Category Archives: Public transit

Study says Blue Line’s development impact is minimal | Star Tribune

Adam Belz in the Star Tribune writes: Study says Blue Line’s development impact is minimal, discussing a recent study by Sarah West and Needham Hurst of Macalester. I get quoted:

“My first sense is the Green Line is a better line,” said David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. “It’s going to a denser area.”

Levinson said that the Green Line — and any subsequent additions to the light rail system — will also improve the value of land along the Blue Line, thus making it more ripe for development as the rail system grows and more people use it.

“That positive feedback system sort of kicks in, and it reinforces the growth,” Levinson said.

The Land of Make-Believe –

Cross-posted from  “The Land of Make-Believe


The Land of Make-Believe

Minneapolis and St. Paul are considering a number of streetcar lines. Three have risen to the forefront. The Central/Nicollet Line in Minneapolis, the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, and the Seventh Street Streetcar in St. Paul. In part this is viewed as an economic development tool. In part this nostalgia for an earlier simpler time, when we were all children, growing up in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Life in pre-war Pittsburgh.

We at have gone back and forth and back and forth on whether streetcars are a good idea. Obviously it is context dependent, and some ideas are better (less bad) than others.

As with anything, resources are not infinite (I wish they were, but if wishes were horses we would all be riding around on horses). Thus there are trade-offs.

The general trade-off is that streetcars are more expensive than buses, particularly in initial capital expenditures. Thus with a finite amount of resources you can do fewer streetcars or more buses. Those rail-based rides are slightly nicer (particularly smoother) (since with streetcars you are building some of your own infrastructure, while with buses you are literally free-riding on infrastructure built by someone else, in various stages of disrepair).

Streetcars do have a number of other properties in the current world that makes them less advantageous in many situations. They are starting from a base of zero lines. Thus until they are as ubiquitous as the bus, you are more likely to be able to have single-seat ride on a bus than a streetcar if you want to go anywhere past where the initial streetcar lines go. In a world with a near ubiquitous streetcar network, building an extension is potentially a better decision than in a world with a near ubiquitous bus network. Thus while it may or may not have made sense to dismantle the streetcar system, if it didn’t doesn’t imply it makes sense to build one now. The contexts are different.

Bus lines can also branch. Sometimes a city is a tree (in contrast to the famous Christopher Alexander article), and branching systems coming together on an exclusive bus-way provide high frequency in high demand areas and lower frequency (but a single seat) in lower demand areas farther from the center, as illustrated by this schematic map of the Ottawa BRT.

Ottawa Busway - Sometimes a City is a Tree

However if you are going to put a line in a place somewhere, you probably want to find a corridor where there is a lot of local short-distance demand so that transfers are not the main issue.


Now I am dubious of the specific forecasting results (like why does Enhanced Bus have fewer corridor riders than No Build – Table 2, or why is the thumb on the scale for rail up to 25 minutes of In-Vehicle Time (p.2) when average journey-to-work time in the Twin Cities is less than 25 minutes, among others) that have been presented, and am in general skeptical of forecasts (having spent the first five years of my career building such models, hopefully less internally inconsistent), but nevertheless, even if the modeling doesn’t show it, this is obviously one of the best corridors in the region to make a transit investment of some kind. It is plausibly the main North-South spine of Minneapolis, certainly downtown and Northeast. So if you were going to build a streetcar, this would not be the worst place you could do it. In addition to the conventional home-to-work and shopping and restaurant markets, there is a large entertainment market (sports, theater, museums) and tourism market (conventioneers) which this serves.

But we run into the general problem of streetcars (as opposed to LRT), shared right-of-way.

Imagine instead we extended the car-free Nicollet Mall south of 12th Street down to Lake Street (yes, through the K-Mart). Local merchants and restauranteurs would undoubtedly scream for a while, since clearly many of their customers do arrive by automobile (hence the crowded parking lots). But there are many cross streets, and a number of alleys, which could be used to access parking (structured if necessary), while keeping Nicollet (Eat Street) clear of cars and better for transit (which would operate at somewhat higher effective speeds with less auto-interference, pedestrians, and bicyclists. 1st and Blaisdell would of course get more traffic. So this solution is not without consequences.

Extending the car-free Nicollet Transit Mall deserves its own post.

Even then, it runs into many at-grade crossings, which can be assisted with transit signal priority or preemption, but still creates conflicts. Given the grand visions we do have in this city, it is surprising that the (arguably) fifth densest downtown in the United States doesn’t have a subterranean transit line either existing or in the plans.

In other cities, there are of course subways, which are not cheap, as well as bus tunnels, as in Seattle, which are also not cheap. But then you can go fast. Studies in the 1970s considered this option, and it was also considered for Washington Avenue at the University, and perhaps for one of the rejected alternatives of the SWLRT, but nothing I have seen recently even raises this option. Now I am not the type to say “Go Big or Go Home”, I am surprised no one else is saying it aside from a few forum posts at UrbanMSP.

So while I am not advocating a subway, or a streetcar, this is among the least bad routes if you win the lottery and are somehow flush with cash.

Midtown Greenway

If there did not exist an almost fully grade separated corridor between the proposed Southwest LRT and the existing Hiawatha Corridors, planners would be dreaming of one. So given there is one, this isn’t really a question of if, but when. Something will be done here. For all the usual reasons, this should be a busway (with e.g. electric buses), but it will (for all the usual political reasons) of course be an LRT of some kind (perhaps using streetcar sized vehicles). There can be some interesting multi-modalconnections to the Hiawatha Line. There might also be opportunities to extend this to St. Paul.

Seventh Street

Schmidt's Brewery Castle, via Google Streetview

If Minneapolis gets it, St. Paul wants it. Seventh is St. Paul’s Main Street, so this is a plausible corridor to do something.

The problem here is implied reading between the lines of Bill’s recent post, there isn’t enough demand in St. Paul. Somehow streetcars are supposed to solve that. For all the usual reasons this should be an arterial BRT (as the Metropolitan Council has proposed), but even more so, since the demand here is so much lower than the demand on the Central/Nicollet corridor. That is, Minneapolis has a line that connects to St. Paul (dubbed Green) and Bloomington (dubbed Bloo). While there is some dumbbell-like shape to the demand patterns (higher at the ends than the middle), they are asymmetric dumbbells, the Minneapolis weight is far greater than St. Paul or Bloomington. So though there is a certain triangular symmetry to completing a “Yellow” (Yellow+Blue=Green) rail connection between Bloomington and St. Paul, it’s demand will inevitably be lower than the other two so long as Minneapolis is larger than the other two cities in the Triplex. There is no guarantee that a Seventh Street line would connect to the Bloo Line. (To be fair, the Midtown Greenway might also be called Yellow, since it connects the Bloo and Green lines as well, maybe one can be the Turquoise route). [There is I recall a fantasy transit map to interline the 7th Street Streetcar with the Midtown Greenway, via Ayd Mill Road, thus enabling there to be a single Yellow Line, but it won't do well for the Bloomington to St. Paul market].

The Land of Make Believe, the other end of the Streetcar in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

Just like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, the streetcar would go to a castle, in this case the Kingdom of Schmidt’s. There are differences: Schmidt’s produced beer, the Castle in Land of Make-Believe intoxicated children with something else — visions of streetcars.


Commuter Rail Ridership Declining Despite Increase in Lines

Caroline Cournoyer at Governing Magazine writes: Commuter Rail Ridership Declining Despite Increase in Lines:

“While the public may love the notion of commuter rail lines, they are perhaps the least popular form of transit for politicians. The subsidies for commuter rail are tremendous, says Michael Smart, a researcher with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. A study of the Minneapolis Northstar line concluded that taxpayers were paying a subsidy (which included capital costs) of $89 per passenger. Other studies showed subsidies of much lower rates, but still significantly higher than those for bus or subway riders.”

The study referred to is this 2011 blog post.  Northstar Ridership is of course up since the fares were cut by 25%. (In 2013 it was  787,239, up 17% … so ~700,000 riders pay less so that ~87,000 pay at all)  I don’t think revenue is up, though the cost per passenger is of course lower.

The influence of light rail transit on transit use: An exploration of station area residents along the Hiawatha line in Minneapolis

My student Jessica Schoner and colleague Jason Cao recently published:

Cao and Schoner (2014) The influence of light rail transit on transit use: An exploration of station area residents along the Hiawatha line in Minneapolis. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice
Volume 59, January 2014, Pages 134–143


  • We compare transit use of residents in LRT corridor and control corridors well served by bus transit.
  • People moving into LRT corridor before its opening use transit more than those in control corridors.
  • Transit use of people moving into LRT corridor after its opening is similar to that of urban controls.
  • LRT-related land use and transportation policies are necessary for ridership growth.

Rail transit is often implemented in the corridors already with high transit demand. When evaluating their ridership benefits, previous studies often choose the city/county/region as control groups, rather than comparable corridors without rail, and hence overstate their impacts. In this study, we employ propensity score matching to explore the impact of Hiawatha light rail transit (LRT) on transit use. We find that compared to residents in similar urban corridors, the Hiawatha LRT promotes transit use of residents who have lived in the corridor before its opening, and that residents who moved to the corridor after its opening use transit as often as new residents in the comparable urban corridors without LRT. We conclude that besides LRT, land use and transportation policies are necessary for ridership growth.

Propensity score matching; Self-selection; Transit-oriented development; Travel behavior; Urban form

‘The damned blighters will only want to ride more.’

MRW writes in:

Your work on bus stop signs was recently brought to my attention.

Perhaps you have the wrong goals in mind.  If we provide more information to the public, the damned blighters will only want to ride more.  And the motto of most transit undertakings is that “If we can only get rid of the damned passengers, we could run a FINE bus company!”.

I’ve only been in the public transportation business 50 years, and never driven an auto in my life, so I know of what I speak!

It’s almost as if the passengers had certain inalienable rights, like route and schedule information. Of course, most of this is available on electronic devices, so make sure you carry one when waiting for a few hours on a frozen (or 100 degree in Broward County FL) street corner for a bus that may or may not come.  I’ve waited on quite a few of those corners, and never once, on a late Sunday evening, did I see an official of the transit system waiting with me!

Better bus stops

Bus stops are making the big time.

Metro transit is launching an Enhanced Transit Information Signage Survey (The ETISS). All are encouraged to participate.

Metro Transit wants to enhance information at bus stops. Please answer a few quick questions to help us identify new improvements.

Also, Eric Roper has a nice article in today’s Strib: Building a Better Bus Stop quoting previous Streets.MN posts on the subject.

University of Minnesota professor David Levinson has written extensively and recently at Streets.MNabout what he has dubbed the “sorry state of bus stop signs” in the Twin Cities. Levinson argues that bus signs in the region provide too little information, particularly compared to other transit-friendly cities.

“If you go to most bus stops in the city of Minneapolis, the bus stop sign says ‘bus stop,'” Levinson said in an interview this fall. “Which is I guess better than not having a sign at all. But if you go to another city where they care about transit, the bus stop signs provide a lot of information about where the buses are going, when they run, what the schedule is.”


Also has an article today by Alex Pareene: Why mass transit is doomed in America: Politicians don’t know people who use it: If big, liberal cities can’t adequately fund their transit systems, what hope does anywhere else have? Also extensively quoting Streets.MN:

Take Minneapolis, a decently dense city that could, and ought to, support a much more extensive mass transit system. The existing system, mainly buses and a light rail line, with more lines planned, is operated by a division of the Metropolitan Council, and, predictably, the council designs transit in a way that reflects the ostensible needs of the entire metro area, including suburbs that sprawl out miles beyond the city center. The result is a series of ambitious plans to build rail lines traveling from outside the city to downtown, while the urban bus system is unreliable, neglected and nearly impossible to navigate without extensive prior knowledge. Meanwhile, the light rail lines the council and the state are pressing forward with have been designed in a bizarre fashion, along low-traffic, low-density routes and ignoring the most dense and highly trafficked corridors in the city. The city government is now fighting with the council over its plan to put a streetcar line on one major urban avenue. The streetcar is probably not as good a solution as either improving bus service, on the cheap side, or creating a real subway or light rail line, on the more expensive, but it’s the only proposed transit expansion right now in the area designed to serve people who actually live in the city. Here, again, politicians don’t ride the bus, and likely know hardly anyone who does regularly.


To Get Around Town, Some Cities Take A Step Back In Time

I am heard on NPR: To Get Around Town, Some Cities Take A Step Back In Time talking about Streetcars:

“City officials say for every public dollar spent, they will get two to three times as much private investment. But David Levinson, who teaches transportation engineering and economics at the University of Minnesota, says there’s no guarantee. He says cities are better served upgrading their bus service.

‘There’s a lot of money you’re just putting into the ground. It doesn’t provide any transportation benefit. It’s basically a lot of embedded capital that is costly that doesn’t make the system work any faster,’ he says.”

Robert Bertini – Warren Lecture – “Big” Data as a Foundation for Measuring and Improving Public Transport Operations – Friday Nov. 8 at 3:30 pm in CE210

Robert Bertini
Robert Bertini

Professor Robert Bertini of Portland State University will be giving the Warren Lecture on Friday Nov. 8 at 3:30 pm at the Civil Engineering Building (500 Pillsbury Drive SE) in CE210. This is open to the public.

“Big” Data as a Foundation for Measuring and Improving Public Transport Operations

ABSTRACT: Over the past 20 years the transportation engineering field has witnessed a data revolution—some might say that we have transitioned from a data “desert” to a data “ocean.” Intelligent transportation systems data can be archived and managed carefully to provide a platform for analysis, visualization and modeling. With increasing attention being paid to performance and financial issues related to the operation of public transportation systems, it is necessary to develop tools for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of service offerings. With the availability of high resolution archived stop-level bus performance data, it is shown that a bus trip time model and a bus stop spacing model can be generated and tested with the aim of minimizing the operating cost while maintaining a high degree of transit accessibility. In this research, two cost components are considered in the stop spacing model including passenger access cost and in-vehicle passenger stopping cost, and are combined and optimized to minimize total cost. A case study is conducted using one bus route in Portland, Oregon, using one year’s stop-level archived Bus Dispatch System (BDS) data provided by TriMet, the regional transit provider for the Portland metropolitan area. Based on previous research considering inbound trips over the entire day, the theoretical optimized bus stop spacing was about 1,200 feet, as compared to the current value of 950 feet. Trade-offs will be discussed as well as an estimate of transit operating cost savings based on the optimized spacing. Given the availability of high resolution archived data, the paper illustrates that this modeling tool can be applied in a routine way across multiple routes as part of an ongoing service planning and performance measurement process.


There will be a webcast.

Walking Distances


We often use 1/4 mile (400 meters for my SI-using allies) as the walk-shed for transit. This is too short. See e.g. these graphics from the Snelling Arterial BRT study, which draws radii around stops. 1/4 mile does not even get you from one end of Rosedale Mall (which isn’t even the biggest Mall in the Twin Cities) to the other, and many people make a full circuit, on two floors, inside the mall, on foot. If we have nice enough environments, we should expect people to walk a 1/2 mile to 1 mile with no problem, shopping mall developers do, and they are far more mercenary than the public sector.

A longer assumed walk-shed has many advantages. It allows us to increase spacing between stops, which increases running speed, which makes transit more attractive for those already on-board. We always trade-off running time for access time (higher access time for lower running time, e.g. when we space stops farther apart.)

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit, discusses the issue and notes that in many urban areas there is no need to walk farther than 400 m, so we don’t know what people would do. He also notes the difference between radiuses and network distances.

Schlossberg and Agrawal also discuss this in: How Far, By Which Route, and Why? A Spatial Analysis of Pedestrian Preference. They find the average pedestrian trip to a rail station was 0.47 miles (nearly 800 m). Guerra, Cervero, and Tischler ask “The Half-Mile Circle: Does It Best Represent Transit Station Catchments?” and argue it is useful (and a slightly better predictor) for the residence end of trips, though shorter distances (1/4 mile) at the work-end makes are slightly better predictors.

In short, I believe people will walk longer than we typically credit if we can make decent walkable urban environments, environments which lead people to under-estimate the actual time involved (as the saying goes: time flies when you are having fun) because their mind is not on how awful the walk is, but about how interesting the environment is.