Metro Transit ridership rising despite high unemployment

Urban local routes — the heart of Metro Transit's all-day service — increased 4.3 percent, or 1.8 million rides to 43.8 million.
CC/Flickr/Michael Hicks
Urban local routes — the heart of Metro Transit’s all-day service — increased 4.3 percent, or 1.8 million rides to 43.8 million.

Despite challenging economic times, Metro Transit attracted 60.6 million riders for the first nine months of 2011, a 3.6 percent increase over the same period a year ago.

“Thanks to strong ridership results in the first nine months, we are nearly 900,000 rides ahead of the pace we need to achieve our 2011 ridership goal of 80 million,” said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb. “The 80-million mark has been exceeded only once in the last 30 years.”

The ridership gains have come despite continued high unemployment — 6.9 percent for Minnesota in September. This typically hurts ridership, since fewer workers are commuting to and from jobs.

Metro Transit reports that bus ridership accounted for all of the year-over-year ridership gains, posting a 4.5 percent increase to 52.3 million. Ridership increased in all three types of bus service:

•    Urban local routes — the heart of Metro Transit’s all-day service — increased 4.3 percent, or 1.8 million rides to 43.8 million.

•    Ridership on freeway-oriented express bus routes was up 5.1 percent, or 351,000 rides, to 7.3 million.

•    Rides on suburban crosstown routes grew 5.9 percent, or 70,500 rides, to 1.3 million.

Transit officials said both the Hiawatha light-rail and Northstar commuter rail lines experienced slight ridership declines in the nine-month  period — Hiawatha down 1.6 percent to 7.8 million and Northstar down 1.9 percent to 552,000.

They attributed this to a reduced number of Twins and Vikings games, and other large-scale special events, during the period as well as to a freight train derailment that curtailed Northstar service for several days.

Metropass program
One of the tools that Metro Transit has used to build ridership in recent years is the Metropass program. It provides employers the opportunity to offer groups of 10 or more participants discounted, unlimited-ride transit passes for $76 per month. Some employers further subsidize the passes with savings they realize on employee parking.

As of Oct. 1, 252 employers offer these passes and more than 33,000 employees make use of them. This is one reason why an estimated 40 percent of downtown Minneapolis workers and nearly 20 percent of downtown St. Paul workers commute to and from their jobs by transit, reducing congestion on roads and freeways serving the urban core.

Curiously, state government is not one of the role models for this program. Ryan Church, assistant commissioner of administration, says the state leaves participation in the Metropass program to each state agency and fewer than half do so. They include Church’s department, where about 7 percent of the employees hold passes.

In contrast, for the top five private employers with the largest number of Metropass participants, 31 percent of the eligible employees have transit passes.

One reason just 1,500 state employees participate in the Metropass program is that state government offers a huge amount of employee parking at incredibly modest rates.

The state provides nearly 5,200 parking spaces in the Capitol complex and another 2,345 in the nearby Lafayette Park campus. The parking rates are just $30 a month for lots, $51.67 for ramp parking and $104.26 for a garage. It’s obviously difficult for transit to compete with deals like that.

Metro Transit is the region’s largest transit provider, with 159 bus routes, one light-rail transit (LRT) line and one commuter transit line. The region’s second LRT line in the Central Corridor is scheduled for completion in 2014.

The region also is served by six suburban providers and several private firms that operate routes under contract with the Metropolitan Council, the parent organization of Metro Transit.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/24/2011 - 10:03 am.

    Looks like the State needs to walk the walk. $30-$105 per month for parking in St. Paul?! Uh. This is exactly the sort of thing that many people get upset about when they think that public employees have it too good. While I think it’s just “one of the perks you get for being degraded by the general public,” it’s bad policy on the part of the State.

    After all, shouldn’t we actually be charging lobbyists exhorbitant prices for those spots, instead? (Kind of joking.)

  2. Submitted by Judy Rahn on 10/24/2011 - 10:29 am.

    “Despite high unemployment”?? More likely because of it. Owning/using a car is expensive. Fuel,insurance,general maintenance and repair,etc.
    Cars make a serious dent in a family budget, and I suspect people are being forced to consider alternate transportation means.

  3. Submitted by Lisa Dircks on 10/24/2011 - 11:20 am.

    It’s not difficult to explain why ridership is up even though unemployment is high. For those of us who still have jobs, with paychecks that have not even come close to keeping pace with inflation, it makes good sense. It would cost me $140/month to drive back and forth to work. It costs me $80/month to take the bus.

  4. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 10/24/2011 - 12:24 pm.

    Just to repeat what Judy and Rachel have already said in this comment section. We help pay for the cheap parking lot rates for state employees and help pay for the rides of all riders of Metro Transit….as required by law in the form of taxes! Of course these will be popular(which one will depend on your love of driving)! My God MinnPost, what communist-run planet are you from??

    This is isn’t to say these subsidies are bad….but why you don’t get it….or refuse to say you get it…makes me (again) not ever want to read anything in the MinnPost again.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/24/2011 - 12:47 pm.

    I’m ambivalent to a degree, but inclined to favor Judy’s view in #2. Assuming (and assumptions are often not reliable) that the affected family is, in fact, paying all the automotive-related bills it should be paying, including insurance and maintenance, it’s easily possible that a family might spend nearly as much on transportation as it does on housing. In that scenario, should unemployment become uncomfortably personal, Metro Transit might look like a far better deal than it might in other, more prosperous, circumstances. The fact that it’s bus ridership – the least expensive of the Metro options – that’s exceeding expectations, and not LRT or Northstar, suggests that that might well be what’s happening.

    It’s not that unusual to see a family paying 30% of its income for housing, and basically another 30% for auto transportation if payments are still being made on an auto loan. Deduct 60% from anyone’s paycheck, except for those in the upper 1%, and it doesn’t leave very much for other things like health care, food and clothing.

    And while we’re at it, Rachel is right on the money in #1. The state needs to walk the walk, even though, like Rachel, I’m inclined to think cheap parking ought to be among the perks you get for general abuse from the right wing. Even so, discounted parking is exactly the sort of thing that annoys the general public when the term “government” comes up…

  6. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/24/2011 - 01:39 pm.

    @#4, Fritz,
    I don’t know how my comment got rolled into yours. I don’t see MinnPost as providing any sort of “communist” agenda (to quote Princess Bride–“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means”). My point was that, if we’re going to supplement any sort of transportation, it shouldn’t be the one that increases congestion. That being said, I understand that many employees simply can’t use public transportation because our public transportation network outright stinks. Of course, it’s a matter of which comes first: the chicken (better public tranportation) or the egg (better public transportation ridership).

    @#5, Ray
    Don’t get me wrong. I think that public employees probably deserve the perk. But in the political climate where public employees are the bogeyman under the bed, no matter how ridiculous the idea, it wouldn’t hurt to make choices that are more consistent with overall policy. If we’re going to spend tax dollars to make better public transportation, then we should be using it whenever possible. If we’re going to make environmental choices, then let’s follow through with them–we already have a “green” fleet of state vehicles, why not extend that to a greener alternative for commuting workers?

  7. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 10/24/2011 - 02:44 pm.

    Thanks for a good article. We need more like this. How about one that illustrates we all pay for “free” parking. Riding the bus or light rail does pay. As a bus rider, I’m amazed at the number now using the GoTo system, including old folks like me and all the U students. I hope the Mpls. Public Schools also start the proposed policy of giving high school students passes instead of having school buses take them here and there. Kids should learn the bus system. It’s part of learning independence and will wean them from forever driving someplace–good for the environment and their health as well as ours.

  8. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/24/2011 - 04:48 pm.

    I can attest to the money-saving benefits of transit.

    Between 1993 and 2003, I lived in Portland, Oregon without a car. That city’s superb public transit system made it possible for me to do things like taking a computer class at a suburban community college campus on Saturday morning with very little trouble. (I took light rail from a station two blocks from my home, and a bus met the train in the suburbs to take people to the campus by 8:30AM.

    After I moved here, I received an old car from a relative, and even when I tried hard to use transit, the connections did not work for any but few lines in the central city, and there was almost no coverage in the suburbs, where all my relatives live. So I drove much of the time.

    Soon, I began to feel financially strapped, which was puzzling, because my free-lance income had not changed, and there is no significant difference between the cost of living in Portland and the cost of living in Minneapolis.

    When I sat down to figure my income tax at the end of the year, I realized why. Driving my “free” car cost nearly $3000 a year with gas, insurance, and repairs and maintenance. Previously, $600 worth of bus passes had taken care of all my local transportation needs. Moving to Minneapolis had cost me a $2400 decrease in disposable income, about $200 a month.

    The main problem with Metro Transit’s approach is that it asks the wrong questions. It seems to be asking, “How can we get people back and forth to work?” That’s a very important question, of course, but it leaves out children, the retired elderly, the unemployed, weekend workers, nighttime workers, suburban workers, and others who don’t need to be downtown five days a week.

    Instead, Metro Transit should ask the question, “How can we make it easy to live without a car?” (Not “force people out of their cars,” as the oil and auto company’s paid shills say, but make it possible not to need one.)

    It could be done by making the exurbs responsible for their own downtown commuters and concentrating on improving transit for the cities and the inner suburbs, first of all by putting frequent buses on the entire lengths of all through streets, and second by making sure that the buses and light rail lines were coordinated with one another.

  9. Submitted by Suzanne Rhees on 10/24/2011 - 07:49 pm.

    As a state employee and bike/bus commuter, I find the incredibly cheap parking and minimal transit pass subsidy highly annoying. Some state agencies provide a transit pass subsidy, others do not; seemingly with no rhyme or reason. Yet I’m sure every state agency has some goals for “sustainability,” and they do make an effort when it comes to their own vehicle fleets, etc.
    Regardless, my commute mode provides exercise, reading time, and the ability to keep an ancient car on the road for an occasional trip…

  10. Submitted by Bob Woehr on 11/29/2011 - 09:41 am.

    Perhaps the Taxpayers need to understand what a ride consists of — When you pay for a fare you recieve a transfer good for two & 1/2 hours. every time you use that transfer it counts as a ride. The Taxpayer pays for the subsidy of each ride between $5 – $8 …. It depends on the route, which town or County, or if an express or not. So the Met Council wants you to transfer because that is more revenue. And with fraud — Like at a hub where someone uses the transfer and gives it to a friend who uses it on another bus.. the Taxpayer loses out. I propose $1 for rides with no transfer —

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