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More metro area commuters riding the bus

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Express buses
Ridership on Metro Transit's buses is up again, mainly because the economy is improving.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Here's another sliver of evidence the economy is improving. Bus ridership in the Twin Cities is rising again. Metro Transit officials say the economy, more than any other factor -- more than climate change, more than the Gulf oil spill -- affects ridership numbers. 

Even so, by a very wide margin Americans -- including Twin Cities residents -- continue to choose cars over buses for their trips around town.  

Americans collectively make billions of trips a year -- to work, shopping, to the corner store. But the number of trips made via mass transit is still a very small piece of the pie -- just 2 percent, according to some national research. 

On a given workday in the Twin Cities, fewer than 10 percent of commuter trips are by transit, according to the Metropolitan Council.

But the selective use of trip statistics irks Twin Cities Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons. Gibbons says a more meaningful measure is to look at how many people ride buses at critical times -- at rush hour, for example.

"If you believe in public transportation as a congestion management tool, you're really not entirely interested in that two-block trip to pick up a gallon of milk. You're interested in the downtown work commute trip from home to jobs," said Gibbons.  

Even a lay person can figure out if all the people riding on rush-hour express busesetween downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis were driving their cars, congestion would be much worse.

About 40 percent of the people who work in downtown Minneapolis arrive by bus or rail. In St. Paul, it's about 17 percent.

Another hot spot is the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where thousands of students, staff and faculty use the bus.

Metro Transit ridership is close to its highest point in 25 years. Still, it's a long way from ridership peaks during and just after World War II.

Cheap gas and expanding incomes spurred more people to buy cars, and transit ridership began its decline after that time.

Metro Transit says its surveys show lots of people want to ride the bus. But there aren't any bus routes close to them, or bus trips take too long, or buses don't run often enough. The excuses, of course, are often true.

Laura Graves describes as "fantastic" the bus service from Edina to downtown Minneapolis, when she worked there. 

Now she lives in Minnetonka with a job way across town in Woodbury, a commute that is a transit desert.

"I investigated the bus option and there's nothing, there is absolutely nothing. There wasn't a way to make it work," said Graves.

So, every workday she endures a 45-60 minute commute each way.

Graves said she's not in  a position right now to consider moving to be closer to her workplace. 

Laura's situation mirrors a widespread commuter pattern -- where people live in one suburb and work in another -- but very often, transit service is not available. Supplying bus service for all of them would not be cheap. 

But commuter Barbara Rogers thinks we should spend the money. Rogers lives in Fridley and drives alone by car -- sometimes she bikes -- to her job in Roseville six and half miles away. 

It's a 20-minute drive at most, and last time she checked it was a minimum two-hour bus ride.

Rogers says she'd like the option of riding the bus, and is willing to pay for it.

"How much should taxpayers pay? At least as much as we spend for road subsidies," Rogers said. "If we're going to address transportation needs of everyone, we need to take public transportation as seriously as accommodation for private cars."

Here's what that would amount to.

Metropolitan Council officials say taking out one-time stimulus money, we'll spend roughly $600 million this year on Twin Cities road and bridge projects.

Metro Transit officials say their operating budget for this year -- all the money it takes to pay drivers and operate the buses -- is half that amount, or about $300 million.

The political and economic realities do not bode well for any increase of the transit budget any time soon.

The response of transit planners is to try attract riders on existing routes with more suburban park-and-ride spaces.

To speed rush-hour trips, the Twin Cities now have more miles of bus-only shoulder lanes than all of our peer cities in the country combined.

Expanding use of electronic fare payment is speeding the boarding of buses.

And there's been a 25 percent reduction over the past two decades in the number of stops buses make, in an effort to shorten trip times.

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