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?
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
|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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Categories: World of Transport