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Despite population growth, car use declining in Twin Cities

Greg Larson
MinnPost photo by Judy KeenGreg Larson

Whenever he can, wetlands scientist Greg Larson drives from his home in Woodbury to a park-and-ride lot and takes the bus to work.

He switched to transit a few years ago and figures riding the bus instead of driving saves him $70 a month in gas and parking fees.

Larson typifies a trend that’s playing out in the Twin Cities metro area and across the country: He’s driving less and using public transportation more.

“Hopefully, it’s the wave of the future,” he says.

The Travel Behavior Inventory Report released this month by the Metropolitan Council found that despite population growth, total car use fell in the last decade, from 7.7 million trips every weekday to 6.3 million.

The study, which is conducted every 10 years, found transit usage rose between 2000 and 2010 to 3.2 percent of trips, up from 2.5 percent.

Key factors

The faltering economy and high gas prices over the past few years likely were factors in both trends, says Mark Filipi, manager of technical planning support for Metropolitan Transportation Services.

The report concludes that an increase in telecommuting also contributed to the drop in car trips; 33 percent of workers in the region work outside the office at least monthly.

Still, the “actual significant decline” in what transportation planners call “trip making” was a surprise, Filipi says. Until 2000, there was a continuous increase in the number of trips made daily – a progression that began in the 1940s when women began joining the workforce in large numbers.

People are thinking twice before driving to spend money on activities like movies, restaurants and shopping, Filipi says, and technology has eliminated the need for some car outings. Online shopping and streaming video, for example, put a dent in trips to malls and video stores.

Larson epitomizes another factor: Instead of making multiple separate trips, he and his wife “find a morning or afternoon and do all our errands on one trip,” he says.

The decline in car trips might be temporary, though. Filipi says that when gas prices drop or people just get used to higher prices, they tend to revert to old driving habits.

Still, he believes that once people try buses and other transit systems, they’re inclined to keep using them. Discretionary transit riders – those who own cars – often are happy to avoid congestion and parking hassles and the freedom to read or use electronic devices during their commute.

“The hard part is getting people to use transit,” Filipi says. “Once they have, then it’s just another way of getting to where they need to be.”

Filipi says the area’s “love affair with the automobile” is not about to end. Eighty-four percent of Twin Cities area trips are still done by car and 76 percent of people who drive to work do so without passengers.

Those driving outings are getting more frustrating. Between 2000 and 2010, the average trip distance increased from 6.6 miles to 7 miles, and the average time rose from 17 to 22 minutes.

“I like driving, but I don’t enjoy driving in the kind of traffic we have,” Larson says.

‘I don’t like to drive’

Andrew Trent, who lives in Woodbury and works at a downtown St. Paul bank, drives fewer than five miles from home to a park and ride where he catches a bus to work.

“I don’t like to drive,” he says. “If I had my choice, I wouldn’t own a vehicle.”

Trent is 33, but his attitude mirrors the perspectives of members of the Millennial generation — those born between 1983 and 2000. The travel behavior report found that people in that age group seem to be postponing getting driver’s licenses and driving cars. Many members of that demographic group who are older enough to drive are more likely to live in cities, use public transit and bike or walk to get around.

Andrew TrentMinnPost photo by Judy KeenAndrew Trent takes the bus to work in downtown St. Paul because it’s more convenient and economical.

“They are concerned about the effect they have on the environment and they’re technologically more astute,” Filipi says. So they use smart phones and other devices to keep in touch with their social network, sometimes instead of in-person encounters.

Data from the survey will be used to inform policy decisions about future transportation development. “We can’t build our way out of congestion,” he says, but light rail will help. He also believes there will be more managed lanes – at a price – and additional express-bus options.

Who travels most?Building more freeways probably is not on the to-do list. “More freeways only solve the problem short term,’ Filipi says. Five years after a new one opens, drivers looking for the fastest way to get somewhere fill them up.

We might be on the verge of dramatic technological breakthroughs in transportation, he says.

Google and some carmakers are developing technology for driverless cars, and a company in Israel is working on flying cars.

Larson will settle for some earthbound improvements. He wishes more express buses were available in the early morning hours and into the evening, and he’s eager for next year’s opening of the light-rail line between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“The bus is a fantastic option,” he says, “but I’m really looking forward to light rail.”

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 10/29/2013 - 09:50 am.

    They couldn’t just use the census data?

    Perhaps someone at DEED can give them a tour of that data.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/29/2013 - 10:44 am.

    Car use

    My own auto mileage is declining, as well, but not for the reasons in the article. I’ve not made a scientific study of it, but anecdotally, a large part of the reason for the decline in my own VMT is that — especially when compared to living in Colorado suburbs and exurbs — the places I need to go are, for the most part, much closer together. My neighborhood in Minneapolis lacks much of what’s supposed to be advantageous about city living, but it’s still closer to the usual grocery store, dry cleaner, dentist, doctor destinations that people typically drive to. There’s no movie theater next door, but I tend to patronize the one closest to me precisely because… it’s the one closest to me.

    Light rail is nowhere near me, and even the proposed northwest line won’t help much in that regard, and while I rode buses frequently in Denver, I don’t do so here. I’m not sure if it’s simply quirks in the schedule, but bus service here is much less convenient than my experience in Denver. Buses that stop close to my house don’t go where I want to go, and in this climate, having to change buses twice to go somewhere downtown, and then change twice more on the way home, is a deal-killer. Not only is the climate unfriendly to that much of the year, but adding that kind of complexity turns a trip that might be an hour by car into 4 or 5 hours by bus. That’s simply not a reasonable choice right now.

    When I do drive, I try to emulate the strategy that Greg Larson employs, and that’s to combine errands into a single excursion, and when I can, I’ll spend a few minutes thinking about the most efficient (i.e., fewest miles) way to get to multiple destinations. My most frequent trips are to babysit the grandkids, and that’s only a 10-mile round trip. I’d prefer to walk to the babysitting duties, but housing in my son’s neighborhood is significantly less affordable than in my neighborhood. That’s a different issue for some other time…

    • Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 10/29/2013 - 02:16 pm.

      Calling BS on “change buses twice”

      “Buses that stop close to my house don’t go where I want to go, and in this climate, having to change buses twice to go somewhere downtown, and then change twice more on the way home, is a deal-killer.”

      I call BS. You make this same or similar comment on every single MinnPost article regarding transit, city vs. suburb, etc. You have mentioned previously that you live in the far NW corner of Minneapolis, not far from Brookdale’s reincarnation as Walmart. I’ll assume that you live in Shingle Creek neighborhood, which is most directly served by the Route 22. Granted, the service is terribly infrequent, running at perhaps 40 minute intervals on each of the three branches north of 45th Ave N (frequency improves to the south where all branches converge at Lyndale & 45th). Infrequent service aside, this is a direct, one-seat ride to the downtown core, sports stadia, Mill District, West Bank, etc. Additionally, if you would simply walk westward over to Osseo Rd./Brooklyn Blvd., you would find very frequent service on Routes 5 and 19, both of which originate at the Brooklyn Center Transit Center (yes, it’s really called that) along with the 22. You do not have to make any transfers to go downtown, period. Once downtown you can walk to your destination, either via sidewalks or the climate controlled skyways.

      Sorry for making this personal, but I grew tired of you making the same complaint on every single MinnPost article. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you are doing poor trip planning if you must make two transfers to get downtown. If you want to complain about the speed of service or the stops being placed too closely together, then I’m all with you. The #1 competitive disadvantage Metro Transit has vs. using other modes is that buses stop too often (currently every 1/8 mile, should be 1/4 mile) and local routes have absolutely no signal or lane priority over general traffic.

      • Submitted by jody rooney on 10/29/2013 - 03:14 pm.

        And I get tired of you thinking that everyone wants to go


        If you will read what was actually posted you will notice that what he actually said was “Buses that stop close to my house don’t go where I want to go…”

        As near as I can tell and I from the unfriendly trip planner if I want to go from my house to my late mother in laws house I drive 8 miles to a park and ride, change buses 4 times and it takes a little over 2 hours. In the car it takes just short of 1 hour. Although it is a 1+ hour improvement over the time it took my mom to travel to see her cousins in the 1940’s she didn’t have to change streetcars.

        • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 10/29/2013 - 08:02 pm.

          Before calling others out on their reading comprehension…

          …perhaps you should check yours.

          “Buses that stop close to my house don’t go where I want to go, and in this climate, having to change buses twice to go somewhere downtown, and then change twice more on the way home, is a deal-killer.”

          He specifically mentioned going downtown. And yes, people want to go downtown. I don’t, but other people do. What we really need is more light rail and streetcars.

  3. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 10/29/2013 - 12:11 pm.

    my car

    I live in St. Paul in the Summit-U neighborhood and one big reason I love it here and plan to stay is that I am within walking distance of most of my basic needs: a block from my co-op where I do almost all my grocery shopping, and about 4 blocks to Grand Ave, where I can go to my hardware store, dry cleaners, drugstore, and several eating places. I am about 3 blocks from my church, which is really handy since I do go there usually a couple of times a week. This is a great area to walk in and my dog and I walk a lot and frequently explore or re-explore new areas. There are many older and renovated and architecturally interesting houses around here, and it’s another reason to love my neighborhood..
    I’ve been thinking about selling my duplex here since I’ve been here about 30 years and am a little tired of being a landlord, but I will stay in this area. I love being able to leave my car in the garage for days at a time.

  4. Submitted by Monica Millsap on 10/29/2013 - 12:26 pm.

    Is there anything wrong with loving convenience?

    I ride the bus and find it very inconvenient for much of what I need to do, but I put up with it. I’ll admit that I am not like most people in much of what I do.

    However, I suspect that many more people feel like Ray Schoch. (and people like me would definitely be happy with more reasonable choices, too) I also believe that there are plenty of people who don’t have a love affair with the auto, but rather love convenience.

    As this column points out, auto trips are declining in part because of online shopping (think convenience). An economy that is still shaky also likely contributes to people just going out less.

    But, if our transit spending actually had a plan of increasing ridership, why does it continue to look so inconvenient? I have looked at the math on our newest transit options. With the cuts and reductions that have either happened or will be happening soon to buses (which will help pay for the Green Line), transit really won’t be that much faster. The Green Line will run about the same speed as the 50. With the proposed BRT on Snelling, a trip from Rosedale to the airport or either downtown will not be significantly any faster than before, especially with the 94 bus eliminating it’s stop at Snelling. The only possible way convenience changes is with parking options, though with horrible transit service, we may be stuck in a cycle where businesses that thrive will continue to offer parking to customers.

    Building transit is expensive, but building transit that doesn’t improve service seems even more expensive. I’ll know that the Twin Cities is serious about increasing transit use when we all stop focusing on auto use and start planning and building to encourage riders like Mr. Schoch – those that don’t love the auto, but understand the value of convenience.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 10/29/2013 - 01:17 pm.

      Some Corrections

      Bus service is not being changed to “pay for” the Green Line. That would be a violation of federal rules. Capital expense for buses and rail are paid out of separate pots. Buses are being changed to hopefully better integrate with our transitway investments. We might not get it right the first time but we’ll get there.

      University Ave. needed LRT due to capacity issues. We would not be able to run enough 50 buses to meet future demand,. The Green Line is part of a network of high-capacity, high-frequency transitways that will hopefully hit most of the major origins and destinations. It will be up to the bus system to feed into that system and cover the places where transitways cannot go due to cost or geography.

      The problem is funding, funding, funding. We haven’t had a significant infusion of funds into the bus program for…decades? That was supposed to happen last year but Dayton’s obstinance around the gas tax killed that effort.

      It’s frankly due to heroic effort by Metro Transit that we’re not seeing more *cuts* to the bus system.

      The other problem is the opt-outs, which are basically completely uninterested in working with Metro Transit to coordinate with the transitway system. Thus we have ridiculous plans in Eden Prairie to have buses complete with SW LRT rather than expanding service and bringing transit access to more people. We need to get rid of the opt-outs ASAP. They’re a major drag on efficient transit planning and implementation.

      • Submitted by Tyler Schow on 10/30/2013 - 12:52 pm.


        As far as busses competing with the light rail, I can understand where SW Transit is coming from. Right now, they have express buses that get their customers directly to Minneapolis faster than the light rail will and with a direct trip. If they eliminate the buses to make them less competitive, customers will have to transfer and will get to Minneapolis later than if the express buses were running. It seems like that would be a move made solely to help light rail ridership rather than making service better for customers.

        • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/01/2013 - 08:10 am.

          Express Buses

          I don’t know about your area, but my express bus only operates for a couple of hours a day. Outside of that limited time you have to take the local bus, which is far slower. That makes the light rail look far more attractive to me if I have to work late or stay late downtown for dinner and a show.

  5. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 10/29/2013 - 01:00 pm.


    The Green Line will improve service. The 50 that runs from downtown to downtown runs every 11-12 minutes at peak times and takes 48-52 minutes to make the trip that the LRT will do in 39 minutes. And the LRT will show up every 7.5 minutes at peak hours, every 10 minutes mid-day and most of the evening (when the 50 doesn’t run). So, the average wait time (3.75 minutes for LRT vs 5.5-6 minutes for the 50) is better, travel time is better. And capacity of every train that comes by is about 4-5x that of a single articulated bus. Add in the convenience factor of waiting at a heated, covered shelter with off-board payment (yes, those things can be done with buses as well), and I’d say that’s an improvement in service.

    To the point of the rest of our transit system. I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s nearly politically impossible to truly improve service on major transit lines, mainly because cities, neighborhoods, and mostly transportation departments at the county/state levels are completely unwilling to give up dedicated right of way to transit. Yes, the arterial BRT lines (like Snelling) will see major improvements in frequency (10 minute headways is pretty good), off-board amenities (which provide comfort but also speed up the boarding process with pre-boarding payment), and slightly higher capacity buses. But when you throw them in to general traffic lanes, dealing with turning/parking/broken cars, the congestion that happens at rush hours, etc. they still slow down. Given all the lane miles we have paved that provide auto drivers choices/flexibility/capacity, it’s disappointing that major bus routes can’t secure dedicated lanes to speed up service and ensure on-time reliability.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 10/29/2013 - 01:19 pm.


      > Given all the lane miles we have paved that provide auto drivers choices/flexibility/capacity, it’s
      > disappointing that major bus routes can’t secure dedicated lanes to speed up service and ensure
      > on-time reliability.


    • Submitted by Monica Millsap on 10/29/2013 - 08:18 pm.

      As slow as the Hiawatha line is going through downtown Minneapolis, I think you’re being optimistic about the train being convenient and efficient. And with the reliability of the current “Hi-Frequency” buses that ideally come every 8 to 10 minutes, it is also optimistic to think a wait time for the Green Line will be 3.75 minutes (I’ve never waited less than 10 minutes for a 50 despite what the Metro Transit website may tell you). And I never see anyone at the bus shelters thinking that the “warm” bus shelters with heat lamps that you have to turn on every 3 minutes are highly convenient, but maybe the Green Line will be 180 degrees different from everything else Metro Transit does?

      Yes, it is disappointing that we can’t have dedicated lanes for transit, but we couldn’t even spend the extra money to grade separate the Green Line. Instead, it has cross traffic that could impede travel (if an accident happens on the tracks or traffic is dangerously backed up), and traffic lights that are *supposed* to be timed better than those on the Hiawatha Line. Of course, in the past when grade separation and dedicated tracks were brought into conversation, it always reverted back that if transit was given its own lane, then that would only be encouraging auto traffic.

      So, I guess that given all of my past experiences with both actually riding Metro Transit buses and trains and contributing to conversations about transit, I’m a little jaded in thinking that our city actually wants people to ride transit.

      Add to that the fact that Metro Transit seems to think that the 94 bus stop at Snelling/I94 is providing redundant service (it isn’t because the Green Line could never get me to downtown Minneapolis or St Paul as fast as that bus at that stop could) and that the 144 bus is redundant (though again could get me to Dinkytown faster than the train) and the 53 service has been reduced, likely for similar reasons related to both light rails, and the 16 service is being reduced from every 8 to 10 minutes to every 30 minutes, and I know that the list goes on – well, I’m not sure that the light rail is indeed providing “better” service nor am I convinced that while they may not be able to say that services were cut for the rail that the statement still isn’t true.

  6. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 10/29/2013 - 03:07 pm.

    Game changer = self-driving cars.

    Everyone is talking about mass transit vehicles as being limited to buses and trains. However, self-driving vehicles eliminate the need for many people to own vehicles at all. Summon one when needed (could be a regularly-scheduled ride such as a commute to work, school, wherever) and get taken to your destination. Kids as young as (say) 9 years old could get a “ticket to ride” (ability to summon and pay for a trip). Obviously, the kids would be doing so at the direction/authorization of their parents–and the trips could be limited in scope (to/from school, specified friends’ houses, etc). The cost per ride would be dependent on origin and destination, route (i.e. through a heavily traveled area or not), vehicle needed (commute, hauling stuff from the store/mall, etc), time of day (low vs high demand for vehicles at that time), etc. No more paying to buy major *fast-depreciating assets* (2-3 of them are needed simultaneously! His, hers, AND the kids old enough to drive) PLUS the insurance, maintenance, and other major expenses related to owning multiple cars and trucks.

    Note this type of system would also enhance the mail and package-delivery system because ALL vehicles would be able to be efficiently routed and tracked to their destination. The UPS/FedEx drivers and USPS mail delivery people now see the end of their careers as being in sight.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/29/2013 - 04:32 pm.

      Self Driving Cars

      I’m looking forward to the day when we get self driving cars as humans are the weakest link in the driving chain. Too many people are eating breakfast, putting on make-up, or worse: talking on their cell phones. Distracted driving is a huge problem on the roads.

      To be clear, what Gerald is talking about is not just self driving cars, but self driving rental cars. Pair the smart car with a rental system like Hour Car and you can dispense with the insurance, maintenance, and storage of the vehicle.

      One big advantage of self driving cars: they don’t need as much space on the road. Their reflexes are faster and they’re better at monitoring conditions around the vehicle, so they don’t need the stopping time that a human driver does.

      One side note: the only time the Google car has had an accident is when a human was driving it.

  7. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/29/2013 - 04:34 pm.

    Trains & Buses

    The people who are complaining that buses and trains don’t go where they need them to are missing the point. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t use them. It’s as simple as that. If you want better service, then elect people who make transit a priority so the services get better funding.

  8. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/29/2013 - 06:45 pm.

    Getting the most out of the existing highway systems

    One way to look at preserving, and even enhancing the value of the existing road system – as it exists today, without further significant modification – is to potentiate the trend of 1.4 million FEWER trips by car the article denotes.

    Why build more lanes into existing roads if you can essentially accomplish the same effect through mitigation of auto traffic ?

    From the data cited, it would appear that the population of the Twin Cities is ready to further increase the use of the mass transit system. Why not take advantage of this trend ?

    Besides the factors cited: a faltering economy, high gas prices, telecommuting…I hope the planners are paying special attention to the younger demographic, who do not buy into the “old” version of the good life – you know, 2 cars in every garage. They see the auto in different terms, and yes, environmental impact is one matter of importance, but there may be a broader value, harder to define, at work here.

    The young are not as inclined to be running around everywhere as though running away from something. They view the good life well lived as having LITTLE IF ANYTHING to do with a car !! Happiness is not a place you drive to.

  9. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/31/2013 - 08:27 am.

    Bus vs Train vs Car

    It’s time for me to hop on the bike and head off to work. Have fun no matter how you get there!

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