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Commuter options: You don't have to drive alone

Bike commuters in Minneapolis, America's most bike-friendly city
Photo by Jeff Syme
Bike commuters in Minneapolis -- America's most bike-friendly city

Every year for more than two decades, Metro Transit and its transportation partners have honored individuals, employers and organizations for their efforts to promote smart commuting alternatives and ease traffic congestion.

The 21st Commuter Choice Awards — presented Wednesday in St. Paul — recognized a multitude of efforts to promote and support transit, van- and carpooling, bicycling, walking and telecommuting.

In many ways, it's an uphill struggle. In today's world, where many people's commutes include multiple stops to transport children and perform errands, it's difficult to compete with the flexibility of the automobile.

According to the latest Census data, 78 percent of metro area residents drive alone to and from work, up slightly from 76 percent in 1990. Nine percent commute by carpool and 5 percent by public transit, about the same as in 1990.

“I think it’s mainly a lifestyle issue,” says Bruce Howard, director of customer services and marketing for Metro Transit. “People’s lifestyles are so complicated.”

Another factor, Howard acknowledges, is that Metro Transit offers fairly limited service once you get outside of the core cities. There, 13 percent of Minneapolis residents and 11 percent of St. Paul residents commute by transit, according to Census figures.

Commuting options
Nonetheless, it's also clear that smart commuting options play an important role in easing congestion, reducing the demand for costly parking facilities, improving air quality and providing vital transportation for people who cannot afford or operate an automobile.

In 2010, more than 3,200 registered van- and carpools were in operation, reducing vehicle miles traveled by an estimated 31 million miles.
Photo by Jeff Syme
In 2010, more than 3,200 registered van- and carpools were in operation, reducing vehicle miles traveled by an estimated 31 million miles.

"I think it's mainly a lifestyle issue," says Bruce Howard, director of customer services and marketing for Metro Transit. "People's lifestyles are so complicated."
Efforts to promote such options are reflected in:

•    The 3.6 percent increase in Metro Transit ridership in the first nine months of this year. Ridership is now on pace to top 80 million for just the second time in 30 years.

•    The increased participation in Metro Transit's Metropass program. More than 250 employers offer these discounted, unlimited-ride transit passes and more than 33,000 employees make use of them.  

•    Growth in the use of van- and carpools, formed with the help of Metro Transit's ridematching service. In 2010, more than 3,200 registered van- and carpools were in operation, reducing vehicle miles traveled by an estimated 31 million miles.

•    Increased commuting by bicycle, particularly in Minneapolis, named last year as America's most bike-friendly city.

11 honorees
The 11 honorees at Wednesday's luncheon included Jodie Zurn, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Minneapolis. She worked to get USDA employees converted from a cumbersome federal transit voucher program to Metro Transit's Metropass program, saving money for both her agency and its employees.

U.S. Bank was recognized for helping its employees prepare for an office relocation from St. Paul to Richfield. The corporation held two transportation fairs that provided more than 400 employees with resources for their new commute, and offered new incentives for van- and carpooling.

Minneapolis Community and Technical College was honored for providing subsidized transit passes for both staff and students, as well as new facilities to encourage commuting by bike.

For Gerry Westerland, who was involved in the college's efforts, "One of the biggest joys was watching how attitudes change and lives are changed."

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Comments (11)

An important point lost on the anti-transit crowd is that aggregate numbers don't tell the whole story. While "only" 5% of all commuters use public transit, about 40% of commuters to downtown Minneapolis use public transit.

Another important point lost on just about everybody is that transit's primary role is not, not, NOT to reduce congestion. That's a nice side-effect but the real reason to use transit is to avoid the congestion altogether. I don't ride the bus to make your commute more pleasant. I ride it to make MY commute more pleasant.

Just for kicks, I put my commute into the Metro Transit trip planner. The result was that my commute isn't possible.

It's a little ironic that U.S. Bank gets recognized for moving jobs from downtown to the suburban beltway where conditions are most hostile to biking, walking, and transit.

Given the winter climate here, I confess I’m not at all impressed with Metro Transit’s bus system. Yes, I can get within reasonable distance of most of the places I’d likely want to go, but in most instances that I’ve tried with Metro’s trip planner, I’d have to change buses at least twice, and sometimes three times. When the wait between buses is 15 minutes or more during those transfers, an “errand” turns into an all-day affair.

I do like David Greene’s rationale for riding the bus, and if I were still commuting, I’d probably share it, with the substantial caveat that I’d have to be near a bus route that allowed me to get to work without a transfer. Anything more than about 5 minutes in a bus shelter here in late January, waiting for the next bus, is ridiculous.

According to Metro's trip planner, to get to Target field from my far-northwest corner of the city, using any of the several buses that stop within a block or two of my house, takes 90 minutes and two transfers. The return is essentially the same. That turns a 3-hour ball game into a 6-hour ordeal that basically eats up the entire day, or runs far into the late night. Fortunately, there’s a Northstar station in Fridley. I drive there (7 minutes), hop the Northstar, and I’m at the Target Field gate in 15 minutes more. Repeat for the return, for a round-trip transportation time of about an hour if I wait a few minutes for the train. Factor in the cost of fuel, wear-and-tear on the car, and parking, and I’m both time and money ahead by using the train. As long as Northstar runs, I’ll never, ever drive to Target Field, but if the train stops, I won’t be taking the bus as an alternative.

@Ray

I completely agree that our bus system is wholly inadequate. I don't think you'll find any transit supporters who disagree, including Metro Transit.

The problem, as always, is political will. So far we have not been willing to put up the dollars to improve things much at all. Tweaks here and there are not enough. We need major capital and service improvements. We need rail but we also need a much more robust bus system to feed the rail network and serve the areas not well served by rail.

I'm fortunate enough to have hit the housing market just after Hiawatha came on-line (and unfortunately just before the bubble burst). I intentionally chose to live somewhere I knew had excellent transit access. I'm also fortunate enough to work somewhat that has equally good transit access.

So I do recognize that many if not most people find it extremely difficult to commute by transit regularly. All of this is known to planners and engineers. What's lacking is money and political will.

One problem with Twin Cities transit is that it is run by the Metro Council, which is appointed by whoever happens to be governor at the time. This means that policies can change drastically every four years. Furthermore, an appointed board is not responsive to the public.

Portland's justly famous transit system is also run by a Metro Council, but its Metro Council is elected, so any member who displeases the public finds his or her job in danger. A couple of years before I left, the public voted out a long-time member who was considered too friendly to the developers and replaced him with a cycling advocate who ran on contributions averaging $50. For the last several election cycles, anti-transit types have run for Metro and been defeated 2 to 1.

The second problem is that the Twin Cities system seems very ad hoc. Lines are slapped onto the map and changed and renumbered without much thought about how they fit together. If you're going from somewhere in the city limits or inner suburbs to downtown, the system works great. Going anywhere else is a hassle. It's as if the planners have decided that their number one task is getting people back and forth to work downtown, and everything else is an afterthought. That's the reason for all those "you can't get there from here" situations.

Portland Metro, on the other hand, seems to have decided that its task is to make it easy to live without a car. Service is frequent, so you rarely have to wait for a transfer, and the routes are coordinated with one another. For example, I once took an 8:30AM Saturday morning class at a suburban community college. It meant walking to the light rail station three blocks away, riding for 20 minutes, and boarding a campus-bound bus that met the train. I rarely had to ask anyone for a ride; in fact, I was offered a lot more rides than I needed. The system has its flaws, but they are minor compared to the flaws in the Twin Cities system.

The online transit planner on Metro Transit's website is a joke. When I first moved back here, I decided to try to take the bus from Linden Hills to a gathering in Tangletown. I knew it was hopeless when the online system had never heard of Diamond Lake Road.

On the whole, Portland seems to ask for more citizen input on getting around. I was on the city's Pedestrian Advisory Committee for two years. We had non-binding input on all new building projects and anything else that might affect pedestrians. There were similar councils for cyclists and transit riders.

If I were transit czarina, I would first concentrate on the central cities and inner suburbs. For financial reasons, I'd cut the outer suburbs loose and ask them to form their own companies, much like Southwest Transit. Then I would meet with people in each neighborhood to solicit their opinions and needs and find out how transit works and doesn't work for them.

Based on that input, I would require the planners to give up their car keys for three months as a precondition for winning the planning contract. Then I would ask them to draw up a coordinated plan (mostly likely with frequent service--a maximum of every 15 minutes, seven days a week--on all arterial streets) and take it back to the neighborhoods again for feedback.

All new bus or train lines would be approved only on the basis of how they made the whole system work better.

Employer policies are critical. One co-worker who had driven alone to her downtown St. Paul office for 11 years got a new job one block from the old one, and switched to the bus within three weeks. The difference? The first job offered free parking, the second one offered no parking and reduced-cost transit passes.

It doesn't help that federal policy has historically offered (and may well return to) employer free parking tax breaks that are double or more than for transit passes or cycling benefits.

@Karen (#6)

While Metro Transit may be under the wing of the Met Council, it's a more independent body than you may think. The Met Council does the long-range planning for the region and distributes some funds for capital improvements. Metro Transit does the actual route planning and scheduling adjustments, as funding situations fluctuate. Neither organization can meet our lofty expectations without adequate funding from the state. The Metropolitan Council certainly doesn't decide how much funding it will receive from the state, so your accusations are a little off there. You are correct though, that when we have a GOP governor, the make-up of the council is less transit friendly. [Not your words exactly, but I think that's what you meant]

If you (this goes for any of you) live in GOP-controlled state legislative districts, please express to them that transit should not be a partisan issue and needs proper funding. If anyone you know lives in Shakopee (my condolences), please tell them to elect anyone other than that anti-transit ignoramous Rep. Michael Beard (35A).

@Everyone else, I'm curious where you live that the transit service is so bad, from your perspective anyways. I live in south Minneapolis (Whittier) and the service is great. Perhaps not as fast as I'd like, but I have a multitude of routes to choose from that run every 15 minutes or better.

Our land-use policies determine transit service, not the other way around. So think twice the next time you're opposing that 4-story mixed-use development in [insert suburb here]. South Minneapolis has excellent transit service because of its population density. You can't expect frequent all-day service to 2nd or 3rd ring 'burbia, it just isn't realistic. It would be a huge waste of money.

@Matt (#8)

The Met Council can't determine how much money it gets from the state but it certainly sets its own budget based on that. Even more importantly, the Met Council, along with the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) is responsible for distributing lots of federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) money. STP money can go to roads or transit. The TAB and Met Council have historically chosen to fund roads almost exclusively. They can change that and bring our system a little more into balance.

Whittier absolutely has MUCH better service than almost anywhere in the metro. I'm in The Wedge and so am intimately familiar with your experience. Only downtown Minneapolis has better service. The east metro outside of Saint Paul is practically a transit desert. North Minneapolis is very underserved even if you don't account for its higher transit-dependent population.

@Karen (#6)

Portland has a few advantages the Twin Cities does not, most notably geographical barriers (mountains and an ocean). That tends to discourage sprawl somewhat. Portland has also been much more proactive in limiting outward expansion, though that has been changing in recent years.

People have talked about and elected Met Council here for years and there is really no consensus for it. It's not entirely clear to me that such an organization would improve transit service, given the political domination currently enjoyed by the exurbs. A Council made up of elected officials (county commissioners, mayors, etc.) has also been bandied about.

In fact the whole reason we have a TAB at all is to comply with federal law, which requires some elected officials on Metropolitan Planning Organizations. The Met Council got grandfathered in for that role since it already existed when the idea of an MPO was codified in U.S. law.

That said, I am absolutely not letting the Met Council and the TAB off the hook. There are lots and lots of things the Council could do without needing any change to statute at all.

Your point about opt-outs (suburban providers) is pretty far off. We've had that model here for quite some time now and it has proven inefficient and inequitable. It's time to have one agency running the transit system in the metro area.

I don't know how transit is in the Whittier neighborhood, but I just came back from downtown by bus on a Friday night after attending a concert at Orchestra Hall, and it took 1) 20 minutes of waiting for a #17 on the Nicollet Mall, 2) another 20 minutes of waiting at the Uptown Transit Center for a 6C/E/K. Metro Transit fudges on claiming "frequent service" for the #6. It's true only if you live north of 39th Avenue South, where the route splits into France Avenue and Xerxes Avenue branches, which themselves split into several options.

Service like that is one reason that more people don't take the bus.

Portland's lack of sprawl was a conscious political decision based on Oregon's urban growth boundary system. The built-up areas can move outward, but they have to do so in an orderly fashion. None of this Carlson Parkway nonsense, with office towers plopped down any old place.

Karen, the "Hi-Frequency Network" only offers service 15 mins or better until 7pm, which is pretty weak, so that is a legitimate complaint. I also agree with you on the outrageous branching of the #6, that's way too many branches for a single route, not very user friendly. However, I'm curious why you didn't just walk up to Hennepin to catch a Route 6 in the first place, rather than waiting for the less frequent Route 17 and a transfer. That's just poor planning. The further you're willing to walk, the better transit service you will get :)