Metro Transit recently added owl service on two core bus routes, which allows passengers to catch a ride at all hours. The move made the Drive wonder who rides the bus in the wee hours of the morning. Turns out, a lot more people than you'd think.

The Drive hopped a ride from 1 to 5 a.m. last Tuesday to try out Metro Transit's newest 24-hour routes, the Route 10 from downtown Minneapolis to Columbia Heights and the Route 18 from downtown to south Minneapolis.

Naturally the trips were not as packed as a rush hour express, but four hours on the bus afforded the Drive primo people-watching opportunities and a chance to engage with folks.

There was the mom with the unenviable task of getting two sleepy toddlers home. A backpack-carrying man sporting a northwoods-like beard who was headed to a light-rail train. A homeless man with a lady friend said he was just "on the move." One man hopped on the Route 18 at 3 a.m. on Hennepin Avenue, rode for only three blocks and promptly got off. "Just saving a few steps to the Hyatt," he said as he disembarked at 12th Street and LaSalle Avenue.

Most riders, though, were like Zara Gillen of northeast Minneapolis, yawning and slumping in their seats, thankful to have a ride home after a long day at work. For Gillen, who does not have a car and works at the Mall of America, having access to 24-hour bus service is a godsend and takes the pressure off catching the last bus out of downtown.

"I don't want to be stuck in weird places," said Gillen, a Route 10 rider who recalled one case in which she missed a connecting bus and was stranded in Richfield. That night "I was using outlets on garages to charge my phone. I know people were watching. I thought I'd be arrested. I'm glad this route has owl service."

'It's a crucial link'

Sometimes it was eerily quiet as buses slowly rumbled down the road in darkness. Driver Russ Nelson had nary a passenger on his last run of the night until Ashely Fergason boarded a Route 18 at 42nd and Nicollet Av. S. at 3:45 a.m. She had planned to walk to downtown Minneapolis and wait for a bus to take her home to Fridley and then to a job near Northtown Mall in Blaine.

"There was nothing else I could do," she said. "I couldn't get home. I couldn't get to work. This is convenient."

The agency used to have 24-hour service, but that was axed in the early 2000s in the wake of budget reductions. Along with the Green Line, Metro Transit provides owl service on portions of four bus routes: the 5, 10, 18 and 19. Those routes are among those with the highest ridership, said Cyndi Harper, Metro Transit's route planning manager.

"We get customers who request that service run later in the evening or earlier in the morning," Harper said. "Major employers — like the airport, hospitals and manufacturing — as they grow, we need to get people to those jobs. For these people, this is a lifeline. It's not a just nice-to-have thing, it's a crucial link."

As part of its Service Improvement Plan, and if Metro Transit can find the money, it would like to add overnight service on four other routes, including the new A-line and Routes 6 and 21 in Minneapolis and Route 64 in St. Paul.

"We are working to make it more useful all the time," Harper said. "It [the bus] is not for just getting to work for a daytime shift."

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