Transit use hits historic levels in metro, nationally

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2014 - 7:39 AM

Nationally, public transit’s hitting numbers not seen since ‘56.

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Due to demographics, high gas prices, a recovering economy and faster, more convenient service, transit use is soaring.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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Each weekday morning, as befits the name, Tim Busse climbs on a bus. It’s a route he calls “wildly successful” — about half full when it leaves Burnsville, but packed every morning after its Bloomington stop. “So packed that people were standing, until we got a much bigger, much nicer motor coach instead of a city bus.”

His son isn’t as happy. By the time he arrives at the same station to hop a bus to college classes, there’s often no place to park.

There’s both pain and progress as the Twin Cities, like the nation, experiences a steep rise in the use of public transit. Nationally, transit use last year hit 10.7 billion, a level not seen since the mid-1950s, and locally, total metro area ridership sneaked past 94 million in 2013, according to data compiled late last week — a jump of 6 million since 2007.

High gas prices, a recovering economy, a multitude of new facilities and faster, more frequent service explain a good deal of the jump so far. And transit advocates say they expect two growing demographic segments to provide continued thrust for years to come.

 

“Millennials and seniors are going to be huge in keeping public transportation hot,” said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association.

“Millennials are texting and on Wi-Fi with their mobile devices and finding that a host of new smartphone applications is demystifying the rider experience by telling them exactly when the bus is coming. And growing numbers of seniors, the older they get, the less they feel like driving at all, or driving at night, or fighting rising congestion.”

Locally, in a year that saw the state’s first Bus Rapid Transit line launched out of Dakota County, the suburban transit service, the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA), set a new high of more than 2.7 million rides. From the opposite direction, the Maple Grove transit service’s 836,443 was also a record.

The big player in the area, Metro Transit, didn’t quite hit a record, but it provided 5 million more rides than it had four years earlier.

The next three months will see more advances:

• In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Green Line light rail linking the downtowns opens in June. The effect will ripple through the whole system: For instance, Northstar commuter rail clients hopping off near Target Field and connecting to light rail will have trains at five-minute intervals instead of 10, said Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland.

• Suburban Scott County has its first full-fledged indoor-wait transit station ready to go, and on April 1 is staging a public hearing aimed at testing the water on a proposed half-cent sales tax for roads and transit.

• The MVTA board next month is expected to consider a proposal to widen a small experiment with Wi-Fi equipped buses to its entire fleet.

“The pilot has been quite successful,” said spokeswoman Robin Selvig. “We probably can’t expand to the whole fleet all at once, but it’s our goal to do that by the end of the year.”

Gas prices are motivator

Gas prices have been one big stimulant.

Broadly speaking, transit use shot skyward in 2008, when gas prices first topped $4 a gallon.

As prices dropped back and the recession hit, decreasing the size of the workforce, ridership dropped.

But beneath the radar, Miller said, what was quietly happening was just as important. “Transit agencies nationally saw huge increases in Web hits as people started to just try to figure out how to even use a bus. And then when gas prices dropped, ridership didn’t drop as much. People needed a catalyst to try it, and once they did, they saw the benefits, like sleeping or reading and not stressing over traffic. We found over and over that when gas spiked and then fell back, many people stayed on public transportation.”

With the U.S. population expected to grow 100 million by 2050, transit will become more appealing, she said. “Do we want them all on the road? Of course not. They’re already congested.”

Tracking Twin Cities numbers, and millennials in particular, is complicated by the irony that sometimes a huge buildup in transit capacity can temporarily depress existing transit numbers.

Amid lots of jumps, for instance, the University of Minnesota bus service ridership plunged by well over a million rides since 2010 after having risen strongly before.

Two explanations, university officials say, include more students living in the multitude of new dwelling units near campus, and Green Line construction through campus that created havoc for buses. Metro Transit says its routes were affected, too.

That could portend some impressive 2014 figures, considering that Blue Line light rail is now producing more than 10 million rides all by itself.

Growing pains

All this is not without strain, riders and transit agencies say.

The switch to a bigger, nicer coach that rider Busse recalls is triggered by mathematics showing a route is under duress, said MVTA’s Selvig, but that’s not always possible.

“The neediest routes trigger uses of 57-seat coaches in place of 40-seat buses,” she said, “and we do that all the time, but sometimes we just don’t have the bigger buses. We’ve had a lot of standees in the last year or so, on a lot of trips.”

As for the over-jammed parking lot in Bloomington, Metro Transit’s Drew Kerr acknowledged the problem but said a more permanent solution is in store with the planned arrival of a ramp not far away when the Orange Line rapid busway on Interstate 35W arrives later in the decade.

Overall, he said, there are spot shortages in places, but 12,000 more spaces systemwide than riders are using. The agency is moving to add spaces in key spots, he said, including 580 at Maplewood Mall last year and the doubling to 1,000 spaces of a Brooklyn Park facility that’s 99 percent full.

“Usage is at its highest in the system’s history,” he said, “but that’s just consistent with what’s happening with riders.”

 

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

 

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