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Minneapolis Wants to Be the ‘Bus Rapid Transit Capital of North America’

Metro Transit just opened the fifth bus rapid transit line in the Twin Cities. Advocates are hoping for many more.

Minneapolis' newest bus rapid transit line was built on one of the most heavily used bus runs in all of Minnesota: An 18-mile arterial route where a quarter of households don’t have access to a car. (All photos by Jared Brey/Governing)
At 11:10 a.m. on the first Saturday in December, with temperatures in the single digits, a stretch bus pulled out of the transit station at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., with one passenger, and headed north through Richfield into South Minneapolis. It rolled up Chicago Avenue, passing new platforms every half-mile or so, idling briefly at red lights and picking up stray riders. It took a short detour onto a parallel route as it approached 38th Street, the intersection — now a memorial — where George Floyd was killed by a police officer in the spring of 2020. At 7th Street it turned left onto a dedicated bus lane, painted red, and continued through an apocalyptically unpeopled downtown. On Fremont Avenue, three teenagers realized they were on the wrong line and got off. A little more than an hour after it left, the bus came to a stop at a transit station in Brooklyn Center surrounded by shopping outlets and surface parking lots.

“I only have seven minutes,” the driver said as he disembarked. “And I have to pee.”

Earlier that morning, a group of local transit officials, county commissioners, mayors and members of Congress had gathered at the Mall of America to cut the ribbon on the D Line, the newest bus rapid transit (BRT) route in the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit network. The D Line runs along what has been one of the most heavily used bus runs in all of Minnesota: An 18-mile arterial route where a quarter of households don’t have access to a car, according to officials.

Unlike regular bus service, Metro’s BRT lines only stop at dedicated bus platforms every quarter- to half-mile. Riders pay their fares, before boarding, at well-lit stations with electric heaters and digital signs showing schedules and real-time arrival information. The buses are scheduled to come every 10-15 minutes. The D Line is Metro’s fifth BRT route, and it’s in the planning stages for half a dozen more.

“We are well on our way to making this the bus rapid transit capital of North America,” said Minnesota State Rep. Frank Hornstein, who chairs the transportation finance and policy committee in the state House of Representatives, at the ribbon cutting.

Why BRT?

The main benefit of bus rapid transit is that it’s faster and more reliable than the bus, in large part because it makes fewer stops. But different transit agencies have taken different approaches to BRT, selecting from a menu of features that improve the experience for riders. The most robust BRT networks have fully dedicated bus lanes to keep vehicles out of the regular flow of traffic and allow them to operate like trains. In Minneapolis, BRT buses like the D Line operate mostly in traffic, with some signal prioritization to trigger green lights when they’re falling behind schedule. Allowing riders to prepay fares reduces idling time as well. Metro officials say the BRT lines run about 25 percent faster than the regular bus.

BRT also tends to be much cheaper than building rail lines. The $75 million D Line was completed on time and under budget, says Katie Roth, the director of arterial bus rapid transit at Metro Transit. That’s a sharp contrast with the system’s Southwest light rail project, which is years behind schedule and still facing shortfalls on its drastically expanded budget.

Metro began assembling funding for the D Line in 2014, Roth says. It went through planning and community engagement from 2016 to 2018, engineering in 2019, and it began construction in 2021. In all, the project includes 61 new bus shelters, 78 crosswalk restripings, 24 traffic signal upgrades and 246 electric heaters, which can be turned on by passengers at the press of a button.

Like every other transit system in the U.S., Metro has seen steep declines in ridership since the pandemic. But its BRT lines have recovered more quickly than other modes, Roth says. And Metro is expecting the BRT upgrade to improve ridership on the D Line as well; other bus lines in the Metro system saw 30 percent increases in ridership when they were switched to BRT, she says. Routes like the D Line, which mirrors the 5 bus, serve people in every part of the city. Though routed through downtown, its fortunes aren’t tied to the fate of the central business district, Roth says.

“When we think about arterial BR, it’s focused on these workhorse, urban, local bus routes,” Roth says. “Those routes serve such a great variety of trip purposes. [Riders] are going not just into town, but they’re really living their lives along these bus corridors.”
The BRT line includes 61 new bus shelters, 78 crosswalk restripings, 24 traffic signal upgrades, and 246 electric heaters, which can be turned on by passengers at the press of a button.

Other Service Cuts

On the same day that Metro launched the D Line, it began service cuts to a number of other bus lines. The 5 bus has been largely replaced by the D Line; buses still stop at every block along the route for people who need localized service, but they only come every 60 minutes. Dozens of other bus lines are seeing reduced service as well. The cuts are a function of a bus driver shortage that’s affected transit authorities everywhere. Metro buses in the Twin Cities now prowl the streets advertising the starting wage for bus operators of $26.16 an hour, with a signing bonus of up to $5,000.

A driver on the D Line who asked not to be named said the best thing about operating BRT is not having to collect fares. On a regular bus line, the driver has to decide how to deal with a passenger who doesn’t pay, and it’s the No. 1 source of conflict. Many drivers have quit, retired or died since the pandemic began, he said. Workers had to negotiate with management to get a bonus to match those being offered to new hires. Metro says it’s seeing more interest in the open driver positions lately, though, according to a report in the Star Tribune.

Transit advocates have welcomed the expansion of BRT at the same time that they’ve protested the service cuts to existing bus lines. Sam Rockwell, the executive director of Move Minnesota, says if transit systems like Metro want more people to ride, they need to run buses much more frequently — like every five minutes.

“Can you imagine if you could only start your car every fifteen minutes? People would go bananas. It’s totally unacceptable,” Rockwell says.

Expanding the Transit Network

Rockwell says he’s lived in cities like Paris with sprawling, high-frequency transit service, and knows “what that does to your psyche and your sense of freedom.” Metro does a good job with the budget it has, he says, but it should be pushing for much more. Move Minnesota is advocating for an additional 20 BRT lines crisscrossing the Twin Cities, with service every 5-10 minutes, he says. BRT is a major improvement over local bus service and much cheaper than rail, and should be seen as a way to quickly establish a better regionwide transit network.

“We are really focusing on this BRT network right now because the benefits of transit are greatest when there is a full system, and we think we need to get to that really functional, really high-quality system as fast as possible,” Rockwell says. “If some of those lines along the way are rail, great. If we can convert some of those lines to rail long term, great. But more important than getting a particular mode on a particular corridor, in the near term, it’s getting that full network built out.”

Stephanie Lotshaw, a program director at TransitCenter, says there are good reasons to build high-capacity rail in many cities. But in a lot of contexts, “bus-based transit can meet some of the same speed and reliability needs and it is oftentimes faster to implement,” she says. While there are bus systems that reach for rail heights of efficiency in other countries, including parts of China and Latin America, any efforts to prioritize bus service on city streets and improve the experience for riders should be applauded, she says.

“[BRT] is a high-quality, high-capacity solution to transit needs, and if it’s planned well and executed well, it can really be a longer-term solution,” she says.

Metro Transit in the Twin Cities is currently in the middle of planning the E Line, another BRT route that’s expected to begin service in 2025. Hornstein, the state representative, said at the ribbon cutting that the Legislature would be looking to fund “G, H and beyond” in the next session. After the event, he told Governing that the Legislature had negotiated funding for projects like the D Line with a divided government, and that the recent Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party victories in the Minnesota House, Senate and governor’s office create a “huge” opportunity to invest in future transit projects, he said.

“Of all the transit modes, I think [BRT] is more conducive to bipartisanship,” Hornstein said. “It’s not going to be easy. There’s always struggles. Sometimes it depends who we’re negotiating with on the other side of the aisle. But I do think this is really a mode that people can get behind.”
The same day that service began on the new BRT, the city reduced or cut service on other local bus lines. The cuts are a function of a bus-driver shortage that’s affected transit authorities everywhere.
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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