By Joseph Kornelsen

Recently, I had a chance to try out Minneapolis’ transit network when my partner and I spent a long weekend in the city. I was particularly interested in trying Minneapolis’ frequent service bus network.

Minneapolis runs heavy rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, high frequency bus service and regular bus service. I had the opportunity to use the light rail and high frequency bus routes during my time in the city.

Quick rundown

Doing right:

  • Having a frequent bus service network (15 minute or better service from 6 AM to 7 PM on weekdays and 9 AM to 6 PM on Saturdays)
  • Announcing transfer points on the bus
  • Frequency coverage in the central city was decent. There was a visible grid pattern. Walking distances between parallel routes appears to be about 15 to 20 minutes
  • Using the website to plan one-off trips appears to be easy once you are used to the feature.

Sort of good, sort of bad

  • Riders can purchase all pass-types on buses themselves. This was great as a visitor, but since it is purchased from the bus driver when you board, this feature has a potential to substantially slow a bus down.

Doing less well:

  • The frequent service is not communicated well. It is not easy to find a map that quickly communicates the entire convenient network.
  • Understanding where a bus will get you as a tourist is not clear.
  • The website planner was more cumbersome than Navigo in Winnipeg (but had a name that made it easier to figure out what it was)
  • The entire network is not communicated in some maps making it difficult to know.
  • Awareness of the frequent service network among random Minneapolitans was low. We asked several people about the network and they did not seem to be aware of it. Our Airbnb host recommended using the Metro and did not know about the frequency network even though his house was about 100 meters from a route on the network.

Using the network

Overall, I found the experience with Minneapolis bus network to be decent, but given that 15-minute frequency isn’t really that often, it doesn’t compare yet to metros with vehicles running ever 5-10 minutes. What I appreciated most was looking at the frequent service map and being able to interpret immediately which parts of the bus network were easy to use. There appears to be a much greater desire to communicate the Metro service rather than the frequent bus service.

I found the transit landing page on the website to be decent on both mobile and desktop. The desktop landing page contains Minneapolis’ version of Navigo, called Plan a Trip. The mobile site has a highly visible link to Plan a Trip. Unlike Navigo, using the name Plan a Trip made it easy as a visitor to understand where to go to, well, plan a trip. The app itself was more cumbersome to use than Navigo because the user needs to select an intersection, address or landmark. Landmarks needed to be selected from a drop down list. Intersections do not autocomplete like Navigo.

When trying to get a sense of the breadth of the network and to discern the locations easily accessible by transit, it is not easy. The website is geared toward assisting with one-off trips. The types of services available – Bus, Metro and commuter rail did not feel like they were treated like an integrated network in the initial click-throughs on the website. “How to ride” is the intuitive link for locating information on span. The dropdown menu divides the service by types of service rather than showing an integrated network.

The bus link does not take one to a map, but rather a lot of text with some links – one of which connects to a frequent service map. This frequent service map also contains the Metro routes and is generally quite useful. This map does lack major destinations and in some cases the names of streets that the routes run along making it difficult to triangulate between the frequency map and a tourist map. After a day on the system, I had worked out strategies for interpreting between maps and I was beginning to feel comfortable making decisions about which bus to take where.

The Metro map strangely included planned routes in addition to existing routes. While it didn’t take long to figure out which routes were the ones that could be taken presently, the user is immediately struck by disappointment when realizing how many fewer routes there actually were. Overall communication of the Metro network was clearer and quicker to find than the frequent bus service network. Unlike the frequent service map which showed both frequent bus routes and the metro, the metro map showed only the metro network.

The tourist map that I was using did not contain information about the frequent bus service network, but it did include the metro routes. Our host at our air bnb was quick to direct us toward the metro, but did not seem to be aware of the frequent service network. In our brief conversation about transit he was much more keen to talk about the metro. He said he takes transit occasionally.

The fare structure is not easy to understand on the website. Passes can be purchased on buses themselves which was very convenient, but would cause delays if a lot of people choose to buy while boarding. Buses require exact change – which is less convenient but sensible for not causing too much delay. One day passes cost $6.00 which was very affordable for our budget and was more affordable than many other cities I have been to.

There was no shelter where we waited for the bus, but the bus did arrive without much delay. We took several routes throughout the day and transferred several times. The frequent service network lived up to expectations in that we did not have to wait long at transfer points and we were able to make spontaneous decisions to ride the bus without having to wait long. Because the frequency is still far lower than a metro system, transferring does not have the same seamless feel as a subway or LRT.

Buses conveniently announced not just stops but also noted locations as “important transfer points.”

Overall, the network seemed useful but not well-communicated. As with most transit systems, there seemed to be a strong gravitational draw toward talking about the metro and not talking about the frequent service network. The map for the network, while hard to find, was very nice to have handy for our journey around the central city.

Riding the frequent service network in Minneapolis