At a news conference before the A Line rapid bus opened along Snelling Avenue, Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb called the new service “historic.”
For this transit commuter, the rapid bus is a welcome addition to my slate of transit choices from my home in St. Paul, but historic? I’m not so sure.
The $27 million A Line opened June 11 amid much fanfare among transit and elected officials. It’s called a “rapid bus” — not bus-rapid transit, which requires a dedicated lane — because it’s more like a super express bus. Metro Transit plans at least a dozen more of these rapid bus lines in the next 15 years.
For passengers, the major difference is that you buy your fare, or swipe your Go-To card, before you get on the bus. The bus, like light rail, is supposed to come every 10 minutes during peak hours. And, there are only 20 stations between Rosedale Center and the 46th Street Blue Line LRT stop in Minneapolis, compared with as many as 80 stops along the Route 84 local bus route.
Metro Transit recorded 36,205 rides on both the A Line and Route 84 routes the first seven days of operation, 30,308 of which were on the A Line. Overall, that’s an increase of 36 percent. However, rides on the A Line were free the first three days.
“It’s a limited sample size,” concedes Katie Roth, project manager for Metro Transit. “Over the summer you’ll start to see people settling into a new pattern. We’re excited to see what will happen when school starts, including Macalester and Hamline [served by the A Line], as well as the University of Minnesota, which is connected to the Green Line” light rail.
In recent weeks, my decidedly unscientific observations of the A Line found the sign bearing the real-time arrival of the bus occasionally inaccurate, a kink Metro Transit says it’s working on. The smartphone transit apps developed by private parties were out of sync, too. (Metro Transit says that when the apps are updated the smartphone schedules will, too, and in addition, the agency is planning to release its own app in the next few months.)
Route 84 service cut back
Chatting with other passengers, I found the major complaint about the A Line is that local Route 84 service has been pared back to serve just St. Paul. So you’re out of luck if you want to take a local bus from St. Paul to the Blue Line LRT connections in downtown Minneapolis, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport or the Mall of America.
One man who commutes from St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis via Blue Line LRT told me that using the A Line is fine in the summer, but walking farther to his bus stop on icy sidewalks in winter is not. “I’ll just drive my car,” he said.
University of Minnesota Prof. David Levinson recently released an accessibility evaluation of the A Line, part of a broader, federally funded project. The study found that workers living within a half mile (or a 10-minute walk) of the A Line can reach 11 percent or 4,500 more jobs within 30 minutes of the new service than before. Employers in the same area can reach 6.4 percent more workers, or 2,000 additional employees.
“We found the net accessibility [of the A Line] is positive overall, so more people are winners than losers and the losers don’t lose very much,” Levinson said.
Roth says the A Line appears to be attracting new riders who like the new stations and the light-rail-like amenities over the local bus.
Levinson noted: “You won’t change your behavior on Day One, it takes awhile to build. Over time, we expect people to use the A Line more than the 84. And if more people use it, then it justifies the investment.”