The Met Council is a great idea, but the full council shouldn’t plan transit

There are limits to the areas in the metro region that can reasonably be served by transit.

Earlier this week, the Star Tribune published a dynamite survey of the transit usage of the 17 members of the Metropolitan Council. As it turns out, not many of them use transit particularly often.

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The Metropolitan Council, established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967, is charged with things like land use planning, transportation planning, and sewage treatment in the seven county metropolitan area. In 1967, seven counties was a fairly broad interpretation of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, but in 2014, the Census Bureau now counts 13 counties, stretching from the Wisconsin side of Lake Pepin to Munsinger Gardens in St. Cloud.

Notably, the Metropolitan Council is also objectively, obviously, a good idea. Transportation, land use planning, and wastewater treatment are things that should be done regionally. Controversially, they are not elected, but appointed by the governor, and this is frequently pointed out by people who belong to whatever political party the current governor does not belong to. Maybe they should be elected, but already, no one knows who their county commissioner is, and given the way everything everywhere has become face-meltingly partisan in the past decade, maybe we don’t need another election generating terrible attack ad junk mail. What Soil and Water Conservation District are you in, anyway?

The survey and the results and subsequent analysis generated lots of debate, and I was actually kind of surprised how many smart people quickly dismissed the notion that these leaders need to take transit in order to plan and manage it. And, I mean, the 17 councilmembers aren’t really “planning” our transit, it’s much more complicated than that, but I would imagine we would get very similar results if we polled county commissioners (counties, generally, have selected routes before handing them off to the Metropolitan Council) or people who work in Public Works departments across the metro area, or really any other influential group around the Twin Cities. One time, I did see my state representative (Chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee!) on the 6 during off-peak hours, and he didn’t look like he wanted any credit for it, so that’s good. According to the StarTribune survey, many senior staff folks at Metro Transit do take transit regularly, with their General Manager Brian Lamb leading the pack with hundreds of rides this year, and they should be credited for that.

But, I dunno, it does seem like it’s sort of important to take the bus in order to understand the bus, right? I guess there are probably bald people who are great hairdressers. But transit is even more complicated than hair, and many of the longform answers in the survey betray a lack of understanding of what mass transit actually is, and how people use it on a daily basis as a way to get around in their lives. A stronger analogy: Imagine an office (totally hypothetical and not real at all) where the highly-used shared copier was an absolute nightmare, but the people in charge of buying a new copier did not regularly use the copier. They might have trouble fully grasping the situation…with the copier.

On Wednesday, I took the Route 7 bus to Minneapolis Animal Care and Control to look at a cat (I found a cat) and there are also people who use transit to do equally important things, like, for example, all of the things in their lives. Transit isn’t just something you drive to so that you can save four dollars a day on parking downtown.

Also, this is a pretty good quote:

“The nature of my two jobs is that I am all over the metro area for meetings and am often unable to include the additional time needed for transit in my schedule, which limits my usage,” Haigh said.

There’s that. Don’t wanna pick on her too much, but she sort of lives in St. Paul and those two jobs, TC Habitat for Humanity President & Chairperson of the Metropolitan Council, are sort of located…on the Green Line.

Anyway, our existing rail transit is okay enough, but the day-to-day experience on many local route buses is not very fun. These are the routes make up the vast majority of the rides in our system–the Route 5, 18, 21, 22, and so on. Every day, thousands of people move along Nicollet Mall on buses at walking speed for the amount of time it would take a person in a car to drive from Downtown Minneapolis to Wayzata, except they’re only covering about 12 blocks. And that’s fairly simple to grasp in the abstract: transit service not of very high quality, okay, got it. But it’s more personal when you experience, firsthand, a full bus running drop off only skipping you while you’re at a bus stop trying to get to class. Or waiting out by one of many thousands of sad, lonesome bus stop sign poles in the dark in the winter. Or when you see (I certainly can’t grasp the actual experience) a disabled person trying to get on a bus on Nicollet Mall during rush hour. Or many other things.

But.

What it really gets down to is land use. People don’t understand what land use is, and if you don’t understand land use, your transit and transportation in general will be forever terrible. Like even lots of really smart people with MBAs and BMWs don’t get it. Hundreds of thousands of people in our metro area sit in traffic by themselves for hours (!) listening to talk radio and don’t stop for a second to think that that is anything other than the default way that the world is, and in fact get extremely agitated and emotional over even considering that there are other options–check out the comments on the survey.

So there’s a map of all of the 16 districts (the Chair, Ms. Haigh, is a floater) and, I mean, look at that. To be honest, I sure as hell wouldn’t blow billions of dollars trying to pretend that we can ever adequately provide transit service to everyone on even just the middle 50% of that area. We can’t even do that. People and their employment aren’t just spread out (and spread out they are) but they’re spread out in the landscape in a way that’s fundamentally impossible to serve at a reasonable cost.

Minneapolis and St. Paul (and some first ring suburbs) have the land use pattern that makes transit work–gridded, walkable streets; dense, walkable employment centers; dense, walkable retail centers; and many areas with at least medium residential density. A secret: Most of Minneapolis and St. Paul are basically suburban. But they’re easily infillable and can be redeveloped into areas that support transit investments–if that’s your goal. A good goal would also be to serve the people who are already using it, but serve them better and encourage higher use of the routes that already seem to work.

The second ring suburbs and beyond aren’t really like that. These places were intentionally built for cars and cars alone. The windswept parking lots and eight lane arterials and never ending cul-de-sacs and beige vinyl siding will be hard to change. But barring some sort of catastrophe, this is the metro area we have in 2014 and will continue to have for decades. If trends (gas more expensive, people poorer, Chili’s less cool) continue, there may not be a Plymouth where Independence is in 2040, but Plymouth will still be there. And because the land use in Plymouth is so fundamentally different from the land use in even St. Louis Park, not to mention Minneapolis, it’s hard to imagine too many ways to serve people in Plymouth that make any sense, other than express buses to Downtown Minneapolis.

I, personally, am not really on team “get rid of all the cars,” but as a thought experiment that’s the direction you should be headed in when thinking about transit–are we building transit so that a small number of people in a relatively affluent area can use it for a segment of one trip at the expense of other peoples’ entire multiple trips? Are we building transit as a handout to the construction industry? Are we building transit so that we can say we built transit, throw some colored lines on a map, and show it to our friends in other cities? So maybe we shouldn’t have folks planning transit who live in areas that can’t support it in a reasonably effective way. We’d probably have to stop taking their money, of course, but the rush to get more counties in the transit sales tax tent has led to some rather dubious investments. The Metropolitan Council is a good idea and should stick around regardless, but maybe there’s a better way to arrange representation, or committee assignments, or something.

In any case, for now, everyone on the Metropolitan Council should be compelled (obligated?) to take transit, if only as an annual adventure. Go stand at Nicollet and 7th in February with a stroller, or even pretend you’re trying to get between two jobs. And not just the Metropolitan Council, everyone in the Twin Cities metro area in a position of influence over this system should probably get in on it. County commissioners, city councilmembers, state representatives, the whole gang. And not the train; take a bus somewhere. If you’re going to put anything about mass transit on your campaign literature or in your bio, you should back it up with some action.

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

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/24/2014 - 11:39 am.

    Excellent points

    The Met Council needs an advisory board of people who do not own cars who can point out the shortcomings in the current system. Having spent four months this summer without a car, I can state that one main problem is lack of coordination among lines. You might get halfway to your destination, only to find out that the remaining piece of your transit puzzle runs only once an hour or not on weekends. In another scenario that I personally experienced when my car had a flat tire, you miss your bus by 30 seconds on a bitter winter evening and find that the next one isn’t due for 20 minutes.

    The principal change I would make would be to pull back from the outer suburbs (let them stew in their own cars or finance their own Monday-to-Friday downtown buses) and use the savings to run frequent service on all the arterials in the central cities and inner suburbs, concentrating on suburbs that have intact historic downtowns. When I say “frequent service,” I mean every 10 to 15 minutes, seven days a week along the entire route. None of this fake frequent service, like that on the #6 line, where service is frequent only if you live between downtown and 39th and Sheridan South and much less frequent if you live on any of its south forks or in Southeast.

    Under a frequent service system, passengers could step out of their homes at any time between 4AM and midnight, knowing that a bus would be along soon. The same would be true at the transfer points.

    Under the current system, people who can’t drive, whether because of age, disability, or poverty, are tremendously inconvenienced. The poor may be forced to own cars that they can’t really afford to run or insure or spend their precious resources on taxis.

    I have repeatedly called for the Met Councilors to try living without cars for three months in the winter. I still think it would be a great experiment in experiential learning, and if the result was a more rational transit system, I’d be tempted to give up driving myself, since I have enjoyed (and the key word is indeed “enjoyed”) those periods in my life when I lived in places where I didn’t need a car.

  2. Submitted by Jeffrey Brenner on 10/24/2014 - 01:11 pm.

    Not sure of a solution.

    I wasn’t surprised when I saw in the Star Tribune that members of the Met Council were infrequent transit users. Anyone trying to rely on transit in the Twin Cities knows that the decisions made regarding the system appear to be made by someone who never or infrequently uses it.
    I’m not sure of a solution, but the story in the Tribune made me realize that my assumption was right.

  3. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 10/24/2014 - 01:27 pm.

    Excellent! But…

    Excellent ideas from Nick and Karen, well expressed.

    Lack of frequency is a huge impediment, one I experienced often in times when I needed bus travel. (Busing from my Minneapolis home to my former office near the dome took 35 to 65 minutes, depending on traffic lights and a transfer. The drive, using I-94 and I-35 behind the dome to 3rd Street on dry pavement took 12 minutes — 10 if I made the lights. Especially when my children were young, I wanted that daily 60 to 90 minutes for myself and my family.)

    And working past 6 p.m., which was normal, made that period’s diminished bus frequency a major deterrent, especially in the winter.

    I would add something to Karen’s idea: Keep outer-suburban express service (bus or rail, if it were placed sensibly, not in a wooded recreational area between two Minneapolis lakes) in order to reduce automobile travel to downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

    The so-called freeways into and out of those downtowns are jammed full in one direction or another an increasing number of hours each weekday. Allowing second- and third-ring suburbanites who work downtown to drive to a parking lot and use rapid transit the rest of the way would help loosen up the highways and reduce vehicle-emission pollution.

    I think the best answer for rail is to run it own the medians of the highways, or maybe alongside. Commuters who could see the trains zipping past question the wisdom of continuing to drive.

    There may to be a political problem with contracting bus service to the central cities and first-ring suburbs if the non-service suburbanites complain about taxes for transit they don’t get. If my guess is correct, I don’t have a solution that doesn’t include more tax subsidy from the central areas or self-defeating higher fares.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/24/2014 - 08:39 pm.

    Second that

    Mr. Magrino is in favor of compelling Met Council members to use the Met Transit at least once during their term. I’d second that and suggest a friendly amendment that one route be taking a non-express route from downtown Minneapolis to St. Paul or vice-versa.

    I wonder how many Met. Council members there are who have ever been aware that the Met. Council has approved a number of comprehensive land use plans like the 1978 Woodbury Comprehensive Plan, assumed 85% of the transportation would be by automobile? This was at the height of the 1970’s energy crisis when 55 mph speed limits on express ways were imposed to conserve fuel. My educated guess about Woodbury today is that about 99.5% of all trips are by auto and that the Met. Council has approved dozens of comp. plans and comp. plan amendment which completely ignore urban sprawl as a factor in expanding use of fossil fuels.

  5. Submitted by John Larson on 10/24/2014 - 09:30 pm.

    Actually, the infrequent user has a lot to offer

    Back when I was a frequent (10X / week) user, commuting from a first ring suburb to downtown, I knew virtually nothing except one route, and the schedule for that between just 2 points — near my home and near my office.

    Now that I’m an occasional user ( 8 X / month ), I know several routes and know how to get to many different destinations. Most important of all, I’ve wrestled with metrotransit dot org’s many tools for finding new ways to get to new places, and though the tools are great, they have some serious shortcomings too —

    each, like Trip Planner, Next Trip, and Personal Schedule, and just the plain route web schedules for specific routes — to name 4 of many tools, have their strengths and weaknesses.

    And the resources they’ve dropped, like the route PDFs and the PDF of the system map and downtown maps, are big losses, GRRRR. The Interactive Map is *NOT* a substitute for those.

    • Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 10/27/2014 - 03:02 pm.

      Clarify definitions of frequent and infrequent

      John, by your definition of “infrequent,” you are a more frequent rider than even the MOST frequent riders on the Council. The highest annual ridership was 77 rides, and by your own definition of 8x/month, you’re riding 96 times a year.

      I agree with your point, that knowing one route well is very different from using a variety of routes, and we need both on the Met Council.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/25/2014 - 12:00 pm.

    The apps on the Metro Transit website have their problems

    I recently looked at the Interactive Map to see if the #21 was indeed the only way direct route from Minneapolis to the Ordway.

    What I found was that the map of downtown St. Paul was so peppered with bus stop indicators that it was unreadable. I had to click on the individual bus stop to find out what routes went there and then look up the routes to find out where they went.

    The first time I tried to use the Metro Transit website (admittedly, it was in 2003), I was trying to see if it was possible to travel by bus from Linden Hills to an address along Diamond Lake Road. The app told me that there was no such thing as Diamond Lake Road, and anyway, the map revealed that traveling there by bus would require at least two transfers.

    I hate to keep bringing up Portland, but when I lived there, I found Tri-Met conducting market research in shopping malls. They asked volunteers to spend an hour as paid research subjects to test the user-friendliness of their website. They named destinations and asked us to use the website to figure out how to get there, talking through our thought processes as we went along. I know I was able to provide them with some useful information about making the site equally friendly to Portland residents and to visitors.

    • Submitted by Chris Johnson on 10/28/2014 - 01:23 pm.

      I realize people are trying to be positive and helpful, and there have been efforts made by Metro Transit to improve their website and provide helpful tools, but really it’s terrible. I lived in Stuttgart, Germany for 2 years and used their transit system all the time. I found their website to be wonderfully usable and easy to understand. http://www.vvs.de/en/index.php if you’re feeling adventurous.

  7. Submitted by Chris Shepard on 10/25/2014 - 10:23 pm.

    Land use and development follow transportation nodes

    An extensive commuter rail network that connects Mpls/St.Paul/airport to suburbs, coupled with charging drivers for using our highways (tolls/congestion pricing), would give the author exactly what he wants; a walkable, drivable, live-able city where land use and transportation actually support one another.

  8. Submitted by John Larson on 10/26/2014 - 10:04 am.

    People can comment on the metrotransit.org website here:

    and their apps/tools:

    http://www.metrotransit.org/comment-on-metro-transit-website

    Another possibility is to comment on their Facebook page:

    https://www.facebook.com/MetroTransitMN

    Though MetroTransit doesn’t respond very often to comments on its Facebook page (from what I’ve seen), even constructive ones, there is a possibility that some other user might respond with useful information or at least moral support.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/28/2014 - 09:32 am.

    Huh?

    What makes people think it’s easier to “infill” in the cities than it is in the suburbs? If you build transit in the suburbs transit related development will occur along the line there just as it does in the urban area, and that means your connecting populations and providing transit? Why are we building transit? So people can use it… isn’t that obvious? Obviously transit is no more going to eliminate cars in the suburbs anymore than it eliminates cars in the city. I’m sorry but isn’t this just anti-suburb prejudice pretending to be thoughtful analysis? We finally build a LR into the suburbs and suddenly we don’t know why we build LR anymore?

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