A Three Hour Tour

Don't google "rocket rider" at work

Last week I took the Jefferson 909 from Minneapolis to Duluth.  The trip went fairly smoothly, but I wouldn’t be me without finding a few things to complain about.  It wasn’t a long wait for the first:  the driver must have confused the 8:00 departure time with the route number, since he arrived at the depot at precisely 9 minutes after 8 o’clock.  Not that it’s a problem to spend more time at the Hawthorne Bus Depot, which is clean, spacious, and as comfortable a bus station as I’ve ever experienced.

Our route

The Hawthorne Depot features LED displays at every gate door to inform travelers of the route number departing from that gate and every stop made along that route – a pretty swanky feature for a bus station.  Still, I was afraid I had gotten on the wrong bus when we finally pulled out of the station (only 20 minutes late) and started heading up Hennepin and across the river.  Maybe Jefferson thinks it’s a tour bus company, but it chooses the least direct route to 35W from the Hawthorne Depot, going all the way over to the University-4th St exit over two miles from the depot.  Recall that it was shortly after 8 AM, still the thick of the morning rush, so of course we waited for multiple complete phases at several intersections, the bus chugging away in its frantic effort to flash-freeze its passengers.

A Better Route

Google recommends taking Hennepin south through the Bottleneck to 35W from the Hawthorne Depot, which might not be too sensible at rush hour either.  I don’t see why they don’t take the exit to 94 that’s just six blocks from the Depot, then cut across 694 to 35W.  Are they afraid of the loop in the cloverleaf?  My guess is they take the convoluted route for the reason that should be most embarrassing: sheer inertia.  According to the timetable, some routes stop at “U of MN, University Ave”, so apparently even those routes that don’t make that stop still travel as though they do, even when it causes delay due to traffic congestion.  Anyway, is it really appropriate for an intercity bus route to be making the local trip from the U of M to downtown, duplicating the dozens of local buses making the same trip?  If they are making this stop as a supposed service to their customers, they should really charge more for it, and only make the stop (and take the convoluted route) when reserved in advance.  I couldn’t get their online scheduler to give me the option of the University Ave stop at all, though.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know how to run an intercity bus company.  I imagine it’s very difficult to train and then schedule drivers for these long and often intricate routes.  However, in the interest of greater competitiveness with private automobiles and the profits that presumably follow, I’d think it would be worthwhile to create routes that are a bit more responsive to the congestion frequently found in larger cities.

I see the lakes - where's the forest?

We made it onto 35W at about quarter to 9, and it seemed as though it would be smooth sailing from there on out.  Instead we had barely passed the confluence with 35E when the bus exited the freeway again.  Of course it is reasonable for even an express bus to make some intermediate stops, but the Forest Lake stop really gets my goat.  For one thing, according to Google it adds 15-20 minutes to the trip.  That is particularly annoying when you’re already running 45 minutes late, and when no one actually gets on or off the bus on this lengthy detour, as happened on my trip.

Fine, add 10% to the total travel time, it’s worth it because the Forest Lake stop is at the center of a dense, walkable, transit-rich location and therefore is ideal to serve with intercity mass transit, right?  Nope.  The Forest Lake Transit Center is 2 miles south of Forest Lake in a landscape of hobby farms, low-density tract housing, and scattered speculative retail.  If it were in a city, you could say it was a block off of Highway 61, but it’s a mile from the nearest major intersection, so its utility for a transfer point for future transit routes is highly dubious.  It seems to have been placed there entirely at the whim of the speculators that attempted to develop the area, apparently before the market stalled.  The presence of a Washington County Service Center – in the far northwestern corner of the county and therefore impossible to ever become central to users – is corroborating evidence for the “developer collusion” theory.

The rest of the trip was frustratingly uncomplainworthy, even pleasant.  Jefferson’s Rocket Rider buses have lots of leg room, although I can’t vouch for the functionality of the advertised wi-fi.  We made it to Duluth only 15 minutes late, which was nice.  Although the way we made up that half an hour only managed to irk me:  we skipped Cloquet, presumably because there were no reserved trips starting or ending there.  That means, of course, that Jefferson’s policy and technology allows skipping un-reserved stops, so we could have skipped Forest Lake, and we could have taken a more logical trip out of Downtown Minneapolis.

Well worth the journey

All in all, intercity bus is a pretty good way to get to Duluth.  The train will be faster, more reliable and more comfortable.  Unfortunately my trip ended another two hours from Duluth, in a small city not served by any intercity mass transit, so I had a friend pick me up and drive the rest of the way.  I’m sure I could find something to complain about on that segment of the trip, too, but I’ll hold off in the interest of repeating the trip someday.

3 comments on “A Three Hour Tour

  1. mulad says:

    Oof. That Forest Lake diversion looks very annoying. My map from several months ago includes it at the right location, and I have a vague recollection of placing the icon in what looks like a new area of development, but I never considered the routing. It turns out that the commuter express buses from there (routes 285 to St. Paul and 288 to Minneapolis) both get to the station in a similar way.

    The station is clearly placed so that it could become a train station someday if the Rush Line ever happens, but even for that purpose, it isn’t very well located in my opinion. My most-hated stop on the Northstar line is in Elk River, again 2 miles southeast of the city center. But at least there the station is just after the confluence of U.S. 10 and U.S. 169, so commuters can say “Oh, the traffic is really bad on 10 today. I’d better take the train”, then get off the road right away. Here in Forest Lake, basically everyone has already been diverted away to I-35 already.

    I presume transit planners put park-and-ride lots on the inbound edge of cities so that some drivers don’t have to back-track to a central stop before getting on their bus. But here, everyone who uses the bus has to back-track once they’re onboard, which must seriously deflate their ridership.

    285 and 288 also both stop near Running Aces just on the other side of I-35, which I imagine is much more popular (it’s too new to see on Google Maps, however). That’s unfortunately a bad location for an intercity bus stop, however.

    Bah, they should have just plopped down a normal city bus shelter somewhere along Broadway and had commuters park on side streets.

    • Alex says:

      Dang – I meant to link to that post of your’s, but it slipped my mind when I finally got to writing. I noticed that the Rush Line buses stop there, but I know the “transit center” was there before the buses started running last fall because I remember stopping there on a bus trip from Duluth in 2008 I think.

      Unfortunately I think transit planners for the most part just put transit stations where ever there is cheap land, and in this case it seems likely the developer donated it in exchange for some variances and/or permits. If the county really was planning for a transit center on the south side of Forest Lake, they would have picked some of the ample vacant land at the intersection of 61 and Scandia Trail – heck, there’s enough room in the median of 61 there.

      I would hope that a Rush Line commuter rail line would stop at “downtown” Forest Lake, with maybe a greenfield station in Hugo. For now, the intercity buses could just rent some parking spaces in the strip malls on West Broadway, like they do for all the other stops on 35 between Minneapolis and Duluth.

  2. Hope you pass this article on to the bus company. Forest Lake sounds like it should be a reservation-only stop like Cloquet.

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