The Transit Tourist: Minneapolis – St. Paul, Minn.

The Transit Tourist takes a look at other transit systems across the globe from the first person perspective of a visitor. What can Metro learn from how these other systems treat the uninitiated – and often bumbling – tourist?

A Green Line train arriving at a station in downtown Saint Paul.

A train arrives at the 10th Street Station in downtown St. Paul. (Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro)

In previous installments of the Transit Tourist, The Source visited Chicago, Portland, New York City and London. For the latest iteration of the series, I spent some time during a recent vacation checking out the transit offerings in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The visit occurred just two weeks after the opening of the the region’s second light rail line, the long-awaited METRO Green Line, which runs between the downtown centers of the two neighboring cities.

Now arriving…The Transit Tourist: Minneapolis – St. Paul, Minn. 

Minneapolis-Saint Paul Metro
Population: 3,348,859 Transit Agency: Metro Transit Miles of Rail Track: 21.8
Density: 546 people/sq. mi. Light Rail Lines: 2 Bus Routes: 126
Area Served: 907 sq. mi. Light Rail Stations: 37 Op. Budget: $325 mil.

Source: US Census Bureau, Metro Transit (metrotransit.org) and Metropolitan Council (metrocouncil.org). 

Airport Connection

The METRO Blue Line provides light rail service to both terminals at Minneapolis – St. Paul International Airport. Trains between the two terminals are free and run 24 hours a day.

I arrived at Terminal 1 – Lindbergh, where a tram (or automated people mover) connects the terminal to the underground light rail station. Using it was fairly straightforward: the ride was free and lasted about 30 seconds. In total, it took a little less than five minutes to get from the terminal to the train station. Visitors that arrive at Terminal 2 – Humphrey can access its station with a short walk via skyway.

The Lindbergh Terminal 1 station on the METRO Blue Line. (Photo: Joseph Lemon / Metro)

The Terminal 1 Lindbergh Station on the Blue Line. (Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro)

From the airport, the METRO Blue Line takes passengers north to downtown Minneapolis in just under 25 minutes where it shares five stations with the METRO Green Line. Going south, the Blue Line connects passengers to the Mall of America and terminates at the METRO Red Line, a bus rapid transit line extending to the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities.

Fares

Standard fares for Metro Transit’s rail and bus cost $1.75 during non-rush hours and $2.25 during rush hours (Metro’s regular fare is currently $1.50 and is rising to $1.75 this fall — with no surcharges for peak hours). A standard fare purchase is valid for two-and-a-half hours and includes transfers, or more specifically “unlimited rides at the same fare level in any direction for up to two-and-a-half-hours.” This means not only can you ride one-way to your destination with multiple transfers, it’s also possible to ride round-trip by purchasing just one fare.

Single-use paper tickets are dispensed for standard fares, but Metro Transit also offers users a reusable stored value pass called the Go-To Card. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to use it during my visit because it’s not available for purchase at ticket vending machines. If I wanted one, I would have had to purchase it online, at select retailers or Metro Transit’s two service centers. Much like Metro’s TAP Card, the Go-To Card requires users to tap when entering rail stations and buses, and can be loaded with stored value, stored ride or multi-day passes. Of note, a 31-day pass at rush hour fare value costs $85.00.

The fare structure also includes downtown fare zones in Minneapolis and St. Paul, offering riders a reduced fare of 50 cents for one-way travel within each zone.

The light rail network uses a proof-of-purchase system, meaning riders are subject to random fare checks to ensure they properly paid. On buses, riders can pay their fare with cash or change, their Go-To Card or by using their standard fare ticket to transfer.

Rail System

The official transit map for Metro Transit includes  lines currently under construction. (Source: Metro Transit)

The official Metro Transit map includes lines currently under construction. (Source: Metro Transit)

Metro Transit operates a system of two light rail lines as well as the Northstar commuter rail line, all of which are less than a decade old.

The first light rail line to be built was the aforementioned METRO Blue Line, which runs between Target Field in downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America in the suburb of Bloomington. The line serves tourists well — I used it to travel to a baseball game and from the airport.

In contrast, the newly opened METRO Green Line serves the functional purpose of connecting the urban cores of St. Paul and Minneapolis. In between, it serves the University of Minnesota campus, but mostly runs through low-density neighborhoods and warehouse districts. However, I did see new development sprouting up along the line.

A Green Line near the Minnesota Public Radio building in downtown Saint Paul.

A train near the MPR building in downtown St. Paul. (Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro)

My ride on the Green Line between the two cities was painfully slow, covering 10.8 miles and 22 stations in 54 minutes. A quick look at a map shows that many of the stations are less than half a mile apart. This isn’t ideal for a transit tourist favoring expediency, but it does better serve the many neighborhoods the line runs through — a common trade-off in transit planning.

I also noticed a stark contrast in ridership between the two lines. The Green Line was mostly empty both late afternoons I took it — I suspect this is in large part due to it being so new — while the Blue Line ranged from comfortably filled during rush hour to near maximum capacity after a Twins game.

Bus System

Metro Transit bus in downtown Saint Paul. (Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro)

Metro Transit bus in downtown St Paul. (Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro)

Even as the region’s rail system continues to expand, Metro Transit’s bus network is the backbone. A fleet of 912 buses serve the region including 169 60-foot articulated buses and 132 hybrid-electric buses. The network consists of a mix of local, express, high-frequency lines and the bus rapid transit METRO Red Line. If your destination isn’t near the two downtowns, the airport or the Mall of America, the bus system will be your transit lifeline. During peak hours, the bus might get you to those places faster than rail anyway.

I noticed this specifically in two situations: an express bus from the airport to Union Depot in downtown St. Paul took only 26 minutes while taking the train required a transfer and took 80 minutes. And a non-stop express bus from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis took only 36 minutes during rush hour, 12 minutes less than a Green Line train took to cover the same distance.

Interestingly, buses are allowed to use the freeway shoulder when traffic levels meet certain criteria, which might give some express bus routes an advantage during rush hour. In downtown Minneapolis, side-by-side bus-only lanes created by a project called Marq2 keeps buses moving efficiently.

Overall, it looks like Metro Transit is trying very hard to attract suburban commuters. The most robust bus service occurs during peak hours using a mix of high-frequency, limited-stop and express buses that run from the suburbs to the two downtowns. Travel outside of those two urban cores, especially during non-peak hours, will likely require a transfer. This isn’t necessarily problematic. A system built around transfers can be more efficient and save time, but there’s room for improvement. Headways during off-peak range from 15 to 30 minutes, making trips exceptionally long; and some bus routes meander away from key corridors, potentially confusing riders.

Metro Transit also utilizes Nextrip, the same real-time arrival system Metro uses. I was surprised to see Metro Transit didn’t offer a mobile app, but Nextrip in my mobile browser worked when I needed it.

Bikes

A Nice Ride bike share kiosk in Saint Paul.

A Nice Ride bike-share station in St. Paul. (Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro)

Minneapolis – St. Paul is home to the bike-sharing service Nice Ride, which the Atlantic’s CityLab recently suggested might be “the nicest bike-share service in the United States.” The service offers free bike rides for up to an hour and charges $3 to $6 dollars every half hour after. Considering the city of Minneapolis alone has 177 miles of on and off-street bikeways — by comparison Los Angeles has 501 total miles of on and off-street bikeways (including sharrows), but is 10 times larger — and four percent of its commuters bike to work, it’s no surprise bike sharing is taking off here.

The popularity of biking was noticeable not only by the volume of bicyclists on bikeways, but by the accommodations on transit as well. Metro Transit’s local and express buses feature two bike racks in front, while buses used for the METRO Red Line have two racks at the front of the bus and two inside. Trains include four bike racks in each car.

Winter is long and brutal in Minnesota (temperatures were below-zero a total of 56 days last winter) and I admit it’s unlikely I’d see as many bicyclists had I visited in January. Even so, the arctic air doesn’t stop Minneapolis’ estimated 7,000 year-round cyclists.

Report Card

Green Line train to Minneapolis in downtown St. Paul. (Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro)

Green Line train to Minneapolis in downtown St. Paul. (Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro)

THE GOOD:

  • A large bus network including high-frequency lines that works best during peak hours and will only grow as new bus rapid transit lines currently under construction are opened.
  • Convenient airport rail and bus connections, especially for visitors staying in the city centers or near the Mall of America.
  • Very bike friendly: the region hosts an expansive bike network, popular bike share program and a transit agency that supports biking with ample bike racks and space on buses and trains.
  • Fare structure that allows unlimited transfers within two and a half hours of purchase and incorporates reduced cost downtown fare zones.
  • Stations, buses and trains appeared to be exceptionally clean and well-maintained.

THE BAD:

  • Longer rail travel times on METRO Green Line due to emphasis on system connectivity. Though this allows the line to serve more neighborhoods, it slows travel times, possibly discouraging ridership.
  • Stored-value Go-To Card isn’t available for purchase at ticket vending machines and paper tickets are still used for standard fare purchases (it is the 21st century, after all).
  • Bus routes that don’t run directly on key corridors and longer off-peak headways result in trips that take much more time than they should.
  • No NextTrip or real-time arrival displays for trains. Instead, train stations indicated scheduled arrival times. This turned out not be an issue as my trains arrived at their scheduled times.

WHAT METRO CAN LEARN:

  • Keep the airport to train station experience as seamless as possible, especially with an automated people mover. The people mover at the Minneapolis – St. Paul airport achieved this in large part because it was free to use and the system was simple. Another component of this is signage that’s easy to follow. Even though the walk from the terminal to the train platform required me to take multiple escalators and a people mover, I was never in doubt of where I needed to go.
  • Use a fare system that allows transfers within a reasonable time period. In May the Metro Board approved a fare structure that will allow for transfers within two hours of use. But is two hours enough time? After all, Metro Transit gives riders two- and-a-half hours to transfer despite the fact their transit network covers less area. Then again, two hours sounds pretty reasonable when you consider a trip that covers 54 miles from the Chatsworth Orange Line Station to the Downtown Long Beach Blue Line Station will only cost $1.75.
  • Bike racks on trains. Rather than relying on bike owners to stand next to their bike to secure it while the train is moving, bike racks ensure the bike stays in place and uses the space more efficiently while enabling its owner to move more freely.

16 replies

  1. I just took a look at the entire series, to date.

    My experiences in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York more-or-less mirror the reports, although I didn’t spend much time on the Minneapolis system (at the time, it was only one line, and it was called the Hiawatha).

    In Minneapolis, I was only there for 24 hours, just long enough to visit some local museums, and to see the Mary Tyler Moore statue (and when I mentioned said statue to a waitress in a restaurant where I had my dinner, she promptly led me to a booth in the same restaurant, that appeared in the series). At any rate, though, I think the only place I went by rail there was the Mall of America; I think, at the time, everything else was by bus.

    In Chicago, I can’t recall ever visiting either airport, instead arriving and leaving by rail; I found the somewhat lengthy walk between the train station and the L a bit irritating; on the other hand, there was one occasion when the CTA policy of having attendants at most L stations very helpful: I’d gone up the wrong side of a Loop station for the direction I was headed, one that didn’t have a bridge connecting the sides, and when I exited and went up to the other platform, my pass wouldn’t work. The attendant overrode the system to let me in, explaining that there was a timeout for same-station entries on a single pass, to prevent pass-sharing.

    In New York, I took shared-ride vans between my Long Island City hotel and the airport (JFK, if I remember right), and a cab from there to Penn Station for a side trip to Philadelphia (although I think I did take the subway back to the hotel). It didn’t take me long to get the hang of the subway system, though.

    I look forward to seeing Source bloggers’ takes on some of the other great transit towns I’ve visited, like San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and New Orleans. I’ll note that in San Francisco, MUNI passes include cable cars (and there are times of the day when locals and regular visitors with passes greatly outnumber newbies paying one-way cable car fares), and that Washington already has direct rail service to Reagan (my last trip, I took a shared van to my Arlington hotel on arrival, but otherwise stuck with rail), and is working on Dulles, and that Boston has rail to Logan. And I’ll also note that just as San Francisco continues to run vintage cable cars (and exact modern replicas) on 3 lines, and vintage PCC and Peter Witt cars on the F line, New Orleans runs vintage Perley Thomas cars on the St. Charles line, and modern lookalikes on the other lines.

  2. What a concept ! Light rail into both terminals!! And free between terminals!!! To and from downtown in 25 minutes!!!!!

  3. All of these reviews are biased upon other US cities and Europe. No review whatsoever about Asia. Is Metro biased towards how transit works in mainly “white” countries?

    If Metro wants a review of a world class transit system, all they have to do is ask around the people who live in Koreatown, Little Tokyo, West LA, Gardena, Torrance,Arcadia, and Monterey Park to understand how transit works in Seoul, Busan, Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

    We have so many Asians living here in LA. LA has the largest Korean-American, Japanese-American, and Chinese-American population in the US. They can tell you everything they know about the world class transit system works over there. Metro can learn a whole lot just by asking them.

  4. Metro does learn from Asian countries. For example, they look at Pyongyang Metro for inspiration in wasting money in building stations with luxurious extravagance while the rest of the people are starving and poor.

    • Hi samtrak1204,

      Yes, St. Paul Union Depot is the eastern terminus of the Green Line. Much like Union Station, the depot has undergone a revival and is now home to light rail and Amtrak. More info: http://www.uniondepot.org/.

      Joe
      Contributor, The Source

  5. To echo “K Town Commuter’s” comments, I think it would be nice if there were some reports on the Metros’ in Asian countries. Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, just to name a few, have amazing sparkling clean and efficient world-class metro systems that have high connectivity to their airports. Their metro stations epitomize the meaning of transit oriented developments.

    After studying abroad in Taipei for a year and using their MRT system on a daily basis, I have become an ardent supporter of LA’s Metro and believe that rail mass transportation is how we must focus our transportation infrastructure needs in Los Angeles.

    It would behoove us to not only compare our nascent yet growing metro system not only to domestic cities and those in Europe, but also those systems in Asia. The metro systems in Asia really put the rest of the world to shame. The timely performance, narrow headways, the safety (platform doors to prevent track incursion), and just impeccably clean and vandalism free trains and stations are something we could only wish for here in the US.

  6. I agree. There are many cities all over the world that has excellent mass transit systems beyond the US and Europe. Mexico City has a fantastic Metro system. So does Sydney, Australia. Dubai is investing heavily in mass transit. Even places like Delhi,India and Bangkok, Thailand and Manila, Philippines have better transit systems than LA.

    In a culturally diverse city like Los Angeles where there are people from all over the world, Metro surely must have several employees of Latin-American, Australian-American, Middle-Eastern American, South East Asian, and Asian-American descent who travel back often to visit friends and family back in Asia.

    I’m sure it’d be relatively easy and cheap to get an all inclusive report by Metro employees across different cultural backgrounds to report on transit systems of their home country. For one, if they have friends and family back home, they could just stay there for the duration of the stay and they wouldn’t need hotels to be paid for by taxpayers. And unless Metro is wasting tax dollars by flying Metro employees in first or business class, flights to these places are relatively cheap in economy class, probably cheaper than US domestic flights.

  7. 1.3 million or 13.8% of Los Angeles County’s population are Asian.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Angeles_County,_California#Demographics

    Asian-Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group these days, even outranking Hispanic/Latinos.
    http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb13-112.html

    Statistic wise, there’s a high chance that there are Asian-Americans working for Metro. If Metro executives are too scared to visit the strange land called Asia because of the language barrier or whatever reasons they have, it shouldn’t be that hard to ask the Asian-Americans working at Metro to come along with them so that they can be tour guides and translators for Metro executives on how buses and trains run when they decide to go visit Asian cities on a fact finding mission.

  8. Of course, one would also have to keep in mind that transit systems in Asia are for profit corporations, publicly traded on their stock exchanges, therefore their main goal is to gain profits to please their shareholders.

    LA Metro will not be able to replicate everything that Asian transit agencies does because ours and practically almost all of transit systems in the US are taxpayer funded. Our funds are limited to how much money the feds gives us or how much money taxpayers want to pay for it. Theirs is run solely on profits.

    But one thing for sure that LA Metro can learn from Asia is their high farebox recovery ratios. Almost every Asian transit operators have high ridership numbers, distance based fare formats, and 100%+ farebox recovery ratios which is something that no US transit agency is capable of achieving.

  9. Frequent Flyer: I bet Metro managers ride First or Business Class just like top dog charity bosses.

  10. The Green Line in Minneapolis is a replacement for the #50 bus, which was the “limited” bus along the University Avenue Corridor, not the “express” bus #94, which still exists. (In fact, internally, the Green Line carries the #50 route number.) It’s faster than the bus it replaced. There’s still a slow “local” bus along the corridor, due to local protests, though I don’t know how long that will last.

    The Green Line is now one of the primary routes through the the University of Minnesota, and it’s expected to be heavily used for trips going to or from the U of M to either Minneapolis or St. Paul. Along University Avenue, there’s also really quite a lot of commercial activity, though it is very auto-oriented; it is likely to spontaneously become less auto-oriented now, so I expect we will see infill development *very* quickly.
    Regarding the bus system, there are two important things to note:
    (1) The signage for the bus stops in Minneapolis-St. Paul is absolutely terrible, and frankly confusing to the visitor.
    (2) They are still using a lot of high-floor, stair-filled buses. Ugh.