M60, and north-south service on the M15, a significant distance east of the nearest subway line (except along the relatively brief overlap with the Second Avenue subway).

  • Taufik Abidin

    Be like trains, slow busses that stops at all stops, Medium busses that stops at most stops, and Express busses that stop at limited stops.

  • gustaajedrez

    What if you’re going from an A stop to a B stop?

  • Jason

    You’d still have to have some common stops to link them up.

  • Alex Schieferdecker

    Pictured: St. Paul

  • Kaleberg

    San Francisco has notoriously slow buses. They tried introducing express buses that stopped less often, but the advocates killed it arguing that some people couldn’t walk more than a block or two, so everyone else had to take an hour to travel a mile. New York City has had express buses since forever. They aren’t subway, but they are as fast as cars or faster, Of course, there have always been express and local trains on the subway.

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