Imagine you are on a business trip in an unfamiliar city. You need to get from your hotel to a dinner meeting, so you walk to the nearest transit station. There, you find no system map, no route map and no schedule. The station does not even have a sign indicating which transit lines stop there.
You are lost.
Welcome to Metro Transit’s bus system.
In an era in which the Minneapolis-St. Paul region is considering spending billions of dollars on rail transit, it is worth reflecting on our current transit system. Time and time again, we hear mayoral candidates, developers, local businesses and citizens say that the region needs rail because too many people do not, and will not, ride the bus.
But it is virtually impossible to use our bus system without preplanning your entire round trip. Maybe if the bus system were user-friendly, more people would ride it.
Metro Transit already has a map and schedule printed for each bus line. Why not post those maps and schedules at each stop? True, bus information is available online, but the bus system should be accessible for all citizens, not just those who own smartphones.
By posting physical maps and schedules, Metro Transit could provide a useful tool that both benefits current riders and informs potential riders about local routes.
Other cities post small maps and schedules on every bus-stop pole. Metro Transit has maps and schedules at each of its light-rail stations.
Metro Transit should also post system maps at every major transit station (or every bus shelter) — and on every bus. Again, the agency already produces the maps; it just doesn’t post them anywhere. As a result, even if riders know their first bus route, they cannot see where, or if, they can transfer to another line to get to their actual destination.
No train system would consider omitting system maps from stations and vehicles. Even our local bike share system, Nice Ride, posts system maps at every station.
Yet our bus system remains regional transit’s neglected stepchild.
A user-friendly transit system is important for the metro region. Millennials, that ubiquitous generation of 16- to 35-year-olds that comprise the bedrock of the 21st century’s workforce, increasingly choose to live car-free or car-lite.
They decide where to live before they find a job, and they are swelling our nation’s urban areas at a rate not seen in 60 years. If the Minneapolis-St. Paul region wants to remain competitive, it will need to find ways to accommodate Millennials long before our planned light-rail and streetcar systems are built out.
An improved bus system would also better accommodate our region’s underserved lower-income population. Consider that the AAA-estimated annual cost of owning one car is more than $9,000, while the annual cost of unlimited Metro Transit bus and train trips tops out at $1,362.
This means that if someone living at the poverty line paid the average costs of owning a car, they would pay 79 percent of income on transportation. With public transit, they would pay 12 percent or less.
Our transit system needs big capital fixes, including streetcar and light rail. For those to happen, we need our Legislature to step up and pass a dedicated transit tax.
But there are inexpensive yet effective improvements Metro Transit could make in the meantime. Why not start by posting some maps?
Sam Rockwell is a land use and transportation professional. He lives in Minneapolis.