When I think of a transit line that is referred to as the red line I think of major subway systems such as in Los Angeles or in Washington DC where the red line is a major trunk line, or one of the several light rail systems that have red lines. But in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region the Red Line is actually a bus line that runs from the Mall of America terminus of the Blue light rail line to the side of major road transit center in Apple Valley in the deep suburbs of Minneapolis – St. Paul.
The Red Line began service June 22, 2013 with 15 minute service that was designed to provide close to across the platform connections from the Blue line, however bus service has now been cut back to every 20 minutes. There are currently 5 stations on the route with two infill stations planned and a proposed extension to the city of Lakeview that will add 5 more stations and increase the route mileage from 11 to 16 miles. The service is part of the Metro network that serves the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul region. It is operated by Minnesota Valley Transit Authority which operates transit service in Dakota County that most of the route traverses through.
Planning for this project started in the late 1990’s with a study on both light rail and bus options. Once again Bus Rapid Transit was promoted as “just like light rail” but with lower upfront cost. Dakota County officials were banking on the BRT to bring the same type of development that a light rail line would have brought. The route was estimated to carry 975 passengers per day at the opening of the route and by 2017 be carrying 1600 people. While METRO transit in February was bragging about its increased ridership on its light rail trains and on its new Route A, yet there was no mention of the Red Line beyond that fact that ridership decreased on most of the agencies transit routes. To date the Red Line continues to carry less than a 1000 people per day with an average of 8 people per trip which even the smallest transit systems would consider very week ridership.
So why is this line carrying so few people? Just look at one of its stops that is just north of 140th Street West (on a side note Google shows the bus stop on the southbound side closer to the intersection that it actually is). If you will notice there is not direct pedestrian access between the two sides of the street from the bus stops. You have to walk down to the intersection walk across Cedar Avenue and back up to the bus stop. While this is only a 0.3 mile walk, it involves crossing an extremely busy and fast road across multiple lanes and multiple turn lanes. I will give the traffic engineers credit in that they did add pedestrian refuges between the two sides of the highway but who would want to be stuck in the middle of that road with the fast moving cars on each side?
If you live on the east side of the street you’re in luck because you can access the cul-de-sac directly from the bus stop. If you live on the west side of the street you’re not as fortunate as there is no direct access from the bus stop to housing located right on the other side of the sidewalk (although you could cut through some of the forest to the south of the complex).
If you will zoom out from the image you will see the entire area is made up of the worst of suburban cul-de-sac development. The developments are built to limit connectivity and force the use of an automobile since there is little practical way to use transit. To the south of 140th Street West and west of Cedar Avenue there is assisted living apartments that limit the residences freedom as there is virtually nothing within walking distance and thereby restrict residences to be at the mercy of the complexes shuttle busses or the Minnesota Valley Transit bus service that provides only limited service.
The situation is better at the Apple Valley Transit Center as there is a pedestrian bridge across the highway for the use of transit customers and there is multi-family housing that is within an easy walking distance of the center. However, most of the area is surrounded by suburban retail that gives only lip service to walkability (there is a connection to the sidewalk but who would want to walk down the sidewalk with it sits next to a high speed road).
What is difficult to decide is that if the Apple Valley Transit Center is a true transit center or more of a glorified park n’ ride lot. While I can only comment for the time I observed the center which was during a morning rush hour, probably 99% of the passengers boarding buses at the transit center parked in the parking lot/garage and then boarded the express bus to downtown Minneapolis. One of the local Minnesota Valley Transit buses which used a cutaway bus boarded one passenger and a total of 4 passengers boarded the two Red Line buses that departed while I was observing the station.
After having a chance to ride the Red Line, explore its station areas, and look at the numbers, here are the problems I see with the line:
1. The built environment is not conducive to a high frequency bus line that requires a transfer to reach your final destination if your destination is not the Mall of America.
2. Not only does it require a transfer at the Mall of America but going back to the problem of the built environment, since most people have to or will drive to get to the transit line, a second vehicle transfer discourages ridership.
3. Because of numbers 1 & 2, the route is not attracting choice riders. If you are going to downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul you are not going to use the Red Line just to make another transfer to the Blue Line and instead will take the direct bus.
4. Because the area is largely built out in an automobile centric environment, there is little that the built environment is going to change in the next few decades. While change may come it will take decades for it to happen to this area.
5. From my observations while admittedly during a short period of time, a majority of the riders on the Red Line are those that have to take it.
6. The Red Line uses a separate brand of buses from the rest of the MTVA and METRO itself which leads to increased cost from maintaining a separate parts supply. METRO on its ARLT routes (Arterial Bus Rapid Transit) uses Gillig Advantage BRT’s a common bus in the METRO fleet.
The question is, had the Blue Line been extended from the Mall of America to the Apple Valley Transit center instead of building a separate and cheap BRT line, what would have changed to make the investment worthwhile?
1. First of all, the built environment would still be the built environment. Would have the presence of a light rail line encourage some of the existing land use to change more quickly? Possible but only if the government agencies would have encouraged it to happen although it would more likely to happen with a light rail line.
2. With a one seat ride from the Apple Valley Transit Center to downtown, more choice riders would make the decision to ride the Blue Line since they would not have to make a second transfer (after the one from their car to transit).
3. Finally, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority would have been able to reduce service to downtown Minneapolis and reallocate those resources to provide better service to places such as St. Paul, and possibly other major employment areas that are not directly accessible to the light rail line.
In addition an extension of the line to the community of Lakeview is now underway.
It will appear that the Lakeview extension would do little to change the performance of the Red Line. Looking at the route from the Apple Valley Transit Center down to Lakeview a majority of the route will travel past agricultural land although some of that agricultural land is now being turned into housing. However the housing developments are just as hostile to transit as is the developments along the existing Red Line. In addition there is very little existing transit service to connect with the Red Line.
It also appears that many of the city council members are hostile to transit. One of the them stated that he is against transit oriented development because it dictates to developers what can be built using the tired statement that “the free market should determine what gets built” but turning a blind eye to the fact that since Transit Oriented Development is largely illegal by most zoning codes, you are effectively eliminating a true free market.
In addition the line will end at an industrial park on the southeast side of Lakeview. While the industrial park is a major source of employment one of the problems of serving industrial parks with transit is the extreme peaks and valleys of the ridership. There are big peaks when people are going to work at the parks or leaving them but otherwise there is virtually no ridership. That is why industrial parks should not be a destination with transit but instead be something that is served through on the way to more important destinations with consistent ridership. The route will not serve the heart of Lakeview or its neglected and ignored downtown area or the more populated areas near what is left of the downtown.
It appears that the extension of the Red Line will do little to help improve the routes rather lack luster ridership. The question then arises is there anything that can be done to fix the Red Line and make it a better bus line?
One suggestion that has been proposed is to extend the line from the Mall of America into downtown Minneapolis. Metro Transit is currently doing design work on route D which would travel from the Mall of America through downtown Minneapolis to the Brooklyn Transit Center on the north side of Minneapolis. On the one hand this will give customers a one seat ride from downtown and places in between it would also create a route serving two different markets one so called “BRT” and the other “aBRT”. While neither is truly BRT and the nature of the two sections would be totally different. The existing Red Line is largely suburban with the extension rural, while the section north of the Mall of America being largely suburban & urban. In addition with the length of the route it would be easy for buses to get off schedule and one major incident along the route could cause major chaos.
Another option would be to extend the route to downtown St. Paul via Minnesota Highway 5/7th Street West. This would have the benefit of not duplicating the Blue Line and provide improved service from the Mall of America to downtown St. Paul replacing route 54. However, alternating route 54’s extend the beyond downtown St. Paul to the Maplewood Mall Transit Center so it would need to be determined if you were to continue running route 54 from downtown St. Paul to the Maplewood Mall, increase service to Maplewood Mall, or just short line alternating buses as it is presently done. The major downfall of this suggesting is once again the mismatch between the service on the Red Line and route 54 and the nature of the two routes similar to what was discussed with Route D to downtown Minneapolis.
One final solution would be to turn the route over the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority. After all, they currently operate the route and the route is primarily in their service area. The route does not directly duplicate their existing bus service which is concentrated on commuter routes to the downtown areas and the University of Minnesota and local feeder routes that serve the most transit dependent of their service area.
The problem is that there is just no clear cut solution to the issues facing the Red Line. Because it was not built as an extension of the Blue Line it has to stand on its own as a transit line traveling through low density and poorly connected suburbs and it has to compete against other transit services and the automobile.
The question is what lessons can be learned from the performance of the Red Line that can be applied when planning for any type of transit line? Here are some takeaways to consider and questions that should be asked when designing a project such as this:
1. What is the purpose of the line?
2. What is the market for the line?
3. Is this line going to compete against existing services?
4. What will the lines niche and selling position be?
5. Is this line going to be an improvement over the existing service?
6. Why would a customer use this service instead of existing service?
7. Will the service require capital expenditures that will increase maintenance costs? (I.e. buses exclusive to the route that will require a special parts supply).
8. Does it make sense to create an entirely new service or will an extension of an existing service make more sense?
9. How will customers access the line and does the built environment enable or hinder passengers using the line?
The Red Line is a perfect example of a so-called BRT that was put in to be “just like light rail” but has failed to live up to the hype, and whether its new extension will have any effect on its performance is questionable at best. The line was designed on the cheap and its shows and so does its performance.