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Without commuters, Metro Transit gets creative about getting riders on board

Dramatic changes in commuting brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have created challenges for transit agencies — but also present opportunities.

Metro Transit bus
This fall, Metro Transit launched a short-term experiment using probably the simplest possible way to attract riders. For September and October, they’ve cut fares to $1 for everyone, at all times of the day.
MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Twin Cities transit system changed faster this year than it has in decades when rush-hour commuters, the symbolic backbone of the transit system, disappeared almost overnight. In 2021, due to the lack of in-person office work, few people are going in and out of downtown at rush hour. Even as ridership slowly increases, proverbial 9-to-5 office workers remain a tiny fraction of their former numbers, posing problems for transit not just in Minnesota, but all across the country.

chart showing year to date changes in metro transit ridership between 2020 and 2021. ridership is down in almost every service category
Courtesy of the Met Council
This dramatic shift creates problems and opportunities for transit agencies. On the one hand, a lack of commuters undoes decades of planning work on routes serving downtowns during “peak hour.” If the trend continues, the new travel pattern would pose fundamental challenges to the regional “express bus” system or the suburban transit providers, among other programs.

At the same time, new travel patterns allow agencies to be more creative with their transit resources. Because peak-hour service is the most expensive transit to provide — in part because drivers work irregular hours, with long breaks between rush-hour shifts — pivoting to different models could make transit agencies more resilient and efficient. That’s why it’s nice to see three new programs emerging at Metro Transit this fall that demonstrate how ridership can rebound.

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Lowering fares

This fall, Metro Transit launched a short-term experiment using probably the simplest possible way to attract riders. For September and October, they’ve cut fares to $1 for everyone, at all times of the day.

The fare is now similar to the TAP program, the years-long effort aimed at low-income transit customers that has struggled to get widespread use. But now, with low ridership anyway, everyone gets to ride for a buck without jumping through the hoop of proving their income. At least, that’s true for a couple months.

“It was just born out of situation where we know that special events started happening again, and people are traveling,” explained Howie Padilla, the PR manager for the agency. “As people develop their travel habits, we want to show them that transit is a viable option, not only viable, but a safe option. Our vehicles are sanitized on nightly basis [and] we work… to keep everyone safe too [by] requiring mandated masks for riders and our operators.”

For transit, there’s usually a direct relationship between fares and ridership. Metro Transit normally has one of the higher “farebox recovery ratios” in the country, where fares pay for a good percentage of the service. For now, though, the money for the discount program comes out of the general fund. It seems like a short-term carrot to boost the transit recovery.

“This is our chance, in these two months, to make an impression, to keep these riders going forward,” said Padilla, when I asked him about his goals for the program. “My best hopes aren’t going to be quantified by a number, but that our riders are safe, [and we] increase incrementally.”

To me, a dollar fare is the perfect price point for most Twin Cities transit. With transportation carbon emissions continuing to climb, the city desperately need to attract more people onto a growing transit system. As long as there are no service cuts attached — and that’s a big worry with low-fare transit (See: Kansas City) — legislative funding to cut fares in half would be an easy way to take climate action.

Apartment amenity

The other new program on the agency menu is, for the first time, granting transit passes to specific apartment buildings. Normally, you have to be pretty lucky to find yourself in a transit pass program. They’re the province of the university students — I had a discounted U-pass for years and it was a godsend — or the rare workplaces that subsidize transit instead of parking lots for their workers. For example, state employees can get a deal on Metro Cards at varying rates (though the program should be much more flexible about its parking alternatives).

As reported in the Star Tribune, the agency is testing a new kind of transit pass for apartment dwellers, with four new apartment buildings last year. This year they’re expanding the program with 20 new multi-family housing buildings, with further expansion planned for 2021.

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This kind of program is a stellar example of what policy wonks call TDM (aka, travel demand management), basically a set of carrots (and occasional sticks) used to incentivize people out of their cars. Now that both Minneapolis and St. Paul have removed minimum parking mandates from their zoning codes, TDM will be at the center of conversations about how to reduce traffic and parking problems in the core cities. Helping building managers or workplaces provide workable alternatives to driving, such as subsidized transit passes for residents, is the perfect example of how this kind of approach might work.

New school bus

Some transit routes plan on achieving ridership growth, and some have ridership thrust upon them. That’s what happened last week to a whole bunch of St. Paul bus routes when St. Paul Public Schools announced, with little notice, they would shift students at four high schools from school buses onto Metro Transit. The new busing program is a short-term, emergency stop-gap triggered by a shortage of bus drivers at the district. Forced into triage mode, it marks a big change for thousands of city students.

So far, it’s going okay, at least according to district spokespeople. One concern that Turner has found so far is student safety around bus stops. Too many streets with transit in St. Paul encourage speeding cars, and some parents have taken it upon themselves to put up those blue “TWENTY IS PLENTY” signs along busy streets.

“The biggest change is that we didn’t have the luxury of time around so we appreciate their flexibility in picking up the slack and being prepared for the first day of school,” explained Jackie Turner, the Chief Operations Officer for the district. “We’ve been in a [transit] partnership for several years with Johnson Senior High School, [High School for] Creative Arts, and Gordon Parks [High School]. So we’re familiar with the student pass program and how it works.”

Many schools in Minneapolis and around the country also use city buses for student transportation, and from a basic efficiency perspective, the program makes a lot of sense.

But service levels are a major sticking point. Not every school has great service, and depending on where they live, it can be difficult for students to catch buses that don’t run very frequently. For example, Harding High School on the East Side is served by the high-frequency 63 and 74 bus routes. But if a student lives far from where those buses run, it can be a real challenge to make connections and get to school on time.

According to Turner, those problems might improve over time as the bus system evolves, and the district talks to the agency weekly.

“[For] Metro Transit, they typically review their ridership and if [it] goes up or down or changes drastically they being to look at overall structure and see if any changes can be made,” Tuner said. “If Metro Transit is noting the ridership changing, they will adjust accordingly as much as they can.”

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While the change to city buses came from necessity, for Turner, a side benefit is that the students will get passes that work every day and on weekends (though they are time-limited to respect curfew ordinances). A new generation of students will be used to the liberty that a transit pass provides.

“Students will find they will become more regular public transportation users,” Turner said.  “They will begin to enjoy their freedom, to use it to go to work, go to the mall, the movies, extra curricular activities, visit friends, [or] go the library.”

Nobody knows quite how long the work-from-home post-commute period might last. Many business pundits have predicted that shifts might be permanent for many workers, forcing transit providers to rethink their core assumptions. Whatever happens, it’s time for transit planners to start getting creative about growing ridership in the post-COVID era.