Will it draw hot chicks?
That will be an important sign of whether Minnesota's first experiment with bus rapid transit, the value-priced alternative to light rail, actually works, according to a leading national expert who came to town last week to check out preparations for the line and advise local officials.
It may not be politically correct to say so out loud, said Alan Hoffman, a San Diego-based consultant, "but it's what I call the 'AYF Factor.' Attractive young females are the canary in the coal mine of public transit. They're sensitive to safety, and they want to be in a nice spot. If you draw them in, you are reaching a broad market. A whole lot of transit systems, when you look around, you notice certain populations are missing."
He was addressing, in Eagan, dozens of officials involved in the creation of the Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit Corridor -- a project fast-forwarded by the Twin Cities' success in obtaining a major federal grant in competition with dozens of cities. More than two dozen new buses will be added to the corridor from Lakeville to Eagan and into town, and they should be running by 2010.
His comment about AYFs crystallized much of what had been said, by himself and others, throughout a day-long session:
Buses can be as successful as -- in fact more successful than -- trains. But only if planners understand why they tend to be seen as the poor relation to rail, and take a series of steps to make sure they do for people what rail does.
Public officials, he said, will need to think like brand managers for a corporation. They will need to create an image of stylishness that goes from the buses and stations themselves down to the last detail. They will need to shave every possible second off a commuter's trip.
Cheryl Thole, of the Florida-based National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, agreed. A classic case, she said: Train-like payment of fares in advance, while people wait on platforms, and then instant entry through multiple doors once the vehicle arrives.
"It's best to have off-board fare collection," she said, "so the bus is not sitting at the station while people dig into their pockets and shove crummy dollars into the fare box. But most systems have on-board fare collection. We need to try to get away from that, but it's pretty expensive to implement, even though fare collection can have a significant impact on the quality of service."
The Cedar Avenue line is planning to offer off-board fare collection, according to Dakota County's transit specialist, Sam O'Connell. But planners recall that facet of the Hiawatha light-rail project was one of the few hiccups in that line, taking far longer to get up and running than expected.
"We're trying to work it into the regional 'Go pass' system," she said, "but we're not sure if that will be in place by the time buses are running." Go-To cards are valid on buses and trains.
Jill Hentges, of Metro Transit, said she expects the Cedar Avenue line to be the first to get rolling, before another bus rapid transit line that is being planned for the I-35 corridor through Lakeville and Burnsville.
She stressed that one important innovation on the way is the transformation of two downtown Minneapolis streets into transit corridors, with buses having full command of two lanes on both. That means a bus that's ready to roll doesn't have to sit and wait behind another that's still boarding.
"This is a very, very different operation and very exciting," she said, "because buses will move into and out of downtown very quickly, with three times as many boardings as exist today."
The time calculation will be critical, Hoffman said, as will a train-like clarity about where the buses go -- too often bus maps are confusing to people. And the look of things will be key. He showed a lavishly landscaped Disney transit stop as a case in point.
"People from the Midwest who never ride buses will ride them at Disney," he said, because they're designed to signal to middle-class people, chicks included, that it's "meant for someone like me."
David Peterson • 612-673-4440