Sunday, September 27, 2009

Does Gail Dorfman Ever Even RIDE a Bus?

It’s been another depressing day as I think about the Twin Cities’ overall attitude towards the role of public transportation in life. Specifically, I’ve been reading Gail Dorfman’s letter to those who support the 3C LRT alignment. While I support 3C, I can understand that there are valid reasons to support 3A, mostly that it may come down to a choice between 3A or nothing due to the current flawed federal funding formula. While that’s frustrating, it’s not nearly as frustrating or depressing as the arguments of people like Dorfman. A quote from the letter:

“Many people are curious as to why ridership in Uptown isn’t significantly higher than on the Kenilworth alignment. The answer lies in the excellent transit service that Uptown already enjoys. Adding LRT to Uptown does not draw a large number of new riders to the transit system, and while it may move some riders off of buses, that reduces the overall efficiency of the transit system.”

How does this make any sense? Let me take it point by point:

Uptown already enjoys excellent transit services. True, to a point. Uptown does have good bus connections, and it is relatively easy to live in Uptown without a car. At the same time, these bus routes are often slow. ConnectUptown has crunched the numbers: 22 minutes from the Uptown Transit Center to downtown (4th Street), 24 minutes from Lyn-Lake. The Uptown alignment would reduce that to nine minutes and eight minutes respectively. That sounds like a pretty major improvement in service to me. Besides, if we were going to go purely by this argument we could say that riders in Eden Prairie already have express bus service to downtown Minneapolis; why bother putting in light rail since it duplicates service?

“Adding LRT to Uptown does not draw a large number of new riders to the transit system.” Where does this idea come from? Is it based on bogus federal reports? Common sense suggests that this simply isn’t true. Despite the fact that Uptown does have plentiful bus options, the vast majority of Uptown residents do not, in fact, take public transportation on a regular basis, or at least not to work. Many do, of course, but census data has shown that as an overall percentage of the population there’s still a lot of room for growth. Not all residents work downtown, in Eden Prairie, or at points along the route, of course, but there’s still likely a sizable portion of untapped new riders that aren’t being factored into the equation. These are the same types of people that are expected to be attracted to light rail out in the suburbs: people who currently drive, don’t like buses, but could be convinced to take a train. If they count out in the ‘burbs then they should count here in the city.

Moving riders off buses reduces the overall efficiency of the transit system. I don’t really know where to start with this one. What? What does that mean? Isn’t the point of an efficient transportation system to get people quickly and easily from point A to point B? If a lot of people along the 3C route want to quickly and easily get downtown (or to Eden Prairie, or to Hopkins, or to St. Louis Park, or anywhere else along the way) then isn’t this route helping them to do just that? Or does this imply that there will be so much demand from existing transit users (who apparently don’t matter) that they’ll crowd the trains and make the LRT ridership numbers a little too high?

I’ve seen others (including Dorfman) argue that Uptown residents won’t walk a few extra blocks to get to the LRT station if they can just hop on a bus instead. Again, I’d like to know where they get this information. Bogus federal guidelines shouldn't count. Are there local market studies out there that suggest this? This in no way matches up to my experiences living in other cities, cities with active light rail and subway lines. In DC we lived on Connecticut Avenue a couple of miles from downtown. A bus stopped right in front of our door; while I did take the bus sometimes, I almost always preferred to walk the extra four blocks or so to the metro station. The bus was convenient, but, like in Minneapolis, it sat in traffic. Snow, traffic, motorcades; the same issues that plague Uptown (well, not the motorcades) led to frustratingly slow bus rides. Far better to just walk to the station, hop on a train, and zip along underground until I got to my stop. It worked the same way in Los Angeles. I rode the bus a lot, but the train (light rail in this case) was faster, didn’t get stuck in traffic, and was often worth the extra walk (and I wasn't the only one who felt that way). I certainly plan to ride LRT in Uptown if 3C does somehow get built, even if it means a few more blocks of walking. From the perspective of a parent, too, it’s far, far easier to bring a stroller onto a light rail car then onto a bus. Uptown parents (or parents elsewhere who want to easily visit Uptown with your kids): take it from me, 3C will make your lives easier.

Light rail does not have to be for commuters only. This focus on city versus suburbs overlooks the fact that there is a great deal of movement between city and suburbs, and that Uptown is a part of a regional network. This is not just about getting Uptown residents to and from downtown quickly, although that’s worth consideration, too, given the density of the neighborhoods in the 3C corridor.

I can understand why some people support 3A, although I don’t agree with that choice. That’s not what angers me here. What is so depressing is to have politicians like Dorfman throwing out all sorts of arguments that make little or no sense, and perpetuate the myth a viewpoint that light rail lines are only for commuting. When I read some of the rationale thrown out by Dorfman I’ve got to wonder: does she ride the bus? How often does she ride the bus in Uptown? Does she take public transit in other cities? Because quite honestly, the impression I’m getting from a lot of these people is that they could use a little more time in the real public transit world. If they’re going to continue to advocate for 3A then please, please stick to the rational arguments, and stop arguing that the low Uptown ridership numbers reflect any kind of reality.


  1. I take issue with the argument that 3C LRT would be a significant improvement in transit service for Uptown. First of all, the 22-minute trip from Uptown Station to downtown cited is slightly biased. If you look at the schedule ( or simply ride the 6 on a regular basis as I do, you'll note that it rarely takes more than 20 minutes to get downtown and most of the time its about a 15 minute trip.

    Also, note that while actual time spent on the transit vehicle is shorter for LRT than for bus, the time it takes to walk to the station/stop would be longer for most people. Consider someone living at 25th and Emerson. They currently have a 1-minute walk to the bus followed by a 15 minute trip downtown for a total of 16 minutes. Should they take the hypothetical LRT from Uptown station, they now have a 4 minute-walk followed by a 9-minute trip for a total of 13 minutes. The time-savings from LRT would not be significant for most people in the Uptown area.

    Transit between Uptown and downtown could be improved in ways that dont require spending an additional $250 million above the cost of the 3A route, such as by implementing a system to give buses priority at traffic lights. Or if we are going to spend that $250 million, lets build streetcars down Hennepin and Nicollet. That would spread the benefits of rail transit across the Uptown area much more evenly than 3C LRT would.

  2. 15 minutes on the 6 heading Downtown? Don't ride much during rush hour, apparently.

  3. I've ridden the 6 downtown from Uptown station during all times of the day and on all days of the week, and it rarely takes more than 20 minutes. And as I said, during most parts of the day outside rush hour, its about a 15 minute trip.

    Read the fine print..

  4. The 6F going SB leaving 1st Ave N/1st St at 4:24pm arrives in Uptown at Uptown Transit Station at 4:50pm. That's a travel time of 26 minutes. It arrives at Hennepin/8th St at 4:33. It goes about 7 blocks in that 9 minutes. If we split it and say half of the time goes towards getting to 5th St, it's 4.5 minutes. That's a ride time of 21.5 minutes.

    Yes, there are other times that it is quicker, but the bulk of rides takes place at rush hour and it's when it's the slowest.

    If transit is about moving people from one end of the line to the other, then express buses are probably the best investment. With that concept, we wouldn't have built Hiawatha to MOA, as the express bus was many minutes quicker.

    The schedule is the fine print.

  5. It's hard to argue that travel time won't be shorter with LRT, especially in the winter when snow and traffic combine to bring Hennepin to a crawl. In any case, as Thatcher points out, the schedules speak for themselves.

    The model's assumption that few people will switch from bus to LRT is highly dubious. If Hennepin County didn't think LRT provided an advantage when it came to attracting riders, they would have picked BRT for the whole line and saved a boatload. Uptown riders currently have no choice but the bus, but given one, I'm sure many would choose LRT even if it meant a slightly longer walk.

    If the County and Metro Transit are confident in the model they are using, why not test it against real world situations? Find new LRT corridors around the country that run through areas with good bus service. Did bus riders choose not to switch? Or did those lines have strong ridership after they were opened? The model is just that, a model. If the consultants and County showed some actual examples where LRT has under-performed in areas with good bus service, I would have far fewer reservations about 3A.

  6. Brendon, I agree about the credibility of the ridership model. However, how exactly to predict how many riders would switch from bus to LRT in this situation is beyond me. I guess our differences come down to different ideas about this. I tend to think that people will not choose a longer walk to and from a LRT station for a shorter ride.

    I will return to my hypothetical situation. A person faces the following options:

    1. 4 minute walk to LRT station, 9 minute ride downtown, 1-5 minute walk to destination. 14-18 minute total trip time. 5-9 minutes spent walking

    2. 1-2 minute walk to bus stop, 20 minute ride, 1-3 minute walk to destination. 22-24 minute total trip time. 2-5 minutes spent walking.

    Which option will be more attractive? It will boil down to personal preferences, but in winter or on a rainy day, my guess is that most existing transit riders in Uptown will stick with option 2, excepting those that live close to LRT stations.

    It is tough for me to continually argue against the 3C alignment, as I am a strong supporter of rail transit and would like Uptown to someday be connnected to a regional rail transit system. I just don't think this particular route alignment enough sense to justify the cost.


  7. "Which option will be more attractive? It will boil down to personal preferences, but in winter or on a rainy day, my guess is that most existing transit riders in Uptown will stick with option 2, excepting those that live close to LRT stations."

    Arbitrary trip-times aside, the fact is, both the Uptown and Lyn-Lake Small Area Plans call for the densest development to occur between Lake Street and the north side of the Midtown Greenway. That areas is already the most dense, all the way from Lake Calhoun to Nicollet. While someone at 25th and Emerson might take a bus downtown because they don't want to backtrack to 29th, there are thousands of residents who live very close to the proposed stations -- with many more expected in the coming decades. And this isn't even accounting for transfers from buses to LRT. After all, if you stop at Uptown and see there's a train coming in two minutes, there'd be a huge incentive to switch to rail. This takes pressure off the existing north-south bus lines, which are absolutely packed at peak commute times.

    And before the Greenway Streetcar even comes up, consider where people are actually commuting. Largely downtown, and somewhat to the west and southwest. Not so much down Lake Street. So while that Streetcar might be a nice addition to our transit network, it doesn't solve the larger issue of glacial-paced north-south transit trips (like my 25 minute ride from 9th & Hennepin to 24th & Hennepin today at rush hour).

  8. Jacobean: " I tend to think that people will not choose a longer walk to and from a LRT station for a shorter ride. "

    That's where the fundamental disagreement comes in. In other cities, people will walk a longer distance to get a quicker trip, mostly in areas of higher densities. Why? There's varying reasons. Some don't like sitting or standing on a bus for all that long. So walking allows them to minimize bus time. Others it's because they can better tie together errands.

    Imagine the person at 32nd and Girard getting off in Uptown via LRT and then going to Lunds or Rainbow and then home. The person on the bus has a longer trip time and therefore door-to-door is longer. Others like the whole experience of the 'trip'. People like riding rails better than buses. It's silly to us who are fine with the bus, but it's a preference by many. In addition, some like the walk to and from the station. I attribute this to the "experiencing the trip differently" condition. It's a similar concept to those who choose to bicycle or take a motorcycle to work. Part of it is the experience of having exposure to the elements and being able to better identify and communicate with the surroundings. Walking to the station provides a more intimate experience between the city and the person, and that in part is a condition that I think plays a role in why people are returning to the city and why some people actually enjoy using mass transit.


  10. Wow, clearly our poster is completely unaware of anything written on the issue of transportation in the past twenty years. It is completely nonsense to put a rail line through uptown. Do you not realize that politicians need to make 'decisions' as to which plan would provide for the most residents. The reasons no to build through uptown are endless, first and foremost being cost. If you actually took a few minutes to look at the budget proposals, COMMON SENSE, would explain in a very logical manner how much of a complete waste of oxygen you are. So, instead of taking your irrational anxiety-caused concerns out on Dorfman, why don't you do what normal people do and take it out on your family.