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Is it even possible to plan for transit to the Shakopee Amazon facility?

MinnPost photos by Bill Lindeke
Amazon’s Shakopee fulfillment center

Just days from Christmas, we’re in the midst of peak retail season. If you watch the TV news, most media attention focuses on crowds at the suburban malls or the remaining downtown shop windows. But when it comes to the Twin Cities’ retail landscape, there’s just as much happening out at an industrial park in exurban Shakopee, where the gleaming new million-square-foot amazon.com fulfillment center is operating at double time.

The building is a key cog in a changing economic landscape where online retail, dominated by amazon.com, is replacing the big-box, mall, and small business models at increasing rates. The new online world, quartered in the exurban fringe and dependent on a continually shifting workforce, poses huge transportation challenges that stretch the plausibility of transit in entirely new ways. Even as Amazon and other large employers relocate to the suburbs, transit planners are grappling with ways to offer transportation alternatives. 

The suburban transit pickle

Once you reach what I call “true suburbia” – postwar neighborhoods planned around the automobile – transit planning becomes nearly impossible. Through most of these metro-area suburbs, homes and offices are spread out and separated by large parking lots. Meanwhile, sidewalks are rare, and almost any walk involves crossing wide roads with minimal safety features. This combination creates huge challenges for suburban transit and, as a result, most Twin Cities’ suburban routes remain centered around cars and park-and-ride facilities.

(These facilities pose their own dilemma: If people are driving to the bus stop in the first place, why not keep driving all the way to your destination? Why pay to take a slower bus?)

Yet for decades, the transit-challenged suburbs have been the fastest-growing areas for employment and housing.This pattern forces transit planners to experiment with new services like Southwest Transit’s brand new No. 638 bus, which began running earlier this month.

“The goal is really to open up transit for commuters from my service area: Eden Prairie, Chanhassen, Chaska,” Len Simich, Southwest Transit’s CEO, told me this week. “It comes in on the reverse commute. People want to go that direction, down to Shakopee for the employment opportunities, and there are quite a few that have materialized over the last year. Amazon or Millstone or Shutterfly, the casino, the hospital … . There’s a lot of jobs right now.” 

The short-lived suburban transit experiment

Yet connecting transit to these 21st-century jobs isn't easy. Last year, agencies in the southwest suburbs took a stab at transit to and from cities like Shakopee with an unusual suburb-to-suburb route called the 494. Unlike most other transit routes, built on a hub-and-spoke pattern centered on downtowns or the Mall of America, the 494 offered a radial route linking park-and-rides along the freeway.

The effort was short-lived. After it failed to attract riders, the Suburban Transit Association — the coordinated voice of the opt-out agencies — pulled the plug in March. But these days it's trying again with a new strategy, a two-pronged approach that has two new buses — the No. 638 and the Mississippi Valley Transit No. 495 route — running hourly from the Mall of America to Shakopee.

“With the 494, the frequency wasn’t that great,” Simich explained. “We really have to provide more connectivity, and tie it in from the east and west. People coming for job purposes or for social travel want a complete network.”

One added feature of the 495 is that, four times a day — at 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. and p.m. — it makes extra stops directly in front of the Amazon fulfillment center parking lot. In theory, that should be a huge attractor for transit riders.

The shifting labor landscape of amazon.com

The problem is that, with its combination of remote location and volatile business practices, Amazon poses particularly daunting problems for transit planning.  

“It’s built out in Shakopee, but the majority of the workforce is coming from Burnsville, from Brooklyn Park, places like that,” Spencer Cox, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Geography Department, told me. “Those are pretty long commutes that people are driving to get to this place.”

Cox is studying the labor landscape of Amazon, and as part of his ethnographic work he worked for months at the Shakopee fulfillment center. In addition, over the last year, he has been part of a group coordinated by the local think tank, the Institute for Local Self Reliance, that is trying to piece together what Amazon’s recent business model means for cities.

In a thick new report released on Cyber Monday, the Institute delves into the company’s labor and business dynamics. The report details how, over the last few years, Amazon has built dozens of massive new logistical complexes on the edges of U.S. cities that are upending retail and labor practices. The local example, in Shakopee, is typical.

“The way that Amazon organizes their labor market, many of these jobs are part-time,” Cox explained. “You can be ‘flexed’ up an hour or ‘flexed’ down an hour. You have three overlapping shifts than can get flexed up or flexed down.”

According to Cox, while there are many more stable jobs available in overlapping shifts, a large percentage of Amazon jobs are part-time, subcontracted, and temporary work. Many of these temporary employees work shifts that might be three to five hours in length depending on the day. The resulting complexity, along with the lack of certainty, make an hourlong transit trip look even more daunting.

Photo by Matty Lang
An (illegal) sign advertising jobs at Amazon on Snelling Ave.

(For example, according to the fairly-accurate Google Maps, taking the bus to the Amazon center from the corner of Snelling and University Avenues in Saint Paul averages two hours by transit, using the 495 bus. Contrast that with a 40-minute drive.)   

Actually existing suburban transit

This week I tried twice to take the 495 out to Shakopee, and it's more difficult than you might think. The bus isn’t marked very well compared to the traditional Metro Transit designs, and its hourly schedule means that if you miss it, you’ll be waiting an awfully long time.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The transit center in Shakopee

That said, I eventually made it onto the bus. And the new plan, where the two routes that serve the Amazon center are coordinated and timed for easy transfers, might be the best possible approach to serving its employees.

But given the challenge of exurban transit, that might not be good enough to make much of a difference in commuting patterns. In a recent post on streets.mn, Aaron Issacs, a retired transit planner and writer, is pessimistic that the new routes will be effective. He writes:

These new services are non-stop expresses that take the fastest available routes. It’s 35 minutes from MOA to Shakopee and 42 minutes from Eden Prairie Station. That wouldn’t be too bad if [they] were the starting points for these trips, but they probably aren’t. […] Trips in excess of one hour are not popular with anyone, and transfers can be unreliable, especially in bad weather. Unless the Shakopee jobs offer wages and benefits that can’t be found closer to home, it’s hard to see why anyone would take on such a long and challenging commute.

Despite the challenge, with the thousands of entry-level jobs that are migrating out to the exurbs, something must be done. Starting this month, the new pair of suburban buses will be trying their best to serve Shakopee’s workers, and Southwest Transit has even hired a new staffer who’s mandate is to try to coordinate transit with employers.

“It’s just been rolled out,” Simich, the transit CEO, said. “We’ll see a lot of tweaks along the way. And we’re working closely with the businesses to match up with their needs. Right now [on the 638] we have 50 rides a day and we’re only going to see that grow.”

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Comments (12)

Mass Transit

The Amazon situation in Shakopee is a perfect example of why mass transit in the Twin Cities will never truly be effective until we have much stricter zoning laws and/or until major employers are given incentives to locate in densely populated areas. Major employers - Target, United Health Care, Best Buy, etc. - build large facilities in the suburbs because of lower costs and the desire to avoid the politically correct, left-wing zealots in the Minneapolis and St. Paul city governments ($15 per hour minimum wage, illness and family leave regulations., etc. that suburban employers don't have to match).

Those same employers then demand that governments subsidize transportation for their employees to get to the far flung, cheaper suburbs. The bottom line: if we want cost-efficient mass transit, we have to concentrate many more major employers into areas where masses of employees can travel from residences to work and back.

minimum wage and family leave

you're right that companies like Amazon want to avoid these things, but IMO wrong in characterizing these kinds of policies as zealotry. on the on contrary, higher wages and sensible leave policies are widely and wildly popular, as well as being pretty straightfoward common sense.

Local Utopias

Of course higher wages and more generous leave policies are widely and wildly popular - among people who don't have to pay their costs and who aren't affected by the results of those policies. You'd have to have zero background in cost accounting and basic economics if you regard such policies as "being pretty straightforward common sense."

You can't legislate Utopia on the local or state levels. If a private sector employer has competitors who don't have to pay those costs (higher wages and paid leaves), at some point they can't just raise prices to offset those costs without losing customers. Governments can force their revenue sources - taxpayers - to give them more money to pay those costs, but private sector employers can't - they can't force people to buy their goods or services. Raising prices when competitors don't means that they'll soon go out of business.

The bottom line: if higher minimum wages and more generous leave policies are to be legislated, that will have to be done at the federal level so that private sector employers aren't rendered uncompetitive and ultimately lay off their employees.

Reality

Even if you legislate them at the Federal level, the jobs will be pushed overseas unless that American Consumers choose to pay more to support such a society. Just look at all the people who shop on line to avoid the store/employee costs and sales taxes. The people who frustrate me the most are the ones who go and test/ touch the product at a local store, and then go online to get ab cheaper price.

So until we choose to buy local and pay for the higher wages / benefits that we want, the system will fail.

Business Decision

For the life of me (and I'm in the non-profit field, not pvt business) I cannot figure out how all these rural Scott Co business expansions came to be. Granted they received incentives by muni's and perhaps the Co to build there; but who did they plan on filling their employment needs? Mn is on the brink of a major downturn in the number of employees even available for work (demographics); and what would entice anyone to travel (even by car) for an hour each way, to work a PT shift for the low 10's per hour (without benefits)?
Perhaps they have plenty of employees - I just wonder how long someone will stay with the low hours and long drive (or commute).

Crazy talk...

Now maybe this is too radical, but why not extend SW LRT across the river?

Yep

Personally I think the line should be truncated at Shady Oak and the OMF site, since we're spending nine figures west of there to build transit stations in transit-hostile land uses.

Yet, if we're on track to spend all that money building high-quality right of way to a park & ride in Eden Prairie, then we might as well extend it just a little further in a future phase. It could split frequencies between Chaska and Shakopee, mostly using the old M&StL railroad right of way already owned by the public. Of course, these services should connect to Walkable Downtown Shakopee and Chaska, not unwalkable Amazonian fringe sprawlscapes. This would result in five of the seven metro county seats, all walkable communities with transit-compatible land uses, being connected by our regional rail transit system.

Here's a map of the concept I made a few years back: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1dzgqOVmG288WIf0WrTMJEVVUmGU&usp=sharing

Surprise?

Why is anyone surprised that employees need to get to work? This sounds like bad planning on the part of Amazon and Shakopee.

Subsidized corporate development

Amazon's business model is broken. For all the excitement about drones and e-delivery, in the end it relies on people willing to upend their lives for min-wage jobs (yes, even $15/hour is min wage if it takes 2 hours to get to/from work for a four-hour shift). Young people and minorities are targeted employee groups--the same people MN must invest educational/training resources in, to maintain economic prosperity in longer-term, more viable jobs across the State over the next several years. A completely automated plant located in Shakopee could work but not one that requires workers travelling long distances to reach it.

As this development model is pondered,

One crucial assumption on the part of employers like Amazon setting up on the fringes to offer low-wage, part-time jobs is that gas will continue to be grossly underpriced with respect to its actual (social cost-internalizing) cost. Perhaps as Ms. Schifsky suggests automation is on the horizon so the cheaper greenfield opportunity and the local subsidies determine the business decision. Otherwise, the more these patterns continue, the more the political constituency for cheap gas expands and hardens, with all of the destructive results this most consequential of market failures brings.

Memories

This article brought back alot of memories for me, not all of them good. I temped for a number of years in the 1990's. At that time I did not own a car. Sometimes the only jobs the agencies had available were in the suburbs. I remember many 2 hour bus rides, waiting at a T sign for a bus while cars whizzed by, trying to walk with no sidewalks. Glad I don't have to do it anymore.

Private enterprise at the public trough

"Despite the challenge, with the thousands of entry-level jobs that are migrating out to the exurbs, something must be done" Agreed. Private enterprises that do not consider the transportation issues of their entry-level employees should be on the hook to deal with the issue as a cost of business. Public money and infrastructure should not be trying to chase just plain bad site planning by extremely wealthy corporations like Amazon. They could have chosen someplace where infrastructure existed. They opted not to. They should pay to deal with the consequences of their decisions. Nowhere in the article does the idea that Amazon needs to spend their resources to resolve their problem appear- that's how distorted our discussion of public/private responsibilities has become.

The private sector consistently makes bad decisions and expects bailouts in many ways, shapes, and forms from the public sector.