On the light rail platforms, the announcement rings loudly every few minutes: Attention light rail customers, quarterly service changes will take place on Saturday, December 3rd.
The announcement is nothing new. All year long, a quiet calamity has taken place on Twin Cities street corners. Every three months, Metro Transit announces a new set of cuts to the local bus system. Over the last year and a half, almost a third of the region’s bus trips have been cut thanks to a lack of drivers. More cuts are on the way.
Relentless driver shortages, relentless cuts
The latest cuts represent 8% of Twin Cities bus trips, getting the axe due to a prolonged, relentless shortage of drivers at Metro Transit. As I wrote in April, the shortage is lingering despite the agency’s best efforts, including job fairs, healthy salaries, benefits, and signing bonuses reaching $5,000.
The ongoing shortage means agency transit planners are engaged in a triage that’s gutted Twin Cities’ transit to perhaps an all-time low, setting regional equity and climate goals back decades. The shortage is not the fault of the transit agency, which is doing all it can to try to entice new employees. But it doesn’t change the attrition of service, where the latest changes literally leave people standing out in the cold.
This time around, the 94, 87, 83, 67, 65, 61, and 23 buses will see frequency reductions, most moving to hourly service for much of the day. Those routes run through some of the least wealthy parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul. That’s why, on Thursday, a small group of transit supporters rallied outside Heywood Garage, Metro Transit’s Near North Minneapolis headquarters, to call for change. The overall message: There must be another way.
“We moved to Frogtown five years ago to make it easier to get around without a car,” Ian Buck tweeted when learning about the service cuts. “[There are] three transit lines within a 10-minute walk, one of them being a flagship LRT line! Now both bus routes are reduced to once an hour frequency. This is borderline unusable.”
Buck’s Frogtown neighborhood, home to one of the largest concentrations of transit-dependent people in the state, is particularly hard-hit. Both the 67 route along Minnehaha Avenue and the 65 route along Dale Street are moving to hourly frequency. That means if you miss your connection, it’s a long wait, raising mobility barriers for thousands of Twin Cities residents.
Nearly everyone agrees this is a bad turn of events.
“No one is saying that Metro Transit is going to solve a national labor shortage,” Sam Rockwell told me. “What we are saying is that they can mitigate the bus service cuts.”
Rockwell, executive director for St. Paul-based transit advocacy group Move Minnesota, is the first to agree that today’s situation is not entirely the agency’s fault. The nonprofit, originally Transit for Livable Communities, has been lobbying for better regional transit service for over 20 years.
“If there is great service and excitement around the transit system, people will ride it,” Rockwell told me. “That’s a fact. But until they’ve maximally used all of those other tools, I find it hard to accept that a round of service cuts needs to be draconian.”
If you have been walking on Twin Cities sidewalks recently, you’ve probably noticed the yellow signs. Reading “No buses currently stop here,” they’re posted at the now-defunct bus stops in the Twin Cities — for example, along St. Clair or University Avenues. It’s a shame, because in every other way, Metro Transit signage has improved dramatically since a decade ago.
The situation makes transit advocates desperate for an alternative to another round of triage, with seemingly no end in sight.
Transit planning includes tradeoffs
It turns out there are ideas that mitigate the driver shortage. The physics of transit planning come with some fundamental tradeoffs, which force some hard questions for an agency responsible for running hundreds of daily routes. For example, if you’re a regular bus rider, would you rather have a bus come every hour close to your house, or one come every half-hour a few blocks farther away?
These aren’t easy questions. But, as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. There are tactics that, used creatively, might chart a better way forward for an agency faced with no good choices.
“The No. 1 thing would be to give green lights to buses,” Sam Rockwell told me.
It’s called signal priority, using already-existing technology to turn stop lights green when buses approach. Rockwell’s nonprofit has had staff riding buses around town doing timing studies. They found that local buses can spend up to a quarter of their route time stuck at red lights, offering opportunity for speed and savings that might help with the shortage.
“They’re just sitting there at a red light,” Rockwell said. “That would make buses 15-25% faster right there, and there are great examples from around the country. Real-life deployment of this [signal timing] technology does result in 10-25% speed up of a route.”
If you do the math, those tweaks could mean the difference between cutting service and keeping it in place, allowing a driver to run one or two extra routes per shift. Combine that across the whole system, and the savings add up.
“Those are the things that can roll out really quickly,” Rockwell said. “You can roll out paint on the street, retime the stoplights, or put up signs to note where bus stops are practically overnight.”
Another big idea is stop consolidation, where buses would speed up their routes by making fewer stops, a tactic that can shave another 10% off a trip time for a bus route.
Granted, these ideas aren’t new to Metro Transit, which has been prioritizing a successful Bus Rapid Transit system — the A, C, D, and E lines — with many features that Rockwell champions. Likewise, agency planners have been slowly rolling out a “better bus” program aimed at incorporating some consolidation along the city’s slowest routes.
But the pace of change is too slow for transit riders who have seen service slashed across the city.
A transit emergency
If you look closely at Twin Cities’ light rail, you’ll see the badge on the front of each car that says “2016 American Public Transit Association Transit System of the year.”
These days, that seems like a long time ago. Despite all the progress that Metro Transit has been making since then — new Bus Rapid Transit lines and other key arterial buses like the Orange Line, another victim of service cuts — the situation in 2022 is dire.
COVID uprooted society in many ways, provoking a national transit crisis. During the pandemic, local governments asked people not to ride transit out of public health concerns. At the same time, the work-from-home movement upended long-held assumptions about 9-to-5 downtown commuting, leaving transit planners reeling. A lot depends on today’s short-term decisions.
For Minnesota’s transit advocates, it’s a delicate situation. With a DFL legislature, there’s a golden opportunity to revive the long-held goal of dedicated transit funding in the state budget. At the same time, the relentless service cuts create future problems. It’s a lot harder to attract new riders to the bus than it is to lose them with bad service. Once you gut a route like the 23, it’s very hard to convince those riders to come back.
That’s why the group of shivering folks outside the Metro Transit offices Thursday night were upset. They’re calling for creative thinking and for treating the situation like an emergency. Something needs to change if the Twin Cities is to achieve its vision for climate and equity.
“Transportation is the No. 1 contributor to climate change pollution in Minnesota,” said Joshua Houdek, senior program manager for land use and transportation at the local Sierra Club chapter, at Thursday’s rally. “Our metro region, and the state, is woefully behind on our climate goals. We want to reduce vehicle emissions, but we can’t do that without fast, convenient transit options for people that need them most.”
With the impending cuts to bus service set to take place on Saturday, that leaves a lot to be desired.