Vlad Eletsky is one of the nearly 700 people who board buses at a stop on 9th Street just west of Nicollet Mall each day.
But there’s no bus shelter, so when it’s raining, snowing or frigidly cold, he and his fellow passengers try to wait at the Target Store across the street, or at a nearby restaurant.
“But [at the restaurant] they chase you away, normally,” he said. “Especially in winter.”
The 9th Street bus stop is one of more than 460 exposed stops across the metro area with enough riders to qualify for a shelter, according to a Star Tribune analysis of Metro Transit passenger data.
Hundreds of passengers a day use those stops; in many cases, well over the 40 passengers needed to justify a shelter under Metro Transit rules.
Meanwhile, more than 200 of Metro Transit’s 801 existing bus shelters did not have enough riders to meet qualifications in late 2013.
The findings are based on data recently released publicly for the first time, documenting bus boardings for more than 10,000 stops served by Metro Transit.
The need for shelters is starkest downtown, down Franklin Avenue and along Penn and Fremont avenues on the North Side, where residents rely heavily on public transportation and crime rates are higher. And maps show that only nine shelters in north Minneapolis are lighted, far fewer than other parts of the city.
Metro Transit said it has been playing catch-up for several years, replacing a wave of shelters that reached the end of their 20-year life span — allowing them to build only a handful of new ones. The agency also recently inherited 153 shelters from CBS Outdoor, which did not follow these ridership guidelines when installing shelters.
“When you look at the number of stops that really are at a warranted level, I think we can do better,” said Brian Lamb, the agency’s general manager.
It’s one of the reasons, he said, why Metro Transit is focusing this year on expanding the total number of shelters, adding upward of 75 throughout the metro area. That’s on top of replacements.
Typical shelter costs $6,000
The placement of shelters is a tricky calculus for transit officials. To qualify for a shelter, the agency requires a bus stop to have at least 40 average daily boardings in Minneapolis and St. Paul, or 25 in the suburbs. Not every location has the topography or space available to accommodate one, however.
Each basic shelter typically costs $6,000 to install. Some of the highest ridership stops in downtowns provide improvised protection, such as building overhangs and the Wells Fargo building lobby on the popular 6th Street corridor in downtown Minneapolis.
A Metro Transit review spurred by the Star Tribune analysis found that about 325 urban and 137 suburban stops without formal shelters met the boarding requirements between late August and early December 2013.
Many of the urban stops that qualify for shelters have hundreds of passengers. Fifty-one exceed the minimum by 100 or more; 24 by 200 or more and 18 by 300 or more.
Conversely, about 178 urban shelters and 39 suburban shelters had daily boardings that fell below qualifications during that same period. Sixty-nine of those were recently owned by CBS. The agency typically only removes shelters that fall below 50 percent of the usage qualifications, depending on their age, which was the case at 96 locations.
“We just inherited those, we didn’t choose where they were going to be,” said Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland of the acquired CBS shelters. CBS still owns about 100 shelters in St. Paul and Roseville.
Most light-rail stops are outfitted with button-activated heat, but heat remains hard to come by at bus stops outside of downtown. Based on average boardings at each stop, heated locations account for about 28 percent of daily rides in late 2013, including transit centers and park-and-rides. Some of those former bus riders along University Avenue may now be using heated light-rail stops.
Installing heat can cost between $15,000 and $75,000 extra for each shelter.
Michael McDowell, transit organizer for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said whether a shelter is heated or not, protection is needed in Minnesota’s climate.
“I’ve stood in negative 30 degree weather with windchill,” he said. “I can’t imagine a mother and children doing that.”
The top ridership stop without a shelter outside of the downtowns is Franklin and Nicollet avenues, where about 462 people board the No. 2 eastbound each day. A car destroyed its shelter in 2008, and the stop is on a list of priority sites for a new one.
Hennepin and 7th Street was the busiest bus stop in the entire Twin Cities until recently, when routes were changed. It now features a modest awning shelter that can fit several people, though about 4,000 people pass through the stop every day.
“There should be either a bigger one, or two of them, because one doesn’t cover for how many people are here throughout the day,” said rider Mauricio Majors, waiting for the No. 5.
Siqveland said a larger shelter with heat and light will be installed there in February 2015.
Fewer lights in North Side
McDowell, who has been interviewing North Side bus riders, believes north Minneapolis gets shortchanged with transit amenities — particularly given the area’s high ridership. Many people he has interviewed would like to see more lights at bus stops.
“There is crime on the North Side. A lot of people are concerned standing at these stops with there not being light,” he said. A map of lighted shelters bears that out, showing that just nine shelters on the North Side have light, though some others may be located at well-lit intersections. Lake Street and University Avenue, by comparison, each have several dozen.
Siqveland said it is more cost-effective to add utilities in conjunction with a major transportation project; Lake Street was rebuilt in 2008 and University Avenue was rebuilt for the new light-rail line.
Some of the corridors with high ridership stops and few shelters are along Fremont and Penn avenues in north Minneapolis, although they do have some shelters. Many of those passengers are waiting for buses headed to downtown, the northern suburbs and the Mall of America, McDowell said.
Metro Transit’s 2014 priority list includes six new shelters on Fremont Avenue, but Penn Avenue may wait until new rapid bus service comes to that corridor in 2017.
Research is limited on the impact of shelters on ridership, but McDowell thinks it makes a difference.
“If we have really nice stops, that reflects what type of transportation system we have and it makes people want to ride,” he said.