Friday, September 28, 2012

Metro Transit tweaks planned Central Corridor bus routes

Map of recommended bus routes to be implemented once the Green Line (Central Corridor) begins operation in 2014.

In preparation for the opening of Green Line light rail 2014, Metro Transit has been busy over planning out how to rearrange connecting bus routes. Since the light-rail line will take over as the primary service in between downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, operator hours currently dedicated to bus routes 16, 50, 94 will be freed up and redistributed to other lines in the system.

An initial plan was released back in June and presented at some open house meetings and made available online. 650 people and organizations submitted 800 comments to Metro Transit, and they say the feedback was mostly positive. Several routes in the Central Corridor area will see higher frequency service and expanded service hours, including new weekend service in some cases.

Two hot topics were the addition/restoration of a route 83 bus on Lexington Parkway and the frequency reduction on the route 94 express bus which links the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

Route 83
Route 83 generated 176 comments—22% of the total—and was a mix of positive and negative. A route 83 bus had been tried on Lexington about a decade ago, but hadn't generated enough traffic at the time to continue operating. Metro Transit was revisiting the idea since Lexington Parkway is in the middle of a 2-mile gap between the 84 on Snelling Avenue and the 65 on Dale Street.

The June version of the plan had the route 83 bus running north only to Energy Park Drive to reach Snelling Avenue before finally terminating at Snelling and Como Avenue. One major reason not to continue farther north on Lexington is the BNSF Railway bridge just north of Energy Park Drive: it has low vertical clearance and requires low-slung buses to have a safe operation.

However, the community around Como Park pushed heavily to have the route extended farther north, and it appears their wish has been granted. Route 83 is now planned to run north to Horton Avenue and then loop around the western edge of the park on Hamline before running east to the intersection of Lexington and Larpenteur Avenue.

Near the south end of the route, the idea of a new bus line was much less popular. The bus is now planned to detour away from Lexington at Jefferson Avenue, make a modest zig-zag, and enter Interstate 35E from Randolph Avenue to make the short hop to West 7th Street.

Hopefully the new version of this route will be successful and stick around longer than the last shot at it did.

Route 94
Route 94 service received 85 comments, or just over 10% of the total. There was a lot of concern over the initially planned reduction in service, which would have brought the 94 down to just "expanded peak" hours, with service going away entirely during midday hours on weekdays. Route 94 is also planned to be reoriented to enter and leave downtown Saint Paul via the 5th Street ramps, bypassing the typical route used today which often loops around the State Capitol area and frequently runs past the Ravoux Hi-Rise on Marion Street.

Metro Transit has decided to continue running the 94 during midday hours on a half-hourly basis (down from a roughly 15-minute interval today). And to address the concerns of Ravoux residents, the route 16 bus will be rerouted to run along Marion Street rather than circling around the State Capitol grounds.

The June plan had suggested that route 94 buses skip the stop at Snelling Avenue, and that recommendation has been carried forward despite some requests to keep it. The drop-off stop in the middle of the Interstate 94/Huron Boulevard interchange will still be available, however.

As the original plan stated, route 16 will only run from downtown St. Paul to University & Oak Street on the UMN campus, and will not operate all the way into downtown Minneapolis (except late night). Transfer to UMN campus buses, Green Line, routes 2 and 6 to get to other locations.

Other routes
Some proposed changes to existing routes have been rolled back. The path of route 87 along University Avenue and across Interstate 94 had been put up for possible changes, but the revised plan retains the original routing. Since route 63 along Grand Avenue is now planned to be extended up Cretin Avenue to Raymond and University Avenues at its western end, there wasn't as much need to reroute the 87.

In general, bus routes in the Central Corridor area are going to have frequencies increased -- often bumping up from current intervals around 30 minutes down to 20 minutes. Some routes will do even better, such as route 84 along Snelling Avenue, which is still planned to bump up to to 10-minute service along the bulk of the route compared to the 15-minute cycle today.

I'm happy to see that Metro Transit officials did take heed of many of the comments from riders in the corridor area. I felt it was a good plan to start out with, and while the new version won't make everyone happy, the changes strike me as being very positive for the most part.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The height (and length) of confusion

Tilting at Wheel Wells
Passengers like to lean against the front wheel wells on Metro Transit's buses, often despite open seats.

I found myself pleading my case to board a Metro Transit route 3A bus the other day. Classes were mostly wrapping up at the University of Minnesota, and I found myself as a random outsider among a crush of students who had collected along Pleasant Street as they waited to head home. I told the driver I needed to get to Hamline Avenue in Saint Paul, beyond the reach of the 3E and 3C buses coming up behind, and on a different branch than the 3B which was also sure to come before the next 3A. He grimaced but relented and let me board—I could have been stuck waiting another half-hour otherwise.

It has been rare for me to be told that a bus is too full for me to board, so I spent a moment wondering what was different this time. Soon I realized that I had boarded a standard, non-articulated bus with far less capacity than the "bendy" units I've become accustomed to on route 3. The extra room inside doesn't get used much in my own neighborhood, but passenger loads spike as the buses travel toward the University of Minnesota. If not for the heavy traffic near the university, the route would probably only use standard-sized buses 35 to 40 feet long, rather than the articulated ones which stretch close to 60 feet.

This reminded me of an open house I'd attended several months back where I'd gotten to talking with Metro Transit representatives about the pros and cons of the different bus types they have: Articulated, non-articulated, high-floor, and low-floor.

Some of the busiest lines in Minneapolis such as the 21 on Lake Street and the 5 on Chicago Avenue rely heavily—if not exclusively—on standard 40-footers. Some of the same lines also remain heavily-populated with high-floor buses where steps in always slow down the flow of boardings as many older and mobility-challenged riders try to ascend. While the ideal would seem to be a low-floor articulated unit because of the high capacity and relative ease of boarding, there are some drawbacks worth considering.

One of the biggest problems with urban mass transit is speed: Because of the large number of stops on bus routes and their poor maneuverability compared to cars, they can get dragged down to a snail's pace.  While articulated buses are great for improving capacity on a route, they tend to lengthen travel times because they can't accelerate or decelerate as quickly, and are harder to pull into traffic because of the larger size.  Over the course of a 40-minute route, an articulated bus could end up taking about 2 minutes longer (a slowdown of about 5%).

The huge accordion-like joint in the middle also has negative effects on handling—Occasionally, the buses can jackknife or spin out of control due to pendulum-like effects.  This usually isn't a problem in the hands of an experienced driver, but Metro Transit sometimes has to pull articulated buses off the roads as winter weather passes through.  Articulated buses are propelled by the single axle in the rear section, so the front end of a bus can easily end up sliding sideways on slippery hills.  (This is a significant contrast with light-rail vehicles and streetcars, which typically have several drive axles for traction and have rails to keep the vehicle segments aligned).

Artics still have important advantages, though: The greater seating capacity generally keeps the center aisle clearer, allowing more freedom of movement for passengers.  Dwell time (the time spent waiting for people to board and disembark at bus stops) is usually reduced or kept constant even with higher passenger loads.  The longer buses also tend to attract more riders (a modest instance of induced demand), apparently since some people are often turned off by the cramped quarters in smaller units.

Low-floor buses also have some interesting trade-offs: There's usually a reduction in seating capacity compared to high-floor buses, partly because the front wheel wells intrude into the cabin so much that it's impossible to place seats on top of them.  In some designs, there have been attempts to compensate by shaving off a corner of the wheel well to let people lean up against it more comfortably.  Unfortunately, that has turned out to be too comfortable—passengers can often be found hanging out up at the front of the bus despite plenty of open seats farther back.  This wouldn't be a problem except that there are more passengers getting on at other bus stops.  As people try to squeeze through, they get slowed down a lot, leading to lengthened dwell times.

For whatever reason, this appears to be a design fluke on Metro Transit's low-floor, non-articulated fleet.  The longer articulated units generally have squared-off wheel well covers, which seem to discourage that behavior.  The next-generation non-articulated bus that Metro Transit has been showing off this past week on route 10 uses those squared-off wheel wells, so hopefully the problem of crowded entryways will go away over the coming years.

Aside from that oddity, the case for low-floor buses seems to be much more clear: They reduce the need for lifts to be deployed for mobility-challenged riders.  No more steps to climb also means that anyone with poor knees or carrying heavy purchases also have an easier time when boarding.  There is a problem that the steps have simply shifted to the back of the bus—many riders are reluctant to climb them as the vehicle approaches crush loads, and calls by the driver for riders to move back often go unheeded.  I also personally find the ride to be a bit better on low-floor buses, with less rocking and rolling (I think the center of gravity is lower, or I'm at least closer to it when riding).

So, while it seems that a decision to go with a longer bus or a low-floor bus should be a no-brainer, there are a bunch of factors to consider.  Articulated buses in particular have been favored for bus rapid transit, but their poor handling really means that BRT has to be implemented with as few compromises as possible: They should have exclusive lanes more consistently, for instance.  And whether  implementing BRT or simply attempting to add capacity to an exsiting route, things like bulb outs, stop consolidation, removing unnecessary turns, and transit signal priority to give buses more green lights should all be considered to counteract the bigger vehicles' weaknesses.  In some cases, shorter buses turn out to be the better option.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Podcast with Bill Lindeke

Bill Lindeke invited me to do a podcast about train projects in Minnesota a couple weeks ago, and it has been put up on I finally got a chance to listen to it myself.  This is my first recorded interview with anyone, so the topics are a bit random. Listening to it again today, it does seem to flow alright. My stammering eats up a lot of time toward the end, so be prepared for that. The first half or two-thirds is better on that front.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Placing bets on a casino connection

Hinckley casino loop, 2007

Take a moment to imagine that you are working on a new transportation service. It should be able to operate in the black by taking a straight shot between two significant population centers, but there's an opportunity to deviate away from the straight route for a few miles to make a big boost to the ridership. For a modestly higher investment, the service might have patronage 50% greater than it would otherwise. Seems like a good idea!

But what if this major traffic destination was a casino? Does that change your opinion?

This is one of the big questions facing backers of the Northern Lights Express line to the Twin Ports of Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota. Grand Casino Hinckley, operated by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, is a major destination along the planned route. According to a 2007 report, the casino generates the amount of intercity traffic expected from a city of 500,000 to 1 million people—about 8 million trips a year (mostly from visitors, but about 1 million come from employee trips).

By comparison, the Twin Ports metropolitan area contains about 280,000 people.  A good connection to the casino would cause a station there to be to be the second-busiest on the line after Minneapolis, with more passengers than the stations in Duluth and Superior put together!

The casino is about 2½ miles away from the center of Hinckley, too far to walk comfortably (it'd take 45 minutes to an hour), so a shuttle bus for casino-bound passengers would be critical if a station was placed along the existing tracks through the town.  But indirect access really limits the attraction of taking the train up to Hinckley for a night of gambling—people simply don't like the extra transfer when there's the option of a single-seat car ride instead.

The 2007 study estimated that a direct connection right to the front of the casino would boost ridership from 889,000 annually to 1,363,000 a year.  Ridership projections were adjusted downward by the time of a later 2010 study which did not include a casino connection in its projections, but would likely still see numbers midway between the 2007 study's projection for 8 daily round-trips on the route versus another option that looked at 4 daily round-trips.

So from a numbers perspective, this all seems good.  New track would go on fairly cheap land that isn't heavily populated, so it's a fairly cheap way of adding major benefit to the line.

But this concept brings up questions about gambling in general in Minnesota.  The question of whether or not casinos should be allowed in the state has been settled, but there is a question of geography: There are 18 casinos across the state now, so would we be unfairly benefiting this one above the others which aren't so favorably located?  It is worth noting that downtown Duluth is also home to the Fond-du-Luth casino, so arguably 2 out of the 18 will be connected by this line.  And even the most promising alternate route for the train along the old "Skally Line" running north from Saint Paul (rather than Minneapolis) would have gone right through Hinckley as well.  This popular destination is simply in the right spot (well, almost the right spot).

New patrons would be enticed to visit the casino because of this connection, perhaps as many as 200,000 a year.  Most casino visitors would probably be redirected from existing car or bus trips.  200,000 is pretty huge in terms of train ridership, though that's a small fraction of the 8 million trips reportedly generated by the casino already.  It's significant enough that the Mille Lacs Band should contribute something to the Northern Lights Express's construction costs.  Hopefully a favorable agreement could be reached on that front.

Other questions also come to mind, such as whether  casino traffic will be stable, rise, or decline. I haven't been able to find specific data on how much revenue comes from tribal gaming in Minnesota, so the general trend is unknown.  We do know that revenue from pull-tabs (legal in the rest of the state) has been on the decline—an issue which was important in the Vikings stadium debate—but perhaps the casinos have been pulling in customers who've grown bored of pull-tabs over the years.

In general, I prefer to run trains through the centers of cities and towns, even if there isn't much center to be found.  But in this case, the ridership and revenue to be gained makes building the train line to the casino a much safer bet.  Hinckley itself only has a population of 1,800, and that simply can't compete with the massive traffic generator next door.

The alliance behind the Northern Lights Express project is currently reviewing the idea of a casino connection again.  Hopefully they'll release a new report soon with updated projections and better overall detail.