Why don’t more Minneapolitans bike, walk, or take transit?

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Minneapolis is a relatively dense residential city with a fairly dense central business district (5th highest job density in the country). Minneapolis is also consistently rated one of the best cities for cycling in the country (as if that really means much). Yet as a city we probably under-perform on transit ridership. I wanted to understand commuter behavior in Minneapolis a bit better than high-level data sometimes allows us to, and even ACS surveys tend to gloss over in the easy-to-access information. Specifically, I became interested in where the roughly 165,000 Minneapolitans work, where that is relative to their home, and how those distances line up with real-world commuting patterns.

Example of home zip (55408) vs top work destination zip codes
You used to be cool, Google.

Census On The Map is a fairly powerful tool for those without GIS software or data access, but enough MS Excel gumption to do some heavy lifting. I used OTM’s home vs work location on a zip code basis to perform my analysis. OTM does go down to Census Tract level, but that’s much more challenging to tie to a geographic area (address, latitude/longitude, etc), even if it would be slightly more accurate. I ran reports for the main Minneapolis zip codes (55401-55419 & 55455), understanding there’d be a few left out.

While the geographic centroid of a zip code area doesn’t necessarily match its residential or employment centroid, I figured it would be close enough. Obviously the margin of error increases as the destination zip code becomes more suburban. Most Minneapolis zip codes have areas between 1 and 5 square miles (roughly a 1-3 mile diameter circle of land to help visualize), while suburban zip codes start at 7 square miles and go up from there. I intended to use Google’s geocoding capability to find driving directions from each zip code to one another, but they heavily restrict queries per day (and waiting over the weekend didn’t seem to help…).

Instead, I decided to go the ol’ mathematical route, using latitude/longitude data by zip code to approximate distance from one center to the next “as the crow flies.” Of course, most people can’t fly, so I wanted to model what many commuters experience: a grid of some sort. See image below for an example and the math used. Yes, there are some diagonals in our cities, also freeways. Yes, some people travel in just one direction or at a distance that requires longer mileage. Yes, barriers, both natural (rivers, lakes) and man-made (freeways), muddy this simple one-turn model a bit. I was just looking for a “close enough” number here. (In hindsight, I could have just calculated E-W and N-S distances separately from the lat/long. For another time…). For people who work in the same zip code as their home address, I approximated the distance to 0.5 miles – a good chunk work from home (5% according to ACS) and the rest are at most 3 miles. Also, to keep data clean, I excluded zip code work destinations with 5 or fewer total workers (which was only about 2% of the data set, very negligible).

OK. Enough boring you with my methodology. What you really care about is the breakdown of commute length. Well, here you go:

Some quick facts: 165,000 workers live in the 20 zip codes I analyzed, and over 72,000 (44%) work within the city borders. Over 16% of Minneapolis residents commute a mile or less to work. A whopping 55% commute 5 or fewer miles. The weighted average trip distance for all commuters is 8.3 miles

You’ll notice I injected a representative “potential 30 minute commute” at the 5 mile maximum. 5 miles could be covered in 30 minutes or less by these modes if 1) most of our buses operated under the arterial bus line proposal (5-8 minute wait time, ~17 mph operating speeds, average 1/4 mile walk to a station), and 2) we built out protected bikways and gave cyclists better priorities at intersections (allowing an average 10 mph speed). Neither of those are particularly expensive (at least compared to other transit/road investments we’re making). However, our current transit and bike infrastructure probably allows a 4 mile commute in about 30 minutes, which is still 47.7% of all Minneapolis workers.

So why is that number drastically different than reality? The latest 3-year averages from the American Community Survey put mode shares at [Walk: 6.3%, Bike: 3.6%, Transit: 14.2%] for a grand total of 24.1% – a far cry from the potential. Why is this? A few thoughts:

  • Parking is “free” (deducted from your salary) at many job sites, even in the city
  • Parking can be cheaper than 2-way transit fare in parts of downtown (thanks to city-subsidized lots/on-street spaces and low property tax rates on private garages)
  • Buses are slow relative to cars (ie not given the dedicated space they deserve, particularly at rush hours)
  • Buses are slow (ie not given proper station design, ticketing, and bus boarding/alighting methods)
  • Buses are confusing and are sometimes inflexible for users, a barrier to entry
  • Daily needs (day cares, groceries, etc) aren’t near transit or easy to handle by bus or bike as designed (example: no strollers on the bus, which makes bringing even one infant to daycare difficult)
  • Short-distance trips to suburbs from Mpls are not well-served by transit or quality bike infrastructure
  • Many parts of town (especially downtown) are at best highly unpleasant to walk or bike by
  • Certain modes are cheaper than they might otherwise be if they paid external costs
  • It gets both cold/snowy and hot/humid in Minnesota
  • Jobs sprawled away after population and highway investments. Barring complete abandonment of low-intensity land-uses in the suburbs, transit/bike/walk-accessible jobs will always have a capped (even with reverse-commuting possibilities)

I put these in a deliberate order – the city can’t easily control or change items toward the bottom. But for the most part, the speed, comfort, and ease of using non-auto modes rests directly on transportation planners, while land-uses (jobs, goods, services) should be more integrated to ensure accessibility by these modes. Instead, land use regulations and transportation investments have done the opposite and sprawled people and jobs away from walkable areas:

This is despite the fact that about 75% of our region’s jobs are office, retail, education, or government-oriented – in other words not manufacturing or warehousing that tend to require low land costs, large spaces, and freight-supportive transportation investments. We could do better. None of these points are major revelations to readers of this site, I just wanted to bring forward some data that surprised me a bit.

Finally, apologies to St Paul and its residents. I don’t mean to leave you out of the picture, it was just easier to analyze only one city.

This post was written by Alex Cecchini and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/03/2014 - 01:11 pm.

    Parking is really expensive

    Almost $200 a month in city lots vs. what? $65.00 a month for a bus pass? In some of the private lots I’ve paid upwards of $5.00 an hour.

    • Submitted by CJ Sinner on 07/03/2014 - 02:39 pm.

      Busing is more expensive than you think!

      I take an express bus almost every day from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. An unlimited bus pass for that route would be more like $115 a month. A monthly parking contract in downtown St. Paul (I know, different city) hovers right around $100. I figure the gas and wear-and-tear on my vehicle make up for it, so I choose the bus, but when I know I’ll need to go run errands after work or be somewhere fast, I drive and pay a daily rate, which is also not cheap. I don’t always take the same bus during rush hour, so I don’t get the monthly passes, either. I do a pay-as-you-go thing, but it always shocks me how fast I churn through $20 or $30 in transit fares. My husband and I would like to go carless and rely on transit and car-sharing programs like Car2Go and ZipCar, but the only money we’ll really save is in a car payment and car insurance, not in daily transit costs. Until Minneapolis starts building in real monetary and time efficiency incentives into public transit, this city will remain focused on cars.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/04/2014 - 07:59 am.

        Parking in St. Paul is cheaper than MPLS

        Downtown St. Paul is a different animal. I suppose if you take the “express” bus you can rack up costs but how much time do you save for almost double the cost?

        • Submitted by CJ Sinner on 07/08/2014 - 01:09 pm.

          Express v Local

          You’re absolutely right — downtown St. Paul *is* a different animal when it comes to parking costs.

          Here’s the price and time differences between Express and Local fares/times for me:
          Express: $3 during rush hour, $2.25 normally. Gets me from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul in 25 minutes (which is also about how long it takes to drive + park)
          Local: $2.25 during rush hour, $1.75 normally. Now that the 16 and 50 are gone, it’s the Green Line, which takes about an hour.

          So, for 75c more per ride, I save 35 minutes each way. I dunno. For me, an extra 30 minutes on each end of my commute is worth $1.50. Less than half the cost for a gallon of unleaded.

          Maybe it’s all a wash money-wise, but taking the bus has the added perk of feeling like I’m doing my part to reduce the carbon footprint.

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/03/2014 - 02:18 pm.

    Nice analysis

    People can chose where they live but not where they work. I think that you have made an excellent argument for transit. I think focusing on the 3rd through 5th bullet points might be really helpful.

    As much as I hate buses I did consider using one to come in from Stillwater many years ago. The bus was an express and it would leave me down town in a great location with only 10 minutes added to my commute each way. Unfortunately it only left me down town for 8 hours not eight and a half or nine and there were no other buses even “milk run” bus that came out that far.

    Age might have something to do with bicycle commuting as does occupation. Women may not do locker rooms well. Just ask how much they enjoyed phy ed. and the locker room experience.

  3. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/03/2014 - 04:48 pm.

    Because I enjoy the comfort, convenience and safety of my car. That’s why I don’t use public transportation. If I were still in NYC it would be a little different. Public transportation there is much better than in the Twin Cities.

    That being said I would like to take a ride on the $875,000,000 taxpayer funded choo-choo train one of these days

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/04/2014 - 08:27 am.

    I’ve just come back from three weeks in Japan and Korea,

    and we’re way behind both countries when it comes to availability of transit.

    One comment above refers to the inflexibility of bus schedules, but that would not be a problem in either Tokyo (where subways and surface commuter trains run every three to eight minutes) or Seoul (where buses seem to come in a constant stream, so much so that they appear to create traffic problems).

    We can’t duplicate the transit systems of those much larger cities, both of which sprawl like Los Angeles, by the way, but we could certainly do better in frequency and appropriateness of service and should look at best practices in other North American cities to see what works.

    Unfortunately, the transit planners at Metro Transit seem to be stuck in the mindset of “Our job is to get people to work and back.”

  5. Submitted by mark wallek on 07/04/2014 - 09:44 am.

    Poor planning.

    I drive quite a bit around the university. Bikers are a problem. Being on the road is not the problem. Lack of mature riding is. And the slap-dash way the biking lanes have been put in will lead undoubtedly to the city being sued by some biker not really paying attention to the fact that their lane is suddenly gone. And riding thru a red light “when it’s safe to do so” is a real winner of a policy. Ryback did no service shoehorning these bikeways in so he could take the credit. Traffic tickets for the violations are really in order now, after all this time.

  6. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 07/07/2014 - 09:22 am.

    We certainly have a ways to go, but on the plus side– things are getting much much better. Some very simple things that can get people out of their cars are starting to be talked about (and expected) by more employees, such as safe/secure bike storage, good locker room facilities, etc. Three of the 5 people in my immediate area run or bike to work, with the shortest of us having a 4 mile run. In 5 years at my job, I’ve seen the locker-room traffic steadily grow, such that we’re now deciding how to petition our employer to add space. Can’t argue with many of the suggestions in the bullet points– but it’s important to celebrate the progress that has been made, both metro-wide, and in individual businesses.

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