Pandemic dealt a blow to transit — is it permanent?

By: - March 25, 2022 6:00 am

March 2, 2022 — Burnsville: Melissa Hernandez of Shakopee (back) rides the bus home from work at a microbiology lab at the University of Minnesota while Sarah Redfield (front) heads to work preparing food. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Jill Adams commutes from Burnsville to work as an academic advisor at the University of Minnesota three days a week but works from home the other two days, taking advantage of the U’s new hybrid work model.

“I prefer to work from home,” Adams said. “I like knowing that I can still see students and I could do some laundry, and I can get things done through the day at my house. And I can also get my job done at the same time. And I’ve actually found myself to be more productive when I’m working remotely.”

Adams drives from her home to the Burnsville Transit Station, where she catches her bus. The transit station was the busiest park-and-ride in Minnesota, according to a fall 2019 survey that counted 1,116 vehicles there one weekday. It serves two routes that run express — for the most part — to downtown Minneapolis, as well as other routes to the Mall of America, Savage, Shakopee, and elsewhere in Burnsville. 

It still is the busiest park-and-ride today. But because thousands of employers are giving their workers more flexibility to work from home, far fewer people are parking there, according to a 2021 Metropolitan Council report. The transit station was mostly empty one balmy Wednesday morning, save for the ten or so people lining up underneath the canopies for an express bus to take them downtown. 

Changes to commuting patterns are just one of many challenges forcing transit agencies to be nimble as they also confront the surge of app-based ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft, increasing gas prices, as well as rider concerns about safety — especially on the light rail. 

And, like employers everywhere, Minnesota transit agencies are also struggling to find qualified drivers. 

As a result, agencies in Duluth and the Twin Cities are de-emphasizing commuter trips into downtowns. Duluth is completely scuttling their downtown express routes this summer and replacing them with routes that stop at points far enough from one another to make trips going anywhere else besides Downtown faster during the day. And while Metro Transit has some commuter service running, it is also working to make all types of its routes faster, from removing stops and branches on the local-service Route 22* to upgrading the 5 and 21 to rapid routes that run on mostly-dedicated corridors that connect suburb to suburb. 

One such route, the Orange Line on I-35W, appears to be a success after opening in December. A newsletter distributed internally to Met Council staff recently reported weekday ridership doubling over ridership of the route it replaced, Route 535, in the first month of service. 

December 4, 2021-Minneapolis: Gov. Tim Walz talks with Metro Transit garage instructor Mike Schmidt as he pilots an Orange Line bus for dignitaries on opening day of the new line. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Metro Transit has two more similar lines on the boards, including the Gold Line on I-94 between St. Paul and Woodbury. With commuter ridership on that corridor cratering overnight, the agency is taking advantage of an opportunity to get a higher federal funding rank — and hopefully, more use not just by commuters — for the project by shifting some 300 parking spaces from a canceled park-and-ride project in Lake Elmo, at I-94 and Manning Avenue, to stations in St. Paul, Oakdale and Woodbury. 

Metro Transit Director of Service Development Adam Harrington said they had been trying to cultivate ridership for the new park-and-ride for years before the pandemic destroyed commuter ridership potential. 

“[Canceling the park-and-ride at I-94 and Manning is a] great example of a shift in [the commuting] market,” Harrington said.

Because of the shift away from commuter service, which was down 82.5% from pre-pandemic levels during the worst of the omicron surge, and with a new bus garage opening in Minneapolis’ north loop next year, Metro Transit will close a bus garage in Brooklyn Center in March 2023

The agency is also wondering what to do with the oft-beleaguered Northstar Commuter Rail, which serves Fridley, Coon Rapids, Anoka, Ramsey, Elk River and Big Lake. Northstar is budgeted to operate at its existing levels for the next year while the Met Council undertakes a study with local funding partners. 

Metro Transit faced another setback earlier this year when the agency acknowledged the Southwest Light Rail Line was hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. Even Democratic allies at the Capitol have abandoned the agency, and the project is headed for what will likely be a scathing legislative audit. This comes even as Republicans continue to highlight high-profile transit crime, especially on light rail. 

There are bright spots for local transit: Commuter service serving essential workers remains strong. Minnesota Valley Transit Authority’s Route 495, which connects Mall of America to Burnsville and Savage to Amazon’s warehouse in Shakopee and the Mystic Lake entertainment complex in Prior Lake, has 70% of its pre-pandemic ridership. 

And, students appear to be getting back on buses and trains. SouthWest Transit reported ridership on their university commuter service, although still lower than pre-pandemic ridership, returned to 2008 recession levels, once the university reopened to in-person learning.

Jamie Chen, a student who lives in Chaska, is one of those SouthWest Transit riders. “I didn’t feel safe being around so many people. Last year, I was gonna live in the dorms, but then with COVID [and] all that stuff, I didn’t feel very safe,” said Chen, who plans to live on-campus next year.

Both MVTA and SouthWest Transit are also seeing more riders on their service that allows them to summon a ride on an app, respectively called MVTA Connect and SouthWest Prime. MVTA’s service grew steadily to 6,000 riders in December, from 1,000 riders in January 2020. SouthWest Prime’s service is at 75% of January 2020 pre-pandemic ridership, and they plan to expand the service in western Hennepin and southern Carver counties. 

October 11, 2021 — Eden Prairie: SouthWest Transit operates SouthWest Prime, an Uber-Lyft-like service serving Eden Prairie and southern Carver County. SouthWest Prime received around $350,000 from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to purchase Teslas for the service, and hopes to test out their autonomous features someday. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Another area of growth: Suburbs to suburbs. Luther Wynder, who runs MVTA, predicts the suburbs will see more transit demand due to changing demographics — working class Minnesotans seeking cheaper housing in the suburbs and jobs with companies like Portico, a health benefits company that relocated from Minneapolis to Edina last year.

But all of these ideas and changes require drivers to deliver them, and there aren’t enough of them. Metro Transit will cut more service later this month due to a driver shortage, while SouthWest Transit does not plan to restore its midday service until later this year.  

This is a massive reversal from the beginning of the pandemic, when MVTA furloughed 110 operators while SouthWest Transit laid off half of their driving workforce. Both agencies are now having trouble bringing drivers back to fully resurrect their commuter service, although SouthWest Transit said having enough ridership to justify its return is another factor. 

Outgoing SouthWest Transit CEO Len Simich said that for older drivers already near retirement, the pandemic was the career-ending catalyst. “And then when we called them back once we started to rebuild, and most of them were senior, they declined to come back.”

It’s not clear how many of those drivers will need because it’s unclear if ridership will return. Rising gas prices are pushing more people toward electric vehicles, while reluctance to use public transit may be here to stay. 

John Niles, research associate for the Mineta Transportation Institute at San José State University, thinks more people will use electric vehicles to commute: “What happens bears careful monitoring.  My sense of the data I see makes me think electric personal mobility — two-wheel, three-wheel, and four-wheel — is going to become a strong force for depressing transit ridership.”

All things considered, it’s going to be a wild ride back to the office. 

The Legislature will receive a report on how transportation has been upended by the pandemic next February. 

Riders wishing to provide feedback on how transit should look like within and into the South and Southwest suburbs should take a survey by April 15.

Riders wishing to provide feedback on Route 22 changes should take a survey by March 23.

*Disclosure: The author was a founding member of the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union, which organized riders around similar changes to Route 2 in summer 2018. They are no longer involved with the organization.

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H. Jiahong Pan
H. Jiahong Pan

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues.