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Could bus rapid transit increase ridership 30 percent in the Twin Cities?

Riders board buses along the freeway underneath the 46th St. bridge.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council
Riders board buses along the freeway underneath the 46th St. bridge.

"Many of the features of light rail transit (LRT) for a fraction of the cost" — that's the definition of bus rapid transit (BRT).

Metro Transit, the Twin Cities' leading transit provider, is now studying the possible development of BRT in 11 densely developed urban corridors that could not accommodate LRT, even if the money were available to cover the enormous cost.

The goal of the study is to identify which of these corridors are most promising for BRT, which would include such features as distinctive vehicles with traffic signal priority, heated bus shelters, off-vehicle fare collection, real-time travel information, more frequent service and faster trips.


"BRT service has been proven in other markets and provides faster travel times and better customer facilities that lead to higher ridership," says Charles Carlson, manager of transitway projects for Metro Transit, an operating arm of the Metropolitan Council.

BRT also could spur infill development and redevelopment in the urban core, planners say.

The corridors marked in yellow are the focus of a rapid bus transit plan for the Twin Cities.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council
The corridors marked in yellow are the focus of a rapid bus transit plan for the Twin Cities.

The Met Council's Transportation Policy Plan has identified what it calls "arterial BRT" as one of the tools needed to double transit ridership by 2030 — to expand transportation options, improve mobility and ease traffic congestion.

The 11 corridors now under study already are among Metro Transit's most productive routes, collectively generating 90,000 rides per weekday. That's nearly half of the ridership on system's urban routes.

Increased ridership
Based on the experience of other regions that have introduced similar transit improvements, Carlson says, BRT has the potential to increase transit ridership by 20 to 30 percent in the first year after implementation.

The National BRT Institute, a research unit at the University of South Florida, lists 19 metro areas in the United States and 11 abroad that have BRT as part of their transit system.

It touts BRT as "an innovative, high capacity, lower cost public transit solution that can significantly improve urban mobility... BRT systems can easily be customized to community needs and incorporate state-of-the-art, low-cost technologies that result in more passengers and less congestion."

Carlson says Metro Transit has looked at BRT lines operating in a half-dozen cities, among them Kansas City and Seattle.

Kansas City opened the first of its two BRT lines, called the Metro Area Express (MAX) in 2005. It's a six-mile linear route that serves the city's River Market area, downtown, Union Station, Crown Center and Plaza. The transit agency there says it has boosted ridership in the corridor by more than 50 percent.

Seattle is developing a system of six BRT lines, called RapidRide.

Transit agency officials say the first of these lines, which opened a year ago, boosted ridership in the corridor by more than 30 percent.

Carlson estimates that the capital cost of BRT in the Twin Cities would run about $2 million to $5 million a mile, compared to $20 million to $40 million for streetcars (an option both Minneapolis and St. Paul city officials are exploring) and $60 million to $100 million for LRT.

Key features
Features could include:

• Platforms with heated shelters, ticketing machines, real-time travel information, enhanced security and lighting.

• A dedicated fleet of distinctive low-floor buses, with boarding at both doors.

• Fewer stops (two or three a mile) and traffic signal priority to reduce travel times and improve on-time performance.

• Increased service frequency, with buses operating every 7.5 to 15 minutes, depending on the corridor.

Metro Transit already has completed a concept plan for the BRT service, with information about the demographics, existing bus service and proposed improvements for each of the 11 corridors. They range from four miles to 14 miles in length.

The corridors include Hennepin Avenue, Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street in Minneapolis, and Snelling Avenue, Robert Street and West Seventh Street in St. Paul.

Carlson says the next step in the study is to estimate capital and operating costs for each corridor, along with the benefits — how many riders each might serve and how much travel time would be saved. The goal is to identify the most promising corridors by early next year, and complete the first BRT line by 2014.

"These are all very successful transit corridors," Carlson says. "What we're looking at is building upon that success through further enhancements — particularly to address slow travel speeds that might keep some people from choosing transit."

The Metropolitan Council is already in the midst of developing more pricy "highway BRT" lines in two corridors — I-35W south of downtown Minneapolis and Cedar Avenue in between Apple Valley and the Mall of America.

These projects include limited access roadways such as managed lanes, bus-only shoulder lanes and ramp meter bypasses in portions of the corridor, as well as park-and-ride lots and several on-line stations that allow for rapid passenger boarding in the middle of the highway.

John Levin, director of service development for Metro Transit, says BRT service could be implemented on I-35W as early as 2016 — following the completion of an on-line station at Lake Street similar to the one opened at 46th Street last December.

The first stage of BRT improvements in the Cedar Avenue corridor are scheduled for completion by the end of next year.

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Comments (21)

""Many of the features of light rail transit (LRT) for a fraction of the cost" — that's the definition of bus rapid transit (BRT).
"

That is not the "definition" of BRT, its a marketing slogan. BRT is actually a term applied to a wide variety of improvements to improve bus service. It some cases it can approach light rail like performance, but often only at costs that still leave the improvements less cost-effective than rail based solutions.

That doesn't mean BRT isn't a good idea. It is. But only in places where light rail is not a realistic option. There is also a danger that BRT becomes an excuse for reducing bus service in urban neighborhoods for the benefit of people riding it from the suburbs. Stops 2 or 3 miles apart may be fine if you are driving to a park and ride, but not if you are walking.

The priority ought to be on bus improvements that serve all uses. So providing low floor buses, signal prioritization and dedicated right-of-way for all buses ought to be a higher priority than targeting those improvements to only a few limited-stop BRT buses in a corridor.

Thanks for covering MetroTransit's arterial BRT study. I want to point out on factual inaccuracy, as I understand it. The BRT presentation linked in this article that is from MetroTransit states that there would be two to three stops per mile not a stop every two to three miles. (See the slide with the title "How does Rapid Bus achieve faster service?") In the city of Minneapolis, that translates into about every three to four blocks when the blocks are long blocks, which are about 1/8 of a mile in length.

The biggest improvement would be the frequency. When I'm undecided about taking a bus or not, the deciding factor is often the time between buses. There's a vicious circle where low ridership means a reduction in the number of runs, and the increased waiting time reduces ridership. What makes light rail work is partly that runs are frequent. I don't have to have my timing exactly so, and it's not a major issue to miss a run.

In some other transit systems, there are small buses that run more frequently. Even off-peak runs can work that way. I've never known why that system doesn't get more widely adopted.

There is no definition for "BRT" as the term has been used by anti-transit ideologues to muddy the waters and stop rail transit investment.

Improved bus service is certainly welcome and the things Metro Transit has planned look good. As Ross mentioned, we need to be sure we're not cannibalizing the existing bus service to do it.

However, "real" BRT would have the same private rights-of-way that LRT does, the same kinds of stations, etc. Basically everything but the actual rails and overhead wires. Buses on shoulders, in traffic with "signal priority," (a notoriously ill-defined feature) or a dual-use carepool/transit lane _a_la_ 25-W is not true BRT.

"Real" BRT takes no less space than LRT and it costs more to operate and has a higher negative impact on the environment, not just from air pollution but from all of the runoff issues involved with paving over permeable land with concrete and asphalt.

So what we're really talking about here is improved bus service, which is great! But don't claim it's "BRT."

While it's true that 2-3 mile apart stops are not much good for walking, I'd like to point out that in the city the other extreme is the problem: stops literally every block. It's exactly this that gives buses their reputation as slow. Let's make buses faster and encourage walking by converting lines like the 16 to its express counterpart (50) that stops every ~1/4-1/2 mile.

"Many of the features of light rail transit (LRT) for a fraction of the cost" — that's the definition of bus rapid transit (BRT)."

Yeah, I remember that from back when Gov. Ventura was first pushing Choo-choo trains as the Silver Bullet for our Golden Future....little late now, isn't it?

Honestly, sometimes there's nothing left for a poor taxpayer to do but bang his or her head on the wall.

Brian, you are correct about the station spacing being 2-3 PER mile. Steve made a mistake when typing that one up, he might have been thinking of highway BRT (e.g. 35W, Cedar Ave) which does have stations every 2-3 miles.

In my own myopic view, I have concerns that this initial study does not include Lyndale Ave S, and the Hennepin corridor extends only as far as Lake Street. I live near Lyndale Ave, and I believe the current Route 4 there is bursting at the seams as far as current capacity/frequency. Articulated buses would be a good start.

I attended some of the public meetings for the BRT study, and the planners provided some helpful insight. They said not to think of the whole plan as a package deal, but rather consider each element indivually. Without any secured funding, transit improvements are likely to be incremental in nature. They pointed out that off-vehicle fare collection would have the greatest impact on travel times. Next up would be signal priority. These two improvements could be done incrementally and not require the large capital costs of new buses and stations.

At the open house, they also had much more detailed information/graphics for each possible route, including ridership, average travel times, nearby population and jobs, etc. I do hope they put everything from those sessions online for all to see.

P.S. I fully support this BRT plan over Minneapolis' self-interested streetcar network. The two plans essentially cover the same routes, but the BRT system reaches further, costs less, and potentially could travel faster. If you're worried about the pollution of buses vs. streetcar, some of the routes could eventually use electric "trolley buses" that use overhead catenary wire (see San Francisco) or dual-mode buses (Boston silver line).

What kind of improvement in use could be obtained by a simple increase in service frequency in the current lines + perhaps traffic signal priority and fewer stops on certain variations of already existing lines?

And what reduction in cost from the millions of dollars per mile quoted such a stripped-down plan might achieve?

I.e., leave out all those non-essential bells and whistles that increases the cost to $millions per mile. Just install the service improvements.

Much of this plan as described involves providing luxuries, not necessities.

- Specially heated stops are a meaningful enhancement only in a few months of the year.

- Ticketing enhancements surely must be marginal when all you have to do at present is wave a green card at a device on the way onto the bus!

- Why buy a new fleet of specialty buses?

Improving the EXISTING transit system in a variety of inexpensive ways - readily doable without a massive project - is what makes sense at this time.

I try to avoid calling these corridors "BRT" since they aren't considering the signature feature of BRT -- exclusive lanes. However, they are considering pretty much everything else that can be done to make buses move faster (and stop for shorter periods). I'm generally an advocate of increasing the spacing between stops, which by itself can improve travel times by roughly 10% (some people will have to walk farther, but doing it correctly means that the number of people impacted is very small -- and the gains in speed while onboard tend to overcome any walking delays).

The other major thing that was being pushed when I attended one of the public meetings earlier in the month was signal timing and prioritization.

The #10 bus on Central Avenue already has signal priority. In Saint Paul, the #54 bus along West 7th already has stop spacing that is stretched out quite a bit. Due to those improvements already in place, those routes are only projected to see further speedups of 9% and 4% respectively if additional changes are made.

Of course, speed isn't the only thing that drives ridership -- actually showing that you care about customers also helps. My normal morning and afternoon bus stops along the 3A route are just concrete pads with bus stop signs. Providing information (route numbers, schedules, maps), shelter, and seating would also attract more riders.

Alright, folks, here again is another mass transit idea that will probably take 20 years to decide upon and/or institute. In the meantime, the costs for such transit improvements will rise exponentially as people go through the machinations of discussions, focus groups, and nay-saying. When will the Twin Cities metroplex and the state of Minnesota wake up to the benefits of mass transit for all concerned?

For example, Metro Transit should be revamped into a streamlined Metro Transit Authority [MTA] encompassing all mass transit entities under one agency governance umbrella. With standardized fare structures, standardized equipment [buses, rail cars, streetcars, etc.], standardized employee training, and a revamped standardized governing structure the MTA could saves millions in operations in administrative and operations costs. It goes without saying the improved services might even make money for the MTA.

Also, the newly formed instituted MTA could operate Rapid Transit hard rail lines[RT], light rail lines[LRT], Bus rapid transit[brt] routes, street car route lines, with general express and local bus service lines from all reaches of the TC metroplex. The MTA could also connect, with hubs and/or stations, to Amtrak's High Speed Rail[HSR] lines to the MN hinterlands and the US.

Now this transit vision would not only boost the state's economy but would save billion$'s in energy costs, provide thousands of jobs, connect a widely disbursed diverse citizenry, and enhance future growth. Yes, it will initially cost subsidies from the US, MN, and local governments but so did the Interstate Highway System and various other massive public works projects. Why do we have to wait for the rest of the world to have this vision when we could do it now and reap the benefits? Just think of how we would save over personal vehicle and petrol costs.

Yes, the times are tough, But, we are Americans who historically rise above adversities and great challenges. Isn't time Minnesotans lead the way? It's our quality of life at stake.

Good point on frequency, Eric. Faster buses mean drivers can make more runs per shift offsetting some of the other operating costs associated with BRT and/or providing better frequency.

Wide scale use of small buses does not reduce costs because the biggest operating expenses are driver and maintenance salaries. Transit operators pay a driver the same regardless of the bus size. Whatever fuel costs saved are more than offset by capital costs of purchasing a duplicate fleet of small buses. A few routes in the Twin Cities use small buses but those are unique. The concept can not be applied system wide.

Comment #2: We've corrected the wording to make it clear there would be two or three stops a mile.

@Jeff (#5)

The reason those buses stop frequently is because there are many elderly and disabled people along the line. I take the 21 quite frequently and aside from the heaviest rush hour use (about an hour which I avoid), I find it not much slower than the 53 from Uptown to downtown St. Paul, which has the huge advantage of taking 94 from Snelling into downtown St. Paul.

@Jeff (#5)

One other thing. You're right about the 16 and 50. That's one of the primary reasons we're doing Central Corridor. Central Corridor will essentially operate like the 50 but will operate all day and at higher frequencies compared to the 50.

Sorry about the error concerning station spacing. Many thanks to Brian for calling it to our attention.

As some might have heard, Central/Nicollet has received some federal money for further study. So that line is unquestionably at the top of the priority list. We'd still have to deal with removing K-Mart @ Lake St and reopening Nicollet Ave for that to happen though. After that, I hear that there is some movement on Snelling Ave. Improved Snelling service would coincide well with the opening of Central Corridor LRT in late 2014.

It's all about flexibility. A new bus service can be started in days. The starting and stopping points move wherever the economics point them. A high speed rail line would take 5 years to build and decades to pay off. The reasons to build high speed rail lines and nuclear reactors are similar. The reasons to rely on bus service and natural gas plants instead are also similar. Look at what is getting built

In my ideal Twin Cities bus system, there would be true frequent service (as in a minimum of every 15 minutes, seven days a week)on all arterial streets for the entire length of those streets. It would go to all major shopping centers and all community college campuses.

A map of the system would look like a lattice, not like the spokes of a wheel or like a plate of spaghetti (which is what the current Metro Transit map looks like). Frequent crosstown lines on the crosstown arterials would connect the north-south lines at convenient intervals, making it almost as easy to take the bus as to drive somewhere.

The main problem with living car-free in the Twin Cities (as opposed to in Portland, Oregon) is that the connections don't work here. It's as if the transit planners just slap on a line here and a line there without looking at things from the point of view of someone who needs to use the bus to go places, say an elderly or disabled person or a child under the age of 16 or someone who can't afford a car.

The transit planners need to give up their cars for about three months and use Metro Transit exclusively. (Some people actually actually live that way now.) It seems that the planners lack a gut-level feeling for the riders' needs and frustrations.

Studies and academic articles are no substitute for actually being a transit rider.

The elderly and disabled have alternatives to regular Metro Transit buses -- Metro Mobility is still available as a door-to-door paratransit provider. Additionally, many churches, community groups, and even private operators have their own shuttle van services. Regular taxis are also options in some cases. A diverse population demands a diverse array of solutions. As much as I'd like to have regular public transit serve everyone, it's not going to happen -- there are always geographic constraints that prevent fixed-route services from getting to every corner of a region. Dial-a-ride needs to be part of the equation.

As for Lake Street, the presenters at the meeting I went to mentioned that the stops that they plan to remove along that stretch only represent about 3% of riders. Most of that 3% could make it to an adjacent stop without much trouble. The very least able riders, probably down below 1%, would be the ones who'd have to avail themselves of alternative services (but Metro Transit is not planning to take away service entirely -- they just want to reduce the frequency of the 21 and increase the frequency of the 53 or whatever the rapid bus is going to be called).

@David(14): I do see what you're saying but I would say two things: first, that while I used the 16 as an example, I think this is a general problem. Most busses stop too frequently. And as callous as it sounds, I just don't see how it's good policy to greatly inconvenience the majority of users because of the needs of a small number of elderly and disabled. We shouldn't be using the same system to serve both the immobile and healthy adults who should be easily capable of walking a quarter mile in five minutes. We should be looking for separate means to serve those with special needs.

@Jeff (#20)

In an ideal world, perhaps. But funding is a real issue. If we want something, we have to pay for it. So far we have not been willing.

That said, the number of elderly and disabled along the 16 and 21 routes is not insignificant. This is why reduction of 16 frequency with Central Corridor LRT is so vocally opposed. And there is real value in sharing public space with all kinds of people. "Separate but equal" has shown us that.

A block-to-block local route with a limited-stop option seems ideal, which is exactly what's proposed on Lake and University.