By Aaron Isaacs
Aaron is the retired Manager of Facilities Planning for Metro Transit. [email protected]
Marq2 Bus Lane Markings (photo: Incommons.org)
This December marks the second anniversary of one of the Twin Cities’ more significant transit improvements, the Marq2 bus lanes in downtown Minneapolis. December 2009 saw the complete reconstruction of Marquette Avenue and 2nd Avenue S. between Washington Avenue and 12th Street that has dramatically improved express bus service through downtown.
The original contraflow bus lanes on Marquette and 2nd Avenue opened in the 1970s. Contraflow lanes were a new concept back then. By running in the opposite direction as the street’s auto traffic, contraflow lanes can handle more buses per hour than with-flow lanes, and it’s much easier to police traffic that doesn’t belong in them.
Over the next 30 years, however, the number of buses using the lanes increased dramatically and overwhelmed the capacity of the lanes. Marquette and 2nd Avenues are used by express bus routes serving the entire region. They are a significant part of the overall transit network that supports 40% of downtown commuters using transit. Increasing the mode share for transit in downtown requires increased capacity for transit service.
This situation was made worse because buses stopped in every block. Furthermore, with a few exceptions the entire block was a bus stop, with waiting passengers spread out along the entire block. This led to most buses making separate stops at the front and rear of each block. It often took two light cycles for a bus to progress through the next intersection, and no bus could travel faster than the slowest one. Travel time through downtown was scheduled at slightly over three miles per hour, no faster than a person walking. Between 4:30 and 5:30 PM, buses often weren’t able meet that slow schedule and it routinely took 20 minutes or more to traverse downtown. This negated the travel time savings from other transit advantages such as ramp meter bypasses, shoulder lanes and HOV lanes.
Over the years there were attempts to reduce the congestion by shifting some buses to other streets. Expresses were relocated to Nicollet Mall, which was even slower, and to Hennepin Avenue and 3rd Avenue S., which were faster but inconveniently located relative to employment. In later years, some additional expresses were removed from Marquette and placed in mixed traffic on 2nd Avenue S.
Slow speed wasn’t the only problem with the old lanes. Most stops offered no shelter from the weather, and bus departure information was almost completely nonexistent. In contrast, most downtown auto commuters never had to step outdoors to reach their cars. Between the snail-like pace of travel, the exposed stops and no information, it was difficult for the bus to compete with the auto.
In 2006 the City of Minneapolis and Metro Transit had decided it was time to reevaluate the state of transit by conducting a transportation study called Access Minneapolis. A major part of that study was the Downtown Action Plan which included suggested strategies to improve Marquette and 2nd Avenue. The action plan had the broader goal of making all downtown buses faster, simpler and more customer-friendly. The Action Plan also recommended speeding up Mall buses by stopping every second block instead of every block. The recommendation to create bus lanes on 7th and 8th Streets has been controversial and has yet to be implemented.
Early on, Metro Transit staff identified a likely solution. For some years, Portland, Oregon had operated double-width contraflow lanes on a pair of downtown one-way streets. Each block was divided into two stops and buses stopped only every second block in their designated bus stop. In between stops they passed up buses that were loading at the curb. The effect of this was to double or even triple the bus capacity of the streets. A design consultant was hired who was familiar with the Portland lanes, and the design was adapted to Minneapolis. Buses stay in the left lane unless they are stopped to load or unload. Buses in the through lane yield to buses leaving the curb lane. As part of the project the City of Minneapolis has experimented with traffic signal timings to minimize bus delays.
Besides moving buses more efficiently, improving the customer waiting experience was also a high priority. Federal funding through the USDOT Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) program (local funding match was provided through state bonds, local Met Council, and City of Minneapolis funds) was secured to completely rebuild the streets and sidewalks. Sidewalks were widened and landscaped. New heated shelters were erected on almost every block. In a couple of locations including the Wells Fargo tower and the IDS Center, building owners elected to let passengers wait in their lobbies rather than have a free-standing shelter on the sidewalk.
The final piece of the puzzle was customer information. In addition to the usual displays of scheduled departures, display screens show real-time departure information using bus GPS. Real-time info takes the uncertainty out of waiting and wondering when the bus is coming. Audio annunciators at each stop also provide this same information for visually impaired riders.
The new double lanes have done the job they were designed to do, eliminating bus congestion and speeding travel through downtown. The capacity of the new double lanes made it possible to consolidate all the express buses from Hennepin, Nicollet, 2nd Avenue southbound and 3rd Avenue onto the southbound Marquette and northbound 2nd Avenue lanes. This simplified the downtown route structure and reduced walking distance for many commuters.
According to Metro Transit, average speed through downtown on Marq2 has increased from 3.5 mph to 5.5 mph and ridership has increased from 23,700 to 28,000. A typical bus can now traverse downtown six minutes faster than before (for a daily weekday bus rider, this is a savings of over 20 hours per year!).