Quency Annan took an Uber to the Maple Grove Transit Station Wednesday afternoon and arrived a few minutes late. He missed his express bus to downtown Minneapolis and had to wait for the next one.
That might not have happened if he could have rented a scooter or bicycle to make the short trip from his job to the transit station.
"That would have been good for today," he said while sitting on a bench wearing earpods. "Minutes matter."
The first and last miles of a commute can be the most challenging legs transit commuters face, and it's an issue getting more attention as transit planners look for ways to make it easier and convenient for riders to connect with other nonautomotive modes of transportation, and keep facilities relevant as commuting patterns change.
That's the thinking behind a remodeling project nearing completion at the Maple Grove station, which is transforming the 20-year-old facility near the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes into a mobility hub.
Hubs are where a variety of on-demand transportation options are available in a single place, giving travelers like Annon a variety of ways to get from the station to their final destination and complete "last mile" trips.
In Maple Grove, a small parking was lot ripped out and replaced with a new driveway featuring dedicated lanes for taxis, Uber and Lyft vehicles, and My Ride, the city's on-demand transit service. The station also installed electric vehicle charging stalls.
"We want the transit station to accommodate all kinds of services for people who are going shopping or going to work," said Mike Opatz, Maple Grove's transit administrator. "We need to pivot and engage different services."
Though electric scooters and bikes are not available yet, the station at 12350 Main St. has space to add them. Options such as car sharing could be added, too, Opatz said.
Mobility hubs have been a hot topic nationally for the past few years, and they are most often found in urban areas. Two years ago, Minneapolis, to reduce its carbon footprint, launched a pilot to encourage people to leave their cars at home. It launched 12 hubs with bikes and scooters at busy bus stops that year and had 25 in 2020. This year the city will have "a very limited number of locations for the last few months of the 2021 pilot season," and will use federal funds to deploy a full 2022 pilot program, said city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie.
Mobility hubs, however, are starting to pop up in the suburbs. SouthWest Transit, serving Eden Prairie, Chaska and Chanhassen, a few years ago turned its bus stations into hubs. Besides having bikes for rent, the stations have designated pickup and drop-off spots for its on-demand ride service and app-based ride share companies. Jefferson Lines, providing intercity travel, serves the stations. Additional bike sharing, possibly car sharing and scooter rental could be on the horizon, said CEO Len Simich.
"We had planned to roll this out in 2021, but COVID derailed these plans until next year," he said.
Still, suburban mobility hubs are rare.
Studies have shown people are less likely to use public transportation if they are more than a mile from the nearest transit station or bus stop. That is a reality for many suburban commuters, steering them away from transit.
Twin Cities transit ridership dropped precipitously with the onset of the pandemic, particularly in the suburbs, and has been slow to rebound. Mobility hubs could play a big role in getting people back on transit, said Cole Hiniker, the Metropolitan Council's multimodal planning manager.
"Transit needs to establish its reattractiveness to bring them back," Hiniker said. "Better service is going to attract more ridership."
The Met Council before the pandemic was already looking at the possibility of establishing mobility hubs on high-frequency and rapid bus lines, and is halfway through a yearlong study to figure out where to put them. It's also developing a guide for local governments and transit providers to make the investment. The idea is that hubs would be places to rent bikes, scooters or catch a ride share, and perhaps incorporate other services such as drop boxes for packages and places to get information.
"They can be a neighborhood hub," Hiniker said. "How do we expand the reach of transit? Maple Grove is a good example. The guide can prime the pump."
Suburban mobility hubs are a logical next step in connecting communities to city centers, said Chad Chitwood of the American Public Transportation Association. Many communities have long had bus routes, commuter parking and bus facilities that provided access to the larger transit network, but not necessarily all in one location, he said. Getting from home to the bus stop and the reverse is a major pain point for those who live farther out from transit options, leading commuters to opt to drive instead, he said.
Hubs "are particularly important given the growing diversity of suburbs and the fact that millennials expect multimodal transit options in their communities," he said. "A holistic mobility hub provides access to public transit, cabs, bike share and other micro-transit options that help make transit more attractive and easier to navigate."
Annan, a millennial from Brooklyn Center, agrees.
"I would love that," he said of having bikes or scooters available. "I'd use it."
Jack Urban of Minneapolis said he thinks turning the Maple Grove station into a mobility hub is "a good idea." He took an Uber to the station to catch a bus after leaving work at a nearby collection agency. Sometimes he walks. He said he'd consider using a bike if they were available.
"It's cheaper than using a car," he said before boarding a Route 781 bus.
Opatz doesn't expect express bus ridership to totally dry up and hopes it will pick up after Labor Day.
But whatever happens, "we are looking to future-proof the transit station and [do] what we can do to serve the community," he said. "We have to be ready to adapt to changes in transit market. We have to be willing to be innovative about things."
Correction: A previous verison misstated the number of mobility hubs in Minneapolis in 2019 and 2020.
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768