Rapid Stats

New transit landscape

I guess I’m not delivering them very rapidly, but I thought it would be useful to enter the data from Metro Transit’s Rapid Bus Corridor concepts into one spreadsheet.  The individual corridor sheets are beautiful and packed with facts, but the advantage to a spreadsheet is easy comparison of one corridor to another.

The reason we must compare corridors is that Metro Transit isn’t necessarily planning to build all of the corridors they developed concepts for, and some will be built before others.  Part of the purpose of the study is to develop “a prioritization plan for the arterial corridors”.  That language comes from SRF’s summary, but apparently we will have to wait until the study is published in February to know exactly what the prioritization will be based on.

In the meantime, we have the stats from the corridor concepts, which we can assume will be used to prioritize (as opposed to political prioritization, i.e. regional balance – we already know that Scott County is not in the running).

Demographics

One place to start is to just look at the number of people who live or work along each corridor.  Metro Transit gives us these numbers both in a 1/4 mile circle and a 1/2 mile circle around the proposed stations for each rapid route.  The raw numbers are of course weighted toward lines with more stations (the number of stations runs from 15 on Hennepin to 28 each on Nicollet and Chicago), so I created a “density” measure, which just divides the total by the number of stations for a more fair comparison.

On the above chart, like the next three, the scale is distorted by the high number of jobs in Downtown Minneapolis.  To offset this, Metro Transit included a metric for jobs outside the downtowns, although in reality the downtowns are the largest trip generators and should be considered.  As you can see, Chicago really places well in this chart, coming in first in jobs (thanks to an added boost from the Mall of America) and also in population.  Nicollet and Lake are close seconds in population, and Central, Nicollet, Broadway and Hennepin also get job boosts from Downtown, although each follows its predecessor by 10k jobs or so until Hennepin finishes with 60k jobs fewer than Chicago.  Presumably this distance mostly stems from proximity to the core, as the different routes vary much more slightly in jobs outside Downtown.

The Mickey's station on West 7th has the highest grease density of any corridor

The above chart shows a slightly different picture, with the same five Downtown Minneapolis-serving lines appearing at the top of the heap again, but in a different order.  In this measure American and West 7th rank close to the Downtown Minneapolis lines.  These lines still have fairly high job numbers (though less than half of Chicago’s), but are helped by their much lower number of stations per mile – American has the least of any corridor, with 1.33 stations/mile, and West 7th is just behind it, with 1.42 stations/mile (see table below).  That means they don’t waste time serving low-density stations, like most of the other corridors do generally as they get further from the downtowns.

Making the circle a bit wider makes some sense – though the typical walking distance to transit is 1/4 mile, people are usually willing to walk further to faster service, and 37% of Hiawatha riders walk more than 1/4 mile.  But the chart above doesn’t show a drastically different picture.  The y axis is larger, but the corridors mostly seem to rank in the same order, as is more evident when you apply a color scale to the data in a table:

The table above is a good way to finish the series on demographics, because it clearly shows which routes have the advantages in the various demographic categories.  Nicollet and Chicago have the advantage both in jobs and population, and although they have some competitors in individual categories, no other routes are competitive across the board.

But for consistency I’ll present this last chart above, which shows that the most bang for the buck will probably come from the Hennepin line.  That’s the one where every station built is likely to reach a high amount of riders.

Station Spacing

An interlude about station spacing – the corridors all deviate from the half-mile station spacing ideal.  In many cases this is due to traversing either of the downtowns on a N-S axis, where the stations are often placed two blocks apart (where they currently stop in Downtown Minneapolis).  However there are a number of factors, for example Central has 3 stops in the half-mile from 18th to Lowry to serve the higher-density neighborhood; similarly, the routes that run between Franklin and Lake have 4 or 5 stops in that mile.  The opposite is the case with East 7th, which generally keeps to half-mile spacing, but leaves more than a mile without a station between Arcade and Clarence.

The stations depicted on the concept corridors are not final, of course.  But it seems as though Metro Transit prefers to keep the much closer spacing downtown, which makes sense because most of the lines terminate there anyway, so it’s fair to trade travel time for coverage (plus they’re apparently sinking some money into bus stations on 5th and 6th in St Paul anyway, a factor that may help the 7th St corridors).

Speed, Frequency and Reliability

Demographics are not the only factor to consider when prioritizing implementation.  Instead it’s important to consider the degree to which the routes will be improved by the enhancements.  Pretty stations are nice and all, but what I care about is how fast I can get to Mickey’s.  To that degree, Metro Transit included measures of speed, frequency and reliability in its rapid bus concepts.

A number of the proposed rapid bus enhancements should improve on-time performance, but maybe Metro Transit found it hard to quantify or predict, because they only included the on-time performance for current locals in the concepts (shown in the above chart).  From this, we can glean the lines that are most in need of improvements; Central rises to the top by virtue of its placement at the bottom.

The only clue Metro Transit gave us as to the increase in on-time performance was a series of pie charts showing the factors of travel time for each route.  I’ll admit that I’m not sure how to process this information, although generally it seems right to look for an increase in “In Motion” time and a decrease in “Dwell Time”.  (Since these are percentages, an increase in “In Motion” doesn’t mean the trip will actually take longer.)  Part of my confusion stems from the two factors that aren’t listed for all routes – especially that those factors disappear from the projections for after improvements are made.  It makes sense that “Hold/Other” would disappear, since holds are mostly scheduled to make up for delays.  But how can they expect that traffic delays will disappear?  Maybe if they were including dedicated bus lanes in the scope of this project, but my understanding is that’s off the table.

Assuming Rapid Bus routes are pretty reliable, they should be quite a bit faster – between 5 and 30% faster.  That 5% is for the already limited-stop West 7th line and is a much smaller improvement than most lines, implying that much of the speed increase comes from wider stop spacing.  Chicago, Central and East 7th are also outliers in this measure, all improving by around 10% (the rest of the routes improve by between 20 and 30%).   Presumably Central’s improvement is small because the 10 already uses signal preemption; East 7th and Chicago are a mystery to me.

Disclaimer about the above chart:  the % change in travel should actually be negative, but I changed it to positive to get it show on the chart.  Technically I shouldn’t use a line graph to show a nonlinear measure, but this is the best way I’ve found to get different y axis measures to show up in Excel – if you have a better idea, please let me know.

That last disclaimer should probably also apply to the above chart, too, but I’ve always wanted to use a radar chart and it seemed to fit pretty well for comparing frequency.  I was able to calculate effective frequency for the proposed corridor by simply adding the proposed rapid and local frequencies.  Assuming they will not be scheduled to bunch (i.e. to make the local bus show up as close to the rapid bus as possible), these routes will have really impressive frequency – 6 corridors will have 6 minute headways or less.  Hennepin will end up with an effective headway of 4.3 minutes, with a rapid bus every 7.5 minutes on top of locals still running a respectable every 10 minutes.  The radar chart shows the biggest improvements in the American and Broadway lines, where current 30 minute headways are halved to every 15 minutes.  In the case of Broadway it’s a bit misleading, though, since the densest part of West Broadway – the mile between Knox and Washington – will retain local bus service, although at what frequency they don’t say.

Busing for Dollars

Another factor presumably will be the cost of construction.  This will be relatively low, but how low seems to be unknown – the presentation on Metro Transit’s site suggests $1-3m per mile, but a subsequent Star Tribune story says it could be as much as $6m per mile, and today’s MinnPost article quotes a Met Council rep as estimating $2-5m per mile.  Probably inertia is causing them to estimate the cost per mile – since there are no guideway improvements under consideration, a per station estimate would be more useful.  Apparently Metro Transit is considering large and small station concepts, and presumably there would be a hierarchy of stations, with high-boardings stations getting large stations.  If that’s the case, you couldn’t just assume that routes with more stations will be more expensive, since for example the Lake St route, with a high number of transfers, will have a higher per station cost.  On the other hand, because the highest boardings tend to be downtown, maybe routes that serve the downtowns will have the highest per station cost.

Conclusion?

With uncertainty still surrounding nearly every detail about the Rapid Bus concept and corridors, maybe the only thing I’ve proven with this exercise is my obsession with transit.  However, the evidence strongly suggests that each corridor has unique factors that necessarily be boiled down to a set of numbers.  After all, with one exception these lines all currently serve tremendous numbers of riders, so where ever improvements are made it will improve a large number of rides.

Personally, I tend to favor improving network connectivity, which could boost routes like American or Snelling that (will someday) connect light rail lines.  Other considerations, such as improving underserved areas, would boost the Broadway or East 7th lines.  As long as we’re speculating, we may as well hope, and I for one hope they just build them all at once.

Numerical Afterword

As I mentioned, all the charts in this post were made with Excel, which was the ideal tool for me only because its crudeness so well matched my own ineptitude.  I’ve always enjoyed visual presentations of information, but never really had the training or talent for it.  So if anyone reading this has any constructive criticism, please don’t let your Minnesotanism hold you back from commenting.  Also, if anyone has any suggestions for better chart-creating software than Excel, please share.  Finally, I want to spread the fruit of my data entry – apologies for the mess.

 

The Case of the Disappearing Diamond

He rode a rusty cruiser in a fixed-gear kinda town

The cold case heated up fast, like spare ribs in a dirty microwave.  Sgt Lindeke pressed Full Power on this one, his twitter feed tossing out pithy clues at a mile a minute, just daring you to keep up.

I’d met the dame in the mushy month of March.  She had a date with the wrecking ball, due to be replaced by a flashy new overpass, all turn lanes and extra bridges.  The dame called herself Diamond, and she wasn’t long for this world.

It didn’t make sense – Diamond didn’t carry much traffic, and less every day.  She was relatively pedestrian friendly, and best of all for these troubled times, she was a real workhorse.  The papers ignored the story at the time, it was just another shady murder, stinking of corruption and hopeless junkies.  But who was behind it?

I’d always suspected St. Jude.  He put on a holy show, but I could always smell the greed just under his scrubbed-clean skin.  Now Lindeke pulled back the antiseptic curtain, linking to an article in the local rag about the new park-and-ride the bus company’s building next to Diamond’s old haunt:

Metro Transit wanted to put a lot at the busy interchange five years ago, but Little Canada, Maplewood, Roseville and Ramsey County Public Works denied the request, citing concern from St. Jude’s, Little Canada’s largest employer, that such a lot would compound traffic problems. Now, with a reconfigured interchange and better traffic flow, they’re on board.

These cities hold a thousand stories.  And even worse, they hold a thousand governmental bodies, all overlapping each other and rubbing shoulders and sharing drinks and sometimes exchanging words, and you know it’s only a matter of time before they’re exchanging blows.  It’s all too easy for a medical device company to worm their way in and play city against county against state, feeding their auto-addiction and pushing bikes, peds and transit to the floor.  Poor Diamond never had a chance.

St. Jude's prevented the construction of this $2m park-and-ride until the state first built a $35m interchange. Meanwhile, the sidewalk still ends 200 feet away from nearby Harambee Elementary School.

Promising Promises

A sight for sore eyes

I was greeted at the top of the stairs by a smiling face.  “Here for the Metro Transit meeting?” the first Greeter asked before directing me down to the basement of the Midtown Exchange building on a journey to a conference room in the deepest bowels of the hulking structure, guided only by my wits, a second Greeter, a week’s supply of pemmican, and a distant signboard, on which through the haze could be made out a map of the Twin Cities Metro marked with bold yellow lines: the candidate corridors for Arterial Transitways.

Upon entry to the conference room, it quickly became evident how Metro Transit could afford two Greeters for their meeting.  There were probably 10 staff members there, and in the hour or so I was at the meeting the ratio of public to staff briefly was as high as 1:1.  The effect was that the meeting was a walking, talking version of the overview pdf on Metro Transit’s website.  It took me an hour to peruse the 20 or so signboards because every 5-10 minutes a staff member would approach me to ask what I thought.

Senior Transit Planner

Which was great.  Transit planners are second only to bicycle planners as the coolest clique of the Transportation Planning & Engineering world, and I gotta say transit planners are more interesting in the hippie-neighbor-who-sleeps-on-his-porch sort of way.  Also there were some staff from SRF, the consultants on the project, who, like most transportation consultants, feature a massive highway project on their home page.  They were nice.

Back to the signboards – in addition to about 10 mostly drawn from the overview pdf, there were 11 that summarized each of the proposed rapid bus services, including proposed frequencies and station locations.  It wasn’t really the right atmosphere for whipping out a camera or even a notebook, so I’m not going to try to dig specifics out of my funhouse mirror of a memory.  However, I’m not afraid to list a few general observations:

  • All corridors are proposed to be overlaid on local bus service (except for American Blvd), but these will not be 50s series routes – they will be frequent and all-day.
  • Stations were a bit more closely spaced than I expected – they averaged 2 stations per mile, but in many neighborhoods they were closer to every 1/4 mile, and Downtown they retained the existing stop pattern I think.
  • On most routes, the stops chosen for inclusion in the rapid bus route represented the vast majority of boardings on the route anyway.  The one example I remember specifically (as long as you don’t quote me) is the Lake St-Marshall route, which mostly had stations closer than every 1/2 mile between Uptown and Minnehaha, but the stops chosen to be upgraded represented all but 3% of boardings.

It seems as though they’re still trying to work out the details of what the stations would consist of.  Based on what the staff said, even off-board ticket machines (wonkily referred to as TVMs) could be chucked and replaced with a 2nd GoTo reader at the rear door.  They had us do a little exercise where we voted for up to five station feature to prioritize – confusingly, even shelters and benches were on the ballot.  Would they really consider not including those at a stop that met their boarding requirement?

Besides maybe the station details, it seems as though the study is basically done.  The summary on SRF’s website is in past tense, and even states that

The outcome of the study was a prioritization plan for the arterial corridors based on the outcomes of concept development, constructability assessment, and stakeholder involvement.

The overview pdf, meanwhile, says that the “Next Steps” are to prioritize routes, bringing up the question of just which stakeholders were or will be involved.  But I don’t really care as long as  the report is published in February 2012 as planned.

Check out what these other cities have done

What happens after that is anyone’s guess.  I’m hoping there will be an implementation section in the study report, but there were no details at the meeting.  My questions about funding were met with hems and haws.  We’re not talking about a stadium or anything here; I thought I heard an estimate of $10-15m per corridor (for reference, the one-mile Riverside Ave reconstruction will cost $12m) and the overview pdf implies $1-3m per mile.  My guess is that only the uniquely American talent for spending way too much on infrastructure projects could inflate that cost, considering it’s for something as simple as enhanced bus service, or, as it’s called in the rest of the world, bus service.  A wag on minnescraper has dubbed this proposal Baby BRT, but if it’s actually implemented, it will be a real coming-of-age for Metro Transit.

This chart is actually from Public Works' Results Mpls report, but it shows why Minneapolis is likely to get one of the first Rapid Bus lines

St Louis, Stop Spacing, and the Future of the 50s

Stop spacing in NW Minneapolis

Riding the bus is slow.  It is sometimes vein-bulgingly, pencil-snappingly slow.

Since I prefer riding transit, I choose where to live based on the quality of the transit service, and so a few years ago I moved to Kingfield because of the 18 line, one of the most frequent in town.  It didn’t take long for me to move away because despite the 18’s frequency, it takes forever to get anywhere – specifically it takes 27 minutes at rush hour to travel the 3.2 miles between 7th St and 38th St.  At about 7 mph, that’s not much faster than walking (well, it’s twice as fast as walking, but counting wait times and assuming typical delays, it’s usually only 10-15 minutes faster and it’s not uncommon that it’s slower).

In an effort to speed things up, St Louis is eliminating bus stops.  They predict their effort “will help keep buses on time, while saving fuel and maintenance expenses.”  Based on the blog entry, it appears their spacing standards didn’t change, they’re just enforcing them for the first time.  Here are the standards:

Local Service
Stops located at major intersections, major traffic generators, and where bus routes or rail lines cross
Stops located in high populated areas every 1/8 to 1/4 mile apart
Stops located in lower populated areas every 1/4 to 1/2 miles apart
Express Service – Limited Stop
Express routes over local service in high density areas should be located approximately 1/3 to 1/2 mile apart

It’s interesting that their policy recommends closer spacing in denser areas.  While it’s logical to include more stops to serve more people, when actual stops are on demand you risk less by allowing people to stop more often in low density areas.  In addition, there is a limit to how far people will actually walk, and as Jarrett Walker mentions in that link suburban areas tend to have less connected street networks that require even more walking.

St Louis block size map

That reminds me – this blog isn’t called Getting Around St Louis.  How does St Louis’ policy compare to Metro Transit in Minneapolis?  Well, for one, it’s hard to find any of Metro Transit’s policy documents.  You can find some information on their website, but only through the magic of google – you can’t seem to navigate to any policy information on their website and it isn’t on their site map.  I’m not sure that using a blog is the best way to publish policy, and St Louis doesn’t seem to have any more policy information on their site, but a blog is a good way to solicit comments (and they’ve flooded in on this issue) and update on the progress of a project as it happens.

A little googling reveals that Metro Transit’s stop spacing policy recommends a stop every eighth of a mile.  (Edit: Commenter Charles linked to the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan, which has this to say about stop spacing:

Recommended Bus Stop Spacing
Bus stops that are close together reduce walking distance and access to transit, but tend to increase bus travel time. This recommended spacing seeks to achieve a balance.

• 6-8 stops per mile for local service
• 1-2 stops per mile for limited stop service

An allowable exception to standards may be central business districts and major traffic generators. These guidelines are goals, not a minimum nor a maximum.

While I admire a policy that defers to real-world conditions, I have a hard time believing there is a situation that would justify a stop less than an eighth of a mile from another stop.  The only possible exception is the disaster that is Lake & Nicollet, but that situation could and should be mitigated by reconfiguring the bus routing and street designs.)

As the map linked at the top shows, many of the east-west streets are spaced every sixteenth of a mile.  Considering most routes in Minneapolis lie no further than a half-mile from the nearest parallel route, I think it’s reasonable to recommend spacing every quarter mile on most routes.  For example, if stop spacing on the 4 and the 18 were reduced to every quarter mile, the maximum someone would have to walk to a stop north of Lake St would be .37 miles.

St Louis actually seems to have larger blocks than Minneapolis, which I’m assuming is mostly a result of more urban renewal.  Larger blocks actually require closer stop spacing as the street network requires more walking.  Minneapolis, on the other hand, has a relatively intact grid network.  This will allow wider stop spacing since the grid network and small blocks shortens walks.  (Note:  I basically added this paragraph because I wanted the maps in this post.  I just screen captured them from the H+T Affordability index, which has the most user-friendly and in-depth demographic mapping I’ve seen.)

Minneapolis block size map

Stop spacing is something I’ve griped about before, and wider stop spacing shouldn’t exactly be considered state of the art.  The Citizens’ League already called for quarter-mile stop spacing on north-south streets and eighth-mile stop spacing on east-west streets… in 1956.  They exempted Downtown (then called the Loop) from their proposal, but that’s actually where Metro Transit has done the most work with stop spacing.  Metro Transit has also looked at stop spacing in their sector restructuring studies, which began around 1998 and I think has been completed in 4 of the 8 sectors.  However, their recommendation of a stop every eighth of a mile is half that of the rest of the world.  It’s time for Metro Transit to join St Louis, the 50s, and the rest of the world and start spacing bus stops every quarter mile.

Dark Age Ahead

Existing Bus Service

2300 Hour Service Reduction Scenario

Take a moment to peruse the Met Council’s plans to deal with the $109m cut the legislature passed.  It includes:

  • 25-50 cent fare increase
  • resulting in 2.5-6.8m riders lost
  • 25% reduction in bus service
  • resulting in another 8-10m riders lost
  • at least 200 fewer buses at peak hour
  • 71 routes would be eliminated on one or more days of the week
  • “the Hi-Frequency Network… would probably be reduced to the point at which it almost becomes irrelevant as a network” (about 15:30 on this video)

These cuts are nothing less than an attack on our way of life.  It is important to let the legislators who voted for them know that if they go through, they will be answered in kind.

Red routes will be eliminated

Gotta go to work, gotta have a job

The series of tubes spat out a couple of reports this week about employment and access to transit.  Both of them contain useful specifics about Twin Cities employment patterns, but seem to disagree whether our region is keeping up with other regions in terms of accessing jobs through transit.

The first report was put out by the Center for Transit Oriented Development, which not long ago produced a practical guide to increasing walkability in certain Twin Cities neighborhoods.  Their new white paper has the simple title “Transit-Oriented Development and Employment” and may be most useful as a guide to research detailing the relationship between transit and employment geography for those of us who don’t have the time or money to read the scholarly journals.  The paper also contains a brief case study of 3 metros:  Phoenix, Atlanta and the Twin Cities.

Brookings begs to differ

As this graphic shows, Twin Citians on transit can access a pretty high number of jobs relative to some other American cities.  This even though CTOD rates our transit system as medium, despite the fact that it will be barely longer than Phoenix’s 20 mile “small” system even after Central is finished, at which point its 24 miles will be half the 49 miles of Atlanta’s MARTA, also rated “medium.”  They apparently are counting the 12 Northstar trains a day towards our total, even though they provide less than 1% of the system’s total weekday trips (contrast with Hiawatha, which provides 11%).

But the map shows that the Twin Cities’ soon-to-be light rail system will provide access to 19.6% of the region’s jobs.  While that seems low, it’s higher than Atlanta’s 13% of jobs accessible by MARTA, and comparable to the share of jobs accessible by LA’s patchwork of higher-capacity transit systems.  And it’s a good sign considering Hiawatha and Central barely reach outside of the central cities, and even miss employment clusters inside the central cities.

Anyway, this paper proves that transit advocates have discovered the suburbs, only 20 years after Edge City.  Having grown up in the Southdale area, I can say it’s none too soon.  They don’t go into too much detail, but the clusters CTOD identifies aren’t too different from those that Orfield and Luce identified in Region.  Orfield and Luce described their methodology thusly:

Employment centers were defined as contiguous TAZ’s with greater than average numbers of jobs per square mile and total employment exceeding 1,800 jobs.  Large job agglomerations like those in the centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul were divided into multiple employment centers based on job densities in different parts of the larger clusters.

The cool thing about these employment centers is that they mostly cling to highways, a.k.a available right-of-way.  Of course, that springs out of the shitty thing about them, that they sprawled in response to auto-dependence, as a result of constraints on growth by zoning, and without the guidance of regional planning.  But it’s possible that some day, cooler heads will conquer the capitol, and transit may be expanded.  If that ever happens, it would be a good idea follow the advice of the CTOD and aim for suburban job centers.

Which brings us to the other report, from Brookings, which maintains that transit access to jobs in the Twin Cities is average for the USA.  This report has taken a beating in the blogosphere, which I think is not surprising, considering the report looks at transit a little differently than the average transit rider probably looks at it.  That’s because it’s instead supposed to represent how the average American looks at transit, basically from the viewpoint, “how am I going to get to work?”

According to Brookings’ ranking, the Twin Cities has the 39th best transit access to jobs in the nation.  That might surprise some politicians, who don’t care anyway, but seems about right to me.  It’s when I start looking at the composite rankings that up becomes down for me.  First off, Brookings claims that 67% of working-age residents are near a transit stop.  67%?  How can that be when most bus lines don’t extend outside Minneapolis and St Paul?  Well, the fine print reveals that Brookings looked at bus routes that operate during rush hour, when commuter buses extend the web of transit lines by many times their midday size.

The rush hour focus also explains the next Wonderland metric, median waiting time, which is 11.6 minutes for the Twin Cities, 1.5 minutes more than the national average.  This actually also reflects the size of the commuter bus net in Minneapolis-St Paul – if commuter buses were excluded, the median wait would probably actually be shorter at peak, when several routes have 5-7 minute headways.

The commuter bus focus also explains the dismal but average showing of the Twin Cities in the last metric: percent of jobs that can be reached by transit in 90 minutes.  Because our bus system focuses on the downtowns, and so many commuter buses travel long distances to get there, but skip over jobs that might be along their route, it makes sense that so few jobs are reachable.  So while cities with smaller transit systems may rate the same in this metric, the Twin Cities’ comparatively larger bus system does no better because it is so narrowly focused.  (As a Downtown resident, I ain’t complaining.)

The Brookings reportadd  an economic layer to this already complex cake by considering the income level of the people with access to transit as well as the wage level of the jobs accessible by transit.  I wonder then why they didn’t find a way to factor in the non-peak transit coverage crucial to non-9 to 5ers.  Transit access to jobs is hugely important, and suburban job centers may be the next big transit growth market, but non-peak travel seems more important to transit’s core customers and is also less expensive to provide.

At least it’s something to think about while waiting for the bus.

Huh?

Office Drones on Transit

A slice of life, for some

From the Atlantic (some kind of blog on paper I guess) a reminder that the decision to ride transit can be cultural.  This article focuses on an office park 37 miles from San Francisco that has a (presumably exceptional) 33% transit commute rate.  While the article is missing some key details, for example how this commute rate compares to other exurban office parks in the Bay Area, it contains some choice quotes:

…once riders begin leaving their cars at home they go through a stressful period of two weeks or so where they feel that they’ve lost the control they had in the car. But within three weeks they notice their overall stress levels are lower. “Transit requires that you go at a different pace. You have to wait. If there were roses, we’d smell them,” she says, “There’s not much of that in our lives.” She says HR people have called her saying some of their meaner workers have become pleasant people after switching to transit.

If we were playing a word association game, the first word I would think of after reading the first sentence is “addiction.”

The transit-oriented office park, Bishop Ranch, is huge, with 30,000 employees on hundreds of acres.  It is big enough that it basically has its own TMO, named Marci.  Marci does things like guilt tripping people about how dangerous and bad for the environment driving is.  Bishop Ranch has the same number of employees as an employment cluster that covers the Opus area of Minnetonka and the Golden Triangle area of Eden Prairie known as the Eden Prairie/Hwy 169 employment cluster.  “Cluster” is a relative term – Eden Prairie/Hwy 169 is about twice the area of Bishop Ranch.  It is covered by a TMO, but shares it with 5 cities in the southwest metro.  There are only 3 other TMOs in the metro area.  If it’s the Marcis that make the difference, the Twin Cities need to get some more Marcis.

While urban planners tend to see bus ridership as a design issue, Marci sees it as a cultural endeavor.

Hey dude

But it’s a design issue, too, of course.  I already mentioned the relative density of Bishop Ranch, but it also has a surprisingly rigid grid form.  This is presumably a legacy of its master plan, while in contrast most office parks are built pretty piecemeal.  Opus was also master planned, but is much more curvilinear.  I can only speculate about how walkable each area is, but I’ve found that one of the worst things about walking in the suburbs is that all the inconsistencies of the curved streets make every turn a risk, since you never know if you’ll turn down a dead end.  Grid patterns also tend to be easier to serve with transit, although Bishop Ranch doesn’t seem to have taken advantage.

Golden fleece

Transit, however, seems to be the key to understanding the high transit mode share in Bishop Ranch, but it is the level of investment rather than the design.  The Bay Area has the advantage of being served by a regional transit system, making it possible to generally get from anywhere to anywhere within the metro area.  The Twin Cities, on the other hand, has only the rudiments of a regional system, comprised of commuter buses with a radial focus on Downtown Minneapolis.  Opus is served by the 12 bus, making it accessible by transit to those who live in a corridor of the southwest metro.  Everyone else will have to catch a commuter bus downtown and then wait to transfer to 12 and endure the 45-minute local ride to Minnetonka.  On top of that, the 12 only goes to Opus as a rush hour extension, and actually has fewer runs than the 96X bus, one of several that serve Bishop Ranch.

Until the Twin Cities gets serious about a regional transit system, whether rail or freeway BRT, it is unlikely that any suburban office parks will have transit mode share anywhere near that of Bishop Ranch.  No offense to the Atlantic or Marci, but the success of transit in Bishop Ranch seems to have less to do with culture and more to do with, as always, money.

Another Nicollet Mall

A deep lonely feeling can come from spending weeks on a project that will never amount to anything.  So it is with the East-West Transit Spine Plan.  Today I finally sent my comments in, hopefully driving a nail into the coffin of my obsession with this topic.  Here is the email I sent to Anna Flintoft:

From: Alex Bauman
Subject: comments on East-West Transit Spine Plan
To: Anna.Flintoft
Cc: Cam.Gordon
Date: Tuesday, December 28, 2010, 1:48 PM

Anna,

Please find below my comments for the East-West Transit Spine Plan:

As a daily transit rider, I welcome the improvements proposed in the East-West Transit Spine Plan.  But all are improvements that could be made without the plan:

  • Metro Transit has the authority to make route changes without a plan, but consolidation of routes has already been called for in the Downtown Action Plan.
  • Curb extensions are already called for by the Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks, which recommend recommends sidewalks 5 to 9 feet wider than currently exist on 7th and 8th Streets.
  • Metro Transit policy recommends the installation of a shelter at stops with a minimum of 40 daily boardings, which means, as the plan notes, that every stop on 7th and 8th should have a shelter today.  The plan does not explain why that has not happened.
  • Real-time displays are a standard feature of 21st-century transit systems, but I’m not aware of a Metro Transit policy for their installation.  A policy should be developed based either on average daily boardings or junctions of Primary Transit Network routes, and certainly any policy that could be imagined would call for RTDs at the major stops along 7th and 8th Sts.

The proposal to split stops at 7th and Nicollet does not have an existing plan that supports it, but neither will it be welcomed by transit riders.  Splitting the stops will reduce the effective frequency of the spine and make it more confusing, contrary to the stated advantages of consolidating service into spines.  It would benefit the plan to go back to the drawing board on ideas for this stop.

Minneapolis has had a successful example of a transit spine operating for 40 years: the Nicollet Mall.  A transit mall would better serve the goals of the East-West Transit Spine Plan, but it was not even studied. A transit mall would be a very visible connection between Target Field and Elliot Park, and would attract investment to the parking lot fields of East Downtown (8th Street in particular shows promise in this role).  The impact on automobile traffic will be negligible if 8th or 9th Sts are selected because neither street connects to a major commuter route (Hiawatha represents a small fraction of downtown’s car commuter traffic, and has the best potential of any commuter route for converting car commuters to transit commuters).  Since the beneficial proposals in the East-West Transit Spine Plan can be implemented immediately, the plan should not be approved until a transit mall can be studied as an alternative.

Thanks,

Alex Bauman

I know that I should be grateful for the bones thrown to transit riders in the plan – the shelters, RTDs and curb extensions will make it less of a hassle, or even pleasurable, to wait for the bus – but I just couldn’t get past the “this is it?” feeling.  Most people, I think, can deal with most bus stops.  The stops on the E-W transit spine are some of the worst in the system, but if it’s sunny, who cares?  And if it’s cold, does a shelter really help that much?

But the reason most people don’t take the bus, I think, isn’t because it’s uncomfortable, it’s because the bus is too slow.  And the E-W Transit Spine Plan does nothing about that.  Check out this graphic from the Downtown Transit Circulation Report:

The proposals in the E-W Transit Spine Plan are about the impact of transit on other users of downtown, not the service itself.  Of the eight recommendations, only one deals with service improvements, and that’s a vague goal to increase Go-To card use.  Three of the recommendations have nothing to do with transit service at all, including one that just aims to make it easier to drive downtown!

The Downtown Transit Circulation Report, which led to the construction of the dual bus lanes on Marquette and 2nd, is explicit about what it takes to speed transit service: dedicated lanes.   It includes this illuminating chart:

Transit Lane Type  

 

Maximum Capacity 

(buses/hr)

 

Exposure to Auto 

Congestion

 

Exposure to Bus-Bus 

Interference

Mixed flow with autos 60 High Moderate
Single-width lane 

(no passing capability)

70 None High
With-flow lane 100 Moderate Moderate
Double-width lane 180 None None

There are currently 105 buses running on the E-W transit spine every PM peak hour, at least 45 of which are the local buses that will be consolidated onto 7th and 8th Streets according to the E-W transit spine plan.  The Downtown Transit Circulation Report points out that “there will be an eventual need for two lanes” dedicated to buses in each direction.  So why does the E-W Transit Spine Plan propose that transit continue operating in mixed-flow?

That is why I cling so stubbornly to the idea of a transit mall on the E-W spine – some kind of dedicated lane is necessary for transit to function here.  When I asked Anna Flintoft about why they had not studied a transit mall, she contradicted her own report, saying “bus volumes don’t necessitate bus only lanes in the E-W corridor.”  But her answer dwelt on the impact of a transit mall on cars:

“Car traffic on 7th and 8th Streets is an important modal consideration.  These are both busy downtown streets, and vehicle traffic needs to be accommodated.  7th and 8th streets provide important access to streets outside of downtown, such as Hiawatha Avenue , 7th Street N , and I-94 to the east ( 7th Street is the main route from the 5th Street I-94 off-ramp now that we have LRT on 5th Street ).  On both streets, there are many properties that require vehicular access to off-street parking and curbside uses such as valet zones, taxi stands, loading zones, etc.

“As we design streets that support increased walking, biking, and transit use, automobile traffic will continue to be an important modal consideration.”

But she skirts the truth here too.  There is no denying that 7th and 10th Sts provide important connections to streets and highways outside of downtown.  But 8th and 9th Sts do not connect to streets outside of downtown.  Here is a snapshot of the western termini of 8th and 9th:

Despite the giant right turn access lane (which may have been removed as part of the Hennepin-1st two-way project), it is actually not easy to drive from the main segment of 9th St to the confusing remnant at the top-left of this image because you have to turn left across 1st Ave anyway.  You might as well turn at Hennepin or Marquette.  Of course, nothing is going through from 7th St to 8th St – there is a one-way in the wrong direction.  At the east end, too,  9th Street dead-ends at Elliott Park.

Ok, I fudged a little when I said that 8th and 9th do not connect to streets outside of downtown – there is a ramp from 8th Street to Hiawatha Ave.  But Hiawatha is probably one of the least important streets for people who drive downtown.  It is, however, one of the most important routes for people who work downtown and take transit.  If the city wants to increase transit’s modal share of downtown commuters, Hiawatha is an ideal place to start.

My point is that 8th and 9th Sts are not important through-streets for cars downtown, except to Hiawatha, where people should be taking the train anyway.

So how about parking?  There is a smattering of on-street parking, but with tens of thousands of off-street spaces downtown, I will not listen to arguments for keeping it.  Other curbside uses may actually benefit from a transit mall – loading can still be accommodated and trucks will face less congestion without cars on the street.  Taxis will also benefit by the increased pedestrian activity attracted by the removal of automobiles.  Valets are really not very common, and all that I’ve seen can be moved around the corner to a street that allows cars (see layout 3 below).

The benefits to a transit mall really are stellar.  Besides greatly improved bus service, many cyclists prefer dealing with only the occasional bus to dodging cars left and right.  Pedestrians would benefit tremendously – my layouts below show the sidewalks at 14.5′ at their narrowest, and often around 20.  I have yet to meet a pedestrian who doesn’t prefer a quiet, car-free street to a smoggy arterial.

But the real benefit may be the boost to development that a transit mall could provide.  There is no doubt that the construction of the Loring Greenway spurred tens of millions of dollars in investment.  Many developers will believe that the same success could be found in East Downtown.  Nicollet Mall itself is another example.  It is easily Minneapolis’ densest street, and most of it was built after the restriction of cars.

Finally, a transit mall would be an ideal connection of disparate downtown neighborhoods – it would mentally and physically connect Target Field to Elliott Park (hopefully to the developers that are salivating over the ballpark area’s possibilities).

If you’re still reading, you probably agree with me about the viability of a transit mall, so let me get started on my conceptual layouts.  I chose 8th Street because it is a more direct route, it goes through to 11th Ave, and it’s more central to the core.  9th Street might work too – but we’ll never know because it wasn’t included in the study.  First an overview scratched out in Paint:

The yellow line here is the part where personal cars would be restricted.  HCMC’s front door is on the block east of Park, and the 5, 9 and 19 turn off by then anyway, so it is less justifiable to be transit-only there.  I do, however, think that it makes sense to include pedestrian improvements from Target Field through to 11th, and brand the whole route accordingly.  The large T is the existing bus garage, which would be used by eastbound buses.  The little Ts are stops in my plan – a bit fewer than currently exist, which should help service as well.  The Ps are driveways to parking facilities, the Ls are loading zones, and the Hs are hotels (kind of like Monopoly but boringer).

And here are the layouts, block by block (in each layout, the east- and westbound bus lanes are 13′ each)

At 60′, this is the narrowest segment, so to maximize sidewalk space I moved the EB stop to the other side of Hennepin (EB buses would have stopped at Ramp A just west of here anyway).  That leaves 17′ on each side for sidewalks, a big improvement over the existing 11′.

The EB stop is on the left here because the buses should stop as close to Hennepin as possible.  As a result, WB buses may have to be restricted from using the passing lane here.  Cars in the ramp will have to cross to La Salle – that will probably mean that they’ll need a signal, but I hope not.

The hotel valet is moved around the corner – La Salle doesn’t need two northbound lanes because cars can no longer access 8th.  The hotel currently has an arcade to its door.

East of Nicollet, 8th St widens to 80′ and there is finally some breathing room for wide sidewalks.  I think it is reasonable to remove the garage ramp here because it shadows a busy sidewalk, leading to perceptions of danger and general unpleasantness.  In addition, there are two access driveways to this garage on Marquette.

There is no room for an access lane for this ramp – maybe they could use the bus lanes (it’s a small garage) but maybe they’ll have to do some serious remodeling.  Frankly, the Baker Center could use it.  I made the passing lanes 11′ but they really could be 10′.

The ramp on this block could probably be reconfigured to open onto 3rd Ave, but I put the lane here to be conservative.

There is no configuring the ramp access here – it is an underground ramp smack in the middle of the block.  The loading dock could be reconfigured to open on 4th pretty easily, but I’m sure they’ll want the city to pay.  The access lane solves that problem.  By the way, the access lanes on this block and the preceding would be one-way facing each other.

This may be the weirdest block yet.  The Centre Village ramp requires an access lane, but boarding volumes this far east make it not a huge deal to give up a passing lane.

Here we finally see what we’ve been missing by providing all those access lanes for garages:  a planted center median would give this block a park-like feeling.  Anyway that’s what we would be seeing if I wasn’t using Excel and Paint to do these layouts.  By the way, shallow curbs would allow fire trucks to get through this block, although sometimes I’d rather burn up than live in a world where we let the obesity of emergency vehicles dictate the width of our streets.

The 14.5′ sidewalks on this block are anemic compared to the rest, but still wider than the existing sidewalks.

East of Park, there could be two 11′ mixed-traffic lanes in each direction, with 15′ sidewalks.  Here are the numbers, if you’re that type:

Segment Hennepin to 1st Nicollet to Hennepin Stop E of Hennepin Stop W of Nicollet Stop E of Nicollet 4th to Nicollet Stop btw Marq & 2nd Ramp btw 2nd & 3rd Stop E of 4th Stop W of 5th Park to 4th Stop btw Portland & Park E of Park
Sidewalk 17 22.5 17.5 17.5 21.5 20 16 20 19.5 17.5 19 14.5 15.5
Driveway 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 12 0 12 0 0 0
Median 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 2 0 0 0
WB lane 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 11
WB pass 0 0 10 0 11 0 11 0 10 0 0 10 11
Center median 0 0 0 0 0 14 0 0 0 0 11 0
EB pass 0 0 0 10 0 0 11 0 0 0 0 10 11
Waiting median 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
EB lane 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 11
Sidewalk 17 22.5 17.5 17.5 21.5 20 16 20 19.5 17.5 19 14.5 15.5
Total 60 71 71 71 80 80 80 80 75 75 75 75 75

I think it could work, and I did this in my spare time.  Imagine what it could be if there was an engineer working full time on it.  Too bad it will never happen….

Spinal tap

The last decade has been 10 years of fat for transit riders in Minneapolis, with the opening of two new fixed-guideway lines and significant improvements in the operation of buses on Nicollet, Marquette and 2nd Aves downtown.  Now a new Draft Plan for an East-West Transit Spine in Downtown Minneapolis signals a return to the old familiar lean years of little investment or prioritization of transit.

The idea of an East-West Transit Spine had a grotesque name but a promise of a huge improvement when it was first included in the Downtown Action Plan of 2007.   While only roughly sketched out at that time, consolidating service onto one main route had the goal of “organizing service delivery and making the transit network easier to
understand and use,”  although the plan also acknowledges that it “frees other streets for different modes of transportation that also need accommodation.”

Though rough, the Downtown Action Plan does describe the alternates for an East-West spine, quoted here from the new report:

6th and 7th Street one-way pair
7th and 8th Street one-way pair
8th and 9th Street one-way pair
9th and 10th Street one-way pair
4th Street contraflow lane
6th Street contraflow lane
7th Street contraflow lane
8th Street contraflow lane
9th Street contraflow lane
Two-way operation on 8th Street

Study on the E-W Transit Spine got underway soon after the Downtown Action Plan was approved, and apparently the first step was to ask business leaders what they thought of the plan.  Specifically, the Downtown Council, which not long ago suggested destroying the most successful pedestrian street in the state, appears to have been consulted.  Is anyone surprised that they immediately vetoed the option that would be most useful for transit riders, the two-way operation on 8th St?

[Update:  Anna Flintoft clarified that the comments that nixed the 8th Street option were received as feedback to the Downtown Action Plan, not as a special consultation during the development of the E-W Transit Spine Plan.  I regret the error, but still think it’s a bit fishy.]

A traffic analysis had been completed showing that “acceptable levels of service could be achieved at most intersections on all streets” even with two lanes in each direction on 8th.  Apparently business leaders also think they are transportation engineers and planners (maybe I do have something in common with them) as the E-W Transit Spine Draft Plan describes them as “skeptical about the ability to divert enough traffic for 8th Street to operate acceptably as a two-way street.”

So what survived the line-item veto of this small, unrepresentative group of business owners?  The plan calls for two main changes:

  • service the 14 and the 9 will be moved to 7th and 8th street, joining the 5, 19, 22 and 39
  • infrastructure bump-outs will extend the undersized sidewalks at the stops at Nicollet and Hennepin, and shelters will be added and modernized

Both the draft plan and Anna Flintoft’s presentation to the 11/30/10 Transportation & Public Works committee describe in detail the lack of current facilities (which pale in comparison to other downtown transit spines, the draft plan notes) and the significant ridership along the spine.  This picture from Flintoft’s presentation shows a typical scene at 7th & Nicollet, where 14,500 cars per day spread out over 35 feet and three lanes while 3,800 people a day wait for a bus and bump elbows with thousands of pedestrians on a measly 15 feet of sidewalk:

The plan includes some killer charts, a rare glimpse into closely-guarded Metro Transit statistics, including this one showing that 7th & Nicollet is the most heavily used bus stop in the region:


(btw a later post here will argue for a Transit Center at Lake & Nicollet, which has 5000 daily boardings if you consolidate the currently scattered stops)

The plan proposes a 6′ curb extension at the stop, increasing the width to 21′.  However, to cope with the volume of buses, the plan proposes a split stop, with half the buses boarding on one side of Nicollet and the other half boarding on the other side.  This will cut the effective frequency of buses here, most of which travel in the same general direction for around a mile (including, crucially, past Target Field and through the job-rich North Loop).

Curb extensions are proposed at 5 corners total, all at Hennepin or Nicollet.  Other infrastructure improvements in the plan include some 14 new or improved shelters (all with heat and light), and 9 real-time display (RTD) signs – all of the type you will find at any reasonably busy bus stop in even the smallest Western European towns.   As usual, streetscape improvements such as bike racks and trees are called for, “if funding can be found.”  Unfortunately no part of this project is funded, although Flintoft mentions that curb extensions could be constructed as part of the 35w Detour Route Rehab projects.

To recap:  After 3 years of study, Public Works and Metro Transit have written 40 pages recommending common-sense route changes and basic modernization of shelters.  The plan might be implemented someday when a giant bag of money falls from the sky and all the road projects are done.  People catching the bus on the Streets downtown may soon wait in a different spot, but they’ll still be waiting in the wind and snow.

Red Star vs. Northstar

Is it just me or is the Strib being a little hard on the Northstar line?  The paper’s second article in two months on the commuter rail line again screams the low ridership numbers from the headline.  What is doesn’t mention is how cheap the train was to build, a fact that gives it time to build the ridership that will pay for it.

Using the Transport Politic’s sortable chart of major transit projects in the last decade, Northstar comes out fifth cheapest per mile to build, at $7 million per mile.  This isn’t just cheap compared with other “boondoggle” transit projects – consider that I-394 cost $46 million per mile in 1984-1993 unadjusted dollars ($67m per mile adjusted for inflation using 1993 as start year).  Not surprisingly, when you look at the numbers, transit comes out to be very conservative.

Of course, the operating cost per rider is the number that matters, and that is still tough to measure, considering all the free rides that have been given for the first year to drum up interest.  I would love to know the cost per trip for various roads – a project for another day.