Transit, Minnesota-style

This week, I’ve traveled to Minnesota, and I’m getting exposed to a few different transit systems.  Ironically, we had planned to rent a car for the week, but our treatment by the rental car company, and a bit of extra reflection, made us reconsider.  I give my wife a lot of credit in that regard.  She had rarely ridden transit before we met; now, she thinks in terms of what transit is possible, rather than driving directions first.

So, once we decided against the rental car at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, we walked about 50 yards with our luggage to the Metro Transit station.  Our tickets, paid through a credit card, came out of a computer, as some of the best systems in the country have.  The $1.75 one-way fare seemed pretty reasonable, as did options for longer-term passes ($4 for a 6-hour “event pass,” $6 for a full-day pass).

The station was outdoors, which might be unattractive to locals in the tough winters, but it was at least covered.  We didn’t wait long for our train; even on Sundays, the headways are about 15 minutes.  That, to me, is really important; people need to know that they can walk up to a station and get a ride in short order.  I’ll cover that more in a moment.

Anyway, the ride was smooth, comfortable, clean, and convenient.  It dropped us right in front of the Metrodome, where I was headed to the Twins-Astros game (at which a Twins fan called me a douchebag after I rooted for the Astros).

The fact that Google Transit has the Minnesota system embedded in it really makes a difference to me.  It means I can use the Google Maps function on my iPhone both to locate myself and then figure out what bus/train to take.  There’s even a big difference for me between having the transit planning function on Google Transit, rather than just the system’s website, because it’s easier to use Google Maps on my phone than the website.

We didn’t take other transit yet in Minneapolis, but I saw there was at least one thoroughfare downtown where cars were forbidden but buses roamed free.  I also noted a lot of bike lanes downtown and learned of bike paths connecting much of the city.  It seems possible to live car-free in the area; our hosts have one car between them, and the husband takes an early-morning and evening rush-hour bus from the suburbs to downtown and back.

My only worry about the Minneapolis system is the lack of clear signage.  I saw several bus stop signs with no indication of what bus stopped there.  Maybe there are compelling reasons for that, but I’m not sure what they are.  As I’ve said many times, transit agencies really should work to make it so easy and foolproof to ride that even a chimpanzee could figure it out (and wouldn’t that be a hoot!).

We’ve moved on to Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic and the well-named Rochester Honkers.  In theory, this town of about 100,000 could be fairly “transit-friendly,” at least in the downtown area around Mayo Clinic.  But there are a few big obstacles that I see standing in the way of the Rochester Bus‘s path to greatness.

For one thing, each ride on the bus–each ride–is $2.  I don’t remember ever paying that kind of money for a single bus ride–I’m not even sure I’ve paid that much on a single light rail ride.  We each bought a pack of 10 fares for $14 each, dropping the per-ride fare to $1.40 (free transfers when you ask for them).  Still, that seems needlessly expensive.

For another thing, most of the bus stops don’t have route numbers on them (like Minneapolis).  I’m not sure the thinking behind that, nor behind the fact that many/most of the stops I’ve seen don’t have a bench or shelter (some of the downtown ones do).  Even the downtown hub of the system doesn’t have any kind of structure–there are just three adjoining shelters.  So, many waiting commuters were standing against the wall of a building.  I don’t mind any of this stuff myself, as a transit zealot, but I could see why someone would choose not to go through this.

For a third thing, and perhaps most significantly, the best headways I could see were about 30 minutes or more (an hour in some cases).  That’s tragic because in our case, we’ve had to take a taxi twice as a result.  In other words, we wanted to leave our hotel in time to get to a 7:30am appointment at one of the hospitals, but we would’ve had to leave the house around 6:15am to walk to a stop and catch a bus at around 6:30 for about 4 minutes, then transfer, and end up there around 6:45 or so.  Particularly at a morning rush hour time, I would hope frequency would increase.

For a fourth thing, the Rochester bus system’s website is pretty archaic.  It’s really just a glorified PDF of what you can get (and what we did get) when you pick up a paper copy of their schedule.  There is certainly no “trip planner” or Google Transit compatibility.  So, most of our rides have been mostly trial-and-error or by asking for help.  Again, not tragic by any stretch, and I’m happy to do it, but if you want to increase ridership in a meaningful way, you have to make it easy, and it isn’t easy here.

That said, we’re blessed to have a place to stay that’s relatively close (a mile or so) to where we need to go, so we’re planning to use buses most/all week.

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