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This coverage is made possible by grants from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and The McKnight Foundation.

Time and space: Frustrations of a bus rider

A cartoon in the current New Yorker shows a shaggy-haired man standing and staring at what is perhaps the only open parking space in Manhattan. The caption reads: "Einstein ponders the mysteries of space and time."

Lacking the great man's capacity to grasp the fullness of physics, I nonetheless had similar thoughts the other day as I stepped from the elevator in my building at 8:45 a.m. intending to hop a bus to make a 9 a.m. meeting in downtown Minneapolis.

But I was a few seconds late. The light on the corner had just changed. And four buses — four of them! — were pulling away from the curb. Had I arrived an instant sooner I would have had my pick. Instead, I had to wait 20 minutes for the next bus (or buses). That was plenty of time to ponder the time-and-space question that sooner or later confronts every city dweller living on a busy street: Why do buses travel in packs? If they were spaced out to arrive every five minutes, I would have made my meeting.

I had just read, coincidentally, about Montreal's new "Ten-Minute-Max" bus program based, perhaps, on Domino's famous pizza promise: A bus will show up in 10 minutes or less. Actually, transit systems everywhere dream about spacing buses to the point that they can arrive in five or 10 minute intervals, thus negating the need for schedules. So why does bus bunching happen so often?

One perk of writing a blog about urban design is that you get to call up the nice people at Metro Transit and ask them dumb questions. John Levin is director of service development. That means he's in charge of scheduling the system's 130 bus and train routes, which turns out to pose a formidable time-and-space problem: Where and when do you run vehicles to pick up the maximum number of passengers and deliver them where they want to go in a timely manner, allowing for convenient connections with other vehicles along the way? And how do you do that given the varying constraints of traffic, weather, union work rules and horrible budget constraints?

Bus packs aren't the problem; it's my location
When I asked Levin about buses traveling in packs he provided a logical answer: It only seems as if they're traveling in packs; actually they're converging from several directions to cross the bridge near my home with the aim of delivering passengers from various points to jobs downtown at or near, in this case, 9 a.m. In other words, the schedule isn't designed just for me and my neighbors; it's designed for a wider range of customers. Buses tend to converge into packs near the bridges leading into the downtown districts, he said. "It happens mostly because you're living by a bridge," he told me.

Still, my wishful thinking about bus intervals wasn't far off the mark, he said. Time was when Metro Transit made a priority of splitting up its routes allowing buses to pass as many homes as possible. Now the trend is toward sticking to major thoroughfares, thus allowing for greater frequencies. Walking out your door and expecting a bus every 15 minutes or less is a reality on a dozen routes, including those along University, Nicollet and Snelling avenues and West Seventh, Rice and Lake streets. The change has been successful, Levin said, as people seem willing to trade the convenience of location for the frequency of service.

Another popular strategy has been to run express routes alongside locals. A 16 Local, for example, takes an hour to crawl between the downtowns. Route 50 carves 15 minutes off the trip by making fewer stops, and 94 cuts the trip in half by making fewer stops still. The plan is for more fast-read fare cards, faster traffic signaling and more rail to further speed things along.

With all the complex maneuvering through time and space, Levin's 955 buses and train cars keep to their schedules 90 percent of the time. When I told him about the Einstein cartoon, his reply was: "It's all relative."

Cheers and boos

Cheer to the Met Council, the McKnight Foundation, the Counties Transit Improvement Board and other local partners for winning a $5 million federal grant to plan for new housing, shopping and jobs along five transit corridors.
Corridors getting the extra attention will be: Southwest light rail between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie; Bottineau light rail between downtown Minneapolis and the northwest suburbs; Cedar Avenue Bus Rapid Transit between Bloomington and Lakeville; Northstar Commuter rail between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis; and Gateway Corridor between the St. Croix River and downtown St. Paul.

Of the 45 grants awarded, Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Lake City received the greatest amounts. Other top recipients were Seattle, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Boston, Chicago Miami, Knoxville, Hartford and Fresno.

Cheer (with skepticism) for Tom Emmer's stand on high-speed rail. We worried that the Republican gubernatorial candidate would line up alongside his Wisconsin counterpart in trying to block President Obama's Chicago-Twin Cities initiative. Instead, Emmer's press office released this quote from the candidate:

"As a regular user of public transit I believe in the need to continue to develop a system that serves our citizens in a cost effective manner. The efficient movement of people and products is important to our economy. We need to continue to pursue projects that upgrade our transportation for the 21st century."

High-speed rail wasn't specifically mentioned, but we'll take Emmer's response as a positive.

In Metrospect: Three significant stories from last week

• Are high-speed trains actually coming? The New York Times offered the views of six experts. Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution leans toward "yes," but only selectively and as part of a national transition to a low-carbon economy. Sam Staley of the Reason Foundation says "no" because the Obama administration's commitment is to rail technology not to keeping costs reasonable and affordable.

• Ten things to hate about sprawl.  Jeff Speck, the co-author of "Suburban Nation," offered his list (with photos) to the Huffington Post.

• Shattered dreams at D.C.'s edge. No major metro in the country is weathering the economic storm better than Washington, D.C. But the Post's Annie Gowen delivered a high-powered series on big real-estate failures, nearly all of them on the metro edge. "Ghost subdivisions," it seems, are cropping up even in the most prosperous places.

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Comments (2)

I don't see a problem of buses from different *routes* bunching up at a number of points but kind of sucks when you get more than one bus of the same route riding within just a couple minutes of each other. Then what you'll get is the first bus absolutely packed because that bus has gotten really off schedule and people have started to accumulate at all the stops then the one behind it who is probably right on schedule is virtually empty. I haven't seen a lot of this with Metro Transit although it does happen, but San Francisco's Muni is absolutely chronic with this. Literally have seen 4 buses of the same route same direction show up one right behind the other.

I've been noticing some bunching lately as well. When there are two routes operating on the same road, they often aren't spaced evenly. Two half-hourly buses end up running about five minutes apart, so I'm destined to wait 20-25 minutes if I'm running late, when I should be only waiting 15 minutes or less.

I continue to grow frustrated with Metro Transit. Every time I use any service other than the Hiawatha Line, I end up counting the ways I hate their service. The NexTrip system mitigates my frustration slightly, since I can (in theory) look up when the next bus is coming. Unfortunately, I am seeing more and more buses incorrectly report their position (a big problem on routes with multiple different lettered suffixes like 3A, 3B, 3C), and many don't report any position at all, from what I can tell. I'm concerned that the maintenance budget for NexTrip may be nonexistent.

During rush hours, the level of service in my area is poor, but I can grudgingly accept it. I am more frustrated by the level of service in off-hours, though. The peak-to-base ratio for Metro Transit is very high, around 2.5. Roughly 60% of the buses used each day are dedicated to rush-hour service. The rest of the day, we are only served by the other 40% of the daily fleet, and it's even worse on weekends. That needs to be flipped around so we only see service reduced by about 30% in midday.

I just discovered that there are plans to put in a route 83 bus along Lexington Avenue when the Central Corridor line, a significant gap in service that exists today. Unfortunately, it's not planned to have very frequent service, and no service on Sunday. Como Park and nearby McMurray Field are significant traffic generators on evenings and weekends. Frustratingly, it probably won't start until 2014 when the Central Corridor line begins operating.

As for the 16/50/94, I wish that the 50 ran more than just in rush hours. Hell, we've started building the Central Corridor, which is a direct replacement for 50 service, so why don't they just start emulating the LRT schedule now? If I need to walk a block or two farther to get to my stop, but it will get me to my destination faster, I'm all for it.