This is part of a series of posts pertaining to a study on Little Canada’s transportation infrastructure for people who take transit, walk, and/or bike.
In Transit: Part One, I discussed my motives behind my study along with some information and statistics about transit ridership in Little Canada. This part contains an analysis of a study done regarding transit accessibility by the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory, my personal experiences taking the 62 and 262, parking and sidewalk impacts, along with my proposed solutions to improve transit in Little Canada.
Transit: Part Two
Reviewing the Transit Accessibility Study
I reviewed the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory’s Access Across America – Transit (2014) study done by David Levinson and Andrew Owen to see how accessible Little Canada by taking transit to work. The study’s data is assorted down to the census block level, showing how accessibility can vary between neighborhoods. According to this study, the number of jobs accessible within 30 minutes of transit averages in the mere thousands. The most accessible block group in Little Canada had about 9,500 jobs accessible within 30 minutes by transit in 2014. In comparison, downtown Saint Paul alone has tens of thousands of jobs and is just about 5 miles away. The study shows the need for faster transit for users living in the inner-ring suburbs, as hundreds of thousands of jobs are accessible within that same timeframe by automobile according to their Auto 2015 study.
Since the data from the study is publicly available through the Accessibility Observatory’s website, I used this to create an interactive map on CARTO to visualize transit options and accessibility within Little Canada. I also used spatial data from the Metro Council’s page on the state’s open data portal (Minnesota Geospatial Commons) to obtain bus routes and stop locations. An updated report with 2015 data was recently released, although the study’s datasets have not been released yet to the public at the time I wrote this post. Transit accessibility throughout the suburb may have changed in 2015 due to the Green Line opening in mid-2014, along with impacts from changes with route scheduling and alignments.
When comparing the study to my work commute, I realized that it might not be considered accessible within 30 minutes. My commute (including walking 0.4 miles to the bus stop and usually arriving 4-5 minutes early) averages about 30-35 minutes when I take the 262; I have gotten to work or home in under a half-hour when I have really good timing with the bus and am walking fast. If I worked in downtown Saint Paul or only took the 62 to the Capitol, my trip would average about 40-45 minutes when including walking and wait times. My fellow bus riders tend to have longer commute times than myself, since most seem to either ride the bus to downtown or transfer to the Green Line at the Capitol/Rice Street Station.
Comparing an Urban Local with a Limited Stop Bus Route
Trying to get under that 30 minute mark will be tricky, though it does seem possible along some routes and destinations. During normal commutes (without unusual delays), I have timed my bus rides (62D and 262, both in the morning heading south towards Saint Paul) to see the differences between the two routes. My analysis isn’t precise and is subject to human error, though you can see the impact of bus stop density between a local and a limited-stop route (collected via Strava):
You can see the 262 is faster on average, partly because it takes a more direct route as the 62D bus I took is the branch with the Demont & County Rd B spur (5-7 trips/day per direction except on Sundays). The spur exists to mainly serve Little Canada’s densest census block that has multiple apartments and condo complexes that are about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile east of Rice, which had served an average of 23 riders per day during weekdays in 2015. The branches of the 62 that don’t take the Demont & B route and head straight down Rice are still often about 5 to 10 minutes longer and more crowded than the 262 during rush hour. The branches of the 62 leaving around 7-8 am tend to be standing room only by the time we get to Maryland often, with long boarding times due to many users paying by cash. What also slows down the 62 is the density of stops, while the 262 stops at just certain major intersections between Little Canada Road and University Avenue. If the 62 consolidated some of its bus stops, it could be more enticing to use and possibly save most users time on their overall trip. An issue with this would be that many riders in the North End neighborhood of Saint Paul probably prefer the convenience of not having to walk far to their stop, and might not be too fond of this. Another possible solution would be to add more trips for the 262, if they added a stop on Milford or Atwater Street so it could both serve the suburbs yet still be accessible to North End residents. I do think that these types of improvements could help increase the number of jobs accessible within 30 minutes via transit for riders in both Little Canada and Saint Paul.
Regarding the fiscal subsidies required for these routes, the 62 is less subsidized than the 262 on a per passenger basis. In 2010, the 62 had an average subsidy of $3.02 per passenger, versus the 262’s $5.52. So the limited stop version of the 62 does come at a higher subsidy, showing that providing convenience to suburban transit users along this corridor does come at a cost. In comparison to other bus routes within the Twin Cities region, the average subsidy per passenger for an urban local (and limited stops) bus route in 2013 was about $2.72; express buses were averaging at $3.30 per passenger, with suburban locals at $4.81 per passenger. Current subsidy per passenger rates are bound to be different especially for the 62 since it has increased frequencies in the North End and along with its extension to Signal Hills in West St. Paul since then (replacing the 67 which now serves a different corridor). The 262 was just recently affected by service cuts as a result of Metro Transit’s budget shortfall, which reduced the number of trips from three to two per direction during weekdays. As a result, I now have to take the 62 home since they removed the 262’s last PM trip. Despite my disappointment knowing my commute going home now is an extra 5-10 minutes, I understand their reasoning for cutting the trip due to its high subsidy.
The Costs of Parking and its Impact on Suburban Transit Users
Given the budget shortfalls transit agencies such as Metro Transit are facing, parking standards and policies tied to transit funding should be reevaluated. The Rice Street and Highway 36 park-and-ride’s parking spaces were built at a rate of around $9,640 per space (a total cost of $2.7 million divided by the 280 parking spaces). A rate of about $10K per parking space (includes the cost for a heated shelter and other costs such as bike lockers) is still cheaper than the estimated $25-40K per space cost to build parking within my workplace at the Capitol area (source: MN Department of Administration); a single parking space at either place is still more expensive than a basic bus shelter (est. $6,000 in 2014 via an article about bus shelters in the Star Tribune), which can serve multiple users at once. The shelter at the stop that I use during my morning commute has about 4 to 6 people on average (including myself) waiting for the 62 or 262 when I am waiting there, and served 29 users on an average weekday in Fall 2015. Barring any miscalculations on my part, it seems that the bus shelter was cheaper to build and serves more people than a single parking space at that park-and-ride. If I started parking there instead of walking to my current stop, the rate of total subsidies tied to my commute to work would likely increase. One counterpoint to my analysis is that some people do drive to get to this bus stop, so their parking costs aren’t factored into this since they are likely parking on a nearby street or at a private lot serving nearby businesses. At least the Rice and Highway 36 park-and-ride lot appears to be well used at least when I go by it, though it still has ample parking space to serve even more riders. That park-and-ride (as well as the Little Canada Municipal Lot) does encourage transit use in my city, though I don’t want us to rely on only a couple assets to support our city’s transit usage.
Some solutions to add more assets supporting transit could be to promote mixed-use development along/near major bus stops (such as near the Little Canada Transit Center), or to look into the possibility of smaller-scale park and rides using shared parking with businesses that may not have a large amount of customers during the daytime. Multiple large commercial properties along Rice Street have an abundance of parking spaces during the day, which could make them possible locations for a shared park-and-ride lot. Managing smaller-scale lots may be more trouble than its worth though for both Metro Transit and the business owners. For the time being, I will consider our park-and-rides to be a necessary evil until we come up with a better long-term plan to serve inner-ring suburbs. Outer-ring suburbs are going to be even more difficult to reduce dependence on park-and-rides given their lower population density than their inner-ring counterparts aside from older, former standalone towns (Anoka). Despite considering them a necessary evil, I do want to spread awareness of the costs of these park-and-rides and their positive and negative impacts on communities and budgets. Suburban transit users tend to be more expensive to serve than urban transit users on a per passenger basis. These subsidies per passenger serving suburban users increase at an even greater level when we invest in this type of “free” parking to encourage them to take the bus.
The Impact of Sidewalks and Transit Usage
Regardless if transit or parking improvements are made or not, sidewalk infrastructure improvements must be made as a bare minimum. Better transit accessibility relies on access to sidewalks. Park and rides can help complement and encourage suburbanites to take the bus, but sidewalks are more versatile in their uses since they can be used for other purposes and not just serving a single group (such as rush-hour commuters). Sidewalks connect homes with businesses, schools, and other places of interest which makes them a vital investment for suburbs to make. Ramsey County recently widened the shoulders on Edgerton (between Little Canada Road and Highway 36) and added bike lane signage (previously discussed on streets.mn by Walker Angell), although people still have to use this narrow space to reach the beach at Lake Gervais on foot without any sort of protection from drivers. This discourages people (especially with kids) to walk to the beach or to take the 71, which has a few stops along this stretch of Edgerton. The street is marked at 40 mph, so many potential cyclists may be discouraged from riding despite the wide bike lane. Many people seem to drive at 45 mph or higher when I am driving along there, which would likely kill any pedestrian or cyclist if a driver swerves onto the shoulder. I would not want to wait for the 71 there.
The sidewalks along Rice in Saint Paul are in poor condition in many places, and in the suburbs (Little Canada and Roseville) there is a relative lack of sidewalks along some parts of the street. People have to walk or bike on the shoulder or in the grass to get to the bus stops. I see it daily and seldom walk on Rice where there aren’t sidewalks as it’s unpleasant and unsafe. Rice Street has bunch of projects planned for the next few years, which plans to add sidewalks and make the street more accessible for biking. To avoid the making the same mistakes seen on Edgerton, I would prefer to see segregated 10-12 foot wide mixed-use trails over the proposed bike lanes on Rice in my area as biking directly next to drivers speeding at 45-50 mph is very unpleasant and dangerous based off my personal experiences commuting to work by bike. Ramsey County and the city have made great recent improvements towards improving accessibility, though most improvements still greatly favor drivers over everyone else. I understand that we do have limitations (funding, right-of-way, resident opposition, etc.), though I think we must put a greater emphasis on safer transportation for all users. More sidewalks and trails are going to benefit the community and its residents, whether its walking for leisure, to pick up groceries, or to the bus stop.
Closing Thoughts on Transit and the Partisan Conflicts Surrounding It
According to the US Census Bureau’s OnTheMap tool, commuter flows showed hundreds of workers going to/from Little Canada and major employment centers across the metro area which could support more buses along existing routes (and the possibility of adding new routes). Metro Transit’s Service Improvement Plan took advantage of this potential, and created a list of possible transit improvements in Little Canada. This plan could help improve transit for existing riders, in addition to encouraging more people to ride. Extending the 270P’s service hours to 8PM would have meant I wouldn’t have had to leave an event early at the University of Minnesota a few weeks ago, unless I wanted to take the train back to Saint Paul and then transfer to the 62. These improvement plans are contingent on funding, which is constantly under threat by anti-transit legislators (who are usually Republican). Anti-transit legislators tend to focus on attacking light rail (yet seem to be fine with expensive road and bridge projects such as the St. Croix River Crossing), but they need to realize that transit is much more than light rail and is vital for both metro and outstate cities. I do think Democrats get too focused on expensive light rail and BRT projects, as my support towards the planned projects such as Southwest and Gateway has weakened over time. Despite my agreements toward some of the anti-transit legislators points, we should not divest transit funding and re-allocate it for roads and bridges, nor can the feds do so when it comes to federal funding for light rail. It’s absolutely fine to be critical of some transit projects, though you can’t wipe out transit entirely and expect everyone to drive.
When comparing recent or planned improvements with other modes, drivers tend to see the most benefit. Examples include the MnPASS expansion on Interstate 35E from Hugo/White Bear Lake to Saint Paul, a third lane being added on I-694 (west of 35E) that will be finished at the end of the year, and the Rice & I-694 interchange planned for reconstruction in 2020. I believe that our current access to jobs by automobiles is sufficient, which may anger some residents. There will always be room for roadway improvements, although I find our other modes such as transit are in greater need of improved accessibility and more funding. I have a feeling a large amount of Little Canada’s residents would disagree with my views on road improvements though. I believe I have a long road ahead through multiple difficult debates with residents in addition to city, county, and state officials to try to promote transit and other options. I do hope that I will be able to make a difference though, and I have to keep practicing for what I preach. That is why I recently attended a public hearing and voiced my support for Ramsey County’s proposal to increase the countywide sales tax rate for funding multimodal projects if the Counties Transportation Improvement Board (CTIB) dissolves. I’m not a good public speaker (I’m shy and absent-minded), though I know that if I stay quiet that things might not change for the better. We must become more vocal towards supporting transit.
Regardless, I don’t get why diversifying our transportation network to head towards financial solvency has to be a partisan issue. People taking transit do the same exact things as people driving their cars (going to work, school, getting groceries, shopping, and so forth). We need to design and build our communities in a way that serves people regardless of their transportation choice.