Why don’t more people take mass transit?

Minneapolis is a fairly dense city, Alex Cecchini writes on streets.mn, but Minneapolitans don’t seem to use mass transit to the extent one would expect.

He found 55 percent of the people in the zip codes he analyzed work within five miles of where they live, which should allow for a commute of 30 minutes or less by mass transit.

So why is that number drastically different than reality? The latest 3-year averages from the American Community Survey put mode shares at [Walk: 6.3%, Bike: 3.6%, Transit: 14.2%] for a grand total of 24.1% – a far cry from the potential.

Why is this? A few thoughts:

  • Parking is “free” (deducted from your salary) at many job sites, even in the city
  • Parking can be cheaper than 2-way transit fare in parts of downtown (thanks to city-subsidized lots/on-street spaces and low property tax rates on private garages)
  • Buses are slow relative to cars (ie not given the dedicated space they deserve, particularly at rush hours)
  • Buses are slow (ie not given proper station design, ticketing, and bus boarding/alighting methods)
  • Buses are confusing and are sometimes inflexible for users, a barrier to entry
  • Daily needs (day cares, groceries, etc) aren’t near transit or easy to handle by bus or bike as designed (example: no strollers on the bus, which makes bringing even one infant to daycare difficult)
  • Short-distance trips to suburbs from Mpls are not well-served by transit or quality bike infrastructure
  • Many parts of town (especially downtown) are at best highly unpleasant to walk or bike by
  • Certain modes are cheaper than they might otherwise be if they paid external costs
  • It gets both cold/snowy and hot/humid in Minnesota
  • Jobs sprawled away after population and highway investments. Barring complete abandonment of low-intensity land-uses in the suburbs, transit/bike/walk-accessible jobs will always have a capped (even with reverse-commuting possibilities)
  • I’d take transit if I could. Unfortunately, I work out in a SW suburb but live in S Minneapolis. Transit doesn’t really serve me well.

  • Chuck

    It would help if there were suburb-to-suburb mass transit. Currently, at least in my neck of the woods (southwestern suburbs), the only bus service is express to downtown Minneapolis.

  • Kassie

    Where I work (State of MN), parking is cheaper than a bus pass. That wasn’t always the case. Under past administrations there was a rule that the bus pass would always be the same price as the cheapest parking option. Now they are building new parking ramps at the cost to tax payers of millions of dollars. Their first step should have been to raise parking costs and lower bus pass costs and have incentives for car pooling and alternative transportation.

    • I see that shuttle bus for state workers operating all day long that takes them from their buildings to their parking garages in Saint Paul (I think). So at least there’s SOME mass transit involved in the commute. :*)

      • Kassie

        No, that shuttle is mostly to take workers from one building to the other. We have two main buildings and people are constantly going back and forth. It does make stops at one of the parking lots, but that is because it is on the way. I try to get my co-workers to take Nice Ride, but I haven’t been too successful.

    • Renae

      Kassie, I work for the Legislature and my parking costs are going way up due to the new ramp. I do think they should lower the cost of the pass though.

  • MrE85

    I’m planning to commute via mass transit tomorrow. But because I neither live or work in Minneapolis, I won’t make any difference on these statistics. Some of the reasons given seem reasonable. I did not realize that strollers were banned on Metro buses. That’s not the case on the State Fair express buses, which is often many people’s first experience riding the bus.

    • Kassie

      Strollers are not banned on buses. Strollers must be folded on the bus and I never see it enforced.

      • MrE85

        I thought that seemed odd.

        • cecc0011

          Hi! I wrote the piece and should have been more clear. Yes, they’re allowed, but need to be folded up. For a single person (even a couple) with even just one kid inside the stroller, a work bag, and a baby bag, hauling the kid out of the stroller and bringing it on the bus is challenging if not impossible.

          In off-peak times, it’s probably not enforced. On crush-loaded peak hour buses (4, 6, 18, and the 16/50 pre-Green Line come to mind for me), it’s probably much more frowned upon. Either way, I just meant it’s a big barrier to entry for folks with kids, and that’s assuming the day care is in the direction of work via a bus line.

          • Veronica

            Hi, Child Passenger Safety Tech here. The reason babies can’t be in strollers is that in the event of a sudden stop, those strollers will go flying. It’s better to have an empty, non-rolling stroller that a stroller with a child in it. Oh, and strollers take more space.

          • Susancz

            “frowned upon” is not banned. 🙂

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        I saw someone recently. The driver asked her to fold the stroller, she said something along the lines of F that and proceeded to stand in the aisle with the full stroller at the front of the bus. Driver said nothing.

        • One of the reasons I don’t take mass transit more is because of all of the stories and tweets on a daily basis from those who do.

          • kevinfromminneapolis

            My bad. 🙂 But today a girl sat next to me and read a graphic novel, so that was cool.

          • Jeremy

            Part of the experience, imo. I respect that there are people who are happy to go from point A to point B and never experience life outside of their personal bubble. I enjoy people watching and being integrated into the fabric of out city. Makes the daily grind more enjoyable.

        • Kassie

          Drivers are instructed to state the rule and take no further action. Same with paying the fare. State the fare, but that’s it. When drivers get hurt it is for things like arguing with passengers over fare or stupid rules. They call the police if there is a safety issue or a chronic offender.

          • kevinfromminneapolis

            I know. It’s just frustrating. Some people clearly have no interest in paying from the moment they step on.

          • Kassie

            The “anyone have change for a Twenty” people are my favorites. They know no one has change for a Twenty, but they can pretend they wanted to pay.

          • Jack

            They should do like Roam in Banff – take your money and give a voucher for reimbursement at a local shop. Hey, they even take US dollars! Great mass transit.

            I took mass transit when working in Minneapolis until we got to flu season. As someone with asthma (even though I get the flu shot), I can’t risk catching the flu from a sick rider or driver. I prefer mass transit – can read or knit on the bus. 🙂

  • John

    Here’s our reasoning for not riding mass transit:

    We live in SLP, really close to 394, so there are express buses that stop within 1/4 mile of my house. My wife works for Hennepin County, but travels between sites – sometimes 2-3 sites in a day, so she has to drive.

    I work in a SE suburb, so there’s no reasonable bus service. The shortest one way trip is about 2 hours. Most are 2.5 or more. I absolutely realize that it makes no sense to have transit convenient along my commute route.

    That alone is enough, but couple it with daycare dropoff/pickup and it’s unfortunately completely out of the question.

    Once my kids are older, and if I stumble into a job that’s on a transit route where I can get to/from work without driving, I’ll be all over it. Right now, it doesn’t work for us. I’d love to be able to get along as a one car family (maybe a two car family where only one car gets used a lot – it is convenient to have a car available, and the car sharing services haven’t made it to my neighborhood yet).

    • cecc0011

      Not arguing with any of the reasons there – I actually drive out to Chanhassen from Mpls each day (though I bike 1-2x a week now when it’s nice). But I do think we have a failure in land-use/transportation choices over the past 50 years. We shouldn’t be surprised that after building auto-oriented places, so many things are only available by car.

      • John

        I’d bike if I had the time. It’s about 20 miles for me, so probably an hour and a half. Unfortunately, the daycare pickup part of my day rules it out.

        • Thomas Mercier

          I’ll be picking up my son soon on the way home from work. He loves the chance to go for a bike ride. One of our criteria for selecting a day care is accessibility by bike along my commute route (which also means accessibility by car most days). It’s a hurdle, but not an insurmountable one when there is a will.

          • John

            Fair. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but I have two kids – ages 9 and 5, and for me, the barrier to entry is too high. I already run myself pretty ragged, and trying to deal with all the extra hassle is more than I want to do.

  • Gary F

    As Chevrolet said in an advertisement years ago.

    “it’s not just your car its your freedom”.

    Well said.

    Work in the burbs, live in St Paul, and being in sales doesn’t allow for it.

  • ravenlore

    I currently have a love/hate relationship with Metro Transit. It makes me a bit crazy that I live in Uptown and work Downtown, yet it takes 40-45 minutes to get to work via transit. That’s a bit excessive. My commute via scooter (8-9 months of the year) is 15 minutes flat from killswitch to killswitch.

  • Kassie

    This year, we were part of the American Community Survey, which is run through the Census, and where I think information like that used here comes from. One of the questions was along the lines of “how did you get to work last week?” Like many people, in any given week I can bike, walk, bus or drive to and from work. I don’t even get to work the same way I get home many days. And since it was Spring when we got the survey, I’m sure some people who bike/walk to work when it is nice hadn’t started yet. So how do you answer?

    • Thomas Mercier

      You answer honestly. One of the criticisms of the bike figures for our regions is that they’re overinflated when looking at annual ridership because the ACS is conducted in warm weather months. It’s a known weakness but its the best we got.

      • Kassie

        But what is the honest answer when in a given week I drive, bike, walk and bus? I went with bike since that’s what I do the most this time of year. (Today I got a ride in and will walk home.)

  • Tyler

    If I took mass transit from home (Plymouth) to work (Golden Valley), it would take me 45 minutes. Drive time: 12 minutes. I’d love to take mass transit, but there aren’t enough people going my way.

  • Jamison S.

    I’d love more transit options as well. It doesn’t help when some bus routes are slower than people out for a run (literally, I’ve run faster than the 10 in Columbia Heights since it stops every half a block)

  • jon

    Google maps my trip to work driving 3.5 miles 8 minutes.
    Google Maps public transit 43 minutes (the last 33 of that is walking 1.7 miles
    Walking 3.5 miles, 1 hour 8 minutes
    Bicycle 3.5 miles 20 minutes

    My commute is suburbs to suburbs…

    My wife works in Minneapolis, her commute according to Google is a 15 minute drive, or a 55 minute to an hour 20 minute bus trip… bicycle is an hour to an hour 10 minutes.
    We live right off an bus line. but unless we are going to some place with in a few blocks of Nicolet mall, the buses are worthless… even when we are going to someplace downtown right around the area the bus runs, it’s usually in the evening, and the buses will have stopped running by the time we are headed home…

    • tboom

      The statement “stopped running by the time we are headed home” is what killed bus riding for me. When I worked in St. Paul and live on a route with a bus every quarter-hour at rush hour and at every 45 min. in the evenings, mass transit was great (and the bus was packed). Then I moved to the South suburbs (specifically looking for a bus route) with a job in Mpls. Between the walk from bus to work and the required lunch hour I couldn’t get in an 8 hour day, even taking the first of three express buses in the morning and the last of two express buses in the afternoon (much less pick up a half-gallon of milk on the way). I always wondered why they didn’t run a “late bus” on express routes a few hours after the rush.

  • Kassie

    Lots of people here saying, oh, I’d take transit if I could, but I chose to buy a house in a place without transit options. So, what you really are saying is, I made a decision to drive to work every day and I’m ok with that, but I’ll complain that there are no buses that come to my house that get me to where I work.

    Yes, there are people who work in places without good transit. But when you buy a house in XXX suburb, you made the decision that day to not have quick mass transit options to where you work. There may be a park and ride, but it is likely still not faster than driving.

    This article is about people who live and work in Minneapolis. It is actually interesting why THOSE people don’t take transit/bike/walk, not why someone in Eden Prairie doesn’t. We know why someone in EP doesn’t, they never intended to.

    • Jeff C.

      I used to live in downtown Minneapolis and work in downtown St. Paul. My commute was a little more than twice as long if I took the express bus between the two downtowns than if I drove. The bus fare was more than my employer-subsidized parking. Since I needed to drive frequently enough I always had the cost of parking taken out of my paycheck, so I was paying for a parking space even when I took the bus. It was hard for me to justify spending more time and money to take the bus, even if it was better for society. I guess I’m just selfish sometimes…

      I do agree with many of the items on the list of why people don’t take the bus more.

      I don’t understand why the MnPass lanes are so cheap! I feel like the carpool lanes should have never been opened up to SOVs and that when they did they should have charged a TON for people to drive in them. Don’t think of it as a luxury that only the rich can use – instead, think of it as a tax on the wealthy that benefits bus riders. The MnPass lane should never be cheaper than a bus ride! “Want an express ride to Minneapolis? Bam! $10!”

  • Leah

    One of my previous company’s perks was a commuter program – if you bused, you received a subsidy for monthly pass. if you walked or biked to work for more than half the days in a month, the same cost of the subsidy was given to you as a gift card to REI each month. Since I walked every day, I ended up with hundreds of dollars in REI money (and now great outdoor gear). Currently, my company’s commuting “subsidy” is getting it through the flex plan, which saves merely cents and is not worth the energy of filling out forms constantly. Driving and parking (now that I have a child and daycare costs) became the cheapest option – even considering gas and car maintenance. I would prefer to take the LRT, which is ridiculous convenient for me, but it’s nearly double the cost of driving.

    • Kassie

      I want that!

  • Anissa

    I live in Minneapolis and daycare makes mass transit impossible for me. This story inspired me to try to plan a trip from my house southbound to daycare (which opens at 6:30) and then northbound to downtown arriving at work by 7am. It can’t be done. Even if I could arrive at work by 7:30, the trip would involve 1/2 mile walk with the baby, take me on 4 different buses, and would take 1 hour 20 minutes, and cost $2:25. Driving, it takes just under 40 minutes, parking costs $3.00, and includes a 1/4 mile walk from the parking lot to work.

    • Kassie

      But the story is also about other transportation choices. Could you bike your child to daycare and then bike to work? I’m not saying it is possible for you, but it is at least something to consider. Or drive the child to daycare and bus from there?

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Well, let’s see.

    – If parking is considered “free” because it’s deducted from your salary, then taxes and health care premiums would have to be so as well. Awesome, I got free health care and no income tax!

    – Are property tax rated different for parcels deemed “private garages?” That sounds like terrible policy.

    – Busses are slow relative to cars because busses stop every couple of blocks, sometimes for minutes at a time.

    – I don’t think buses are confusing, but the number of people who seem clueless about where they’re going or where the bus even stops WHILE THEY’RE on it says otherwise. I chalk that up to “people are dumb.”

    – Other than having to pay fares, no strollers on the bus is the least-enforced rule on the bus. I would say the hangup is more that busing to the grocery store or groceria isn’t practical when you might be getting four or five bags of groceries.

    – “Certain modes are cheaper than they might otherwise be if they paid external costs.” Yeah, like transit. I love how this ignores that as a civil society we accept road and highway costs as a public good.

    – The distaste for cars is palpable. Love it.

    • cecc0011

      – Parking isn’t free, which is why I put it in quotes. The fact that we have stringent government-mandated parking requirements has been a major shaping factor in our built environment and resulting transportation habits.

      – It’s difficult to compare, but yes, parking garages oftentimes pay less per gross sqft than office, retail, or residential because their net value is lower. To say nothing of private parking surface lots who pay next to nothing in taxes. A property tax system that weights “improvements” over “land value” encourages speculation and low-intensities, which contributes to our resulting built form (and the price we pay to store our cars).

      – Yes, I’m aware. Quarter mile stop/station placing system-wide would alleviate a huge amount of this. Pre-paid fares (using proof of payment) and all-door boarding/exiting would speed up stop time significantly. These are relatively inexpensive fixes that would make transit quicker and more reliable while not being a political fight in any way (ie taking lanes away from other street space users) yet we struggle to do so.

      – People aren’t dumb. Bus stops provide little to no signage, arrival times, maps of the routes with major stops/destinations, differences between route sub-letters (ex 6K v 6F etc etc). If you go to the actual streets.mn post and click to link in the paragraph relating to system legibility, you’ll see what I mean.

      – 4-5 bags is what people who shop by car once a week do. Living a walkable lifestyle supported by transit means stopping a little more frequently and carrying a little less each time. It also encourages buying healthy, fresher foods as a result. But yes, the stroller point is well-discussed below in the comments section.

      – Transit has and does cover its costs in many parts of the world. Treating roads as a public good in the context the US has is what’s given us a system that’s bleeding us dry financially, has no price signals to even come close to tying back to any return on investment, and made it impossible to participate in 98% of our economy without purchasing, maintaining, and operating an expensive motor vehicle. If car owners were forced to pay directly for the costs of environmental damage, diminished property values near roads, the opportunity cost of the land under the pavement, congestion, the 35,000 people killed and many more injured, parking, etc etc, things would be different. To say nothing of the ways the government props up the suburban housing market.

      – I’m sure you see it that way. Putting blinders on and acting as though our autopia is without fault isn’t a good way to evaluate situations in life. We have major issues in our land-use and transportation system, chief among them is the sole focus on moving autos over nearly every other goal a society may have.

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        Thanks for the responses. Couple follow-ups:
        – Property taxes are already phenomenally complicated, I don’t think it needs to be made more so to discourage parking.
        – You’re correct the stops provide next to no information, but people can ask before they board.
        – I’m single not going to disrupt my life to take a long bus ride to the grocery store multiple times a week, and I bet most other people with kids won’t either.
        – I don’t know much about how prepaid fares work. I see a mix of passes, cards and cash fares take the longest, but it doesn’t seem terribly long. I’d be interested in all-door boarding with payment when you get off. I rode a bus route like that for a few years and it seemed to work okay. It was from the U through uptown so boarding was confined to a few places and getting off was spread over many.
        – Bleeding dry financially is never good, but the rest of those things are what we accept from public services, as we should. That’s how civilized societies work, even when it sucks.
        – “Moving autos” is how the overwhelmingly vast majority of our country and its goods and services move from place to place. To dictate policy otherwise is a fool’s errand on the road to terrible governance. Pun…not intended.

  • Susancz

    I have seen strollers on the buses many times. I live in NE Mpls where many young families don’t seem to have cars.

  • Amanda

    I stopped taking the bus because I felt unsafe. I’m now giving the Green Line a chance, but I’m under no delusion that the same passengers that made me feel unsafe on the bus are now on the train. They are are just spread across 3 trains rather than crammed on 1 bus. We’ll see.