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Seeking rail snobs: With BRT, Metro Transit aims to get more people onto buses

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Twin Cities’ first arterial version of Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is set to begin passenger service on June 11.

Rail bias is real.

At least transit planners believe it’s real. And there’s research to suggest that many potential transit riders who rarely ride buses would happily board a streetcar or light rail train.

So how does Metro Transit attract rail snobs without building more rails? By featuring buses that borrow some of the perceived advantages of rail — at a fraction of the cost.

The Twin Cities’ first arterial version of Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is set to begin passenger service on June 11, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck announced Thursday. The A Line route will begin at Rosedale, pass through St. Paul via Snelling Avenue and Ford Parkway and end in Minneapolis at the 46th Street light rail station.

That’s 10 miles and 20 stations at a cost of $27 million, a figure that includes 12 new BRT buses. In contrast, the proposed 13-mile extension of the Blue Line light rail, from Target Field to Brooklyn Park, is expected to cost $1.5 billion. Apples to oranges, perhaps, but illustrative.

“There are two things we’re trying to offer,” with the A Line, said Charles Carlson, senior manager for transitway development at Metro Transit. “One, a faster trip and two, a more-comfortable trip.”

Across the country, the mass transit debate often comes down to modes, i.e. BRT vs. streetcars vs. light rail. In the Twin Cities region, it is possible that all three could each carry some of the rapid transit load, with the debate being over which mode to use on which corridor. Arterial BRT is being aimed at high-traffic corridors where there are already lots of riders but where streets are too narrow or the area too developed to make light rail a good fit. In transpo-speak, BRT offers a “context-sensitive solution.”

A few miles from the A Line corridor, for example, is an alignment that had once been in the queue to become the second BRT service: the B Line. (Arterial BRT routes are designated by letters while highway BRT lines will use colors, e.g. the Red Line from Mall of America to Apple Valley.) But the B Line is on hold while the corridor undergoes a Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority study on the option of using light rail between Union Depot and the airport. Even that conversation has morphed into whether some sort of streetcar/light rail hybrid might lessen the impact of the project on parking and traffic lanes on West 7th Street.

Metro Transit would like to build 11 BRT alignments on its most heavily traveled corridors by 2030. Taken together, those corridors now carry half of the region’s local transit riders. The proposed C Line would run along Penn Avenue in north Minneapolis and provide connections to both of the region’s ongoing light rail lines before heading into downtown; that project is projected to go into the engineering phase sometime this spring. The D Line would trace the No. 5 bus route, from Mall of America through southeast Minneapolis to downtown Minneapolis.

Putting the ‘rapid’ in bus rapid transit?

Planners say that BRT is significantly faster than regular buses, thanks in part to borrowing characteristics of light rail. The stops are more spread out — every half mile on average rather than every few blocks — meaning less time spent stopping for passengers. And fares are paid at the stations, not on board, and enforced by random checks by transit cops, as on light rail trains.

The A Line route
Metro Transit
The A Line route

Moreover, because fares aren’t collected by the driver, both the wider front and back doors can be used for boarding and exiting the buses. The buses also have lower floors that match up more closely with the raised platforms at the stations, many of which are built so that the buses don’t have to leave the traffic lane to pull into stations.

Importantly, the A Line BRT buses will have signal priority at 20 intersections. That doesn’t mean the buses get automatic green lights — that’s known as signal preemption — but it’s close. A BRT bus sends a signal to the computer at the intersection requesting an earlier green light or an extension of a light that is already green. The computer decides whether to grant the request. Says Carlson: “We may get some red lights, but they will be shorter.”

How much will all this do for travel speed? Carlson said planners expect the A Line to complete its route 20 percent faster than existing buses. In minutes, that means the 30-40-minute travel time from end to end could be cut by up to eight minutes. Is that worth $27 million? Metro Transit projects 8,000 average daily riders by 2030, compared to the 4,000 that ride the route now. (Those slower local buses will continue to run, stopping at all of the bus stops but with less-frequent service once the A Line starts service.)

One thing the A Line and other arterial BRT lines in the Twin Cities will not have: a dedicated lane. Despite the fact that the feature is usually a hallmark of BRT, taking over traffic lane — or even a parking lane — on Snelling or Ford Parkway would likely have drawn neighborhood opposition. And Metro Transit makes the case that it wouldn’t have sped up service significantly, since most of the increased speed comes from the design elements that are being used on the A Line. “Most of the delay on bus routes is stopping at red lights and waiting for passengers to get on and off,” Carlson said during a media preview of the system Wednesday.

The new BRT stations will not only let the buses stay in traffic lanes, it creates more room for station improvements. The stops built for the A Line will have heated shelters, security cameras and emergency phones. They’ll also have ticketing machines similar to those at light rail stations and real-time information displays.

More bang for the buck?

The A Line is one of 27 completed or under construction bus rapid transit systems in the United States. Twenty more are in the planning stages.

Bus Rapid Transit lines are cheaper than streetcars or light rail. They use existing travel lanes with stations built on bulbouts from existing sidewalks and curbs. And though the buses are about 20 percent more expensive than traditional buses, they are much cheaper than streetcars or light rail trains.

And because they are easier and faster to put into place, they are also easier to decommission should the needs — or the finances — of a transit system change. That has led some experts to question their economic-development oomph because developers feel more secure with the high investment and more-permanent infrastructure of light rail and streetcar.

Yet a study conducted by two University of Utah researchers found that BRT does bring measurable economic development benefits. 

Metro Transit A Line Bus Rapid Transit full route time lapse

“We find substantial though often circumstantial evidence that bus rapid transit systems can influence development patterns in important ways,” wrote Arthur C. Nelson and Joanna Ganning. “We conclude that, on the whole, BRT systems are associated with positive development and job location outcomes, though not necessarily population or housing outcomes.”

The corridor includes several of the areas that St. Paul has high hopes for in terms of redevelopment. It passes by the 125-acre former Ford plant that is in the planning stages for a massive, mixed-use development, as well as the intersection of Snelling and University Avenues — the site of a proposed Major League Soccer stadium and a related redevelopment of the existing RK Midway shopping center.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 02/11/2016 - 11:15 am.

    Fake Rail

    Rail bias is real. It’s an emotional thing. No matter how much you try, you can’t make people think that BRT is rail. It will always be looked at as a bus.

    • Submitted by Audrey Hamilton on 02/11/2016 - 05:45 pm.

      Try riding the bus!

      And to many, riding the bus is a negative thing. Too bad. I’m a frequent bus rider, and I love it. It’s pretty darn fast, it’s comfy, and you get to know the bus drivers and the riders on your route. I ride the train too, which is very sleek and fast, a different kind of ride.Not having to commute by car is a great advantage. No traffic or parking hassles, and it’s a great way to see the city. Metro Transit gets better all the time.

      • Submitted by Jeff Christenson on 02/12/2016 - 03:45 pm.

        Gateway Drug

        For me, riding the train was like a gateway drug into transit. I now don’t mind the buses but not sure I would have taken advantage of the many transit options in the city were it not for the Green Line.

    • Submitted by Clark Parker on 02/17/2016 - 08:37 pm.

      Difficult, but not impossible.

      I agree that rail bias is real, and it is partly emotional, but also quite rational. As a 2-year resident of Minneapolis, where I used the bus daily, I often experienced “bus bunching” in the morning, where the first bus arrives 10 minutes late, and the second bus is immediately behind it. Such bunching is possible in rail, but less likely. The right-of-ways generally afforded to rail are harder to believe for BRT, unless you’ve experienced it. For example, the “Silver Line” BRT line in Boston runs from the airport to South Station primarily on a restricted-use road.

      Also, the feature of paying-at-platform (as opposed to on the bus) is a huge improvement. During the morning rush hour, the amount of time that a bus waits just so riders can board/pay is frustratingly long. If riders see new platforms with these payment features, it will help “sell” the idea of BRT as something qualitatively different from a “regular” bus.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/11/2016 - 11:15 am.

    Rail snob? Or car snob?

    How about “car snobs” who would never ride a bus or a train? “Car snobs” have no right to suggest that others be satisfied with buses when they don’t ride buses themselves.

    Trains are powered by electricity, cars and buses for the most part by gasoline. Trains are more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly in addition to being faster, most comfortable and more predictable than buses. Waiting is more comfortable. There are all kinds of good reasons to prefer trains.

    Is it wrong to prefer a better product and not settle for less? If it were, we would also probably driving model Ts, which were basic, cheap transportation. Are transit riders supposed to have lower standards and be grateful for crumbs?

    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 02/13/2016 - 09:31 am.

      Snobs in general

      Anybody can comment that people should be satisfied with whatever when it is publicly funded. If one transportation method requires more public funding per passenger mile than another it is more likely that people will have a problem with it. Something that isn’t unreasonable.

      The electricity comes from someplace and a megawatt at the source doesn’t translate in to a megawatt at the point of use. There are a lot of ways which electricity is created and degrees of efficiency on its delivery. If you are going to compare impact of various modes you need to understand the whole story, not just what fuels is used in the vehicle itself. Make sure to include the resources that go in to the production of the infrastructure, road/rail and auto/trains, and not just the on going costs.

      Trains may be somewhat more reliable than buses, however when there is a problem with the train they use buses to fill in because they are much more flexible. That reliability is because of the great expense of providing it its own infrastructure (that is given priority at many intersections) and not due to any inherent characteristic of the train.

      Trains are also not inherently any faster than buses from point to point and are necessarily slower for all trips which are not directly along their tracks. Even for the destinations on their tracks they are often slower than any other method. Going from downtown to downtown on the green line is now slower than the express bus but a good amount. Yes, I understand that the express bus doesn’t make all the stops but that is basically the point. Bus routes can be adjusted to meet need and express or limited stops routes created without interfering with local routes. With the green line even bicycling is faster than the train for somebody in good shape. Using a car obviously will save you 20-40 minutes most parts of the day when you consider the fact you can start you journey the exact moment you need to rather than wait for a set schedule.

      For the few instances when trains make sense for the user they might be marginally more comfortable than buses but they are still significantly less comfortable than a car. On top of that rail reduces the capacity of the corridor in which it is placed because it interferes with other traffic including that of pedestrians and cyclists.

      Transit users can ask for whatever they like but unless they are paying for it they can’t really demand anything. Especially in the instance of light rail which has an incredibly high cost per passenger mile while providing very little in return relative to all other options. If you want real fairness just have everybody pay the full costs of their preferred mode of transportation. That way nobody is begging for anything and the degree to which their standards are met is based on what they are willing to invest.

      Likely thought the only value of rail is an aesthetic one. In real measurable terms there is no benefit and given the costs it likely is the worst investment in transportation that can be made. If those who advocate for it were forced to support it financially they would change their tune quickly.

  3. Submitted by William Lindeke on 02/11/2016 - 11:28 am.

    railing against “rail bias”

    Rail bias is an unfortunate term, and I think it doesn’t help understand why and how people make decisions about transit or cars or walking. Many of the decision models that planners use don’t have good ways of thinking about “quality of experience”. It’s far easier to just think about time and cost.

    But when it comes to how people move around the city, these overlooked factors like comfort, noise, having more space, and security are incredibly important. Restaurant designers understand this quite well, how atmosphere can make or break a hamburger. Well the same thing holds here. If a sidewalk is lined with buildings with windows, is wide, has lights, benches, and is separated a bit from fast-moving cars, people will walk. If it’s lined with dark parking lots and drive-thrus, people won’t walk.

    Same for transit. Rail transit offers measurable and meaningful improvements over a bus, things like lack of vibration, quiet, etc. It’s not “bias” to prefer these things, just like it’s not bias to prefer a new car to an old car. It’s simply people valuing quality of experience. I’ll be interested to see how the A-line works in real life, but it’s not some mystery why people like better quality transit experiences.

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 02/11/2016 - 11:37 am.

    Can someone explain

    Why the shelters, like the one in the photo above, need to be locked in a fenced cage?

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/11/2016 - 12:54 pm.

    Rapid?

    I’ll believe it when I see it.

    I agree that “rail bias” fails to describe what’s really happening. It’s not snobbery in many cases, it’s a preference for various qualities that are improved over bus. When it snows, you can still rely on the light rail to get you to work/home at a reasonable time. Not so for buses, no matter what you call them and how they affect traffic lights.

    One thing that would improve the current bus system is to reduce the number of stops offered for any given bus. Each line can have an A and B bus, each of which takes half as many stops. Combine that with an improved bus information system (the Metro Transit website is atrocious, especially on mobile devices) and signage, and you would improve bus route times without spending $millions.

  6. Submitted by Jeffrey Brenner on 02/11/2016 - 06:21 pm.

    Development

    Every discussion about transit always contains information about development. It seems like the people who are making the decisions are more concerned with development than helping people get around. Silly me, I thought transit was about moving people.

  7. Submitted by Jeremy Mattson on 02/12/2016 - 08:50 am.

    Bus can be just as fast and reliable as rail if built right

    There may be some general preferences to rail due to ride quality and cultural/emotional attitudes, but I think that ultimately what is most important to most transit users is speed, frequency, and reliability, and there is nothing inherent about rail that makes it faster or more reliable than bus. Speed and reliability are a function of the environment in which transit operates. It’s not determined by how fast you can go but by how long you spend stopped and what can get in your way. If you build a bus line like light rail, with a dedicated right-of-way, longer distances between stops, platform-level boarding, off-board fare collection, and appropriate intersection treatments, then it can be just as fast and reliable. Conversely, streetcars operating in mixed traffic can be just as slow and unreliable as local bus service. The main advantage of rail is that it offers greater capacity.

    There may be some people who will only ride rail, but I think there are far more people who just want something that is fast, reliable, and frequent, and goes where they need to go. And since we can’t provide rail everywhere, filling in the network with these types of higher-quality bus services makes sense. It would be better, though, if it was true BRT with dedicated right-of-way.

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