Metro Transit is studying 11 corridors for significant upgrades to bus service. These corridors represent high-ridership, dense locations with high potential for service improvements. Sharp-eyed readers might recognize these “rapid bus” corridors as something that is called “arterial bus rapid transit” in the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan.
So what designates a rapid bus route? Fewer stops, off-bus fare collection, all-door boarding – all equal faster service. At the open house last week, project displays showed between 20 and 30% travel time savings, depending on the corridor. Stops will become stations, with shelters, dynamic signage and possibly raised curbs and bumpouts. These look like great improvements.
Metro Transit staff told me the next step is to identify first corridors for implementation by looking at what corridors have the most potential for service improvement (and probably which are most politically feasible). The rapid bus concept will also be used in the alternatives analysis for Nicollet (sometimes called the streetcar study).
This is a guest post by a Minneapolis resident and planner who has recently begun using the new 46th Street “online” transit station to commute to and from work. The opinions expressed here are solely his or her own, and do not reflect those of his or her employer.
Monday morning I tried out the new I-35W and 46th Street Station, on opening day of the bus stop in the median of the freeway beneath the 46th Street bridge. The station was constructed at the same time as the major Crosstown Commons project, and is expected to serve future bus rapid transit (BRT) routes on 35W and Highway 77. For now, it’s the only one of its kind in the Twin Cities transit system. Passengers walk down stairs or take an elevator in one of two towers from the bridge deck down to freeway level, where buses traveling on the freeway’s new high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes can quickly pull over without completely exiting the freeway.
This week, Metro Transit opened a new bus station at 46th Street and 35W in Minneapolis. The design of the station, including boarding at freeway-level, is a first of its kind for Minnesota. Local buses drop off passengers on 46th street, who then take an elevator or stairs down to the freeway level for boarding.
The idea is to increase the speed of buses: they no longer have to pick up passengers on freeway on- and off-ramps, but instead use special lanes in the center of 35W to enter the station area. The station is part of a larger plan to improve Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service between southern suburbs and Minneapolis.
However, one or two local routes in Minneapolis may have actually had their travel time increased during certain times of day since passengers now need to transfer at 35-W rather than local streets. I’m getting most of this information anecdotally, but the Metro Transit overview of the changes seems to indicate the same (see Route 146).
Later this week, I hope to post a first-hand account of the using the new station from a regular bus rider in south Minneapolis.
The City of Minneapolis is applying for TIGER II grant funding from the US DOT for an alternatives analysis for Central Avenue and Nicollet Avenue, two routes the city prefers for a new streetcar system. How they can prefer streetcar as the mode without an alternatives analysis is puzzling to me since the previously completed streetcar study did not consider any other transit modes. The Metropolitan Council also recommends arterial BRT, not streetcar, for the Nicollet and Central Avenue corridors in the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan. As explained by a guest here at Net Density before, arterial BRT can offer significant travel time savings and increased ridership at a much lower cost than either LRT or streetcar.
According to the FTA, an alternatives analysis is supposed to answer some key questions: What are the problems in a corridor? What are their underlying causes? What are viable options for addressing these problems? What are their costs? What are their benefits? If all of these questions are fairly explored and answered and streetcar turns out to be the best option, so be it.
Anna Flintoft, a transportation planner with the City of Minneapolis who is quoted in the Minnesota Daily article linked to above, told me in an email that the city does plan to evaluate multiple modes, including streetcar and “enhanced bus”. This is a good sign, but the City Council seems to have already made up their mind about the mode without having seen any alternatives.
Minneapolis is taking one more step toward putting street cars in major transit corridors in the city. Friday the City Council voted to adopt the 30-year vision for these rail transit corridors. It also appears that the city is considering a “starter” corridor, and determining whether they should enter into the “federal project development process”.
Even though these corridors could certainly use transit improvements, and streetcars may in fact be appropriate for some of these corridors, more analysis of alternatives is called for before a streetcar is chosen as the best mode, especially along the transit-heavy corridors of Hennepin and Nicollet (which seem to be the favorites for selection as the “starter” corridor).
The long-term vision for these corridors is based on a 2007 Streetcar feasibility study, which seems to take as a given that streetcars are the preferred mode for bolstering transit in the corridors. The study contains no alternatives analysis, but instead contains a few pages answering the question, “Why Streetcars?” Many of the report’s conclusions about the advantages of streetcars (assumed over buses, and in the case of cost, over LRT) could also likely be said about enhanced bus service. But the report never explores this, since it is dedicated to streetcars.
Different vehicles, better signage (or some signage at all), real time arrival information, and higher amenity stations could all be said to achieve the benefits presented in the study, whether using a streetcar system or an enhanced bus system. In a guest post by a Metro Transit planner here on Net Density, two examples of arterial Bus Rapid Transit, a form of enhanced bus service were highlighted. These examples, from Kansas and LA, showed that ridership can be improved dramatically (60 and 40 percent, respectively), with a much smaller expenditure than streetcar or LRT would require.
Travel time savings of over 20% was also realized in both Kansas and LA. A new streetcar system on Hennepin or Nicollet will likely have little or no travel time savings over existing bus service. The study admits as much saying that buses are more flexible, being able to maneuver around parked or stalled vehicles, and that the only travel time savings with streetcars would be advance boarding, something that could easily be implemented with bus service.
One characteristic that we can compare is cost. Minneapolis staff prepared a Funding Study, to explore potential options for funding a new streetcar system and looking at potential “starter” corridors. According to this study, a Nicollet line would have a capital cost of $75 million, while a Hennepin line (only extending to the Walker Art Center) would cost $70 million. A similar (but longer) line along Nicollet using enhanced bus service may be closer to $30 million. Neither of these new streetcar lines would extend much beyond downtown initially, likely provide little or no travel time advantage over existing bus service and would likely cost double what a longer, faster enhanced bus service would cost. The full Streetcar study also identifies a significant issue at Franklin Avenue for the Hennepin Avenue line, a grade over 6%. Once the line was extended into Uptown, would the intersection need to be totally rebuilt? This would likely bring costs even higher.
While it is clear that Minneapolis needs improved transit service, alternatives need to be studied. Can we build a better, faster, more legible bus system for half the cost of a new streetcar network? And one that will dramatically increase ridership and improve the experience for those who already ride? If so, then this is the better option. Building what basically seems like a downtown circulator, which moves people barely further than the distance of a comfortable walk, does not seem like the best investment of city or federal tax dollars.