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Opinion: Bus routes are hindered by the Twin Cities’ urban design

Relying on public transit is difficult when our city is built for cars.
Image by Pooja Singh
Metro Transit buses provide a reliable public transit option for students despite barriers in some regions.

One of my largest deciding factors when choosing the University of Minnesota was the ease of access to public transportation. With a light rail line, several Metro Transit bus routes and even the University’s own network of campus buses, student life without a car should be simple in theory.

After my first year on campus, however, it is clear that relying solely on public transit is much easier said than done.

Even though getting around campus by bus or train is relatively effective, anytime I wish to travel to off-campus destinations for shopping or entertainment, the viability of public transit rapidly diminishes. This often isn’t due to any failures on behalf of bus operators, rather, the layout of the city itself is to blame.

Manager of Route Planning at Metro Transit Cyndi Harper leads the team that plans the stop locations and frequencies of bus routes in the Twin Cities. According to Harper, using public transit has many well-recorded benefits for the environment. For example, more people traveling together on public transit rather than driving alone in separate cars means fewer greenhouse gas emissions, helping reduce the speed of climate change.

Relying on public transit rather than cars for day-to-day travel is also beneficial for one’s quality of life, according to Harper. 

“Transit is one of the few places anymore where people interact with others that aren’t necessarily just like them and build a community and understanding that your particular outlook is not the only valid viewpoint that exists,” Harper said.  

With so many positive aspects of public transit, it holds value for thousands of students. The Metro Transit routes serving campus already provide efficient connections to many parts of the city. 

The campus is already served by two types of bus routes: local routes and commuter routes, according to Harper.  

Raymond Romero is a Como resident who relies solely on public transit in his daily life.

“It’s pretty easy to survive here without a car if you know how to use Google Maps,” Romero said.

Romero suggested that some bus routes could be improved in reliability, but appreciates the services overall.

“I’d like to see a higher frequency from the 4 (bus route),” Romero said. “That one went downhill after the pandemic.”

Living without a car in Minneapolis is far less feasible for other local residents. 

Brady Johnson, a recent graduate of the University, uses his car and occasionally the light rail for transportation, but rarely Metro Transit buses. Johnson said the Minneapolis public transit system is not extensive enough to be as reliable as cars. 

“Compared to D.C. or New York or Chicago or a lot of other major cities, I feel like we don’t really have as good of a train system,” Johnson said.

Ultimately, the extent to which living without a car is reasonable depends greatly on one’s lifestyle. 

Public transportation options to certain areas are often limited due to flaws in the city’s layout.  Many businesses not present in the immediate campus area, such as hardware stores, craft supply stores or even traditional movie theaters, require students to travel to suburban shopping malls like the Rosedale Center. However, accessing these via public transit is rarely practical.

“Transit service in suburban areas has certainly been traditionally much more challenging to provide just because you don’t have the density of land use and of employment that you do in a more urban area,” Harper said. “It is much more car-oriented. It is frankly sometimes uncomfortable or dangerous to be walking in some of those areas.”  

Harper said even when public transit is readily available to suburban shopping malls, it still requires customers to walk long distances across several parking lots between stores, sending the message that those who arrive by car are the preferred customers.

Taking public transit to these areas is still entirely possible. 

“Students trying to get between campus and Rosedale area, the quickest way to do that would be to take the Green Line to the Snelling station and then transfer to the A Line,” Harper said. “That takes you straight to Rosedale.”

However, the requirement of stopping to transfer means these routes are rarely very efficient. A new route connecting the University directly to Roseville could help solve this problem, but it may not be feasible when the region is still designed with cars in mind.

“We don’t go through all of the various parking lots for all the various big-box stores because it takes forever to do that,” Harper said. “Anybody who had another alternative would be choosing the other alternative instead.”

As long as key shopping areas near campus are oriented toward cars, a majority of students will continue to access them in cars rather than public transit. 

Metro Transit has already come a long way in providing accessible public transportation to students, but until urban design adjusts to allow for better shopping options to exist closer to campus in less car-centric areas, public transportation will always be at a disadvantage.

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  • Karl
    Jun 17, 2024 at 8:15 am

    Many businesses not present in the immediate campus area, such as hardware stores, craft supply stores

    There’s a Michael’s and Home Depot a very short 2 mile bike ride away.

    There’s a Menards just a short hop east on light rail. Even closer, there’s a hardware store on Raymond by University Ave .

    No one should be shocked Dinkytown doesn’t have these things. College students aren’t known for having large disposable incomes. But these things you look for are fairly accessible.

    As Mr. Romero says, the key is using google maps. With all due respect, maybe it’s time to learn how to find these to make you’re life easier. No need to be schleeppin’ up to Rosedale.

  • Eric Zhong Fritsche
    Jun 12, 2024 at 1:32 pm

    This is more than enough reason for me to not live in the cities unless I have convenient transit. Chicago & NYC come to mind with good transit options, but everywhere in America pales in comparison to the well-oiled transit networks within Japan. Having just been there last month, the first day back in MN I couldn’t help but feel depressed at the staunch lack of rail or regular buses. Don’t get me started on how unclean / unkept the networks are here either. Not only are there more public nuisances, but the networks are increasingly spindly. No doubt due to zoning laws and a strong tendency to build low density housing, which really mainly satisfies NIMBYs and families. Priorities should be shifted, especially since the birth rate is declining (less families). Restructuring zoning and incentivizing transit oriented development would be a huge glow up for our motley Twin Cities.