It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s dedicated ROW!

Over at, I have a post about everyone’s favorite fictional urban transit revolution, the urban gondola (or aerial tram).

The case history on US urban gondolas doesn’t look good cost-wise, but the travel time savings look great.  The Portland Aerial Tram, which could also be called an urban gondola (if you consider low-slung Portland urban), cost $57 million, or roughly $90 million per mile, if I calculated the hypotenuse correctly.  The Portland Aerial Tram travels at a top speed of 22 mph, which could make an Uptown Transit Station to Hennepin-8th Street trip in 6.5 minutes.  That’s about one-third the posted travel time for the #6 bus, and less than half the travel time of the limited-stop #12.  6 minutes is even less than half the travel time identified by Metro Transit for an upgraded arterial BRT on Hennepin.

Will driverless cars abolish transit?

At Human Transit, Jarrett Walker answers a reader question about whether SDVs (self-driving vehicles) will eventually replace some or all transit.  Read the whole post, but here is an excerpt.

So to sum up, the technophile urbanists who believe that self-driving cars will eliminate the need for public transit are making several mistakes:

  • They are assuming that technology will change the facts of geometry, in this case the facts of urban space.
  • They are assuming that the costs of having every passenger encased in a metal sphere (in terms of production energy and emissions) are readily absorbable by the planet.  (To be fair, the SDV discussed here is one that you don’t own but just grab when you want it, so if it replaced the car there would be far fewer cars.  But that’s different from replacing a bus.)
  • If they think that self-driving cars will replace buses but not rail, then they haven’t informed themselves about the vast diversity of different markets that buses are used to serve.  Self-driving cars many logically replace some of these markets but not others.
  • They believe that public transit is incapable of improving in ways that make it more positively attractive to a wider range of people, despite the fact that it is doing so almost continually.

Again, the whole bus vs rail confusion here arises from the fact that technophile urbanists classify transit services according to how they look and feel, whereas transit experts care more about the functions they perform.

So yes, buses are currently doing some things that other tools could do better, especially in sparser markets.  Some agencies, like Vancouver’s, already have the tools to solve that problem.  But when a huge mass of people wants to go in the same direction at the same time, you need a rail if you have tracks and an exclusive lane for them, or a bus if you don’t.  I don’t care whether it’s rail or bus, but the need for a high-capacity vehicle running high quality service that encourages people to use space efficiently — that’s a fact of geometry!

I think I agree with all Walker’s points, except maybe that he oversimplifies the geometry argument.  Couldn’t we have self-driving microbuses taking the place of low volume routes?  Walker states this is a legacy problem with unions, which could be solved without robot cars (but of course, hasn’t yet).

Also, his geometry argument ignores carpooling.  If I could sign up for robot dial-a-ride service and I could choose a higher price to ride alone or a lower price to ride with other commuters, I imagine many people would choose the carpool option (especially existing transit riders).  Theoretically, routing software could calculate who your carmates would be based on your origin and destination, and you would arrive at your destination slightly slower than the ride-alone subscription (hence the lower cost).  This imaginary system makes the “geometry” argument less valid.

Of course, such a system is a long ways off.  We will still of course need transit for a long time, and as Walker states, transit agencies are making efficiency and attractiveness improvements all the time.

Let’s welcome “Rapid Bus”

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).

Guest Post: First Impressions Of The 46th Street “Online” Transit Station

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.

Freeway-level boarding area

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.

Continue reading

Minnesota’s First “Online” Bus Station Opens In Minneapolis

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.

Minneapolis seeks funding for analysis of streetcar “starter” lines

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 picks streetcars over busway improvements: spending more for less?

The South Lake Union Streetcar Line in Seattle

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.

Potential "starter" corridors for 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.

NYC gets first separated busway, why not Southwest Minneapolis?


Streetsblog seems pretty excited about the proposed new busway on 34th Street in New York City.  Rightly so as it is the city’s first separated busway, and would cut travel times across the city by 35%, according to the Transport Politic.  It’s not bus rapid transit (BRT), since it is still slow according to Freemark, but it does bring a number of welcome improvements.  Bus travel lanes are separated from normal traffic, pedestrians should be safer thanks to refuges and wider sidewalks, and the middle of the route includes a block-long pedestrian plaza.

I written here before and even entertained a guest who talked about what it would take to improve transit in the crowded Hennepin/Nicollet transit corridors of Minneapolis.  The key improvement of the NYC proposal, mode separation, would be a major boost to travel time, rider experience and a market signal on par with LRT or a streetcar.  So could it work?

Hennepin Ave with a crude busway model

There seems to be enough right of way.  Including parking, there are 6 lanes along most of Hennepin between Franklin and Lake Street.  This looks to be similar to the situation in New York City.  The key difference is that in NYC, the street is a one way.  Two lanes of traffic travel in the same direction, with a third lane mid block for parking and deliveries.  So if you kept Hennepin two-way, that would mean one lane of travel in each direction, with three lanes at the intersections (I suppose for turn lanes).  Much of the on-street parking would be lost, but some would be retained mid-block, perhaps one third of what currently exists.

So could Hennepin survive with a single travel lane in each direction?  The traffic engineers would have to weigh in on that.  If you highlighted Hennepin as a transit corridor, you could potentially reduce car trips and move cars to alternate routes.  This highlights a weakness of Minneapolis.  New York City is still a highly connected grid.  In Minneapolis, many of the connections to downtown and beyond have been severed by the I-94 corridor, so any attempt to reduce the access by car on one of the few remaining connections is bound to be met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But that’s not to say it wouldn’t be possible.  Perhaps Lyndale becomes the main north-south car route through the area, and Hennepin is reconfigured to focus on transit and bicycles.  Car space would just be reduced, not eliminated, and the busway would only really need to go to Lake Street.  Drivers would soon adapt, and maybe even ride the bus a little bit more.

Creating Real Transity Improvements in Uptown Part 2: The Potential of Arterial BRT

Kansas City MAX Station. That's a nice bus stop.

Kansas City MAX Station. That's a nice bus stop.

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.

Continue reading

Creating Real Transit Improvements in Uptown: Part 1

The future? photo by flickr user: Mulad

The future? photo by flickr user: Mulad

The routing decision for the Southwest LRT is basically done.  I’ve previously bemoaned what seemed like the inevitable choice of Route 3A by the County because I (and others) had unanswered questions about ridership and the long-term logic of bypassing Uptown.  Critics of 3C suggested that a more appropriate transit solution for Uptown would be a Greenway streetcar, and that transit advocates in Uptown should really wait their turn for what was surely a better alternative.  However, this argument doesn’t make sense, because the major destinations LRT would connect are the U of M and Downtown with Uptown, not Hiawatha Avenue with Uptown.

After some disparaging for the future, I decided that I should try to be positive and proactive, rather than gloomy and snide.  So Uptown and south Minneapolis are not going to benefit from the new LRT line.  So what would it take to get substantial improvements to the transit system in the Hennepin/Lyndale/Nicollet corridors?  Is there a cost-effective way to overcome, or at least minimize, the limitations now faced by the bus system (traffic congestion, inclement weather and slow fare collection)?  Can we create a bus corridor that would rival LRT for speed and desirability?

I have some ideas, but I don’t pretend to be an expert.  So, in a Net Density first, I’ll be asking a few very knowledgeable (and gracious) individuals to describe how they would improve the existing system in the Uptown/LynLake area.  I will ask that they restrain themselves to improvements that could really be implemented, and are not wildly expensive (no subways). And, of course these improvements should have the potential to significantly increase ridership and make the overall transit experience in the area better.

The first guest post comes from a Metro Transit planner who has been involved in transitway planning throughout the region.  From the conversations we’ve had so far, his post promises to be intriguing and give clear strategies for greater ridership and better service.  He’ll also have some good real world examples of how improvements he is suggesting have been implemented in other cities.  Stay tuned.