How to Make Transit More Competitive in the Suburbs

Photo:  Metro Transit
Photo: Metro Transit

How to make transit work in sprawling suburbs is a difficult design problem — but a couple small changes can have a big impact, according to new research from the University of Minnesota.

The team at the Accessibility Lab at the University of Minnesota modeled and measured job access both by transit and by car for those living near the Twin Cities’ 114 Park-and-Ride transit stations under different scenarios. They found that two key infrastructure offerings — park-and-ride lots combined with dedicated highway lanes — can make transit substantially more competitive with driving in suburbia. The combination of those elements increases the relative number of jobs available within an hour trip by transit about 19 percent compared to driving.

The study helps support the case for “managed” highway lanes. In the Twin Cities, these lanes are reserved for carpoolers, buses and those who pay a special toll during rush hour. These lanes speed more efficient vehicles past traffic and provide an incentive not to drive to work alone. If they were applied across the entire twin Cities Metro, they increase the number of jobs available to the average suburban resident who lives within a half-mile of a Park-and-Ride station by 13 percent.

Park-and-Ride stations also help make unwalkable sprawling suburban areas more transit accessible, the study found.  Suburban neighborhoods have low transit accessibility by foot in general, the study found. But when auto access to a park-and-ride station is factored in, it makes a big difference.

“Overall, PNR accessibility is three times greater than walk-up transit accessibility for the average Twin Cities worker,” author Kristin Carlson said in a statement.

The Twin Cities uses currently uses managed lanes that allow buses on three highways at rush hour.

11 thoughts on How to Make Transit More Competitive in the Suburbs

  1. One thing this article and the report don’t really talk about is the huge equity problem inherent in putting this much of a focus on suburban express service.

    Metro Transit has spent hundreds of millions on park and ride and express bus infrastructure in the past few decades while investing virtually nothing in local bus routes. It’s currently planning two light rail lines that are intentionally routed to avoid densely populated areas in North and Uptown Minneapolis. Adding it all up, Metro Transit is spending or has spent over $4 billion on projects primarily for suburban commuters vs. $2.2 billion on urban service. This is despite almost all of the transit dependent population and transit-supportive land uses being located in inner-city Minneapolis and St. Paul.

  2. Why do we keep going the extra mile to bring transit to people in the suburbs that don’t want it? Instead of continuing to beef up the inner city…

  3. It’s never gonna happen. Because building transit infrastructure out in the burbs costs just the same in the city but the potential customer base is geographically spread out over a greater distance and the operating costs in such a small base…..makes no sense for justifying that expenditure.

  4. Park and Rides are pretty worthless. The rider gets all the inconvenience of public transit (especially in suburban areas) and still pays the expense of owning a car.
    Transit agencies should stop throwing wads of cash at suburban commuters and instead focus on maximizing local access. If you’re acing local service, then it may be time to test a few commuter routes.

  5. I have seen reports that 60,000 downtown Minneapolis workers take transit. There are not many thousands of open parking spots in downtown Minneapolis if park and rides were eliminated.

  6. The real problem with transit agencies is that they face the wrong incentives. Passenger fares cover little more than a third of transit operating costs, and only a quarter of operating plus capital costs. Transit agencies thus are more beholden to federal, state, and local appropriators than to their customers. It is easier for agencies to build their empires by convincing Congress to give them “free” federal dollars for rail transit than to do the hard work of figuring out how to better meet the needs of transit riders.

    This problem is compounded by perverse incentives in transit budgeting and operations. First, the federal government dedicates most of its funds to capital improvements, not operations. Transit agencies come to ignore the high capital costs of certain kinds of transit, favoring large buses over smaller ones and rail over buses.

    Second, most states have granted transit agencies legal monopolies in their markets. Though private entrepreneurs could often provide better transit services, they are forbidden from doing so except for airport travelers. The lack of competition means that transit agencies can neglect transit-dependent people with impunity.

    Thus, reforming transit means more than just rerouting transit lines or emphasizing buses or other low-cost transit instead of rails. True reforms would introduce competition into transit markets. One way of doing so would be to give subsidies, in the form of vouchers, to transit riders instead of transit agencies. Riders could spend their vouchers with any transit provider, and the providers would turn the vouchers in for cash.

  7. Private providers would just cherry pick the routes with the lowest cost per passenger and leave all the high cost routes with the public providers.

  8. Lol private transit has been tried in several major cities and used to exist everywhere historically and all the companies went bankrupt… next…

  9. Nationwide transit ridership has declined steadily since 2014, with some of the largest urban areas, including Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles, losing more than 20 percent of their transit riders in the last few years. While this recent decline is stunning, it results from a continuation of a century-long trend of urban areas becoming more dispersed and alternatives to transit becoming more convenient and less expensive.

    Those trends include a dispersion of jobs away from downtowns and increasing automobile ownership, both of which began with Henry Ford’s development of the moving assembly line in 1913. As a result, per capita transit ridership peaked in 1920 at 287 trips per urban resident per year, and have since fallen to just 38 trips per urbanite in 2017.

    Congress began federal subsidies to transit with passage of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, and since then federal, state, and local governments have spent well over $1 trillion on subsidies aimed at reversing transit’s decline. Yet those subsidies have failed to do more than slow the decline, as the trends that have made transit obsolete and nearly irrelevant to the vast majority of urban Americans have overwhelmed the subsidies….transit carries fewer than 3 percent of commuters to work in half the nation’s 50 largest urban areas, as well as in the vast majority of smaller ones, making transit nearly irrelevant to those regions except for the high taxes needed to support it. Due to moderate gas prices, increasing auto ownership, and the growth of the ride-hailing industry, the nation likely reached “peak transit” in 2014.

    The supposed social, environmental, and economic development benefits of transit are negligible to nonexistent. Federal, state, and local governments should withdraw subsidies to transit and allow private operators to take over where the demand still justifies mass transit operations.

  10. “Private transit failed because the government intervened.”

    If you mean by subsidizing sprawl, building superhighways, widening roads, and so on, yes. But if you’re saying that government rules are to blame that’s 180º off.

    I’ve only looked at a few east-coast cities, but the stories were all the same. To maintain shareholder value private owners cut corners by skimping on maintenance and pushing infrastructure far beyond its service life. For example in the 1960s the PRR was operating commuter trains that dated back to WWI. I walked part of the ROW of one suburban trolley system and saw ties that were so deteriorated you could pull handfuls of deteriorated wood out of the ties. Instead of maintaining its elevated-train trestles, Philadelphia’s PTC let them rot to the point they had to be torn down a CENTURY earlier than planned. On top of that the multi-billion-dollar rebuild cost was passed on to taxpayers.

    By the 1960s and early 70s private transit was on life support in cities all over the US. Governments stepped in because the alternative was NO transit. While transit only carries a small percentage of commuters nationwide that figure isn’t evenly distributed. If private transit were such an attractive alternative, companies should be beating down the doors to start new operations – which they are not. If municipal systems were put up for sale it’s doubtful private operators would be interested in more than the most-lucrative routes …. IF such things could be identified and monetized. Everyone else would be forced back to cars.

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