In a previous post, I promised some insight into creating substantial transit improvements in the Uptown/LynLake areas of Minneapolis now that LRT is basically off the table. In what is hopefully the first in a series of guest posts by different transit experts, I’ve asked a Metro Transit planner who is involved in transitway planning throughout the region to give his (or her) insight. As our guest will reiterate, the opinions seen here are personal (although professionally informed) and do not represent the opinions of Metro Transit.
As a reminder, I’ve asked our guest to limit the response to improvements that could really be implemented, and are not wildly expensive or politically infeasible. And, of course, ideally these improvements should have the potential to significantly increase ridership and make the overall transit experience in the area better.
First I’ll thank Brendon for the opportunity to contribute to this excellent blog. Net Density does a great job offering posts that are understandable and approachable, but also of sound technical merit and well-reasoned professional planning. I will aspire to match these qualities in my post.
Second, I will note that the information contained in this post is meant only to advance the transportation planning professional discourse. It is my own work, and does not necessarily reflect the policies of my employer.
Many residents of Minneapolis neighborhoods, and those in the planning community were frustrated by the HCRRA decision to pursue Southwest LRT on route 3A, via Kenilworth corridor. Given the current greater density and increased transit usage along Lake Street, Hennepin, and Nicollet, many came away with a desire for rapid, high quality transit improvements. This post does not revisit the many, justified reasons for 3A. Instead, it focuses on the many, justified reasons for transit improvements in several additional corridors in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
High quality improvements are warranted in south Minneapolis. In this post, I will respond to Brendon’s request to detail planned improvements. I’ll also point to other regions’ experiences with realistic, implementable investments in transit speed and quality.
The Metropolitan Council did a study of transit corridors in 2007, eventually published in 2008 as the Transit Master Study. This study evaluated many corridors, solicited by Council staff from county and city stakeholders. The study looked at LRT on these corridors, and found ridership could increase significantly with improved travel time/speed. Unfortunately, light rail requires a wide running way (30’ or more), and it must operate in its own right-of-way. It also benefits long-distance travelers, which aren’t necessarily compatible with urban travel patterns.
Nine corridors included in the Transit Master Study showed promising ridership prospects, but high capital costs and severe right-of-way challenges would not realistically allow rail implementation. For example, for light rail to be implemented on (50’ wide) Nicollet Avenue, the street would need to close to most automobile traffic. Alternatively, one side of the street would require complete demolition. These outcomes are as undesirable as they are impractical. And as we learned from the Southwest LRT process, tunneling is unaffordable for the foreseeable decades.
But transit improvements are needed. The Transit Master Study showed a faster trip would yield significantly increased ridership. Corridor users also seek bus stop improvements and improved vehicles. And everyone wishes the bus didn’t stop every block (except maybe their own block). To improve transit and grow ridership, the Metropolitan Council recommends Arterial Bus Rapid Transit in the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan.
But what is Arterial Bus Rapid Transit? We have nothing in this region that closely resembles it. We must look nationally at other transit systems’ characteristics and results for what might be a comparable basis for arterial BRT.
Kansas City MAX
In Kansas City, the transit authority opened the Metro Area Express (MAX) line in 2005, running along one of the region’s busiest transit corridors. The region investigated light-rail transit repeatedly for the corridor, and each LRT initiative was unsuccessful. As an implementable (“interim”, some say) alternative, KCATA built the MAX line.
The line features limited stop operation (1/3 to 1/2 mile spacing), transit signal priority, real-time signage at stations (i.e. NexTrip signs), and vastly improved stations (not “stops”). A dedicated bus fleet and strategically located peak-period dedicated lanes round out the corridor’s improvements. The six-mile corridor cost roughly $21 million.
Unlike our region’s limited-stop overlay routes, the MAX service is the primary bus route in the corridor. This is significant because operating resources (drivers, buses, hours) are going faster, so they’re able to provide more trips for the same price (note: some local service remains, and some new resources are needed since service levels improve considerably with BRT). The new service cut over 20 percent off the trip time.
How did MAX perform? Upon implementation, ridership in the corridor grew significantly, from 3,300 rides per day to over 5,300 (a 60% increase). The faster travel time and improved infrastructure provided a major improvement to the image and practicality of public transit in one of the most heavily used corridors. The program was so successful that Kansas City has already begun construction of a second line in Missouri (“Troost”, a 13-mile $30 M investment) and advanced planning of a third line in Kansas City, Kansas.
Los Angeles Metro Rapid
Looking at a larger region, Los Angeles was among the first to implement a “rapid bus” system. Similar to Kansas City and others, the Metro Rapid system uses signal priority, a dedicated fleet, improved stations, and a limited stop operating plan to increase travel speed. Los Angeles now has 450 miles of Rapid Bus corridors, operating on 24 corridors.
A detailed before-and-after report was prepared for the initial two lines. Metro Rapid improvements shaved 25-30% off running times, and gained over 40% in corridor ridership on the Wilshire/Whitter corridor, with a third of the riders new to transit. This huge gain in ridership came from just 20% additional operating cost. The agency saw increased returns on more strategically targeted investments that attracted new riders. Best of all, the program was an affordable, implementable, and realistic improvement to the transit system.
Each of the corridors described above is different from the corridors in south Minneapolis, north and northeast Minneapolis, and St. Paul. More information is needed before arterial BRT investments can begin. The Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Policy Plan’s work program (Chapter 12) calls for a scoping study of these corridors to identify opportunities, costs, and benefits of arterial BRT.
Though much is unknown, the potential of arterial BRT is enormous. If Nicollet Avenue’s costs and benefits were similar to other systems’ experiences, the line would gain roughly 5,000 new rides per weekday. The incremental operating cost would be roughly $1.5-2 million annually, and upfront capital costs would be $20-30 million. These are rail-like benefits at a bargain cost, made possible because existing resources are better used (faster buses), the line’s station spacing is nicely matched to corridor travel patterns, and the improvements are much less costly and less disruptive to build than any rail line. This potential will be better understood when the mode is studied by the Metropolitan Council. Also note that I am not advocating this as a substitute or alternative to all rail projects; BRT is a different investment that may be more advantageous in some situations.
Another transit improvement under study is the streetcar. Streetcars were a major part of the Twin Cities’ past, and may be a part of its future. Regions with streetcars have shown strong development results alongside new lines, but have also shown negligible, or even negative, travel time savings. They’re also expensive to build and operate, and since they don’t improve mobility they’re difficult to fund with traditional federal sources. Still, they are very appealing and may be a part of the answer to improve Twin Cities’ transit corridors. I may be alone in this, but I see streetcars and arterial BRT as complementary modes. Until we know more about both, we should follow Minneapolis City Council’s recommendation to continue parallel study toward implementation of transit improvements in south Minneapolis.