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What's keeping people off the bus?
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
April 8, 2002


Metro Transit, run by the Metropolitan Council, provides the bulk of bus rides in the Twin Cities - about 250,000 rides on an average weekday. That may sound like a lot, but transit supporters say the bus system needs to grow. To do that, they say it needs more money and more political support. Perhaps equally important is the need to make buses more convenient and palatable for the thousands of people who commute in the Twin Cities every day by car.

Sunny Johnson rides the bus because she doesn't have or want a car. "This is my means of transportation. I rely on it a lot, especially with two kids. I take it basically every single day," she says. According to the Metro Transit Authority, Johnson is not typical.
(MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)

Sunny Johnson rides the bus because she doesn't have or want a car. "This is my means of transportation. I rely on it a lot, especially with two kids. I take it basically every single day," she says.

According to the Metro Transit Authority, Johnson is not typical. Most people who ride the bus are commuters who work in downtown Minneapolis and have at least one car in the garage.

Metro Transit serves 73 million riders annually, or 250,000 rides each weekday, mostly at peak morning and afternoon rush hours, and there's room for more riders, says transit advocate Barb Thoman.

Thoman runs Transit for Livable Communities, a local advocacy group. She says getting more people to ride the bus is critical to growing the transit system. She says the current one is efficient, but too small to consistently meet commuters' expectations.

"We need a much stronger bus system. We need more routes, we need more frequent service on existing routes, we need better bus shelters, especially with the climate we have in Minnesota. We need more park-and-ride lots. Many of the park-and-ride lots in this region are full and people are parking on adjacent side streets and in neighborhoods because there aren't enough parking spaces. Overall we just need a significant increase in the amount of money that we invest in buses and in bus service," says Thoman.

She says the decades-long, roads-versus-transit battle at the Legislature keeps getting in the way of setting up a steady source of revenue and investment for transit.

Thoman says cities like Atlanta, Houston and St.Louis have dedicated sources of transit funding, like local taxes. Those cities spend about $150 million more on transit each year than the the Twin Cities metro region.

As part of the budget-balancing deal this legislative session, the Metro Transit appropriation was cut by nearly $3 million. Metro Transit officials say that will probably result in cutting several bus routes, setting back momentum to increase ridership. Right now bus fares pay for about a third of the cost of running the bus system. Most of the rest of the cost is subsidized by state and local taxpayers.

Money isn't the only barrier to growing the metro area's bus system.

"I don't take the bus, because I need more flexibility," says Angie Barstad, an executive assistant in St. Paul. She commutes with her car every day from Prior Lake. She says taking the bus is inconvenient and a little intimidating. Though she says she thinks buses are overall pretty safe, she has reservations.

"I've worked with some people who've taken the bus and they've mentioned they've had some shady characters. Especially living out in the suburbs, you wonder, especially picking them up here in St. Paul, who you're going to be riding out with," Barstad says.

"We're always surprised when somebody says 'Oh I'm kind of afraid to get on there. Like, I don't know who I'm going to be with, who am I going to sit next to?' People who regularly ride would never say that, that's really a part of the attraction," counters Mike Setzer, Metro Transit's general manager. He calls transit one of the great integrating factors in society, and insists Metro buses are safe.

Their statistics show that in 2001, there were 11 serious crimes on buses, including one homicide. Metro Transit officials are quick to point out that the numbers translate into one serious crime for every 6.7 million rides. So-called "property crimes" - including theft and larceny - are more common. Last year Metro Transit had 47 of those. But that's fewer than in 2000.

Setzer says Metro Transit is hiring more transit police, and he says each bus is equipped with a security camera. He's optimistic that as congestion increases, people will be more willing to ride the bus. His agency's goal is to double bus ridership by 2020. Since 1997, ridership has increased by about three percent a year.

"I think the public, including the suburban public, for the most part now gets it; congestion is not the way they want to live, and they're unhappy with it. It's the No. 1 issue on the public's mind now. So even people who live in suburbs who got there by car, probably will continue to buy houses with three-car garages and will continue to have a couple of SUVs and whatever else in the garage, even they want available to them the choice of leaving the car home and doing some things without having to get in traffic," Setzer says.

About a decade ago some suburban communities broke away from Metro Transit. The largest of these "opt-out systems" is the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority. The MVTA provides bus service for the cities of Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan, Rosemount, and Savage.

MVTA has express service to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. It provides about 7,500 rides each weekday.

Tom Brennan, chair of MVTA and mayor of Savage, says in 2001, overall ridership went up by nine percent from 2000, and the system keeps growing. He says that's partly because the MVTA is developing plans that will cater to the suburban lifestyle by combining a variety of services with park-and-ride lots.

"The park-and-rides are critical because the suburban nature is that you have to drive somewhere and so park and ride can drive to parking lot, jump on a bus in a secure warm environment. We try and put things that would need. In the Burnsville transit station we're working on doing dry cleaning, we have a license center, so you can get license plate tabs. We're trying to make it as convenient as possible," Brennan says.

There are four opt-out systems serving the metro area suburbs. While they may make commuting into the Twin Cities increasingly more convenient, getting workers downtown has been the focus, and suburb-to-suburb commuting is still inconvenient or non-existent.

Transit advocates say suburb-to-suburb commuting will become especially important to relieving traffic congestion as an estimated 500,000 new residents come to the Twin Cities metro area over the next 20 years.